Friday, February 28, 2014

Oscars 2013: Best Director

It's not often that we see surprises in this category when it comes to nominees. Barring last year's truly unexpected (and exciting) field that included Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and Michael Haneke (Amour) while excluding Ben Affleck (Argo), Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty), and Tom Hooper (Les Miserables), this field usually lines up with Best Picture frontrunners, with one spot usually going to an "outsider." Before the Best Picture field expanded beyond five nominees, the Best Director category usually contained the directors of four of the BP nominees, with the fifth being the "outsider" for a non-BP film. That doesn't seem capable of happening anymore, with a five-for-five correlation each year since the expansion, though I imagine 2011 was the closest call: I have no doubt that David Fincher was just outside the #5 spot for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This year's nominees all saw their film nominated for Best Picture, with Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips) being the surprise exclusion.

Here are the five nominees who did make the cut:


David O. Russell, American Hustle

For years, David O. Russell made his name with a range of idiosyncratic comedies like Three Kings (1999) and I Heart Huckabees (2004), as well as for his notable temper with his actors. However, he's since landed in the Academy's wheelhouse, earning a Best Director nomination for each of his past three films: The Fighter (2010), Silver Linings Playbook (2012), and this year's American Hustle. Of these films, American Hustle feels the most like vintage Russell. Under his direction, the film has a verve of unpredictability, feeling as if the whole thing could fly off the handle at any given moment. Yet it's a controlled chaos, and Russell capably keeps everything together and nabs a collection of great performances from his cast. He's done fine work here, and it's interesting to see some of his more eclectic sensibilities sneaking back into his films.

More after the page break.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Oscars 2013: Best Actor

As with Best Actress, it's fun to imagine the Best Actor field that could have been this year. This is a category that could have included Joaquin Phoenix (Her), Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station), Forest Whitaker (Lee Daniels' The Butler), and many expected Robert Redford (All is Lost) and Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips) to be among the nominees. This is all to say that this category was extremely competitive this year, and any configuration of these men was possible up until the moment the nominees were announced.

So who are the nominees? Check them out below.


Christian Bale, American Hustle

What's not surprising: Christian Bale is excellent in American Hustle, playing con artist/bad combover enthusiast Irving. Bale brings his A-game here, taking the film's most three-dimensional character on paper and adding even more depth and humanity to him. He plays Irving as a guy who just wants to get by, scam some people out of their money but not so much that he's insanely wealthy. He's a man of modest ambitions who gets in way over his head, but having been kicked around by life before, he knows how to craft an escape plan. Bale manages the tricky feat of playing Irving's confidence and desperation in way that, despite better judgement, is nonetheless sexy and alluring. It's performance-as-con: he makes you believe everything he says, and in the end gets the upper hand without you even noticing. What is surprising: that he managed to crack into the highly-competitive field with this performance. It's an unusual choice, but a worthy one.

The rest of the nominees after the break.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Oscars 2013: Best Actress

Think, for a second, of the Best Actress field that might have been. Brie Larson (Short Term 12), Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Enough Said), Adele Exarchopolous (Blue is the Warmest Color), Julie Delpy (Before Midnight). You could also sub in Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks) for any of them and still have a strong category. Then take a look at the actual nominees. Basically, there was a wide variety of tremendous performances to choose from this year, and the Academy went with one of the "safer" configurations: all of these women have been nominated at least once before, with no new faces in the crowd.

This seems to be happening often recently within this category. Don't get me wrong: the fact that this is the oldest this category has ever been (the average age is 55, with Amy Adams being the youngest at 39) is worthy of celebration considering Hollywood's younger-leaning tendencies. But it's a shame that truly revelatory performances do get ignored in favor of less-engaging ones from oft-nominated favorites. I guess what I'm trying to say is that instead of "default" nominees, it would be nice to see this field look more like last year's lineup more often, with a wider variety of actresses across multiple spectrums being recognized for phenomenal performances.

Anyway, let's move on the five actresses who actually were nominated. The nominees are:


Amy Adams, American Hustle

Amy Adams is something of an odd Oscar presence. She's often very good in the films she's in, but something just seems kind of weird that she has five nominations in a nine-year period, right? Yet take a look at her performance in American Hustle - her first nomination for Best Actress (the other four were for supporting) - and you can see how she makes a case for the film's stealth MVP. As Sydney, aka Lady Edith, Adams plays up the '70s va-va-voom, sure, with her dazzling costumes and plunging necklines. But she also suggests that Sydney is not nearly as innocent as she seems in the beginning, and that she may, in fact, be better at conning than Irving (Christian Bale) is. She also expertly plays the film's best joke: her (intentionally) awful British accent that absolutely no one questions the veracity of. As for the dramatic weight, just check out the bathroom scene with Jennifer Lawrence's Rosalyn or any of her monologues with Irving or Richie (Bradley Cooper). There's not denying that the rest of the cast does very good, very flashy work. But even though her role has a generous amount of flair to it, Adams sneaks up on you, pulling out one of the greatest performances of her career.

