Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Updated October 2014 Oscar Predictions: Here Come the Contenders

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

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


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

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

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

More after the jump.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Gone Girl (2014)

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

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

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

More (spoiler-y details) after the jump.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Carrie Coon's Having an Excellent Year

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)

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

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

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

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

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

More after the jump.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Boyhood (2014)

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

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

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

More after the jump.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Short Takes: Films Seen in September/October, 2014

Medicine for Melancholy (dir. Barry Jenkins, 2008)

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

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

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

More after the jump.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Tokyo Story (1953)

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

2012 poll rank: #3

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

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

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

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

More after the jump.