Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Shoah (1985)

*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: #29 (tied with Stalker)

"There is no last chapter in history." - Christopher Browning, Holocaust historian.

Documentaries occupy a tense space between objective fact and subjective interpretation. This isn't a new idea, but it's a very important one to remember when approaching a film like Shoah. Whether a documentary is a political crusade meant to influence the minds of the audience (such as Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11), or examine a period of history or a story that the filmmaker finds interesting or important (How to Survive a Plague or Stories We Tell), or even introduce the audience to a person or group that isn't well-known (Searching for Sugar Man), there is an inherent point-of-view in the film. There's a reason that a documentary is made, and the filmmaker creates their film with the intention of presenting it a particular way. Even nature documentaries, such as March of the Penguins, are on some level subjective, because the filmmakers are assembling the "facts" to fit the point they want to make.

Henryk Gawkowski, one of the train conductors for the Treblinka camp

Despite a mammoth running time of nine-and-a-half hours, Shoah, Claude Lanzmann's Holocaust documentary, isn't capable of telling the whole story of one of the most well-known genocides in human history. The film is comprised completely of interviews with survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders of three concentration camps - Chelmno, Treblinka, and Auschwitz-Birkenau - as well as the Warsaw Ghetto, where a major Jewish uprising occurred in 1943. Because of the way Polish citizens are depicted in the film and the fact that all of the film's focal locations are in Poland, Lanzmann has been criticized for taking an anti-Polish stance, with many arguing that he ignores both the Poles who helped Jewish prisoners escape and the atrocities suffered by Poles at the hands of the Nazis.

To be sure, this is a problematic issue with the film. But more than that, Shoah presents a testimonial argument in a much-larger debate in Holocaust history: was the "Final Solution" part of Adolf Hitler's "master plan," or was it an escalation of anti-Semitic policies within the German bureaucracy?

More after the jump.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Short Takes: "The Monuments Men," "Escape from Tomorrow," and more

The Black Tulip (dir. Sonia Nassery Cole, 2010)

Regardless of the film's quality, The Black Tulip remains a landmark film: it was shot entirely in Afghanistan by Afghan-American activist and filmmaker Sonia Nassery Cole (this is her feature debut). However, being important isn't the same as being good. The film concerns the Mansouri family, led by Hadar (Haji Gul Aser) and Farishta (Cole), as they open a cafe in Kabul where Afghan citizens and American soldiers alike can dine, recite poetry, and sing songs. The cafe becomes the target of remaining sects of the Taliban, leading to tragedy. The problem is that, for all of Cole's good intentions, this story of freedom and cooperation takes a clichéd path to its obvious endpoint, touching on harrowing elements but never effectively selling them. It doesn't help that the performances are uniformly stiff, ranging from almost decent to flat-out terrible, and that Cole has been accused of falsely depicting Afghan culture. Cole certainly meant well, and the film's message is worth exploring further. Here's hoping her next film does so in a more engaging way. C-

The Monuments Men (dir. George Clooney, 2014)

George Clooney, as a director, has built his career on making films that are modeled on old-fashioned genres. Good Night, and Good Luck. was his true-life take on man-against-the-system dramas, Leatherheads was his screwball comedy, and The Ides of March was his '70s-era political thriller. It should come as no surprise, then, that a man considered the last old-fashioned movie star would take on the rousingly-patriotic World War II drama, as Clooney does with The Monuments Men. Based on the true story of a group of men tasked with saving precious works of art from the Nazis (Hitler was a former art student, and hoped to open an elaborate museum in his hometown after the war), Clooney himself stars as the leader of the team, Frank Stokes, who recruits his motley crew to gallivant across Europe. There's a warm, comedic report among the men - which includes Matt Damon, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, and John Goodman - that gives the film an Oceans Eleven feel, while Alexandre Desplat's brassy score evokes the great war dramas of Old Hollywood. But the film is too lightweight to really land any punches, and mostly just ambles from one scene to the next without any real sense of direction. Plus, Cate Blanchett goes mostly wasted in a window-dressing role as a French art curator. The true story is fascinating; the film can't muster the same excitement. C+

Rust & Bone (dir. Jacques Audiard, 2012)

In 2009, French director Jacques Audiard made A Prophet, a harrowing prison drama that featured twin powerhouse performances from Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup and is easily one of the best films of that year. For his follow-up, Rust & Bone, Audiard made a film that tries to be several things at once, but is only fitfully successful. The film follows Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts), a Belgian man who comes to France after being put in charge of his son. He befriends Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), a killer whale trainer at a local park who loses both legs in a tragic accident. As the film follows their relationship, it becomes evident that Stéphanie is a far more interesting character than Alain, namely thanks to Cotillard's radiant performance. This isn't to say that Schoenaerts doesn't do great work, but that his character is mostly treated as a brute who must be forced to change, with very little interiority. Audiard also lays the tragedy on a little thickly, with one bad thing happening after another, each escalating from the previous. Yet in all the misery, Cotillard shines. An improbable use of Katy Perry's "Firework" becomes a moment of triumph through her. Maybe if the film had focused more on her, it too could have succeeded. B-

Escape from Tomorrow (dir. Randy Moore, 2013)

When Escape from Tomorrow - then titled Escape from Tomorrowland - first premiered at Sundance in January 2013, it instantly garnered notoriety for the way it was made. It was filmed on location in Disney World and DisneyLand parks, and tells the story of a man, Jim (Roy Abramsohn), who begins to lose his grip on reality when he loses his job while on vacation with his family. The hitch was the film was made undercover, without any permission from Disney or any of their sponsors. However, the film itself doesn't live up to it's maverick reputation. The acting is comically awful, with Abramsohn making a particularly nasty and unconvincing "hero." The rest of the ensemble - particularly Elena Schuber as Jim's wife, Emily - are given nothing to do other than inconvenience Jim as he tries to distract himself by following French teenagers. And Moore, a first-time filmmaker, never really gets the nightmare imagery right, causing the film to feel more like an ugly screed against family than a surreal psychotic episode. The film has a genuinely fascinating premise and a neat production story. It's too bad those were wasted on something so bland. C-