The rest of the nominees after the break.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Oscars 2013: Best Supporting Actor

I'll be the first to admit that the Best Supporting Actor category at the Oscars has fallen on some hard times lately. That's not to say that great performances weren't nominated: Christopher Plummer (2011, Beginners), Christian Bale (2010, The Fighter), Christoph Waltz (2009, Inglourious Basterds), Heath Ledger (2008, The Dark Knight), and Javier Bardem (2007, No Country for Old Men) were all very deserving winners, and they won over some other great performances as well (Mark Ruffalo in 2010 for The Kids Are All Right, Robert Downey Jr. in 2008 for Tropic Thunder). But more often than not, the category housed one or two really good performances, while the rest of the field was at best good-but-not-great and at worst uninspiring and unmemorable. For several years, Best Supporting Actor has routinely been the weakest of the acting categories in terms of quality.

(You'll notice I didn't mention 2012 in that list. There were great performances: Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln, Robert De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook. But Philip Seymour Hoffman was nominated for The Master and Christoph Waltz won for Django Unchained; these were both very good performances, especially Hoffman's, but neither one of them could realistically be considered "supporting" roles. Hoffman was every bit the lead as Joaquin Phoenix, and Waltz was, honestly, more of the lead in Django Unchained than Django himself, Jamie Foxx. So egregious category fraud kind of spoiled that year.)

That has changed this year. Performance for performance, these five men constitute what is, by far, the strongest acting category this year, each one of them a marvel in their films and delivering some of their best work to date. It's so good, in fact, that I will be pleased as punch no matter who wins, because each and every one of these nominees deserves the Oscar (though obviously I do have a favorite). Let's hope that this category can leave those weaker days behind it.

Check out the five nominees after the page break.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Oscars 2013: Best Supporting Actress

Best Supporting Actress can be a hard category to gauge. While Best Supporting Actor is susceptible to category fraud (i.e., lead performances masquerading as "supporting" roles), Best Supporting Actress is even more so, with several major co-leads ending up here, including a big one this year. Yet it's also a category where new talent and scene-stealers get a chance to shine, such as Viola Davis in 2008 for Doubt or Amy Ryan in 2007 for Gone Baby Gone. It's also often the only acting category to feature more than one nominee from the same film, the most recent example being Jessica Chastain and winner Octavia Spencer for The Help in 2011. Most importantly, it was in this category that Tilda Swinton became an Oscar winner (2007, Michael Clayton), so it will always be celebratory for that.

Anyway, this year's lineup features five fine performances. You can check out the nominees below.


Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine

Sally Hawkins has been doing terrific, if little-seen, work for years now. 2008's Happy-Go-Lucky was her big breakout (and likely almost landed her an Oscar nomination). Though her Blue Jasmine role, Ginger, isn't nearly as front-and-center as Happy-Go-Lucky, she tackles it with aplomb and ends up nearly stealing the show from her co-star, Cate Blanchett. Ginger is Jasmine's (Blanchett) less-wealthy sister, a woman who has her own personal issues in how she lets people treat her. But Hawkins gives Ginger an inner strength that the character lacks on paper: she's essentially Stella Kowalski, but she's no pushover, and she'll take the reins of her own life when she needs to. The film is all about Jasmine, of course, because Jasmine is the focus of of her own life. Hawkins, however, makes a case that Ginger is equally important, worthy of her own story. It's a quietly phenomenal performance that showcases her natural talent.

The rest of the nominees after the page break.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Battleship Potemkin (1925)

*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: #11

"Propaganda" has become a dirty word. When we think about propaganda - at least in the United States - we think about evil regimes brainwashing its citizens into misguided patriotism, supporting dictators and oppressive systems in the name of a stronger society. Images of Nazi Germany, Maoist China, and modern North Korea come to mind. But that's all a matter of perspective: the United States is not innocent in the creation of positive propaganda supporting our nation, just as every other government in the world does. To use a very recent example, just look at the opening/closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games. These ceremonies ostensibly celebrate the spirit of international cooperation and community in sporting competitions, yes. But more importantly, they're an opportunity for the host nation to celebrate itself, and more often than not they put their best foot forward to showcase the pride and historical high points of their history. Propaganda isn't always the work of the schemers.

When it comes to propaganda films, two films always dominate the conversation: Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1935) and, the focus of this year's Sight & Sound Sunday, Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. Eisenstein's film is a dramatization of the 1905 mutiny aboard the Potemkin, in which the crew rebelled against their Tsarist officers. The film was intended to celebrate the Bolshevik uprising, to praise the power of the Soviet Union over the Tsar's Russia, and to honor the revolution of the common man over the aristocratic class. In doing so, the film keeps the characterizations simple: the crew and citizens of Odessa are pure and good, while the officers and Tsar's soldiers are clearly evil and murderous. This is common in propaganda films: clear dividing lines make it easier for the audience to know who to sympathize with.

More after the page break.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Oscars 2013: The Screenplays

Just a little over a week from the Big Night, aka Hollywood's Christmas Day, it's time to begin the annual plunge into the year's top categories. We'll begin with the screenplays, which features a fine crop this year. It's strange how these categories shook out, though. This year was rather weak in terms of the adaptations - the five nominated films, plus The Spectacular Now, Short Term 12, and Blue is the Warmest Color were the only real contenders - but those few possibilities were incredible, and the five nominees easily rank amongst the year's best scripts. On the other hand, it felt like there were endless possibilities for Original Screenplay (Frances Ha, Enough Said, Prisoners), yet the Academy ended up going with the least exciting (and interesting) lineup.

