Wednesday, January 28, 2015

"Selma," "American Sniper," and Historical Accuracy on Film

It shouldn't come as a surprise to say that I love the Oscar race. There's a unique thrill that I get out of watching different films, figuring out which ones will arbitrarily earn nominations and statuettes from a semi-secretive organization (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) that has long been established as a tastemaker, and using unrelated award ceremonies and critics' prizes to make those predictions. If that sentence sounds a little snarky, it's because being an Oscar pundit requires seriously contemplating something that's inherently ridiculous. The point of it all is to have fun, to recognize that whatever the Academy selects is representative only of the organization's collective taste, and that, best case scenario, it will get audiences to check out films and filmmakers that they may have otherwise ignored.

The worst case scenario, however, is the one that gets played out every year during the height of awards season. We've reached the point where every film is reduced to its Oscar chances, with only the key elements that it's in contention for being the ones deemed worthy of discussion. Those lucky enough to become Best Picture nominees endure endless scrutiny, with pundits (myself included) ignoring the artistic or thematic objectives of the film in order to label it based on its expectations to win: "too traditional" (The Theory of Everything), "too weird/genre-oriented" (Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)), or "too controversial" (the subjects of this piece, American Sniper and Selma). The films themselves vanish, giving way to titles and names rather than anything artistic.

And so we've seen two films take two similar, yet distinguished, beatings from the culture at large: Clint Eastwood's Iraq War film American Sniper, and Ava DuVernay's Martin Luther King Jr. film Selma. Both films have been under attack for the way that historical events have been portrayed, but the receptions have been markedly different. While American Sniper rode to six Oscar nominations and became an unexpected smash at the box office ($200 million and counting), Selma only managed two nominations - Best Picture and Best Original Song - while missing out on recognition for DuVernay and David Oyelowo (who plays King).

More after the jump.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Nominations for the 87th Academy Awards

It's all come down to this: this morning's yesterday's announcement of the nominees for the 87th Annual Academy Awards. Given the unpredictable, winding nature of this past awards season, it only stands to reason that this morning would bring quite a few surprises, snubs, and inevitabilities. And true to form, we got exactly that: for the first time under the new voting system in 2011 that allows for anywhere between five and ten Best Picture nominees, we got eight nominees this year, as opposed to nine in the three previous years. But that was only the beginning of the twists and turns the Academy had in store for us.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and The Grand Budapest Hotel lead all films with nine nominations apiece, including Best Picture nods, with The Imitation Game scoring eight and Boyhood and American Sniper following up with six apiece. Of the non-Best Picture nominees, Foxcatcher and Interstellar lead with five nominations each, with Mr. Turner following up with four, Unbroken and Into the Woods earned three apiece, and Wild, Inherent Vice, and Guardians of the Galaxy each scoring two nods each.

You can check out a full list of the nominees on the Academy Awards page of the blog, which you can get to by going to the "Academy Awards" tab under the header or by clicking here. As Oscar night approaches (February 22), we'll be publishing a number of articles about most of the categories, including special previews of all eight major categories (Picture, Director, the four acting, and the two writing) as well as FYC week as Oscar voting winds down (February 9-13).

Until then, here are some scattered thoughts I had this morning as the nominees were unveiled.

  • Selma's late-screener strategy flopped, as the film only scored two nominations: one for Best Picture and one for Best Original Song. It was shut out in Best Director (Ava DuVernay), Best Actor (David Oyelowo), and Best Original Screenplay, all of which it seemed to have a fair shot at being nominated for. That's the lowest nomination total for a Best Picture nominee since Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close only managed two in 2011. The strategy flopped for A Most Violent Year, too, which ended up completely shut out.
  • On the opposite end of the spectrum, American Sniper - another late entry in the race - seems to have benefitted from the Academy's respect for director Clint Eastwood and love affair with Bradley Cooper. The film ended up with a surprisingly robust six nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Cooper (his third acting nomination in three years), and Best Adapted Screenplay.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The 5th Annual Jarmo Awards

With the Oscar nominations looming tomorrow, now seems like a great time to unveil everyone's favorite blog-based awards with a funny-sounding non-sequitur for a name, the Jarmos! It's hard to believe that this is the fifth year of the awards, meaning that I have been doing this blog for a lot longer than I could have ever expected. And it's all thanks to you, dear readers! So for the fifth anniversary, I've decided to shake things up a bit: instead of listing just the winner and runner-up in each category, I've also included the other finalists in my personal balloting system. This gives it more of the appearance of actual Oscar categories (which have five nominees) while also showing some love to the other great performers and entertainers that didn't make the top two.