Two Lives (dirs. Georg Maas and Judith Kaufmann, 2013)

There's an interesting premise to Two Lives: as the Berlin Wall begins to crumble and Germany slowly shifts toward reunification, Katrine (Juliane Köhler) is called upon to testify in an international case against Norway on behalf of the "war children" (in this case, children with Norwegian mothers and German fathers born during German occupation) who were forcibly relocated to Germany after WWII. Katrine refuses to testify, though, teasing out a long-kept secret that threatens to tear her entire life apart. The post-war backdrop makes for an interesting spin on the secrets-and-lies domestic potboiler, even if the time period (the collapse of communism in Europe) is perhaps a tad on-the-nose, thematically. That being said, Köhler is fine in the lead role, as is the legendary Liv Ullman as Katrine's mother. If there's one thing that really holds it back, it's that the third act takes the big reveal - which is devastating - and fumbles the aftermath with a bizarre finale. Otherwise, it's an interesting and engaging drama with a historically-unexplored premise. B

The Station Agent (dir. Thomas McCarthy, 2003)

The most striking thing about any of actor/writer/director Thomas McCarthy's films is how deeply human each of his characters are. There is no character too minor to be granted empathy, and more often than not those characters come together to form odd makeshift families. The Station Agent, McCarthy's debut, centers on Finbar (Peter Dinklage), a man born with dwarfism who inherits a old train depot in rural New Jersey. Fin is alone, having lost his only friend, but together with hot-dog vendor Joe (Bobby Cannavale) and Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), he begins to take steps toward leaving his self-imposed isolation. Dinklage is an absolute marvel as Fin, imbuing him with profound weariness of having been an outcast his entire life while still flashing glimpses of his warmth and humor. Thanks to Game of Thrones providing a weekly dose of Dinklage's talent, it's remarkable to remember that he was only first being noticed here. Cannavale does great work, too, at hinting at the loneliness under Joe's relentlessly excitable personality. Clarkson had a banner year in 2003, with her performance as Olivia an obvious highlight. She's flighty, troubled, and barely dealing with the separation from her husband, yet Clarkson never lets the character fall into being a collection of tics rather than a human being. The film's a beautiful slice-of-life with a terrific ensemble, and it was just the first taste of what these fine actors and first-time filmmaker would bring in the future. A-

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Orange is the New Black, Season 2 (2014)

*SPOILERS: this review has spoilers for both available seasons of the show.*

Netflix's "all episodes at once" release model wields a mighty influence over how its shows are structured. House of Cards, for example, takes advantage of every episode being available at once (and Netflix's instant-play function that starts the next episode almost immediately when one ends) to maximize the show's high-stakes power plays. It also makes the season feel like a cohesive whole; with episodes watched independently of one another, the show's (many) narrative flaws and weak characterizations become glaringly obvious. However, when viewed all at once, these problems are blanketed over through sheer momentum. It's not a surprising development. If anything, this release strategy is the logical next-stage evolution of serialized television storytelling: the season as a whole is the work, with the episodes making up the pieces of it rather than the episodes themselves being stand-alone works.

Unlike season one, the second season of Orange is the New Black - which premiered on Netflix June 6 - was written with knowledge of how the show would be released. The result is an astounding 13 episodes of television that takes full advantage of all of its assets: compelling storytelling, a phenomenal, diverse cast, complex themes of empathy and community, and a release strategy that allows the creative team to take huge risks with remarkable payoffs.

More after the jump.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The "Birdman" Trailer: Michael Keaton Sort-Of Returns to Superheroes

It's been a while since we've looked at a new trailer on this site. I've wanted to include more trailers and thoughts on upcoming films, but the truth is so many trailers today are so blergh that I don't even watch that many. Studios are so eager to show you the whole movie in two-and-a-half minutes now, then say, "come see the extended edition!" I like going into movies as fresh as I possibly can, so what I want in a trailer is something promising that makes me want to see more. Which, you know, is the point of a trailer anyway.

The first glimpse of Birdman, Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu's (Babel) latest, is a little over a week old, but while I try to finish my review for the second season of Orange is the New Black (coming soon!), let's take a look:

More after the jump.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Goldfinger (1964)

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

Before we begin, a little music:

Although 1964's Goldfinger was the third official James Bond film, it was, in many ways, the first "James Bond Film." It was the first to feature a pre-credits "cold open" that was unrelated to the film's main plot, the first to introduce Bond's many gadgets, and the first to feature the Aston Martin DB5 that would become synonymous with Agent 007. More than anything, though, it laid out the basic structure for the majority of future Bond movies: an over-the-top villain, henchmen defined by a peculiar characteristic, a "Bond girl" who's killed by the villain, a second "Bond girl" who assists Bond (usually by getting involved with him), a heavy reliance on various gadgets and gizmos, and a tongue-in-cheek approach with sardonic one-liners.

It was more than that, though. Goldfinger marks the film where the series would detach itself from real-world political conflicts and instead become pure escapist entertainment. This was an important development for the franchise's future success: by refusing to connect Bond to any contemporary conflicts - or any real-world "villain," for that matter - the Broccoli family producers ensured that these films would have a certain level of accessibility regardless of the time period.

Which is good, considering that, for the most part, Goldfinger still plays well today as it did 50 years ago.