Anyway, the nominees are:


Before Midnight; written by Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke

The nomination for Before Midnight as an adapted screenplay - just as it's predecessor, Before Sunset, was in 2004 - and not original is because of the Academy's odd rule that sequels are "adaptations" because they feature recurring characters. If that's what it takes to get this film nominated, though, so be it. The film's screenplay is a marvel, of course, with a number of delicious monologues ruminating on love and life in the film's first half that any actor would kill to recite. But, as has been detailed in numerous reviews, it's the punishing fight that Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) have in their hotel room where the screenplay really sparks. There's not a single false note in this film: this is the work of artists who are perfectly in-tune with who these characters are, and how they are together. It's flawless work.

The rest of the Adapted nominees, as well as the Original category, after the page break.

Friday, February 21, 2014

FYC: Best Costume Design, 12 Years a Slave

*With Oscar voting in full swing and the ceremony less than two weeks away, I'm taking this week to spotlight a handful of nominees in the technical categories. These are not frontrunners in their category, but they are worthy of our consideration. Welcome to FYC Week.*

More often than not, the Academy prefers flashy, ornate costume work - often from a period piece, usually involving royalty - in this category over more subdued work. This year probably won't be an exception: Catherine Martin seems like a very strong contender for The Great Gatsby, while Michael Wilkinson is likely her closest competition for the plunging necklines of American Hustle. Michael O'Connor (The Invisible Woman) is his film's only nomination, which hurts his chances, and William Chang Suk Ping (The Grandmaster) is nominated for a foreign language film that was not nominated in the corresponding category, meaning his nomination will probably be considered reward enough.

In any other year, Patricia Norris' work in 12 Years a Slave - her first nomination since 1988, and sixth overall - would be considered a much more serious contender, coming from a likely Best Picture winner. But more importantly, the work itself is impressive in how it never calls attention to itself yet is essential to the film's characterization, all while maintaining historical appropriateness. Compare the two main plantation owners to whom Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) falls into the possession of. Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is a more benevolent slave owner, keeps his clothes clean and crisp, a man who keeps the operations of his estate as distant from himself as possible. Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), on the other hand, can clean up when necessary, but his clothes are often faded or soiled; he's a man who's not afraid to get his hands dirty, particularly when it comes to the way he treats his slaves.

Norris' costumes also place the characters in relative social strata: consider, if you will, how Northrup, as a free man in New York, dresses in fine suits, but when he is forced into slavery, he's given rags, clothes that are indistinguishable from those of the other slaves at any plantation he ends up at. Similarly, we understand that Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), a former slave who is now married to the plantation owner, occupies a different societal position from Northrup because she now wears the more elaborate dresses of the planter (predominantly white) class. Norris' work is far from "costume porn": these costumes code the social standing of every character in the film, positioning them against one another and helping the audience visibly understand the institutionalized oppression of this society in a subtle way.

There's no denying that the costumes of The Great Gatsby and American Hustle are eye-catching and fun, with the former even influencing modern fashion (disclosure: I have seen neither The Grandmaster nor The Invisible Woman). But what makes Norris' work so worthy of the Oscar is that her's is a quiet but essential contribution to the overall message of 12 Years a Slave: that the slave-owning American South was a heavily systematic society, where physical and mental degradation of the oppressed were the foundation it was built upon.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

FYC: Best Sound Editing, All is Lost

*With Oscar voting in full swing and the ceremony less than two weeks away, I'm taking this week to spotlight a handful of nominees in the technical categories. These are not frontrunners in their category, but they are worthy of our consideration. Welcome to FYC Week.*

I'll be the first to admit that I - like the vast majority of us film bloggers - don't really understand the particular nuances of sound effects editing. Here's what I do know: the difference between sound editing and sound mixing, in layman's terms, is that the former involves the recording, amplification, and addition of sounds that did not occur during filming, while the latter involves the overall sonic tapestry of the film.

I also know that the Best Sound Editing category often favors animated films, action-packed blockbusters, and major Best Picture contenders, and that in two of the past three years it has been the only place where a film that I had predicted to be a possible big contender managed a nomination (2011's Drive and this year's All is Lost). This year is no exception to that rule: Captain Phillips (blockbuster/Best Picture), Gravity (blockbuster/Best Picture), The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (blockbuster), and Lone Survivor (blockbuster) all scored nominations in this category. The aforementioned All is Lost is the oddball of the group. It's not a major across-the-board contender (again, this is the film's only nomination), and with a lifetime domestic gross of a little over $6 million (USD), it's far from being blockbuster.

However, unlike the other four films (I assume; I have not seen The Hobbit or Lone Survivor), All is Lost is a film that lives or dies by it's soundscape. It's a film that has precious little dialogue from the sole performer, Robert Redford, and therefore relies heavily on image and sound to convey the severity of Our Man's situation. What Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hymns - the film's nominated editors - accomplish here is making those sounds present and foreboding, with every thump, crack, splash, and snap forming a symphony of impending doom. The way they present these sounds, the wail of a passing ship's horn becomes more like a death knell than a cry of hope, and the ripping of the raft's vinyl in the wind is the sound of cruel fate taunting him. Many critics compared All is Lost to a biblical parable, with Our Man serving in the role as a modern-day Job - or at least a distant relative of his. The sound effects are integral to this reading, as each crashing wave, booming thunderclap, and crunching rainfall is the sound of a higher power taunting powerless man, reminding him of how unforgiving it can be.

