Friday, December 31, 2010

Bidding 2010 Goodbye - Part I: Favorite Scenes

While this series of posts will continue for a least a few days into the new year, I figured I'd like to close out 2010 at Not All Texans Ride Horses to School on a positive note. As I've stated before, there are still a solid handful of films left that I want to see, but I think 56 films is more than enough to make a list of

10 Favorite Scenes of the Year

Fair warning: There be spoilers ahead...

Honorable Mentions:

Car Argument - Date Night: While by no means special or memorable, Date Night did have one thing going for it: Steve Carrell and Tina Fey's chemistry as Phil and Claire Foster. The scene in question comes roughly in the middle of the couple's increasingly insane night out in New York. Phil and Claire verbally attack each other's imperfections, and in a surprising moment, the screenplay (for once) actually shines just a bit. The result is surprisingly affecting, and in a movie that was meant to be a comedy, it's this serious moment that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the film.

Ending - True Grit: There are many great moments of cinematography in the Coen brothers' western, but none is as quietly beautiful as the last shot, in which a grown Mattie Ross walks away from Rooster Cogburn's tombstone. It's a quiet coda to a film filled with so much loud bantering among its three principal characters, and it works perfectly as a send off both to the characters and to the film itself.

10. The Race - Four Lions: Chris Morris' Jihadist satire reaches its comic highs, and surprisingly emotional depths in the last 20 minutes, chronicling the titular "lions" as they attempt to set off bombs while disguised as costumed runners in the London Marathon. In addition to the hysterical argument that ensues when a police sniper clips the wrong target, the final scene carries a surprising mix of poetry, biting satire, and emotional heft.

09. Hallway Fight - Inception:
It was the defining action sequence of the year, and deservedly so. In actually building a rotating set rather than relying on heavy CGI work, the gravity-defying fistfight was easily the highlight of Christopher Nolan's trek into the work of dreams. There's an almost nervous energy that I get from this scene that comes from the fact that we can tell that it's real, and the effect is dizzying.

08. The Speech - The King's Speech:
In my review of The King's Speech, I mentioned how the lack of sugarcoating was one of the film's greatest strengths. When George VI delivers his first speech, he doesn't do so perfectly (by normal standards). The moment isn't accompanied by loud, charging, triumphant music. Rather, by playing the second movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony, a piece that builds veeeeery gradually, the scene still feels triumphant, but feels appropriate. The result is beautiful, and one of the most inspiring scenes of the year.

07. Making FaceMash - The Social Network:
One of the scenes that combined everything I loved about David Fincher's Facebook tale comes early on, when a just-dumped Mark (Jesse Eisenberg) simultaneously builds a website where users rate the attractiveness of students and blogs about his breakup. The sharp writing, lightning fast line delivery, and pulsating score combine masterfully and turn a scene of a geek drinking beer and writing code into one of the most thrilling sequences of the year.

06. The Tale of the Three Brothers - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1: In a film filled with magical battles and fantastical creatures, the shining moment of David Yates' latest crack at the Potter franchise was the telling of the Three Brothers and the origin of the titular Deathly Hallows. Rendered in strangely beautiful animation (was it some blend of CGI and cell animation???) and filled with little stylistic flourishes (the flash of blood when the first brother is murdered is stunning), the sequence could stand by itself as a short film. The film itself was already daring enough by giving so much screen time to the traveling portion of the story, but this sequence showed that even big-budget, money-grubbing blockbusters can still have truly inspired moments of artistry.

05. A Swan is Born - Black Swan:
As Darren Aronofsky's ballet thriller launches into its increasingly fantastical finale, it becomes more and more fascinating to watch. And no scene in the is-it-real-or-imagined? side of the store was more stunning than when Nina, dancing as the seductive Black Swan, charges out on stage and does a series of twirls as her arms transform into wings. That the effect is so seamless (especially considering the budget) only enhances the spell cast by Aronofsky's vision, and the shot following the transformation is equally brilliant, topped off by Portman's pitch perfect look of sinister triumph.