More after the jump.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: The Mirror (1975)

*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: #19

Very few filmmakers are masters of surrealism the way that Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky was. There are some, such as David Lynch or Luis Buñuel, who create dreamscapes that are consciously meant to be dreamlike. These filmmakers call attention to the flexible reality of their worlds, and the result can sometimes veer into the realm of nightmares. But Tarkovsky is more subtle in his surrealism. If Lynch makes films that feel like your most memorable dreams, then Tarkovsky's films feel like the dreams you don't always remember - the reality of the dream is close enough to actual reality to feel normal, but there's just the slightest bit off that distinguishes it in your memory.

Though Tarkovsky is today most remembered for his science-fiction epics such as Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979), The Mirror stands as his most surreal film, as well as his most personal. The film is formed of a non-linear exploration of the life of an unseen adult narrator, Alexi (Innokenty Smoktunovsky, in voice-over), as he ruminates on his own childhood and that of his son's, Ignat (both portrayed by Ignat Daniltsev), and on his mother Maria (Margarita Terekhova as young Maria, Maria Vishnyakova as elderly Maria). These scenes are sometimes stitched together with poems written and read by Tarkovsky's father, Arseny.

There's a reason that The Mirror has remained Tarkovsky's most challenging film: the enigma he creates is a lasting example of oneiric (dreamlike) filmmaking that proves emotionally powerful despite being narratively unconventional. There are three ways that Tarkovsky accomplishes this: disorientation of the narrative, disorientation of the cinematography, and re-orientation of perspective.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Oscars of the Aughts Extra: 2000 Superlatives

To put a final button on the year 2000 for "Oscars of the Aughts," I thought it would be fun to put up who I would have nominated from the pool of films that I watched for the project. Granted, this shouldn't be representative of my feelings for the entire year 2000, and pulling nominees from a pool of 17 films made for some difficult choices. Anyway, here's what my Academy Awards would have looked like for the year.

*denotes my winner. Clicking the category heading will take you to the corresponding article about the actual category from the year.

*Almost Famous
Billy Elliot
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Requiem for a Dream

This one was close between Requiem for a Dream and Almost Famous, but ultimately I have to go with the latter. Cameron Crowe's semi-autobiographical film about a young writer (Patrick Fugit) going on tour with '70s rock band Stillwater for an article for Rolling Stone Magazine is a delight, both as a coming-of-age tale and a love letter to rock & roll. There's hardly a single false note in the film, and the highlights range from Philip Seymour Hoffman's understated performance as editor Lester Bangs to the famous sing-a-long of "Tiny Dancer" by the feuding band. It's just the right amount of sweetness and nostalgia, a celebration of the music and a cautionary tale of the lifestyle.

*Darren Aronofsky, Requiem for a Dream
Cameron Crowe, Almost Famous
Ang Lee, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Ridley Scott, Gladiator
Robert Zemeckis, Cast Away

Oscar may have gone with Steven Soderbergh in this category for Traffic, but I'd argue that Aronofsky's take on "drugs are bad, mmkay?" is the superior work. For one, it's far more visceral, as Aronofsky uses rapid cuts and unconventional angles to create the effect of having illicit substances coursing through your bloodstream. Moreover, instead of a lecture, Aronofsky has crafted the story into a horror film, complete with soul-crushing acts and grotesque disfigurations. On top of this, he pulls top-notch performances from his cast, including Jared Leto, Ellen Burstyn, Jennifer Connelly, and Marlon Wayans (astonishingly, only the lattermost is not an Oscar winner today). There's no denying that Aronofsky was working at the top of his talent here; too bad it would take another decade for the Academy to catch up.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Orange is the New Black, Season 2 (2014)

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

**SPOILERS BELOW. This post contains plot details for the show's first season (which, if you haven't seen yet, you really should get on that) and the first episode of season two.**

My original intention for this week's installment of "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," the newly-released second season of Netflix's unexpected hit Orange is the New Black, was to write about the entire season, selecting shots from each episode and discussing the show's overall visual grammar. For reasons related to both time constraints and my sanity, though, I've only made it through nine of the season's thirteen episodes. So let's focus only on the first episode, "Thirsty Bird," directed by none other than Jodie Foster.

More after the jump.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Tonys 2014: Final Thoughts and Winners

And so another Tony Awards ceremony has come to pass. Out of all the major televised awards ceremonies, the Tonys may be the most interesting every year. The Oscars, Emmys, and Grammys celebrate works that can be (relatively) easily obtained and consumed by a broad audience. The Tonys, on the other hand, have to promote the importance of live theatre while essentially selling the nominated shows to prospective audiences. More than any other awards ceremony, the Tonys put a strong emphasis on advertising, hoping to pull in more New York theatergoers through the live broadcast.

To this end, last night's ceremony was all about showmanship. Luckily, Hugh Jackman - in his fourth time hosting - proved himself a reliable old pro, showing off his song-and-dance skills. Here are some thoughts I had on the ceremony:

  • Jackman was a fine host, but his recurring singing bits after most commercial breaks felt less and less exciting as the night went on. That being said, his performance with the cast of After Midnight was fun (even if I'm still uncertain as to what that show is?), and singing the Lead Actress nominees was inspired.
  • Oh, and he did a rap rendition of "Rock Island" from The Music Man with LL Cool J and T.I., and it was…okay. It should have been really embarrassing, but everyone involved was so totally committed that it actually worked.
  • Related note: outside of NCIS: Los Angeles, does LL Cool J appear in public anymore outside of awards ceremonies?
  • Of the musicals that were showcased during the ceremony, Hedwig and the Angry Inch looks fantastic, Aladdin and A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder are probably ridiculously fun, Les Miserables is Les Miserables (meaning, great), Beautiful - The Carole King Musical looks fine, I don't know what to think about Violet, and Rocky the Musical is…a musical, I guess? I mean, the boxing ring was impressive, but I feel like that didn't really give us an idea of what the entire show was like. Also, there was a number from Bullets Over Broadway, but I have absolutely no recollection of it.
  • Other great moments: the acceptance speeches of James Monroe Iglehart (Aladdin) and Audra McDonald (Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill), Matt Bomer and Zachary Quinto in matching glasses (#TrueDetectiveSeason2), Idina Menzel's number from If/Then and only one "Adele Dazeem" joke!
  • Other odd things: Clint Eastwood's presentation of the directing Tonys, the decision to not air the "in memoriam" segment during the telecast.
  • Off topic - I'm not thrilled by what I'm seeing of Eastwood's film version of Jersey Boys. I'm sure the music and acting will be fine, but his usual desaturated color palette looks totally out-of-place for this story. It just looks bleak.
  • Overall, A Gentleman's Guide for Love & Murder and Hedwig and the Angry Inch led all shows with four Tonys apiece, while A Raisin in the Sun led all plays with three. The American Theatre Wing spread the love more this year than last, with seven musicals and six plays winning at least one Tony this year. Last year, only four musicals and six plays won at least one Tony.
The full list of winners after the jump.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Tonys 2014: Favorite Unseen Musicals and Fearless Predictions

Tonight, the 68th Annual Tony Awards will be broadcast on CBS live from Radio City Music Hall in New York. As I have mentioned just about every time I write about the Tonys, I don't live in New York, nor in a situation where going to New York is necessarily easy (the Greensboro, North Carolina - New York commute is a killer, I would think). On a high school chorus trip many years ago, I had the opportunity to take in my first - and so far, only - Broadway shows. The first was Wicked, which at the time had Stephanie J. Block playing the role of Elphaba and Annaleigh Ashford playing Glinda, and the second was Rent, which was in its final shows before closing in June 2008. The pairing actually turned out to be great for me: one was an old-school Broadway show staged in a cavernous theater (Wicked, in the Gershwin Theatre), while the other was a modern take on Puccini with AIDS, drugs, and millennial anxiety staged in a significantly more cramped theater (Rent, in the Nederlander). The contrasts helped me gain a better understanding of how broad in scope musical theatre can be, and I hope to one day return to see more.

So, before we get into my fearless (and clueless) predictions for who will take home the top prizes in tonight's ceremony, I wanted to posit this question to you all: what musicals do you know every word to but have never seen performed? Four different shows immediately came to my mind, but I'm going to leave out Passing Strange - Stew's blues-rocky spin on the bildungsroman and partial autobiography - since I've watched Spike Lee's film of the final performance many, many times. So here are the other three:

Spring Awakening

At times, it's amazing to think that the musical score to this show was written by the same man who's responsible for "Barely Breathing." But Duncan Sheik's songcraft definitely makes this musical adaptation of a 19th-century German play about sexual awakening all the more memorable, especially with songs like "Mama Who Bore Me," "The Bitch of Living," and my personal favorite, "Totally Fucked." It shouldn't be all that surprising that this soundtrack really resonated with me in high school (it debuted on Broadway during my junior year), when I was going through my angsty teenager phase. But it's a testament to the enduring power of the songs that it's stayed with me today.

next to normal

Having wrestled with depression since I was in middle school at least, a complex musical about living with mental illness was almost certain to strike a chord with me. And what a beautiful chord next to normal is. "I Miss the Mountains" is a stunning ballad that captures the highs and lows of one's mental state, while "I Am the One" summarizes the frustration that anyone who's taken care of someone with mental illness can relate to. It's a heartrending musical that, even though I've never seen it performed, resonates with me deeply.

Avenue Q

Believe it or not, the soundtrack to Avenue Q was the first album I ever purchased that carried a "parental advisory" label. I had heard about the raunchy riff on Seasame Street and The Muppets - complete with simulated puppet sex - and, as a fifteen-year-old burgeoning musical theatre fan with raging hormones, wanted to get a peek at the naughtiness. To this day the songs still crack me up, and I'll use any excuse to sing a few bars ("The Internet is For Porn" is an easy go-to). I'll often find myself singing "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" or "Fantasies Come True" in the shower, "I Wish I Could Go Back to College" is quickly becoming my new anthem as I'm working on applying to graduate school, and I just sang a few bars of "Schadenfreude" to remember how to spell it. It's goofy and sophomoric, and it's never gotten old for me, even as the show is over a decade old. Bonus fact: the show's composer, Robert Lopez, is responsible for the songs in Frozen.

On to the predictions after the jump.

Oscars of the Aughts: Best Picture 2000

And so we come down to the big kahuna: Best Picture. Of these five nominees, it's an impressively diverse group: a wistful romance, an epic exploration of the US's drug war, a biopic of a well-known activist, a Taiwanese martial arts film, and a blockbuster set in ancient Rome. The new millennium got off to an interesting start at the Oscars, and it works as a fascinating bridge between this categories trends in the 1990s and the trends we'll see over the next decade. 

Here are the five nominees:


On the one hand, Chocolat is exactly the kind of movie that one would expect to be a Best Picture nominee. It's a classically romantic story, set in France, with charming performances from Oscar-ready actors (including Johnny Depp, Juliette Binoche, Judi Dench, and Alfred Molina), and just a little bit of dramatic weight to give it "serious" credentials. On the other hand, Lasse Hallstrom's film has significant difficulty balancing its multiple tones, causing whiplash between and even during scenes. And while the cast is certainly talented, they're mostly given sketches of characters to play, and none of the performances ever feel interesting or engaging. The film is a lot like one of the titular confections: sugary sweet, but none of it will stick. 

