Friday, February 24, 2012

2012 Academy Awards Predictions

We've got three days left until the biggest night in Hollywood, so I figure it's about time I made some predictions. I've been holding out to see as many of the nominated films as possible, and I didn't get to many. Entire categories are unknown to me personally, so my predictions for those categories will be educated guesses (except for the shorts, which will just be shots in the dark). My predicted winner will be in Oscar Gold, and on some I will explain my process. I'll start with the shorts and work my way up the list. So without further ado, the winners of this year's Academy Awards will be....

Best Live Action Short Film
  • Pentecost
  • Raju
  • The Shore
  • Time Freak
  • Tuba Atlantic
Best Animated Short Film
  • Sunday
  • The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
  • La Luna
  • A Morning Stroll
  • Wild Life
Shut out for the first time ever in the Animated Feature category, Pixar should still bring home an Oscar Sunday night for the whimsical, beautiful La Luna.

Best Documentary, Short Subject
  • The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement
  • God is the Bigger Elvis
  • Incident in New Baghdad
  • Saving Face
  • The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom
Best Documentary, Features
  • Hell and Back Again
  • If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
  • Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
  • Pina
  • Undefeated
I've seen one of the nominated documentaries, If a Tree Falls, which is decent but not great. And 2 of the 5 have Memphis connections (Paradise Lost 3, about the West Memphis 3, and Undefeated, about the Manassas High School football team), which makes me want to lean their way. But I think the stunningly shot 3D documentary Pina, which captures the work of the late choreographer Pina Bausch, will take the gold.

Best Achievement in Visual Effects
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
  • Hugo
  • Real Steel
  • Rise of the Planet of the Apes
  • Transformers: Dark of the Moon
This is often a tough one to call, because you can never be quite sure what the Academy considers to be "good" in visual effects (spectacle vs. realism). I picked the last two Transformers movies to win, finding their effects not only spectacular but incredibly realistic looking (see how the light pings off that digital metal?!). Since I'm not picking it this year, I won't be surprised if it wins. But for me this is the bottom line: if the performance of Ceaser in RotPotA is not the result of an incredible acting job (which Andy Serkis's exclusion from an acting nod would indicate) then it is the single best, most nuanced performance ever given by a "special effect." For that it more than deserves to win.

Best Achievement in Sound Editing
  • Drive
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  • Hugo
  • Transformers: Dark of the Moon
  • War Horse
Best Achievement in Sound Mixing
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  • Hugo
  • Moneyball
  • Transformers: Dark of the Moon
  • War Horse
I've leaned towards Transformers in the sound categories before as well, but since War Horse pretty much cleaned up at the Sound Editor's Guild Awards (Along with Super 8, which is notably absent from these categories), I think it'll claim these two as well.

Best Original Song
  • "Man or Muppet" from The Muppets - Bret McKenzie
  • "Real in Rio" from Rio - Sergio Mendes, Carlinhos Brown, Siedah Garrett
50/50 shot here since there were apparently only two good original songs all year (WTF Academy? WTF?). Even though the wrong song was nominated from The Muppets (should have been the infectious, cheery, and knowingly cheesy "Life's a Happy Song") it will still take it.

Best Original Score
  • The Adventures of Tintin - John Williams
  • The Artist - Ludovic Bource
  • Hugo - Howard Shore
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - Alberto Iglesias
  • War Horse - John Williams
It filled most of the movie, it paid homage to silent scores as deftly as the movie did for silent movies, and it's just darn good. Which is why Ludovic Bource will be making the first of several french accented acceptance speeches for The Artist.

Best Achievement in Makeup
  • Albert Nobbs
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
  • The Iron Lady
Nobbs is to simple and Lady is too extreme, which is why the makeup artist for HPatDH:P2 will be taking home the one and only Academy Award for the entire series.

Best Achievement in Costume Design
  • Anonymous
  • The Artist
  • Hugo
  • Jane Eyre
  • W.E.
Best Achievement in Art Direction
  • The Artist
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
  • Hugo
  • Midnight in Paris
  • War Horse
I want so badly for this to go to Harry Potter, to honor the fine, ever-darkening art direction of the entire series, but I think the incredible Paris Train Station of Hugo will clinch the victory.