Gravity or Captain Phillips are the likely winners of this category, and surely they feature impressive sound work worthy of commemoration. But neither of those films use the power of their sound effects to the same glorious effect as All is Lost. In this film, they are the sound of divine fury.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

FYC: Best Cinematography, Prisoners

*With Oscar voting in full swing and the ceremony less than two weeks away, I'm taking this week to spotlight a handful of nominees in the technical categories. These are not frontrunners in their category, but they are worthy of our consideration. Welcome to FYC Week.*

There are plenty of great working cinematographers out there, and they are worthy of their merits, so I mean no disrespect to the other three nominees in Best Cinematography this year - Philippe Le Sourd (The Grandmaster), Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis), and Phedon Papamichael (Nebraska) - when I say that this race is between the two greatest working cinematographers today, Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity) and Roger A. Deakins (Prisoners). Both men are best known for the auteurs they often collaborate with: Lubezki has lensed a number of films by Alfonso Cuaron and Terrence Malick, while Deakins has been a longtime collaborator with the Coen Brothers. And this year, on their sixth and eleventh nominations, respectively, they go head-to-head for the first time in the pursuit of either of their first win.

Lubezki is an undeniable talent, and he is most likely going to win this year for his mind-shatteringly great work on Gravity. But Deakins' work on Prisoners is not to be overlooked, and it may even be the superior work. There's a precision to the way Deakins frames each shot in the film, using faded colors and subdued lighting to create a monotonous, this-could-be-anywhere feel. For a film about kidnapping and the extremes that people can go to in the name of "justice," Deakins appropriately shows us the shadows slinking around this sleepy burg, the sinister hiding in plain sight and bubbling just under the surface. More than anything, he makes this film visually beautiful, despite the wretched darkness in its heart. Every frame of the film is a little masterpiece, and each one tells a complete story in and of itself. The flair of Deakins' work isn't nearly as in-your-face as Lubezki's, but it adds so much more to the film, an essential component in the way the film transcends it's pot-boiler narrative and becomes a film about the darker corners of human nature. The characters in the film can only begin to fathom the degradation of their souls, but Deakins' camera understands it all too well, presenting it to the audience in ways that are both beautiful and haunting.

I'm not an expert on cinematography, so I have to recommend Matthew Scott's brilliant and informative breakdown of Deakins' work in Prisoners for those interested in the technical aspects. As I stated above, there's probably no beating Lubezki this year, and after so much brilliant work in his career he deserves to finally win an Oscar. But Deakins deserves it too, and Prisoners will likely end up being referred to as one of the finest works of his career. Ties are extremely rare at the Academy Awards; last year's in Best Sound Editing was the first since 1994, and only the sixth overall. But if any category desperately needed one this year, it's Cinematography, with Lubezki and Deakins both accepting.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

FYC: Best Production Design, Her

*With Oscar voting in full swing and the ceremony less than two weeks away, I'm taking this week to spotlight a handful of nominees in the technical categories. These are not frontrunners in their category, but they are worthy of our consideration. Welcome to FYC Week.*

Starting last year, the Academy changed the name of this category from "Art Direction" - which it had been known as for 84 years - to "Production Design." The name change is appropriate: this is work that involves the designing of sets, both natural and built, to suit the needs of the film. This year's crop of nominees range from plantations in the antebellum American South (12 Years a Slave) to the glitzy parties of the 1920s (The Great Gatsby) to the New Jersey of the 1970s (American Hustle), even all the way to outer space (Gravity). Though the lattermost is somewhat suspect - in a film so heavily reliant on digital effects, how do you distinguish the tangible from the digital (I'm sure there's a way that I'm not privy to) - all of these films feature impressive designs from the past or, in Gravity's case, plausible present.

But Her, with production design by K.K. Barrett and set decoration by Gene Serdena, is different in that it's set in the near-future. Futuristic films have earned nominations in this category before; in fact, recent years have often featured at least one nomination for a science-fiction or fantasy film. But the future created by Barrett and Serdena isn't all that different from our present. Like the film's costume work, the sets create a plausible vision of the future by looking to the past, taking cues from the "everything comes back around" trends of today. Theodore's (Joaquin Phoenix) apartment may have hologram projections instead of a TV for playing video games on, but the furnishings and decor - particularly the wood-panelling - draw cues from '60s art-deco with a modern (post-modern?) twist. Similarly, the bar where he meets his blind date (Olivia Wilde) applies retro-futurism - everything from the tables to the building itself has a curved, sleek design, with the ribbed walls recalling a Giger bar as renovated by Barbarella.

It would have been really easy for the film to go full-on future, with outré designs that called attention to the fact that this film occurs in a time beyond the present. But Barrett and Serdena understand that to do so would rob the film of its power. This is a film where a man falls in love with an operating system, an intangible yet ever-present entity; the brilliant performances of Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson as "Samantha" are the cornerstone to the success of this premise. But the production design is a key factor in that same success, because it places them in a world that's only slightly different than ours. Suddenly, something that seems ridiculous becomes all the more realistic, which in turn makes it all the more achingly human. The production design of Her doesn't stand out in the film as much as it does in the other nominated films. But it's contribution to the film is not to be overlooked.

