Tuesday, September 30, 2014

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

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


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

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

More after the jump.

Monday, September 29, 2014

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

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

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

BEST PICTURE

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


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

BEST ACTRESS

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

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

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

More after the jump.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Taxi Driver (1976)

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

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

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

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


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

More after the jump.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: La Dolce Vita (1960)

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

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

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

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


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

More after the jump.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Divergent (2014)

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

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


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

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

More (mild spoilers) after the jump.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

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

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

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


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

More after the jump.