Best Achievement in Editing
  • The Artist
  • The Descendants
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  • Hugo
  • Moneyball
I'm making a bold prediction here, since Dragon Tattoo was not nominated for Best Picture and this one usually goes to one of those. But on occasion, a movie that just missed out on a picture nod takes home this award as a sort of consolation. If I may cite precedence: The Matrix in 1999.

Best Achievement in Cinematography
  • The Artist
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  • Hugo
  • The Tree of Life
  • War Horse
Say what you will about Terrence Malick's ponderous, abstract The Tree of Life, but you can't deny the cinematography is incredible. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki makes everything from a staircase to a dinosaur to a boy standing in a field look stunningly beautiful, and he'll take home the Oscar for it.

Best Foreign Language Film
  • Bullhead - Belgium
  • Footnote - Israel
  • In Darkness - Poland
  • Monsieur Lazhar - Canada
  • A Separation - Iran
I've not seen any of these yet, but this one's not that hard to call when you consider only one of these movies performed the very rare (for a foreign film) feat of scoring a nod for best screenplay, effectively creating A Separation from the rest of the pack.

Best Animated Film
  • A Cat in Paris
  • Chico & Rita
  • Kung Fu Panda 2
  • Puss in Boots
  • Rango
Two movies no one's ever heard of, a sequel, a spin-off, and one true work of computer generated art. Rango is the only one I've actually seen, incidentally, but it's the only one I need to to know it will win. I knew it would win this when I saw it back in March. So, yeah.

Best Adapted Screenplay
  • The Descendants - Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
  • Hugo - John Logan
  • The Ides of March - George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon
  • Moneyball - Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, Stan Chervin
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - Bridget O'Connor, Peter Straughan
Best Original Screenplay
  • The Artist - Michel Hazanavicius
  • Bridesmaids - Kristen Wiig, Annie Mumolo
  • Margin Call - J.C. Chandor
  • Midnight in Paris - Woody Allen
  • A Separation - Asghar Farhadi
Followed the Writer's Guild with both these choices, though to be honest I could have called the Original screenplay on my own. The Academy LOVES Woody Allen, and Midnight in Paris is just hilarious. It won't win Picture or Director, so it will win here.

Best Achievement in Directing
  • Woody Allen - Midnight in Paris
  • Michel Hazanavicius - The Artist
  • Terrence Malick - The Tree of Life
  • Alexander Payne - The Descendants
  • Martin Scorsese - Hugo
They may show Scorsese the love here in lieu of Best Picture a la the Golden Globes; the Academy does love the man and Hugo is such wonderful, lovingly crafted work and so very, very different from everything else he's ever done. But I think they'll follow the British Academy and honor Hazanavicius for his brilliantly executed and also lovingly crafted homage to the silent era.

Best Supporting Actress
  • Berenice Bejo - The Artist
  • Jessica Chastain - The Help
  • Melissa McCarthy - Bridesmaids
  • Janet McTeer - Albert Nobbs
  • Octavia Spencer - The Help
I would love to see Melissa McCarthy win this, and I don't think I'm the only one, so keep an eye open for her to upset. Jessica Chastain was nominated for the wrong movie; I'd have called her the winner for The Tree of Life. But from The Help she's been overshadowed by Octavia Spencer at every step in the road, and she will be here too.

Best Supporting Actor
  • Kenneth Branagh - My Week with Marylin
  • Jonah Hill - Moneyball
  • Nick Nolte - Warrior
  • Christopher Plummer - Beginners
  • Max von Sydow - Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
One of the two major categories in which I've seen none of the nominees. Who would've thought a year ago that we'd be able to say "Jonah Hill, Oscar nominee?" I have a hunch, though, we won't be saying "Jonah Hill, Oscar winner." It seems to be a two way race between Christopher Plummer and Max von Sydow, and I'm giving the edge to Plummer.