More after the jump.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Oscars of the Aughts: Best Director 2000

It's fitting that the first Oscars of the new millennium would set a precedent for a major category. In 2000, for the first time in the history of the ceremony, a director received multiple Best Director nominations in the same year, as Steven Soderbergh was nominated for both Traffic and Erin Brockovich (he would win for the former). No one's been able to match that feat since, and likely no one ever will, but the other nominees in this year's category are no slouches themselves. Ang Lee and Stephen Daldry were introduced to mainstream audiences, and Ridley Scott made a terrific comeback film that re-energized his career. All in all, it was a pretty terrific year. Here are the nominees:

Ang Lee, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

To most American moviegoers in the year 2000, Ang Lee was best-known - if at all - for directing the Emma Thompson-starring Sense & Sensibility nearly five years prior. To cinephiles, he was better known for a pair of films from his native Taiwan: The Wedding Banquet (1992) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1993). It's not an exaggeration to say that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, his martial arts epic that took home an incredible four Academy Awards, changed everything. The film is a visual stunner, and Lee proved he knew how to stage eye-popping action sequences just as well as he could romantic drama and interior plights. The film would introduce Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, and Zhang Ziyi to American audiences, but the real star of the film is Lee's incredible direction (credit where credit is due, too, to stunt coordinator Yuen Wo Ping). Most importantly, it set the stage for his post-millennial career, one that's been richly varied and never short of fascinating. But from the wire-fu fight scenes to the stirring relationship between the two lead warriors (Chow and Yeoh), no one deserved this Oscar more than Lee.

More after the jump.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Live and Let Die, or: Why Cancelled Shows Should Remain So

The most recent television season ended with most networks looking into an uncertain future, complete with the shocking revelation that NBC - a complete and total disaster - actually finished #1 in the key 18-49 demographic. But for a network that had held on to anything that could be considered successful by any metric, it celebrated its newfound rank by canceling Community after five positively-reviewed but low-rated seasons. Shortly thereafter, the show's passionate fan base flooded the Internet with #savegreendale and begging streaming services like Netflix and Hulu to step in and revive it (Netflix passed, but Hulu does have a deal with Sony, which produced Community, for exclusive streaming rights).

It's become a familiar rallying cry in the Internet age: when a show that's inspired a thousand Tumblrs goes off the air, the small-but-vocal fan base urges another network to pick it up. Thanks to Netflix bringing back Arrested Development last year after FOX had cancelled it in 2006, then picked up The Killing from AMC for a fourth season, it seems possible for shows to find life elsewhere.

This is great for fans, ostensibly. The show they love lives on, with new episodes always at their disposal.

I think it's time we put a moratorium on this: stop reviving cancelled shows.

More after the jump.

Oscars of the Aughts: Best Actress 2000

Remember a time when it seemed like Julia Roberts was destined to star opposite Richard Gere in countless romantic comedies, never to come close to the Oscar attention she received in the late 1980s-early 1990s? Remember when Laura Linney was a relative newcomer making her mainstream breakthrough with a modest film about a strained sibling relationship? Remember when it seemed like Joan Allen was going to win an Oscar at any given moment? Remember when the Academy remembered Juliette Binoche? Welcome to Best Actress 2000, which included all of these women, as well as a genuinely remarkable performance from an acting veteran in a highly-disturbing addiction drama. 

Here are your nominees:

Juliette Binoche, Chocolat

This is not the first - nor will it be the last - time that I've harped on Chocolat for being a mess of a film, trying to be several things at once and not really succeeding at any of them. If there is one consistent element, though, it's Binoche's performance as Vianne, the mysterious chocolatier who sweeps into the sleepy French town with her young daughter. The film keeps trying to push her further into whimsy, but Binoche keeps her performance grounded in humanity, and as a result she shines in every scene she's in. But for as remarkable as an actress she is, she can't fully save this role or this film. It's decent work, but I wouldn't exactly call it nomination-worthy.

More after the break.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Oscars of the Aughts: Best Actor, 2000

Take a look at the Best Actor category of 2000, and you'll see some remarkable performances paired with some interesting trivia. For example, winner Russell Crowe was one of the hottest actors in Hollywood at the time, and his win came in the middle of three consecutive Best Actor nominations between 1999 and 2001 (after which he wouldn't be nominated again as of 2013). His win also marked the last time that a film won both Best Picture and Best Actor until The King's Speech did so in 2010 (that film, for which Colin Firth won, also starred Geoffrey Rush, who's among the 2000 nominees). Ed Harris directed himself to a nomination in the midst of a period where he was an Oscar favorite, but couldn't muster a win (he still hasn't). Javier Bardem received his first nomination, a surprising inclusion for playing controversial Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in the tiny Before Night Falls. And let this sink in: 2000 marks the most recent Oscar nomination for Tom Hanks, as of 2013. That's incredible.

Here are the nominees:

*Russell Crowe, Gladiator

In retrospect, Russell Crowe is the perfect match for the role of Maximus, a former Roman general who falls into slavery and fights for his freedom by becoming a, well, gladiator. Though his career hadn't really suggested it yet, this proved he could be a leading man, and he carried Ridley Scott's risky endeavor on his perfectly capable shoulders. Crowe excellently balances Maximus' wounded pride and seething anger, and his desire to topple the empire that has taken so much away from him. What makes his performance exceptional, though, is how he elevates the role beyond a mere action hero and makes it into a man who is conflicted and utterly human. It's no wonder he won for this one.