Monday, February 17, 2014

FYC: Best Visual Effects, Iron Man 3

*With Oscar voting in full swing and the ceremony less than two weeks away, I'm taking this week to spotlight a handful of nominees in the technical categories. These are not frontrunners in their category, but they are worthy of our consideration. Welcome to FYC Week.*

Look, there's no real use in arguing this point: Gravity is going to win in this category. Anyone who's seen that film - or even a commercial or trailer for the film - understands how groundbreaking and stunning the visual effects are, and how they are, quite simply, the best of the year. And come the night of March 2, the VFX team will be justly rewarded for their accomplishments.

But that doesn't mean that the other four nominated movies - The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Star Trek Into Darkness, The Lone Ranger, and Iron Man 3 - are complete rubbish. I personally haven't seen The Hobbit or The Lone Ranger, so I'm not really qualified to speak about their effects work. But while Star Trek's visuals were terrific, they never really "popped" quite the way they did in the first film (and this being a movie in which the Enterprise literally falls out of the sky).

Iron Man 3, however, features some of the franchise's best visual effects work to date. Check out the gritty realism of the destruction of Tony Stark's mansion/Batcave. Yes, the collapse is visually impressive, but what makes this scene so impressive is that the rubble feels like it has weight and dimension; in other words, it's rendered so well and looks so plausible that it's easy to forget that these are pixels in a digital environment, not an actual house sinking into the Pacific. Similarly, the mid-air rescue sequence is stunning in how it utilizes all of it's digital elements - the plane going down, Iron Man, the appearance that real people are falling thousands of feet to certain doom - in ways that obey the physics of this world while also building to a rather terrific punchline. And while the film's big finale certainly feels out-of-place compared to the rest of the narrative, the effects in this sequence are dynamite, building coherent action that packs in the eye candy.

If there's anything that Iron Man 3 has in comparison to Gravity, it's that the visual effects in both films carry weight, making them feel like real objects in the worlds of the film. You'd be surprised at how many big VFX films fail to accomplish the same task. All three Iron Man films have been nominated in this category; Gravity will prevail, but on the slight chance it doesn't, Iron Man 3 is definitely a worthy alternative.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

House of Cards, Season 2

*SPOILER ALERT. This review contains heavy plot details for the second season of House of Cards, as well as details about the end of the first season. Read on if you dare.*

There's nothing that quite says "Happy Valentine's Day" like political corruption and moral degradation, right? Netflix understands this, as the company released all 13 episodes of their original series House of Cards' second season this past Friday. For the uninitiated, the show centers on Francis "Frank" Underwood (Kevin Spacey), a high-ranking politician in the United States government who's no stranger to dirty tricks in his efforts to continue rising through the ranks. I briefly wrote about the show's first season for my Emmy coverage last year, which you can find here.

Click below for more. Spoilers ensue.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

A Change of Tune: Best Original Score

A common criticism of the Best Original Score Oscar category is that the same composers are nominated year after year. Alexandre Desplat, for example, has been nominated six times in the past eight years. Thomas Newman has six nominations (in this category) in the past ten years as well. John Williams is undoubtedly the all-time champ, with a mind-boggling 49 nominations (43 of which are in this category, as are his five wins), including four times in the past 20 years - 1995, 2001, 2005, 2011 - in which he was a double nominee. And, of course, all three of these men are again nominees this year: Desplat for Philomena, Newman for Saving Mr. Banks, and Williams for The Book Thief.

John Williams

It's not necessarily surprising that the same composers routinely show up in this category. Over the past two decades, scores originally written for films have been replaced with pop music for key moments, with Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet often cited as the progenitor of this trend. Scores, then, are now too often reserved specifically for prestige projects, while other films usually just have it hum in the background without drawing attention to itself. As a result, it's not uncommon to see the same few composers' names on most major movies, meaning that yes, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard and Danny Elfman and Howard Shore are often going to be more recognized than newcomers.

More after the break.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Short Takes: The Spectacular Now, Smashed, and More

Like Crazy (dir. Drake Doremus, 2011)

The most important thing that any romantic film should do is make the audience care about the central couple, not just as a unit but also as individuals. In Like Crazy, students Anna (Felicity Jones) and Jacob (Anton Yelchin) fall in love after sharing a class, but find their relationship strained when Anna, who is British, can't get a visa to return to the United States. Unfortunately, the film fails in making the audience care. The performances of the two leads are great, particularly Jones, who plays Anna's confusion and desire realistically and beautifully. The problem is in the storytelling: the film jumps from one moment to the next, showing us the two of them together but never really getting down to why they are together nor why they should be together in the first place. The result is a film that desperately wants to be loved, but never provides a reason why it should be. C+

Smashed (dir. James Ponsoldt, 2012)

Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Charlie (Aaron Paul) have a relationship based on three things: music, fun, and copious amounts of alcohol. However, when Kate realizes that her drinking is getting out of control and attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, their relationship becomes significantly strained. Winstead completely owns the film, and her performance is nothing short of remarkable as she oscillates between uneasy sobriety and devastating drunkenness, all while struggling to find the means to put her life together and the consequences that come with responsibility. The film as a whole is a stunning examination of what it means to overcome addiction, and it presents Ponsoldt as a filmmaker to watch and Winstead an actress worthy of great roles. A-

Short Term 12 (dir. Destin Cretton, 2013)