Best Actress
  • Glenn Close - Albert Nobbs
  • Viola Davis - The Help
  • Rooney Mara - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  • Meryl Streep - The Iron Lady
  • Michelle Williams - My Week with Marylin
The other category in which I've seen none of the nominees. Though this one also seems to have come down to a two way race: Meryl Streep vs. Viola Davis. No one can argue Meryl's one of the best actresses we've got, but I've heard the word "impersonation" used heavily in reference to this performance. It may not have stopped Jamie Foxx from winning for Ray back in 2005, but in a race this close, I think that gives Davis the lead.

Best Actor
  • Demian Bichir - A Better Life
  • George Clooney - The Descendants
  • Jean Dujardin - The Artist
  • Gary Oldman - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
  • Brad Pitt - Moneyball
I'm trying to set my personal loathing of George Clooney aside as I weigh the options here, but I may have failed. He might get this, and I will cringe and moan and call him a smug bastard as he does. But I don't think he will. I would be happy to see any of the other four win, honestly. Oldman has deserved a spot on this list any number of times before and not gotten there. Pitt has gone above and beyond in the last few years to prove he's more than just a pretty face. Bichir has been working long and hard vanishing into parts so you barely notice him, and it's awesome to see him recognized. But Jean Dujardin is so good as the silent star on the verge of collapse that he not only deserves this Oscar, but they should retroactively give his character in The Artist an award for 1927, since no one has that one.

Best Picture
  • The Artist
  • The Descendants
  • Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
  • The Help
  • Hugo
  • Midnight in Paris
  • Moneyball
  • The Tree of Life
  • War Horse
I've seen only four of the nine nominees (The Artist, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, The Tree of Life), and even though I haven't seen it, I think I can confidently say, "WTF is Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close doing here?!?!" Now that that's out of the way, Hugo is the most nominated movie this year, and that often leads to victory (It's also my favorite of the nominees I've seen), but I don't think that will be the case this year. The Tree of Life is fervently loved by some and fervently loathed by others, and that division kills it's chances. War Horse seems pretty resoundingly agreed to by very well produced schmaltz, so it's out. Midnight in Paris is sweet and sentimental and funny, but comedies don't tend to win, so it'll have to be happy with its screenplay prize. The Help looks like it had some traction to begin with but has fallen by the wayside, so it can take its acting awards and be excused. I've heard very little about Moneyball in this respect, and that says a lot; it too may go. That leaves us with The Descendants and The Artist, the winners of the two best picture prizes at the Golden Globes (Drama and Comedy, respectively). Now I know I just said comedies don't tend to win, but The Artist rises far above the simple label "comedy" in every way, engages completely, and uses such deft and subtle tricks to upend its own premise as a "silent movie" that I honestly don't see how it won't win. Simply put: it's too good not too.

The 84th Academy Awards will air Sunday, February 26 at 7:00 p.m. (6:00 p.m. central), and between 4 and 32 hours later (depending on how long it runs) we'll know just how very, very wrong I was.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

"Another Earth"


Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling) is 17 and gifted; a prodigy in astrophysics, she has just been accepted to MIT, and the world is her oyster. She celebrates this news, but even a genius can make stupid decisions. She drinks too much, she drives, she gets distracted, and she plows into another car, killing a mother and child, and leaving a father in a coma. The object of her distraction is a tiny blue point of light that has just appeared in the sky, which it turns out is another planet, with the exact size and proportions of earth. And it's moving closer. We jump ahead four years and see Rhoda getting out of prison. The world is no longer her oyster. The jubilant girl we saw at the beginning has been replaced by a quiet woman who keeps her hair in a loose braid on the side of her face and hides beneath baggy clothes, toboggans and hoodies. She gets a job as a janitor at the school she once went to. And she seeks out the father, composer John Burroughs (William Mapother), who has awoken from his coma. She goes to him, wants to apologize, but she is weak and afraid, and she lies to him, saying she's there with a maid service. Soon she's returning every week, wanting to confess but maintaining the lie. And soon something develops between them. And looming over everything, growing perpetually larger in the sky, that other planet, which is clearly, somehow, an exact copy of ours.