And so, without further ado, here are your Jarmo winners for the year 2014. Winners, if you wish to collect your award, please let me know so that I can make you one.

*Finalists are listed in alphabetical order.


Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin)

runner-up: Essie Davis (The Babadook)
finalists: Gugu Mbawtha-Raw (Belle), Jenny Slate (Obvious Child), Agata Trzebuchowska (Ida)

Even in her best performances, Scarlett Johansson has always had a certain blankness about her: a vacant stare or an affectless demeanor that makes her seem out-of-place. Her best performances, then, are the ones that utilize that blankness, and lately she has been on a roll in that regard, delivering one great performance after another in last year's Her and this year's Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But her very best was her role as a nameless predatory alien disguised as a human woman in Jonathan Glazer's sci-fi film Under the Skin. Johansson completely carries herself differently, channelling the alien's feeling of being out-of-place on this world while still hunting her prey: men. Her performance is almost completely wordless, but she says so much with just her body language, or even just a simple, glazed-over stare, mouth slightly agape. Most importantly, it's a performance that keeps us grounded in what's happening in the film, even when nothing dynamic is happening. She forms the rich interior of the film, making us feel for this stranger in a strange land. It's undeniably excellent work.


Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler)

runner-up: Michael Keaton (Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance))
finalists: Macon Blair (Blue Ruin), Ellar Coltrane (Boyhood), Tom Hardy (Locke)

I've loved Jake Gyllenhaal as an actor for a long time now, going all the way back to Donnie Darko (like most boys who were teenagers in the mid-2000s). Lately, he's been doing some of the most interesting work of his career, and it's culminated a commanding, outstanding performance in Nightcrawler. Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a slimy individual introduced talking his way out of trouble with - well, ultimately attacking and robbing - a security guard for stealing metal to sell to a scrap yard. Bloom is a sleazeball opportunist, constantly espousing business-school buzzwords that never once sound sincere, and once he gets into business providing video footage of gruesome accidents and crimes, it's clear that he's going to work his way to the top by virtue of being completely soulless. And Gyllenhaal is transformative in this role, his greasy, wiry hair slicked back, eyes bugged out, shit-eating grin spread across his gaunt face. He plays Bloom with the conviction of a man who believes every nonsensical, delusional word that falls out of his mouth, and because of his conviction he succeeds beyond anyone's belief. That's true for Bloom, and it's true for Gyllenhaal as well.

See the rest of the winners after the jump.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Entertainment Junkie's Top 10 Films of 2014

It's finally time to start wrapping-up the year 2014 here at the blog, and we'll begin with my personal top 10 list. This past year was a fantastic one for film, with a ton of terrific independent productions that announced the arrival of brave new artists and more than a few studio blockbusters that challenged audiences while delivering the popcorn goods. While it personally took me some time to get rolling this year (thanks to a change in scenery), it was a year well worth getting caught up on. So, without further ado, here is my list of the top 10 films of 2014.

Links in the film titles will take you to my original review of the film.

10. Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater)

Richard Linklater doesn't make movies; he makes miracles. Most of what has been written about Boyhood, his most ambitious film yet, has focused on the way that it was filmed: a few pieces at a time over a period of 12 years, chronicling the childhood of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from age 6 to age 18. And yes, it is remarkable to watch Coltrane and the rest of the cast - Ethan Hawke as his itinerant father, Patricia Arquette as his steadfast mother, Lorelai Linklater as his older sister - grow and age with their characters, their performances evolving alongside the film. There was so much that could have gone wrong over those years. But not only did Linklater make the film, he made a remarkable film that is unlike anything he's ever attempted by doing exactly what he's always done. His trademark narrative shagginess and philosophical musings are here in full force, and they feel organic to the characters, especially the teenage Mason. The film, against the odds, captures the feeling of growing up over the course of three hours, somehow touching on all the hallmarks of growing up without relying on cliche or obvious temporal landmarks. It's a sweetly-touching miracle of a movie.