04. Henley Regatta - The Social Network:
It comes almost out of nowhere, but like the rest of the film, it's brilliantly composed and executed, even if there aren't any words spoken. The scene, which focuses on Zuckerberg's rivals, the Winklevoss twins (aka: The Winklevii), provides a nice break from all of the hyper articulate tech babble and caustic zingers, and simply lets the images work their magic. With brilliant use of limited focus to mask the lack of on-location shooting, and an energetic electronic interpretation of "In the Hall of the Mountain King," the scenes edits rise with the music, and the result is electrifying.

03. Prey Becomes Predator - Animal Kingdom: One of the key strengths of David Michod's crime drama is that violence is used in such small proportions and so effectively, that most scenes involving gunshots send a jolt through your body. This is particularly true of the ending, when 'J' Cody, an orphan who must decide where his loyalties lie when it comes to his gangster family, kills head criminal Andrew 'Pope' Cody. I know I nearly jumped out of my seat, and from the sounds I heard after that lone gunshot, I wasn't alone. Like J's grandmother Janine, the audience was appropriately left stunned and speechless. The final shot of Janine's hands hanging limp in defeat as J pulls her in for a hug is one of the most chilling images of the year.

02. Becca's Release - Rabbit Hole:
Though it deals with the aftermath of losing a child, John Cameron Mitchell's film of David Lindsey-Abaire's play keeps the weepy scenes to a minimum. And when things get high strung, the cast pulls it off beautifully. But the emotional high point comes when Becca drives to visit Jason, the teen responsible for the death of her son, and sees him going out to prom. As she watches, she flashes back to the day of the accident, and after trying to weather the storm of her grief for so long, finally allows herself to release her sadness, rather than continue to hold it in. From the moment she catches a glimpse of Jason, and her composure starts to break, Kidman fully owns the moment, and the scene acts as the perfect place for both her and the audience to let the emotion flow freely. A beautifully handled and acted scene that is far and away the most moving moment of the year.

01. Swan Lake Finale/Nina's Madness - Black Swan:
While entry #5 is technically part of this, my pick for #1 covers much more ground. Along with the rapturous depiction of the ballet as captured by Matthew Libatique's swooping handheld cinematography, the behind-the-scenes madness also reaches its high point. And as the gorgeous music blasts from the speakers and the roller coaster finally reaches its end, Aronofsky's film concludes on a moment of twisted poetry, with the final line of dialogue perfectly capturing the essence of Nina Sayers, the woman whose head Aronofsky brilliant puts us inside of.

"Red Riding: 1974" - REVIEW

While not exactly the happiest way to ring in the new year (cinematically speaking, at least; I've got a glass of champagne with me as I write this), I'm pleased to say that my last official viewing for the 2010 calendar year is a very good one. While I'm sure I could take a moment to speculate as to how watching a film that's the first in a trilogy is somehow thematically relevant to something in movies this year or even in my personal life, I won't because well, that's just cloying. Rather, let's get to the film I watched today to close out 2010:

Based on a series of horrifying true events in England, the Red Riding trilogy's first installment, directed by Julian Jarrold, begins in 1974. A young girl has vanished, the latest in a series of missing child cases. Journalist Eddie Dunford decides to investigate the disappearance, and in doing so unlocks an increasingly dark and sinister web of corruption in Britain's police force. Like 2007's excellent Zodiac, Red Riding is one of those detailed crime dramas that at times threatens to sink under the weight of the details, both known and unknown. But what makes this film different from Fincher's San Francisco-set tale is that we never see anything bad happen, at least, not to the victims. Dunford takes quite a beating in his quest to find the truth, but the film itself doesn't punctuate its main story with horrific side trips. And yet Jarrold's entry in the trilogy (based on David Peace's novel) is a steadily paced, yet engaging way to kick off what is sure to be an increasingly complex narrative.

While the performances are strong - Garfield is quietly sympathetic and Rebecca Hall continues her 2010 winning streak - Red Riding succeeds more in its craftsmanship. While it by no means rushes through the plot, the screenplay and the editing keep the scenes and story moving along at just the right pace to hold interest. We start, like Eddie, aloof and not terribly involved in the case of the disappearing girls, but little by little the film draws you in. Revelations are never sensationalized or turned into moments of high drama. Instead, Jarrold directs the flow of events with a calm, understated hand. His goal here isn't so much to dwell on the "oh the horror!" aspect of the crimes, but rather root us in the position of Dunford, a man slowly coming to terms with the fact that there's more to the vanished girls than a single predator.