I hesitate to call this one sci-fi. The story, as written by star Marling and director Mike Cahill, ignores the devastating effect that would occur should a planet the size of our own close in on us. It is clearly stated that this other earth is truly there, a physical presence with mass that generates radio waves (and when viewed through a telescope, has clearly visible cities and technologies that mirror our own). This one is more concerned with its very human story, and with the implications and possibilities of this other globe. There are occasional voice overs from very intelligent sounding men pondering on it in psychological and philosophical terms, but very little in the way of hard science. I'd say for that reason this is more fantasy than sci-fi. It also is, of course, very concerned with the image of this other world hanging in the sky, and what a stunning image it is. I should note this is the kind of movie that lingers on hair blowing in the wind, and dust motes drifting in sunlight, but I wouldn't slander it by calling it an "art film." It is not dense or abstract, like, say, Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain or Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. It is a very simple and straightforward story, that could honestly work without its fantastical element. But that element allows it to explore possibilities that a standard drama would not have. Those possibilities come to the fore in a scene where a SETI scientist attempts to make first contact with the other earth. This scene is one of my favorites in the movie; it is moving and surprising and chilling all at once.

Brit Marling seems to have come out of nowhere and landed on the scene with a performance that should have earned her an Oscar nomination. In another of my favorite scenes she recounts the story of the first Russian Cosmonaut, and the ticking sound that almost drove him insane. Doesn't sound like much, but the way she delivers it is stunning. Mapother is also very good; his John's life ended at the same time as his wife and son, and now he simply endures. He rots away along with his large, rambling house, drinking, reading, playing Wii, but not feeling, and not living. They are both powerful performances, but Marling has the edge (she should, she wrote the part for herself). I should also note the rave-infused score by Fall On Your Sword (whoever or whatever that is) that is alternately driving and lyrical, and features a sonata played on a saw. It is a perfect fit. Also of note is the cinematography, also by director Cahill (he edited too), which captures his concept with brilliant imagery.

It is a beautiful movie, that ponders on the paths our lives take and whether we can be redeemed for our mistakes. I should note it finishes with an epilogue that may leave viewers a little baffled (I was), but ultimately that just means there's something to discuss after. It's one last gift from a stunning and haunting film.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012



The first image we see is Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) reflected in a mirror on his bedroom door, standing behind his camera. Outside the door is Andrew's father (Michael Kelly), and the mirror shakes violently as he pounds on the door, demanding entry. "I'm filming this," Andrew tells him (and us), "I'm filming everything from now on." Dad backs down, and we hear him walk away. We sense he has just won a small victory, and in that moment, his camera becomes his shield. We quickly learn more about Andrew. He is a social reject, pale and sallow, bullied at school, on the street, and in the home (the camera does capture some violence from dad, and it is...upsetting). His cousin Matt (Alex Russell), a good looking but self conscious brainiac who quotes Plato and Jung just to make sure everyone knows how smart he is, is his closest friend, but even he is distant and socially embarrassed by Andrew. And Andrew's mother, who seems to be the one bright spot in his life, is slowly, painfully dying. I'm going to step up right now and say I understand Andrew better than any character in any comic book/superhero movie I've ever seen. In telling his story first time film makers Max Landis (writer) and Josh Trank (director) have established that they are a pair that will need to be watched. I am reminded of another documentary style sci-fi/drama that did the same thing a few year's back: Neill Blomkamp's debut and Best Picture nominee District 9, which was my favorite movie of 2009.