What an incredibly beautiful movie Short Term 12 is. Grace (Brie Larson) is an incredibly guarded employee at a care facility for foster children, navigating the difficult challenge of helping these kids while maintaining a healthy relationship with her boyfriend (John Gallagher Jr.). Larson is unbelievable in the role-of-a-lifetime, showcasing a remarkable talent with one of the most affecting performances of the year. In supporting roles, Keith Stanfield and Kaitlyn Dever are equally great as a quiet charge about to turn 18 and an abrasive new addition, respectively. What makes this movie so special, though, is how Cretton keeps his hands off the story, letting his characters blossom and never passing judgment on their decisions. It's a heartbreaking, life-affirming film. A+

The Spectacular Now (dir. James Ponsoldt, 2013)

So how do you follow up a emotionally volatile indie about recovery from addiction? Enter The Spectacular Now, Ponsoldt's follow-up to Smashed and a coming-of-age tale from the writers of (500) Days of Summer. Sutter (Miles Teller) is a self-made popular kid in high school who's a tad too reliant on alcohol (a running theme in Ponsoldt's work thus far), who begins helping friendly smart girl Aimee (Shailene Woodley) with her paper route and, of course, falling for her. The film transcends many of the cliches of coming-of-age tales by making these characters emotionally rich and grounded in painful reality. In fact, that may be what the film captures best: how emotionally painful adolescence can be, whether it's romantic relationships or the realization of what kind of people your parents really are. Kyle Chandler makes a brief, devastating appearance as Sutter's absent father, and Brie Larson appears as Sutter's ex-girlfriend. But this film belongs to Teller and Woodley, both of them doing incredible work that cements their status as some of the top up-and-coming actors today. A-

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Best Film Editing: Where's the Comedy?

Editing is often referred to as "the invisible art," because the best editing is the kind that audiences don't notice. One scene flows perfectly into the other, with cuts following the established logic of the film and nothing seeming jarring or out-of-place. Of course, most audiences don't recognize editing anyway; it was only after taking several film analysis classes in college that I began to notice and understand how film editing works, and even now I still don't completely understand. Yet there are things that I do notice: violations of the 180-degree rule (if two characters are in conversation, between individual close-up cuts they should occupy opposite sides of the screen; i.e. one character on the left, the other on the right), long unbroken takes (the one in this week's episode of True Detective, "Who Goes There," is remarkable), and jump-cuts to throwaway scenes. It's a tricky art, and one that's hard to understand when it's so hard to notice.

Martin Scorsese's longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker

Click for more.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Second Disney Renaissance is Upon Us

The snow is coming down pretty hard right now here in Greensboro, North Carolina, and given the continued success of Frozen - which recently passed Despicable Me 2 to be 2013's third-highest-grossing film - now seems like a good time to expand on my recent theory of the Second Disney Renaissance. I've mentioned it before in my reviews of Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph, but I think it needs further explanation.

First, what do we mean by "Disney Renaissance?" There are a couple of qualifiers to this statement. Generally, this is discussed only in terms of Disney's animated feature-film output, so live-action movies will not be considered. By that same token, for the purposes of my argument, I'm only including the works of Walt Disney Animation Studios, which will exclude films released by Disney but produced by other companies, such as Pixar. So I'm working from what counts as Disney's animated film canon, of which there are currently 53 features.

Disney's early films, such as Snow White and the Seven Drawfs, Pinocchio, and Bambi make up the first period, though some will argue that Disney's "Golden Age" stretches from 1937 all the way through The Aristocats in 1970. This is a tricky period to define, since it includes a number of films that are still rightfully celebrated today, including Dumbo and Sleeping Beauty, but also oft-forgetten features such as Make Mine Music and Saludos Amigos. But in general, the pre-1970s period is considered greatly successful for Disney, both in terms of reputation and financial success.

More after the page break.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

"The College Dropout" at 10 and Kanye West's Beautiful Dark Twisted Career

Yesterday (February 10) marked the 10th anniversary of the release of The College Dropout, Kanye West's stunning debut album. It's hard to imagine that there was once a world in which his massive ego, brilliant music and spot-on South Park caricature didn't exist. Kanye's spent his career making incredible albums - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy being his masterpiece, 808s & Heartbreak and Yeezus his experimental works, Late Registration and Graduation being towering rap records - and self-aggrandizing statements and actions that have made him an easy target to lampoon/hate/praise.

But before he became Mr. Kim Kardashian, before he interrupted Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the VMAs (what he said was right, what he did was wrong), and before he proclaimed "I inspire me," West was a producer from Chicago whose beats caught the ear of Jay Z. Jay Z then had West produce a number of tracks for his 2000 album The Blueprint, which now has the reputation of being among the best rap albums of all time. Of course, it didn't take long for West to produce his own debut, and after several delays, it was finally released to enormous acclaim. The album would go on to sell over three million copies and earned West ten Grammy nominations, including Album of the Year, of which he won three (including Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song for "Jesus Walks").