Geoffrey Rush, Quills

The one thing that everyone can agree on when it comes to Geoffrey Rush: the man is an enormous ham. In Quills, however, he plays the Marquis de Sade, the infamous French author of erotica who was sentenced to spend his life in an asylum, and the role couldn't be more perfect for his brand of acting. To that end, Rush is a delight, gleefully chewing into the Marquis' heightened personality and generally chewing the scenery. It would be distracting in just about any other film, but given how flabby the rest of the film is, his performance is wholly entertaining and captivating. It's a performance that's certainly watchable - and he almost single-handedly saves the film - but given the competition, it pales in comparison.

Tom Hanks, Cast Away

Up until 2013's Captain Phillips, Tom Hanks' performance as Chuck Noland in Cast Away was by far the greatest in his career (something about water really brings out the best in him, I guess). Of course, it helps that a large chunk of the film sees him alone onscreen, only interacting with the environment around him and a volleyball named Wilson. But it's a testament to Hanks' talent that he sells a relationship with inanimate object as emotionally and compellingly as he does. But, of course, his performance goes beyond the film's stunning second act, excellently conveying Chuck's struggles to readjust to society after being alone for so long. It's a truly phenomenal performance, one that stands head-and-shoulders above the rest of the field.

Javier Bardem, Before Night Falls

Once upon a time, Javier Bardem was a relative unknown to American audiences, much more well-known in his native Spain than overseas. His performance as exiled Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabel's biopic Before Night Falls, however, changed that. Bardem was rightfully praised for this performance, never shying away from the emotional and physical demands of the role, and in his hands Arenas comes to beautiful, tragic life. This was an incredible way to introduce himself to international audiences, but as great as this performance was, it was only a glimpse of what he was truly capable of.

Ed Harris, Pollock

There's a long history of actors directing themselves to Oscar nominations, and Ed Harris joined that list with Pollock, his biopic of artist Jackson Pollock. As great as Harris is as an actor, his performance here just doesn't completely work. It's not necessarily that the performance is bad; Harris does fine work, and he does capture Pollock's intensity. The problem is that, just like the film around it, Harris' work is messy and underwhelming. It's unfortunate, especially considering how passionate Harris was about making this project, that this just isn't a particularly great performance.

My ballot:

1. Tom Hanks, Cast Away
2. Russell Crowe, Gladiator
3. Javier Bardem, Before Night Falls
4. Geoffrey Rush, Quills
5. Ed Harris, Pollock

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Oscars of the Aughts: Best Supporting Actor, 2000

In an unusual twist for this category, the Best Supporting Actor lineup of 2000 arguably consists of only true supporting performances, rather than co-leads that are campaigned as "supporting" roles (only Del Toro could be argued as a lead, though given the film's ensemble nature it's a tough argument to make). The roles are diverse, and at this point all of the actors involved have multiple nominations. Here are the nominees:

Jeff Bridges, The Contender

At some point in the past few years - and I don't know what publication it was in - President Obama named Bridges' President Jackson Evans as his favorite movie president, a surprising choice considering that this film isn't all that discussed today. As a genial commander-in-chief embroiled in the scandalous choosing of a new vice-president, Bridges seems like the obvious choice for the role, playing up his laid-back demeanor in a character who has what is arguably the most stressful job in the world. When Evans delivers his big speech at the end - standing up for his choice, the controversial Laine Hanson (Joan Allen), and by proxy all women in politics - Bridges nails the rah-rah uplift of the moment. The problem with this performance is that it never seems like Bridges is really playing a character, but rather "Jeff Bridges is President of the United States." It's not terrible, but it's not exactly nomination-worthy either.

Joaquin Phoenix, Gladiator

Today, it's easy to take for granted the intense talent of Joaquin Phoenix, especially now that he's gone from seemingly retiring in 2010 to appearing in acclaimed films almost on a yearly basis. In 2000, though, he was essentially introducing himself as an actor, not just "the late River Phoenix's brother," through roles in Quills, The Yards, and Gladiator, the latter of which earning him his first Oscar nomination. And what an introduction his performance as Commodus, the sniveling emperor of Rome, is. Phoenix fully embraces the noxious - and obnoxious - moral corruption that power has instilled in Commodus, and he truly shines as the emperor gleefully watches enslaved men fight each other to the death. Most importantly, he carries himself the way the most important man in the empire would: in every scene he's in, Phoenix completely commands the screen, making it near-impossible to notice anyone else. It's a scene-stealing, impressive performance, and it cemented him as a major actor and paved the way for the exciting career that continues today.

Willem Dafoe, Shadow of the Vampire

All told, Shadow of the Vampire is not a good movie. In fact, it's pretty bad, a much-lesser entry in the odd genre of "movies about the making of old horror classics, only the monsters are real!" that was briefly popular at the turn of the millennium (see also: Gods and Monsters). Even John Malkovich as famed German director F.W. Murnau, as he works on his silent horror masterpiece Nosferatu, is more hammy than anything else. But then Willem Dafoe, as star Max Schreck, steps out of the shadows and single-handedly makes the film worthwhile. Dafoe's performance is a masterwork of transformative acting, playing Schreck as a creepy outcast with claw-like fingernails and speaks in a harsh whisper, and may actually be a vampire himself. Dafoe totally commits to the role, and as a result every scene he's in lights up with possibilities and energy. It's not enough to rescue the film, but it's great that the Academy took notice and recognized this singular performance. 

*Benicio Del Toro, Traffic

The ensemble in Traffic is stacked with terrific actors doing good-to-great work, so it would take a truly phenomenal performance to distinguish an actor from the rest. Not only does Del Toro turn in superior work, he's also blessed with one of the few characters in the film who aren't essentially talking points incarnated. His Javier Rodriguez is a mostly-decent cop in Mexico who, when he discovers his new boss may not actually be as interested in fighting drug cartels as he seems, finds himself caught in a sticky situation in which lives are at stake, including his own. Del Toro's performance is the beating heart of the film, because unlike the other narrative threads, his storyline feels the most down-to-earth and captures the human cost of the War on Drugs, in which just doing the right thing can get you killed. It helps that Del Toro brings soulful humanity and imperfection to the role, investing in Rodriguez's interior conflict that few other characters in the film are afforded. It's a moving performance in a film that too often ignores the humanity of its characters.