This one might even involve aliens. Or it might not (we'll get to that). When Matt, in a character defining display of social generosity, invites Andrew to a rave at a secluded barn, Andrew of course brings his shield, err, camera. Compulsive video-blogger Casey (Ashley Hinshaw) is introduced ostensibly as a love interest for Matt but really to provide us a second camera to see through, which will be useful later. After the expected social calamity, Andrew withdraws and sits by himself outside. There Steve (Michael B. Jordan), jock, class president favorite, and all around nice guy, finds him and enlists him and his camera to come out into the woods, where in a clearing by a ridge he and Matt have found an odd hole in the ground. Since they are teenagers and will never die, they go down in the hole, and the find... something. Its a crystalline, glowing something, that starts to affect the camera and then to affect the boys, causing nose bleeds. And then we jump to bright daylight and the boys catching baseballs thrown at their faces in mid air. They use their new telekinetic powers like teenage boys would: using a leaf blower to blow up shirts, pranking people at the mall. They soon discover they can lift themselves as well as others, and they take flight. Scenes like this are what I love about the first-person camera style, usually called (sometimes wrongly, like here) "found footage." We've never seen film flight from the point of view of the flier like this, and that immediacy, that "in-the-moment" sensation, makes these some of the most dynamic, most exciting flight sequences I've ever seen. It far outpaces anything in the recent Red Tails (also, incidentally, featuring Michael B. Jordan). All this creates a tight bond between the boys; they don't just share a secret, we find they can actually feel each other. And Andrew is opening up, and we are thrilled for him, even though we know it cannot last. He finds popularity. Suddenly girls are looking at him differently. A turning point is coming, and it pivots around that most damaging of events to the teenage psyche: sexual humiliation.

Trank and Landis nail every beat. There is no dawdling, no wasting of time. The movie moves with breathless momentum to the inevitable and awesome third act. They also invent a very clever way to expand the limitations of the format: Andrew begins moving the camera with his mind, opening up the scope, allowing wide shots, pans, whatever. Casey's camera offers another angle, and becomes very important toward the end. Indeed by the end the scope has widened much further, and we see through security cameras, traffic cams, police dashboard cameras, cell phones, laptops; nothing is outside our field of vision. We are privy to any lens that might capture the boys. And in the end they leave questions hanging. The movie has very little actual spoken exposition; the story is told through the action as it happens. Hence we have no explanation for what is down that hole, or where (or when, or what) it came from. When the boys later return to the hole it has collapsed (or been filled in) and rangers (many of them...too many) suddenly appear along the ridge saying they can't be there. Is it a cover-up? Good question, but not one that's answered. I love it when a movie leaves behind trailing riddles like this.

Before I finish let me call out Dane DeHaan. Though the movie is about three boys, its really about one boy. One very damaged boy on the verge of an incredible rise or a perilous fall; the movie would not have worked had his performance not felt honest and true. That incredible third act would be nothing more than an action climax, if you were not emotionally invested in Andrew. But DeHaan works magic here. He reminds me of Leonardo Dicaprio in The Basketball Diaries. We feel his pain, we see his rage, and we believe in his power. And it is an awesome thing.

"The Artist"


When asked if she would like to see The Artist, my Grandmother said, "Why would anyone make a black and white, silent movie in this day and age?" She did not go see it. It is a fair question, but one could also ask why anyone would make a hand-drawn animated movie today. Or a 70's style blaxploitation or kung-fu movie. Or a 40's style film noir. The answer is two part: homage, and service to the story. The Artist is undoubtedly an homage to the end of the first great era in movie making: the silent era. It is a cousin to Hugo (which celebrated the birth of film itself) and Super 8 (which celebrated the birth of the blockbuster and the juvenile film making that gave rise to some of today's most prolific directors), rounding out a coincidental trilogy of love letters to the movies in 2011. But it also serves its story, of a silent film star doomed by the advent of "talkies," brilliantly. And it manages to emerge as one of the most giddily entertaining movies I've seen in a good, long time. Charming in its simplicity, often hilarious, this one kept a grin on my face for the vast majority of its run time. The grin faded a bit in the last act, as the movie takes a melodramatic turn (not because I was unhappy with how it was going, but because it does the melodrama as well as everything else) that culminates in one of the most shocking-but-clever uses of a title card I've ever seen in a movie of this type. The movie should not be judged by being black and white and silent; you should watch it even if you think you don't like this type of movie. You'll probably be surprised.