This is beautifully echoed in the the film's greatest strength, Rob Hardy's brilliant cinematography. Hardy has a gift with framing, and makes even the most plain and ugly 70s architecture interesting to look at. More important though, is how often he uses limited focal range, sometimes leaving only a small portion of the frame sharp. Sometimes it's simply a stylistic choice, but in other scenes there's a nice complimentary feeling of Dunford's (and our) inability to see the whole picture. In what could have been a rather ordinarily shot film, Hardy's beautifully composed images lend this gritty story a sense of richness, without "softening" the ugliness.

Yet while the screenplay is generally strong, and is well handled by both director and actors, it occasionally throws in one too many details. A vaguely sketched out subplot involving the recent death of Eddie's father and his relationship with his mother don't entirely work, especially in one distracting and bizarrely edited scene that never clearly establishes whether it's a dream, hallucination, or reality. This issue, though, along with the film sometimes keeping us an inch too far out of the loop, seems relatively minor by the film's end. Like the rest of the film, the finale keeps a level head without reducing the impact, and the final sequence is a thing of beauty. And whether or not parts 2 and 3 live up to this first installment, Jarrold and crew can be proud that they've made a film that, while ambiguous at its end, still feels complete and satisfying.

Grade: B+

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Release Date Issues: Where the Foreign Films Are

One of the biggest issues in regards to figuring out one's personal lists of favorites/bests of the year is release date issues. If a film was initially released in 2003, but didn't make it to your country (say, the USA) until 2004, where does it go? Ultimately it comes down to a personal choice. The case I brought up is Lars von Trier's Dogville, which didn't arrive in US theaters until 2004 (and was deemed Oscar eligible), despite prior releases in other parts of the world in 03. So where does it go? Personally, I put the film in 2004, but I know many who (if they like it) put it in their list of favorites from 2003, because that was when it first hit theaters period. Whichever side you choose, it's a clean break. Unfortunately, not all films are.

Consider the French film A Prophet. Like Dogville, it hit theaters in other countries before landing in the US in March of 2010. But here's where things get murky: the film was nominated for an Oscar for 2009...and yet a handful of critics groups have given it awards or recognized it in the past few weeks as a 2010 film. So where the hell does it go? Obviously, you're free to decide for yourself, but the point of this post is to clarify where this blog (from now on) stands on this often confusing and frustrating issue. The basics are as follows:

  • If a film is eligible (ie: makes the Oscar longlist) for any Oscar category (or scores a nomination) for a given year, then that's what year I'm considering the film and any performances/techs in it.
  • If a film is not on an eligibility long list whether due to disqualification or lack of submission, then the film is placed in the year that it first arrives in US theaters, even if it only makes it to New York and LA.
So, to clear up a few highly anticipated releases of mine...
  • Biutiful: 2010
  • Applause: 2010
  • Vincere: 2010
  • Mother: 2010
  • Everyone Else: 2010 (only released theatrically in NYC in the
  • Certified Copy: 2011
  • Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Cannes Champion): 2011
  • Of Gods and Men: 2011

And now that this is out of my system, I'm going to continue my internal rant about how much I hate delayed/staggered release dates for indie and foreign films. Film is a universal languages, but there are many variations on how to speak it, and I think it's a shame that so many interesting films from the rest of the world have to travel such exhausting paths to make it to our shores.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

"TRON: Legacy" - REVIEW

There probably wasn't a need for a sequel to Disney's TRON, but (money-grabbing issues aside) given the advances in VFX technology, it's hard to deny that the film's ideas deserved the visuals that today's technology can grant. Because if there's one thing that I think few would disagree about when it comes to this sequel, it's that it all looks friggin' gorgeous. It's shiny, crisp, clean, and beautifully filled with light, many of which are part of people's clothes or vehicles. And when director Joseph Kosinski gets to the points in the screenplay that allow for some fun - laser disc duels, light cycle battles, etc... - TRON: Legacy comes closest to achieving what it wants. The problem, though, is the rest of the film.