More after the break.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Exquisite Sadness of "Wreck-It Ralph"

In lieu of a typical review, there's more that I need to say about my experience of watching Wreck-It Ralph, Disney's 2012 Oscar-nominated animated feature about the titular video-game bad guy (voiced by John C. Reilly) who decides to leave his game and become a hero. As creatively directed by Rich Moore (a veteran of The Simpsons and Futurama) and co-written by Moore and Jennifer Lee (Frozen), the film has more than enough wit and loving nostalgia for arcade games to make this film an absolute blast, cleverly developing the characters and worlds in a way that immerse you in the way that only video games can. It's sweet, it's cute, and with the vocal talents of Reilly (who is so good here, he should do this more often), Sarah Silverman, Jane Lynch, and Jack McBrayer, the whole endeavor really is winning. This film is just further proof to my theory that a second Disney Renaissance is quietly underway.

But what I really want to discuss about this movie is how, while watching it, I noticed how unbelievably sad the core of the film is.

Click here for more.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: La Jetée (1962)

*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 Ugetsu monogatari)

Several times over the course of this series, "pure cinematography" has come up several times, most notably in the very first edition. The basic theory behind Robert Bresson's "pure cinematography" is that film transcends simply being "filmed theatre," but creates a unique visual language that conveys meaning outside of the narrative. In other words, films that fit his theory of cinematography didn't emphasize "plot" and "character" so much as images that conveyed information without exposition, allowing the film to essentially speak in visual language that the audience would be able to understand. The moving image is what transcends cinema as an artistic medium.

La Jetée, Chris Marker's acclaimed 1962 short, is not so much antithetical to "pure cinematography" so much as an abstraction of the theory's core tenant. The film, which runs a brief 28 minutes, is a sci-fi story about a man (Davos Hanich) in post-World War III France who is sent back in time to help save humanity from wiping itself out. The film's most noted accomplishment, though, is that it is almost completely told through still photographs rather than through moving images, making this more of a narrative montage than what a film is expected to be. This much is obvious from the outset, with the zoom out on a photograph of Paris' Orly Airport, and the credit of "un photo-roman de Chris Marker" - literally, "a photo-story by Chris Marker."

Marker's use of still photographs has a purpose, of course. This is a film about time travel, but Marker actually uses the time-travel motif to make a larger point about memory. This is advanced by the use of still photographs, creating an impressionist timeline that suggests rather than shows. Marker's statement is that our memories don't play out as videos, at least not all the time. Memories are snapshots of the past, and, as in the film, they may be accompanied by sounds that maybe aren't completely natural to the image, but still related to it. In that sense, La Jetée plays out like a collection of memories pasted together by the narrator, trying to recount a history in which it appears most physical evidence of events has been destroyed, along with the rest of human civilization.

But Marker's film is also challenging the conventions of cinema, in particular the importance of the moving image. Whereas the average film moves at a rate of 24 frames-per-second (this speed creating the illusion of movement on film), each photograph in La Jetée extends for varying amounts of time, the characters locked in a moment before the cut to the next one. It is a complete breakdown of cinema itself, an abstraction of "pure cinematography" to the point where the image is the only thing, with only the non-diagetic sound (that is, sound that is not originating from the image on the screen) accompanying each image indicating that this is technically a film. This distortion helps serve the purpose of the post-apocalyptic setting of the film as well. Much like Cormac McCarthy's spare prose and lack of punctuation was evocative of a world in complete disrepair in his novel The Road, Marker's disjointed sound and collection of stills implies a devastated world in which even film has fallen apart, no longer recognizable as "movies."

La Jetée, then, is a extreme vision of the theory of "pure cinematography," abstracting the central idea of visual language to an extent that very few films have revisited (Marker would return to the conceit a few times in his career). Moreover, it's a film that explores the nature of memory itself and memory on film, taking cinema to places that it had never ventured before.

On the next Sight & Sound Sunday: Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Revisiting Wall-E

I had the opportunity to re-watch Wall-E for the first time in what seems like ages, thanks to the shocking discovery that my girlfriend - one of the biggest Disney fanatics I know - had never seen it (!) or Up (!!). Granted, she's mostly into the princesses more than anything else, but still.

Throughout the movie I kept thinking about how, creatively speaking, this really was Pixar's peak. That's not to say that every film after it has been bad, but nothing compares to the alchemy that was at work in Wall-E. The film begins with a mostly-silent stretch that makes up nearly a third of the film's total running time, endearing us to this little robot while filling in the backstory almost completely through visuals alone (that one moment where Wall-E trades his treads with an older, long-defunct robot is probably some of the darkest comedy Pixar's ever done; he essentially takes the shoes from a corpse). It goes without saying that Pixar can make us fall in love with two robots in love, but all things considered it truly is a remarkable piece of storytelling in it's own right. But that's not enough for the film, as it also mixes in a great sci-fi story along with sly social commentary on big-box stores, consumerism, environmentalism, and our increasing reliance on technology.

That's to say nothing of the film's stunning animation and visual wit, creating a world that seems very plausible to the point of being hauntingly real. It's a shame to see the film's director, Andrew Stanton, have such an enormous failure with John Carter after this film and Finding Nemo. And it's too bad that Pixar's hasn't - and likely won't - be able to top this charming, beautiful masterpiece.

Friday, February 7, 2014

History and Pop Culture: Lennon and the Tramp

I don't know if I've ever mentioned this on here before, but when I was doing my undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I was a history major - specifically, American history (for those curious, I did minor in cinema studies, as well as religious studies). Of course, if the university had offered a cinema major, I definitely would have done that as well. But I've always been fascinated by history: there's so much that can be gleaned from where we've come from that has nothing to do with memorizing dates. History always repeats itself, and the problems the world faces today are rooted in where we've come from; despite what a certain North Carolina governor (and other members of his party) might think, there is enormous value in studying history - and any fine arts/humanities, by the way.