And it's not really a silent movie anyway. Director Michel Hazanavicius cleverly uses sound at a few key points in the movie. An inspired dream sequence shows silent star (and titular Artist) George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) discovering everything around him, including his dog and perpetual costar Uggie, suddenly making sounds while he himself remains unable to speak. This sequence manages to be both horrific (in its implications for Valentin) and hilarious (in the way it plays with our expectations of "silent movies"). And watch for the falling feather (not that you could miss it); it's slow decent is both the dramatic and comic climax of the scene. Hazanavicius, in his directing and script, continues to play with what we know and expect about silent films, even as he displays his enormous respect for them. In another moment that manages to be both devastating and hilarious (a difficult blend pulled off over and over again here) rising starlet Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) is being interviewed in a restaurant, and says (in a title card, of course) that people are tired of silent stars mugging at the camera, referencing the theatrical over-acting usually employed in silent films. Valentin happens to be sitting behind her when she says this, and expresses his displeasure by mugging at the camera!

Speaking of that over-the-top acting style, Dujardin and Bejo do it perfectly in the leads, but that's not all they do. Their faces are so open and expressive they could have actually been silent film stars (that they both have fairly substantial accents would have mattered about as much then as it does here, now), but it's when the movie requires a bit more subtlety and nuance that the performances shift from being just very good and comical to being purely brilliant. Dujardin especially is a wonder, creating a character who's proud without being Clooneyesque (smug), who hides enormous fear and (with the fall that always cometh after pride) pain with a 1,000 watt movie star smile. It sits alongside the immortal Brigitte Helm in Metropolis as one of the best silent performances I've seen, and I really hope he wins the Oscar. The rest of the supporting cast is wonderful, most notably John Goodman as imperious director Al Zimmer, James Cromwell as the faithful chauffeur Clifton, and Missi Pyle (whose hugely expressive face I now realise was made for silent movies) as jilted starlet Constance. Oh yes, and I'm obligated by the great movie gods to again mention Uggie the dog, who does indeed steal more than a few scenes.

So yes the movie is black and white and it is mostly silent. It is also brilliantly written and directed, beautifully shot (in that wonderful old silent movie aspect ratio of 1.33 to 1), perfectly acted, uproariously funny, more than a little moving, and incredibly entertaining. In the end, isn't that all we go to the movies for?

Post Script: This is the most ludicrous PG-13 rating I've ever seen. The MPAA cites "A crude gesture and a disturbing image" as the reason for the rating. The gesture would be a simple bird flipped right at the beginning. I won't mention the image, but while I agree it's disturbing, it's certainly no more so than a number of scenes in The Lion King, for example, which was rated G. Ignore the rating; this one's appropriate for everybody!

Monday, January 30, 2012

"The Grey"


"Once more unto the fray
To fight the last fight I'll ever know.
Live or die on this day.
Live or die on this day."

It seems the competition for my favorite movie of 2012 has begun much earlier than I expected. I honestly didn't anticipate this. Director Joe Carnahan is responsible for movies like The A-Team and Smokin' Aces; in other words, fun, bit silly and ridiculous. But here he has given us an incredible movie, a reminder of the creeping dread great cinema can sometimes inspire. I'm pretty jaded in this respect; loads of thrillers and horror movies have left me fairly desensitized to the tricks of most movies. But I felt this one in the pit of my stomach, a queasy sensation I'd forgotten, and was thrilled to be reacquainted with. The movie doesn't even look like Carnahan's other efforts. This one's lean and mean, raw and real, and punctuated by imagery both beautiful and terrible. The script (by Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers) is wonderful and sometimes poetic, but like the wild, it is without pity. There is no sentimentalizing here.

The movie begins in silence: the title emerges as if from a fog, and then we see the wild; an image of rock and tree and snow that instantly evokes the idea of cold, creeping death. And I'm already hooked. A voice rises, Ottway's (Liam Neeson), poetically describing the oil rig he works on as a kind of hell, populated by people "unfit to interact with society." He works as a sharpshooter, killing wolves to protect the men working in the field. But as the movie opens he is pondering another use for that rifle: in a beautiful juxtaposition he rests his hand on a dying wolf, feeling it's breath ebb, while in cross cuts he puts the barrel in his mouth, and reaches for the trigger. He doesn't do it, for we then see him boarding a plane with the rest of the crew. Some are heading out to see family, some to party, some to get laid. He's carrying a letter, headed "Dearest One." We get glimpses of the woman the letter is for (Anne Openshaw) lying in bed with him, her hand on his face, looking beatific and angelic. But there's heavy turbulence, then heavier turbulence, and then, in one of the best sequences of it's type I've ever seen, the plane goes down. 7 survive, but then there's the wild. And the wolves. And that ever-growing queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach. There is an incredible moment about midway through. The survivors have gathered round a hastily started fire and watch the tree line around them. We hear the wolves out there, but can't see them. Then, following a terrible growl from what we learn is the Alpha of this pack, silence. And then, as we look up a ridge, a single howl sounds out. We don't see the source, but suddenly a plume of breath appears from the blackness, just caught by the firelight. It is joined by another, and another, and another as the rest of the wolves begin to howl. They are there, just beyond the light. This is incredibly chilling, and incredibly brilliant.