The rest of the list after the jump.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The 72nd Golden Globe Awards Recap

Another year, another Golden Globes ceremony in the books. This year saw the Hollywood Foreign Press Association spreading the love, with Boyhood leading all winners with three awards in film, and Transparent, Fargo, and The Affair winning two television awards apiece. The show ended up being rushed at the end, thanks to going over on time, but for the most part moved at a pretty leisurely pace.

A few quick thoughts on the ceremony:

  • Amy Poehler and Tina Fey took advantage of their final hosting gig to really do some daring comedy. The North Korea stuff was typical and kind of a drag, but the Bill Cosby jokes really went there. Good for them for doing so, even if maybe this wasn't quite the audience to do it for (Jessica Chastain looked flabbergasted).
  • Did anyone else have trouble with the sound during the presentations of each Picture nominee, or was that just Time Warner Cable being the literal worst again? Something was off there.
  • The best part of the montage celebrating Cecil B. Demille Lifetime Achievement Award recipient George Clooney? Including his brief appearance (well, vocally) in South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. The best part of his acceptance speech? His touching words to his wife, Amal Alamuddin.
  • Salma Hayek had no idea how to react to Kevin Hart onstage, a feeling that I'm sure a lot of people can relate to. He's such an unpredictable presence, something that he has yet to bring to one of his movies.
  • Nothing really exciting happened this year, did it? There were a few shout-outs to freedom of speech, but otherwise, nothing that anyone's going to really be talking about tomorrow (except for maybe those Cosby jokes).
  • Scratch that: Prince presented Best Original Song. It was every bit as glorious as it sounds.
  • The big winners on the film side tonight were The Grand Budapest Hotel, which got a huge profile boost, and Icelandic composer Johann Johansson (The Theory of Everything), who may be the one to beat in that race now. Gone Girl was probably the most hurt, taking away nothing tonight when it's profile needed to be strongest.
  • On the television side, Amazon Instant Video is the big winner, with its production Transparent taking home two awards, including Best TV Series - Musical or Comedy. That's huge for the online giant, essentially establishing it as the Showtime to Netflix's HBO. The losers, then, were the traditional "Big Four" networks - ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX. They were completely shut out, with even The CW taking home a prize (Best Actress in a TV Series - Musical or Comedy). There's no doubt that there's an exciting shift happening in the television landscape, and it's being reflected at the Globes.
A complete list of winners, with commentary, after the jump.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Sight & Sound Sunday: Pather Panchali (1955)

*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: #43 (tied with Some Like It Hot, Gertrud, Pierrot le Fou, Play Time, and Close-Up)

There's a tendency in film history to focus on the medium's development through European, American, and (to a lesser extent) Japanese filmmakers. In some ways, this is a practical development: the earliest prominent films came from France and the United States, and the study of film and filmmaking grew most significantly in those regions as well. But the fact of the matter is that Europe and North America were not the only parts of the world with burgeoning film industries and filmmaking traditions. By the 1930s, films could be found, in some stage of development, in just about every corner of the globe. By the time renowned Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray had made his film debut with Pather Panchali, India had already developed a strong film industry, and Ray was a crucial part of an alternative movement in Indian cinema.

Pather Panchali follows an impoverished Bengali family trying to make ends meet in their remote village. Harihar (Kanu Banerjee) is a local priest with dreams of becoming a poet. His wife, Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee), struggles to take care of the family: daughter Durga (Runki Banerjee as a child, Uma Dasgupta as a teenager), son Apu (Subir Banerjee), and Harihar's elderly cousin Indir (Chunibala Devi). Durga is frequently in trouble for stealing fruit from a nearby orchid, and one day is accused of stealing a wealthy neighbor's bracelet. As the family's financial situation grows more dire, Apu finds wonder in the world around him, even as heartbreak looms large over his family.