Okay, I'll get off the soapbox now. The reason I bring this up is that today, February 7, marks the 50th and 100th anniversary of two landmark events in pop culture: the arrival of the Beatles to the United States and the very first appearance of Charlie Chaplin's "Little Tramp" character, respectively.

More after the jump.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

2013 Oscar-Nominated Shorts: Live-Action

Yesterday I wrote about the nominees for the Best Animated Short Film Oscar category. Today's the live-action shorts, which I had also seen yesterday by myself in the theater (the animated shorts had a few other attendees). I honestly can't remember the last time that I was completely alone in a theater; it may have actually been 2005, when I went to an early afternoon, weekday showing of Batman Begins really late in the film's run. It's an odd experience, but kind of cool too.

Anyway, the nominees are (after the jump):

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

2013 Oscar-Nominated Shorts: Animated

The short-film Oscars have long been a beguiling mystery to me. They are films that don't get big theatrical releases, or trailers, or Super Bowl commercials (or trailers to Super Bowl commercials, because that's a thing now). But luckily, the Carousel Luxury Cinema in Greensboro had screenings of ShortsHD's annual showcase of the nominated short films, separated into an animation showcase and a live-action showcase.

My charming little screening room, tucked way back into the back of the building.

Of course, with the proliferation of online content these days, you don't have to wait for these shorts to come to a theater near you. Many of them are available online, in the iTunes Store, and through Amazon Instant Video. I'll provide that information where I can.

The nominees for Best Animated Short Film are (after the jump):

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Hard Eight (1996)

Eager to watch one of Philip Seymour Hoffman's performances in the wake of his unfortunate passing this weekend, I decided to finally see a film I have long been putting off: Paul Thomas Anderson's feature film debut Hard Eight, aka Sydney. Over the course of his career, Hoffman would appear in five of Anderson's six films, only sitting out for 2007's There Will Be Blood, and had most recently co-starred with Joaquin Phoenix in 2012's The Master. However, Hard Eight would not be Hoffman's coming-out party - that would be Anderson's second film, 1997's Boogie Nights - but it was the quiet announcement of Anderson as a talent worth watching.

The film begins with Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) buying a cup of coffee for despondent John (John C. Reilly), who went to Las Vegas to gamble for money to pay for his mother's funeral only to break even. Sydney has sympathy for the kid, and takes him back to show him how to essentially cheat the system. Two years later, John is Sydney's loyal right-hand man, and while John has befriended another gambling big-shot named Jimmie (Samuel L. Jackson), Sydney is trying to protect his favorite waitress, Clementine (Gwyneth Paltrow), from being swallowed up by the seedier side of Reno, Nevada. When John is in need of money, things naturally go south, and Sydney's real connection to John is revealed.

More after the jump.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Sherlock: "His Last Vow"

Sherlock prides itself on how clever it is. The show's mission from the very beginning was to make Sherlock cool to a 21st century audience, so that we would marvel at him like a modern-day superhero whose superpower is his deductive abilities. Season three, as I've already noted, has placed more emphasis on characterization than on the mysteries themselves, and that's gone a long way toward endearing us toward who Sherlock, John, and Mary are as characters. There was still that element of cool, but it seemed like the show's creative team had decided that they had us hooked, so they didn't feel like they had to show off quite as much.

Because of spoilers, more after the jump.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967 - 2014)

Death almost always comes as a surprise. The loss of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was found dead of an apparent drug overdose in his New York apartment this morning at the age of 46, comes as a devastating shock.

When you devote your life to film criticism and study, you find that there are certain figures that you constantly find yourself gravitating towards. Hoffman had that kind of magnetism where, even if his performance wasn't exactly the right fit for a film (and sometimes it wasn't), you couldn't take your eyes off what he was doing. Many comparisons have been made to Heath Ledger, whom he was Oscar-nominated against twice (Hoffman winning Best Actor in 2005, Ledger winning Best Supporting Actor in 2008). Those comparisons are apt: both men imbued so much humanity and grace into their characters.

I won't break down his entire remarkable career; go to his IMDb page and rent any given title on there, and be amazed by what he was capable of (in particular: any of his collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, and his Oscar-winning Capote). His career simply can't be summed up; it demands to be witnessed. The one performance I keep coming back to in my mind, though, is his Caden Cotard in Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York. When I was in school, my term final for American Independent Cinema was to explain Kaufman's cinematic project using Synecdoche as the focal point. I must've watched the film five or six times for this paper, and every time I was just mesmerized by how much of the film worked because of Hoffman's performance.

That was the great beauty of Hoffman's work: no matter who he worked with, he always seemed like the vessel of the film's themes, the audience's guide into the what the film was trying to say. He had a remarkable gift, and it's hard to fathom the idea that we won't be graced by it any longer.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Alexander Payne and Auteur Theory

I wrote a little bit about Alexander Payne, who's now a three-time Best Director Oscar nominee thanks to Nebraska, and the limits of auteur theory for The Large Association of Movie Blogs' annual "The LAMB Devours the Oscars" blogathon. Click here to check it out.