If there is justice in the world (and I fear there is not) we will be asking this time next year whether Liam Neeson will win an Oscar. It is amazing enough that he has discovered this niche as an action star late in life (he'll turn 60 in June), but here his undeniable "don't-mess-with-him" machismo is tempered by heart and a heavy burden. We believe that he could stand and lead in this situation, but we also see that he is broken. A scene where he cries to the heavens for help, for hope, for something, is heart-wrenching. I'd venture to say it's the best performance he's ever given. He recites the lines at the head of this post three times in the movie, each time evoking a different sense of meaning from the words, as his character goes from being ready to die by his own hand, to fighting his hardest to survive. The rest of the survivors are well written and admirably played, but this is Neeson's movie. And the wolves'.

This movie is dark and grim and as I said before utterly without pity. As are the wolves. As is the wild. But it is also incredibly powerful and emotionally resonant, and truly a masterpiece of suspense. It will likely haunt you after you leave the theater. It is still with me now, as I write this review 24 hours later. And some moments may be with me forever. And this movie will take its place as one of the greatest thrillers of the 21st century. Mark my words.

"Midnight in Paris"


Some would argue that discussing the major element at the heart of the plot of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris the separates it from being just another romantic comedy is a spoiler; that it's better to go in not knowing. I'm not sure I agree, but since that idea exists I will preface this review with a SPOILER ALERT! Do not read on if you don't want to know, just take my recommendation to watch the movie.

Now that that's out of the way, let me list a few names for you: Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Luis Bunuel, Tom Elliot. Do these names mean anything to you, some or all? They certainly mean something to Gil (Owen Wilson), a self described "hack" screenwriter who dreams of publishing a novel and wanders around Paris fantasising about the Golden Age of the 20's when any or all of those people and more where walking these very streets or drinking in these very bars while masterfully shaping the very future of literature, art, film, and music. His fiance (Rachel McAdams) is kind of a bitch, and is obviously crushing on another man, a very pedantic professor (Michael Sheen). One night while wandering the streets, just as the bells toll midnight, an antique car pulls up bustling with passengers, who invite him with them. Two of those people happen to be the aforementioned Fitzgeralds (Tom Hiddleston and the wonderful Alison Pill), and when they arrive at their destination Gil finds he's in a bar in Paris in the 1920s, surrounded by his heroes. And every night thereafter at midnight, he goes back.

Allen never bothers to explain what strange magic is happening here, but ultimately it doesn't matter; this one's far more concerned about comedy and character than wonder. Most of the old guard Gil meets are exactly what you would hope for them to be, and wonderfully written and acted. I particularly loved Corey Stall as an Ernest Hemingway who waxes poetic about the meaning of life one minute, and boisterously asks who wants to fight the next; Kathy Bates as a no-nonsense Gertrude Stein who advises everyone around her on everything they do, usually correctly; and Adrian Brody who appears only briefly as an extremely inebriated Salvador Dali. Gil himself of course is the Woody Allen character, and Wilson does it surprisingly well; it's probably the best Woody character not played by Allen himself. There's a good bit of comedy that requires some knowledge of these people and their work (Gil suggests a movie idea to Bunuel, where people at a dinner party suddenly find themselves unable to leave. Hilariously, Bunuel doesn't get it, we leave him shouting "It doesn't make sense!" 40 years later Bunuel made The Exterminating Angel. Guess it took him a long time to make sense of it!) I would suggest that this is a "thinking person's" comedy, but don't want to imply it's pretentious or inaccessible; it is not. You might not love it if you don't know something about these people, but you'll still like it, and you'll still laugh. In fact the funniest moment in the movie requires no art or literary knowledge at all. That's when we discover the fate of a private investigator hired by the fiance's father (Kurt Fuller) to follow Gil one midnight. Hilarious!