At the time, Pather Panchali was a wholly unique work in the traditions of Indian cinema, especially in Bengali-language cinema. It wasn't the beginning of a new movement, but it came to represent one on the international stage, with Ray as the new figurehead for its international success.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Short Takes: Finishing Up 2014 with "The Hunger Games," "The Theory of Everything," and more

Begin Again (dir. John Carney, 2014)

Eight years after making the magically-delightful Once, writer/director John Carney - formerly the bassist for The Frames - returns to musical filmmaking with Begin Again. The film follows disheveled record producer Dan (Mark Ruffalo), who's been edged out of the label that he helped start. He has a chance encounter with Gretta (Keira Knightley), a struggling singer/songwriter who's just broken up with her pop-star boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine). Dan offers Gretta the opportunity to record an album with him, giving him a chance to re-establish himself as an artist and Gretta exposure as an exciting new musician. It also allows Dan to try to mend his relationship with his daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld).

Truth be told, there are a lot of cliches in this plot, from Dan's inevitable salvation to Dave's arrogance-turned-appreciation toward Gretta's talent. Yet, like Once, the film imbues those cliches with such vibrant life that they feel not only fresh, but also completely earned. It helps that the performances are all-around excellent. Ruffalo can play hang-dog shagginess better than just about anyone, but he manages to still make Dan a unique creation, a man who's downfall is no one's fault but his own, making his quest for redemption much more earned. Knightley, too, is wholly remarkable, delivering a beautiful, natural performance that serves as a terrific reminder of how good she can be when given the right material. Even Levine, best known as the lead singer for Maroon 5, feels right at home within this world.

What Carney succeeds at the most, though, and what makes Begin Again such an amazing gem of a film like Once before it, is the music. Songs like "Lost Stars," "A Step You Can't Take Back," and "Coming Up Roses" are beautiful compositions in their own right, enhanced by the vocals from the actors themselves. But Carney, better than any other director of movie-musicals right now, excels in capturing the energy, excitement, and magic of the creative process and live performance. The film is never better than in the performance scenes, which crackle with sonic electricity in such a way that you can tell it was performed live (even if the scenes have obvious studio overdubs). The best example is "Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home," which not only has a great song but also connects some of the narrative's emotional and character beats. It's a miracle of a scene in one of the year's most miraculous films. A

Edge of Tomorrow (dir. Doug Liman, 2014)

It's okay to admit that you don't remember this one. Despite being a big-budget would-be blockbuster starring bankable movie star Tom Cruise with a primo June release date, Warner Brothers more or less bungled the promotion of this movie. Audiences failed to show up, the film just barely scraped back its costs worldwide, and when it came time for the home release it was confusingly re-titled Live. Die. Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow. How was anyone expected to really discover this movie when even the studio wasn't sure what to do with it?

Truth be told, Live. Die. Repeat. actually makes a better title, if only because it's more descriptive.
Based on a Japanese novel and manga All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, the film follows William Cage (Cruise), a military spin doctor who finds himself fighting on the beaches of Normandy during one of the humans' major battles against the invading alien force, referred to as Mimics. During the battle, Cage gets sprayed with Mimic blood, trapping him in a time loop that allows him to die repeatedly (get it?) and try again over and over like a video-game character. He meets Rita (Emily Blunt), who also ended up stuck in a time-loop once. Together they take advantage of Cage's unusual circumstances to develop a plan that will defeat the Mimics once and for all.

The film is a lot more clever than it initially seems, using it's premise to revisit events from different angles and explore some rather dark humor. Director Doug Liman - perhaps best known for The Bourne Identity (2002) - puts together a morbidly funny montage of Cage dying on the battlefield over and over in one of the film's best moments, and the screenplay pulls some clever twists by subverting the audience's expectations. But the twin lead performances are what really set the film apart. Blunt is terrific as a battle-hardened super-soldier, giving her an opportunity to flex her physicality without sacrificing the character. And Cruise gets to poke fun at his own indestructible-action-hero image, playing Cage as a fast-talking coward who gets extraordinarily lucky. The result is a summer action movie that should have been disposable but ends up being an underrated gem. B+

More after the jump.