Sunday, December 28, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Journey to Italy (1954)

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

2012 poll rank: #41

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

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


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

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

More after the jump.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Babadook (2014)

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

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


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

More after the jump.

Friday, December 19, 2014

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

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

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

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

*Winning years in bold*

Wild Tales (Argentina)

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


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

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

The rest, plus category predictions, after the jump.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

December 2014 Oscar Predictions: Entering the Void

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

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

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

BEST PICTURE

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


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

More after the jump.

Seth Rogen, "The Interview," and History Made

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Late Spring (1949)

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

2012 poll rank: #15

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


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

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

More after the jump.

Friday, December 12, 2014

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

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

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


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

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

More after the jump.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The 72nd Annual Golden Globes Nominations

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





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

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

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

BEST PICTURE - DRAMA

Boyhood
Foxcatcher
The Imitation Game
Selma
The Theory of Everything

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

More after the jump.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The 57th Annual Grammy Award Nominations

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


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

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

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

The rest after the jump.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

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

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

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


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

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

More after the jump.