After some nicely streamlined flashbacks for those of us not acquainted with the original (ie: most people), we jump to the present. ENCOM, the company founded by the vanished Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is on the verge of releasing its latest computer operating system, when it is broken into and hacked, and the OS is put online to be downloaded for free. The cause of this is Sam Flynn (Garret Hedlund), Kevin's son, who feels that the company has strayed from his father's vision. After getting off on minor charges, Sam is informed by a family friend (Bruce Boxleitner) that his father has paged him from his old arcade. Sam reluctantly goes, and of course is sucked into the world of TRON.

Strangely enough, Sam adapts to the world really quickly (really, really quickly) and barely spends any time being flabbergasted over the fact that he's been sucked into a digital world. Instead, the script throws him into a disc battle, which he proves decently adept at after a few missteps. Next comes a very fun light-cycle 5 vs. 5 match, and then it's off to a bunker/safe house, where the movie nearly grinds to a halt.

The problem here is that the film gives us everything people ever wanted from the TRON universe too early, and from that point on its a slightly stodgy trek back out of the digital world, complicated by a clichéd dictator who holds the world in an iron grip. It's all routine, and some of it is actually rather boring to the point where it threatens to drag down the livelier moments. And even though the cast is having enough fun (Olivia Wilde has a surprising moment or two and Michael Sheen is a blast as a flamboyant club owner), they can't compensate for the film's mechanical story-telling. The world is thriving and alive, and Daft Punk's score is absolutely perfect, because unlike the script, it actually has a pulse and some real life to it. The film wants to be a mix of action-adventure and father-son bonding, but it doesn't entirely succeed at being either, because it only seems capable of awkwardly flipping between attempts at heavy drama and all-out action. And while the end result isn't terrible, it does feel like a missed opportunity, which is a damn shame considering how much potential for a fun movie there was buried in the beautifully realized world.

Grade: C

Monday, December 27, 2010

"The King's Speech" - REVIEW

On the surface, one could practically write off Tom Hooper's The King's Speech as something custom-made for the Academy's voting body to gobble up. Not only does it have (real life) royals, but one of them also has a disability; it's the sort of thing that AMPAS loves to cozy up to with a bucket-load of nominations. And that's likely to happen with The King's Speech, although in this case, it would overall be well-earned.

The basics are as follows: The Duke of York (Colin Firth), long-afflicted with an awful stutter, is forced to become king when his brother (Guy Pearce) abdicates the throne, all while Europe gears up for a second world war. To help, his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) seeks out an unconventional Australian speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), to help the future king overcome his speech impediment.

We haven't seen this particular story before, but we've seen this type of story done to death, in countless variations. So how exactly do Hooper and his crew succeed? Frankly, it comes from honesty. The film could have gone for easy crowd-pleasing by having 'Bertie' (the duke's personal nickname) completely overcome his stutter during the runtime of the film. Of course, that's not what happened, and David Seidler's screenplay avoids the easy ways out. When it comes to the the titular speech, Firth doesn't charge forth through the words and deliver them flawlessly, but rather goes through them realistically. And by emphasizing the difficulty involved with treating an almost life-long affliction, The King's Speech actually soars, instead of being hindered. And while the film moves at a stately, at times too stately, pace, Firth's pauses and stammers never become irritating or gimmicky to the point that they distract the viewer rather than convince. Do we feel uncomfortable for Bertie? Absolutely. Parts of the film's opening scene, in which the Duke botches a speech in front of a massive stadium crowd, are almost painfully awkward, but never to the point where the film itself becomes awkward or unpleasant.

Of course, a great deal of this also has to do with the great talent involved. Coming off of the energy built from last year in A Single Man, Colin Firth really gets to shine as the future King George VI, and makes him so much more than a monarch with a stutter. Every bit his equal is Geoffrey Rush, surprisingly toned down but every bit as lively as usual. The two together make one of the best acting pairs of the year, and the film's success is largely rooted in their chemistry. Lending supporting in a handful of scenes is Bonham-Carter as Bertie's wife (and future Queen Mother). Were the role larger, I'd suspect that the Best Supporting Actress race would already have its winner, but as it stands, Carter has enough to work with to make a small-yet-lovely impression.