Albert Finney, Erin Brockovich

Looking back on the film today, it's easy to remember Erin Brockovich as a one-woman show for Julia Roberts. Of course, that's not completely true, but it is a testament to Finney's performance in a true supporting role as Ed Masry, the lawyer who reluctantly agrees to assist Brockovich in her efforts to force Pacific Gas & Electric acknowledge the environmental damage they had done to a small California town. Though his performance is probably best remembered for being on the receiving end of the now-famous line, "they're called boobs, Ed," Finney does much more than protest cleavage and look exasperated. He finds genuine warmth in Ed, and presents him as a man who's grown so jaded by his practice that he needs to be reminded of the crusading spirit that brought him here in the first place. It may not be the year's greatest performance, but it's great that the Academy recognized his low-key work.

My ballot:

1. Joaquin Phoenix, Gladiator
2. Benicio Del Toro, Traffic
3. Willem Dafoe, Shadow of the Vampire
4. Albert Finney, Erin Brockovich
5. Jeff Bridges, The Contender

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Zorba the Greek (1964)

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

Anthony Quinn, born Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca, never really made it as a Hollywood leading man, and that served him perfectly. When director Elia Kazan chose Marlon Brando over him to play Emiliano Zapata in the 1952 film Viva Zapata!, Quinn accepted the role of Zapata's brother and won the first of his two Best Supporting Actor Oscars. He was able to work with filmmakers such as Federico Fellini (La Strada) and Vincente Minnelli (Lust for Life), and though his first major leading role in The Savage Innocents (1959) has largely been forgotten as a film, it did inspire Bob Dylan to write "Quinn the Eskimo (Mighty Quinn)." Few actors can say they have had a Dylan song written about them.

Ironically, it was his failure to take off as a leading man that led to his greatest role, that of Alexis Zorba in Michael Cacoyannis' 1964 film Zorba the Greek. By building his reputation as one of Hollywood's top character actors, and sticking with his natural ruggedness over slicked-over suaveness, Quinn was the perfect fit to play the Greek peasant with a lust for life, whose friendship with uptight Brit Basil (Alan Bates) teaches both men important life lessons.

Make no mistake, Zorba the Greek, this week's selection for "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," is the Anthony Quinn show. But there's more to this film that just one performance.

More after the jump.

Oscars of the Aughts: Best Supporting Actress, 2000

The Best Supporting Actress race of 2000 is an interesting crop of actresses. For one, it contains the only two actors to receive their only career nominations (so far) this year: British film veteran Julie Walters and then-relative newcomer Kate Hudson. Yes, there was a time when Hudson's name was synonymous with something other than terrible romantic comedies. It also featured two recent winners - Frances McDormand, who won Best Actress in 1996, and Judi Dench, who won Best Supporting Actress in 1998 - and the breakout of Marcia Gay Harden, who ended up taking home the prize that night. There's a lot of talent here, which makes it surprising that the nominated performances are rather uneven. But three of them are so good, it was hard to choose one over the others.

Here are your nominees:

Frances McDormand, Almost Famous

This is a role that could have very easily been a cliche: the worried mother of the film's teenage protagonist. But in the very capable hands of Frances McDormand, Elaine Miller becomes so much more. The brilliance of McDormand's performance is that we see Elaine losing grip on her family, worrying endlessly about protecting them from the world, only to slowly - begrudgingly - accept that she cannot and has to let them make their own mistakes. That she does this very subtly, often conveying her inner struggle through only the inflection of her voice, is what makes her work so quietly devastating and ultimately rewarding. It's not an easy role, but she makes every moment of it count. And over a year after I first watched the film, it's the performance that still clings to my memory the most.

*Marcia Gay Harden, Pollock

There's no question that Marcia Gay Harden is talented: she's been proving that for decades, splitting her work between comedy and drama and often being one of the most watchable performers in whatever she's in. And she tackles the role of Lee Krasner, wife of painter Jackson Pollock (Ed Harris) and fellow artist herself, with aplomb. The problem that I have with this performance, though, is that she's never really given all that much to work with. Pollock is a messy film to begin with, but Krasner is never presented as much beyond the long-suffering wife, and though Harden plays her very well, there's just not enough depth here to invest in. It's a fine performance, but not a particularly great one.

Judi Dench, Chocolat

Similarly to Harden, there's no question that Judi Dench is a phenomenal actress with a number of incredible performances. However, her nomination for Chocolat is, without a doubt, more of a "default" choice (favorite actress in a major contender) than a reward for a great performance. There's no denying that Dench is good at what she does, and she is fun in the role of Armande Voizin, frequent patron of Vianne's (Juliette Binoche) chocolate shop. However, she's mostly just hanging out, with sparse emotional beats to play and, honestly, not much to do within the narrative. There's just not much to this performance that suggests it's one of the best of the year.

Kate Hudson, Almost Famous

When Cameron Crowe made Elizabethtown in 2005, Kirsten Dunst's character in that movie was the inspiration for the term "manic pixie dream girl," that evergreen trope of the whimsical, ideal girl that insecure guys romantically yearn for and hope will bring their lives meaning. Kate Hudson's Penny Lane in Almost Famous could, at first glance, be a prototype. She's the "groupie" who's more than that, an invisible additional member of Stillwater - the film's fictional band - who seems perfectly fit for the rock-star lifestyle. What makes Hudson's performance so remarkable, though, is how she finds the rough edges to this character that prevent her from being a dream girl. In her hands, Penny becomes a tragic figure, hiding untold wells of sadness behind the carefree facade, and instead of being a romantic partner for young William (Patrick Fugit), she becomes his cautionary tale. Hudson's never been better than she was here. And it's a shame, too, since she shows enormous potential.