I should mention much of the movie has a golden glow, particularly evident in an early scene at Versailles. Some people call this glow yellow and find it annoying; I thought it was lovely and warm. Plus it emphasizes a wonderful idea, one brought to the forefront in a late twist that plunges Gil and prototype art groupie Adriana (Marion Cotillard) even further back in time. It would seem everyone's Golden Age was once someone's Boring Present. Hence we are right now living in a Golden Age, we just can't see it for what it is. That might be one of the happiest thoughts I've come away from a movie with in a good long time.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

"Red Tails"


George Lucas has been passionately working for more than 20 years to get this movie on the screen, running into coincidentally the same problems the Tuskegee Airmen, on whom the film is based, encountered all those years ago. Namely: bigoted opinions of African Americans. Then it was what they could and would do in war, now it's whether a big budget action picture starring them would draw an audience. It is ironic then, that the movie we now have as a result of all that work and all that passion is so, well, bland. It is an action picture. And nothing more.

And it could have been so much better. It skips shallowly along the surface of the problems faced by the Airman: an n-word shouted by a white officer here, a one-note stereotype bigot commander there. Ultimately it eschews depth for flashy digital dogfights. Being the main focus of the film, these action scenes look good, but have little gusto and less tension; they are amateurishly staged, like most everything else. About halfway through the movie I suddenly decided this must be a first time film director, and sure enough when I researched later, I discovered director Anthony Hemingway has a number of television and assistant director credits, but this is his first time at the helm of a major motion picture, and it does show. Some scenes don't seem to end, but just stop. I swear at least once it happened mid-line. A surprising number of scenes are statically staged with people just sitting around and talking. For an action film, it has little momentum. Perhaps if Lucas had selected a more seasoned director the movie would have been better, but I'm not so sure. The script, you see, is just a mess. I assume Aaron McGruder (creator of the brilliant and subversive The Boondocks television series and comic strip), who shares screenwriting credit with John Ridley, mostly just contributed jokes. Though it sometimes misses, when it hits the humor is the best part of the movie. Surely he couldn't have been a part of these poorly written characters or this incredibly stilted dialogue. (The worst offenders: two white bomber pilots whose job it seems to be to sum up the feelings of the entire white air corps in as few words as possible. Clunky doesn't even begin to describe the words that come out of their mouths.)

The cast is a mixed bag. Of the ensemble of airmen some are good (Elijah Kelley as "Joker") some not so much (Tristan Wilds as "Junior"). And of their commanding officers, Terrence Howard is decent as Colonel A.J. Bullard, but doesn't approach the level we know he's capable of, and Cuba Gooding Jr. completely phones it in as Major Emanuelle Stance. And he's perpetually chewing on a pipe. And not smoking it. We see him light it once, but I'm pretty sure he never actually takes a puff. Can't say why, but that annoyed me. Daniela Ruah is very pretty as Italian peasant girl Sofia, whose mother is far too happy with her dating a black man (at least if my knowledge of the racial opinions of elderly Italian peasants in the 40's is accurate). Yes, very pretty. And that's all she needs to be.

The movie wants to celebrate the courage of these groundbreaking African Americans, but if you ask me it only celebrates half. Yes, they got up in those planes and risked their lives to fight for their country. Many white pilots did that too. But these guys did more. They leaped barriers and smashed prejudiced "factual" opinions, endured the worst kind of ignorant hatred and still held their heads up and risked their lives. By skimming the surface of this added burden, the movie has ultimately done them a disservice. The fairly substantial audience I watched with applauded at the end. I could not bring myself to join them. I would like to believe, however, that they were applauding the heroes this movie is based on, and not the movie itself. The men are more than worthy of our applause and our respect. The movie is not.