Julie Walters, Billy Elliot

As Mrs. Wilkinson, Julie Walters plays the ballet instructor who notices the talent within Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell), and helps him learn to be a better dancer. Walters is absolutely terrific, too, giving her a hard edge that belies the genuine fondness that she feels for her young charge. "Genuine" is perhaps the best word to describe her work: never once does it feel forced or actorly, as she allows Mrs. Wilkinson to become a real person with real struggles and real thoughts. It's revelatory work that put Walters on the radar, and a very deserving nomination.

My ballot:

1. Frances McDormand, Almost Famous
2. Julie Walters, Billy Elliot
3. Kate Hudson, Almost Famous
4. Marcia Gay Harden, Pollock
5. Judi Dench, Chocolat

Monday, June 2, 2014

Oscars of the Aughts, 2000: The Screenplays

I've been promising this for nearly over a year now, but it's finally arrived: the rebooted "Oscars of the Aughts." I had originally tried to make this series happen several years ago, when the decade (2000-2009) was still really fresh, and for whatever reason I decided to start in the year 2008 and work my way backwards. Not a great idea, but I was new at this whole film blogging thing back then. I am looking forward to revisiting those years in the future, though, and re-evaluating them.

So what is "Oscars of the Aughts," anyway? The Aughts - we really need to come up with a better name - were the decade when my obsession with the Oscars, and thus my cinephilia, first developed. The first Oscar race I can remember being cognizant of was 2002, when I came across Entertainment Weekly's Oscar preview issue in the waiting room of a diabetes clinic. I was 13 at the time, and flipping through the magazine I was enraptured by these movies that I had never heard of and, thanks to my age, wouldn't be seeing anytime soon. By the next year's race, I was a fledging movie buff who used Yahoo! Movies as my study guide, and I was clipping the list of nominees out of the local newspaper (it's amazing how that dates me) and eagerly anticipating the show. An Oscar nut was born.

The purpose of this series, then, is to invite you on a journey through the past decade's Oscars. I lived in a small North Carolina where the nearest movie theater was at least ten miles away (and the nearest good movie theater much farther than that), so it wasn't really until my freshman year of college - 2008 - that I actually had the opportunity to see all of the nominated films (and expand my cinematic mind in other ways). So by going back through the decade, I'm hoping to get a better understanding of the films and filmmakers who were recognized by the Academy, fill in some blind spots in my Oscar viewing, and contextualize each year's nominees both in terms of their time and in terms of today. Moreover, my knowledge of most of these races was based solely on what I read in Entertainment Weekly or on movie-based blogs and websites, so getting the opportunity to judge them for myself is exciting to me.

Here's how it will work: we'll begin at the beginning of the decade - 2000 - and revisit each year of the decade. We'll be covering the eight major categories: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, and Adapted and Original Screenplay (which we'll combine into a single post, as seen here). For each category, I'll provide some context for the year's nominees, assess each nominee individually, and close with how I would have voted if I had had a ballot (not unlike my contemporary Oscar coverage).

Because of the availability of the films, I can't guarantee that we'll work through the years with any regularity, but I won't publish about any year until I have seen all the nominees. I'll announce when the next year will be going up. I hope you'll join in the fun; feel free to share your memories and preferences in the comments. I look forward to hearing what you all think about these contests.

And so, without further ado, let's jump in with the Screenplay categories of 2000. Your nominees were...


Chocolat; screenplay by Robert Nelson Jacobs

Chocolat has several major problems, particularly in its inability to settle on a single tone between scenes, and often within a single scene. However, the screenplay - adapted from Joanne Harris' novel of the same name - is one of the film's better elements. Jacob's script is a bit by-the-numbers, but the emotional beats are there in the text, the characters are well-developed, and the story is engaging and capital-R Romantic. Still, against this competition, it's still a tough sell as one of the year's best screenplays.

More after the jump.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: The Rules of the Game (1939)

*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: #4

Just earlier this week, a Vimeo video series called Every Frame a Painting examined how director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, The World's End) utilizes visual comedy better than most working directors today. As host Tony Zhou explains, Wright uses framing, lighting, montage, and movement to create visual jokes and prevent his films from losing their comedic momentum. Moreover, it highlights a fact that's often overlooked today: the vast majority of film comedies are visually indistinctive, relying mostly on the writing and acting to sell the jokes and letting the camera just sit and watch.

The Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir's almost-lost 1939 masterpiece (it was restored in 1956), is an early example of how a dialogue-heavy comedy could be made visually engaging. Though Renoir cheekily proclaims in the film's opening titles that the film is a "fantasy" and is not a comedy-of-manners, the film concerns a collection of upper-class citizens and their servants, who gather at a country estate for a weekend. Over the course of the film, various couplings occur, secrets are revealed, and one character, Andre (Roland Toutain), meets an unfortunate fate.

At the time of its production, Renoir was coming off the dual international hits Grand Illusion and La Bete Humaine, and wanted to make a comedy-of-manners that addressed the tensions in Europe that would lead to World War II. It was roundly booed, and during the war, nearly lost forever when multiple prints - including the original negatives - were destroyed. Despite that early reputation, it now has the distinction of being the only film to have appeared in the top ten of every Sight & Sound decennial poll. A key reason for this is the way Renoir used visual space in interesting, innovative ways. But what exactly did he do?

More after the jump.