The film also benefits from handsome production values and a lovely score by Alexandre Desplat, along with Hooper's assured hand in the director's chair. And Seidler's screenplay, while in spots a little choppy, manages to hold one's interest both in dramatic moments and in a few moments of laugh-out-loud humor. Unfortunately, in trying to cover a surprisingly long stretch of history, the film short-changes certain aspects; the abdication subplot isn't given as much time as it probably deserves (in fairness, it probably deserved its own film). But most, if not all, of the issues of the script can be forgotten (temporarily) when the film clicks, which it does quite often. It's not quite kingly, but Hooper's film is old-fashioned, enjoyable cinema worth the price of admission.

Grade: B/B+

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Friday, December 24, 2010

Four Points on "Four Lions"

Hate to keep this so painfully short, but with the holiday madness (how is it already Christmas Eve!?), expect posting here to die down a little. So, without further adieu, here are some quick thoughts on Chris Morris' Four Lions, a satire about four British Jihadists in London written by half of the team that gave us last year's phenomenally funny In the Loop:

  • To be brief, no, this isn't as good as In the Loop. It is, however, still very funny and a touch sobering. And unlike so many comedies out there, Morris' film actually gets funnier as it goes along, instead of running out of steam after the first act.
  • Like In the Loop, the entire ensemble, which is considerably smaller here, is pitch perfect, even though the screenplay has a few little blips (the inclusion of Omar's wife and child and a stupid neighbor don't entirely flow well with the rest of the on-screen antics).
  • Aside from The Social Network, this deserves to go down as some of the best-written dialogue of the year ("Jews invented spark plugs to control global traffic!!").
  • I have no doubt that this film will be even more criminally overlooked than In the Loop, which is a shame, because along with that political satire, Four Lions is easily one of the strongest comedies of the past 5, or even 10, years. And it its own strange way, there's something almost touching about parts of the ending, which is remarkable when you consider who our main characters are.
Grade: B+

Thursday, December 23, 2010

"True Grit" - REVIEW

Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) repeatedly announces that she is "only 14 years old," and unlike the original True Grit, which starred a 20-year-old Kim Darby as Mattie, when Steinfeld says it, it rings true. Only 13 when she shot the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, Steinfeld's role is much more important than it was in the 1969 original, and it's just one of the reasons why the Coens' remake (or rather, re-adaptation) works so well.

Like the original, True Grit tells the story of a Mattie Ross' attempt to track down her father's murderer by hiring a hard-nosed US Marshall named Rooster Cogburn. Now, as to just how close the Coens stuck to Charles Portiss' novel for their screenplay, I can't vouch, as I've never read the source material. That said, in going back to the text instead of the John Wayne film, they've found a way to make a film that is much more inline with their sensibilities, and even their sense of humor. This is a good thing, because if there's one thing that surprised me in True Grit, it's the amount of humor that runs almost consistently throughout the film.

And even though the humor (and the story) may not entirely have the typical Coen brothers sense of irony, it still feels as though something they would come up with if they felt like playing it a little on the safe side. Assisting them through these (relatively) tame waters is their impeccable cast. Though she's been placed in (and won) supporting actress in the critics awards thus far, Steinfeld truly deserves to be labeled as lead. Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) may be the iconic character from Portiss' story, but at heart the story belongs to Mattie and her quest for justice and vengeance. Steinfeld beautifully captures the sense that Mattie is both a girl mature beyond her years, and yet still, well, 14 years old. As for Bridges, the role remains something of an emblem rather than a fully-formed character. What background details we're given don't really sink in, as their used more to portray Cogburn as a man with a penchant for rambling. That said, Bridges, whose last collaboration with the Coens gave us the ultimate laid-back "Dude," is able to pull off the role, one which has such large boots to fill. But the real joy of the film (aside from the surprise of Steinfeld) is Matt Damon as Texas Ranger LeBeouf, who has been searching for Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) for a separate crime. Damon, recently returning to comedy on NBC's 30Rock, gets to show off his comedic talents even more here, and he plays the slightly huffy, self-important Ranger with just the right touches, without making the character truly obnoxious or unbearable. A good part of the fun also comes from the fantastic (if at times overly wordy) dialogue, which is a mix of wild west gruffness mixed with a strange pseudo-Shakespearean tone (don't expect many contractions).

But good performances are nothing new for the Coen brothers. What's really, really surprising is the film's overall emotional impact. In a career long-dominated by black humor, irony, and in some cases flat out nihilism, True Grit ends up being surprisingly touching. I can't remember the last time that term applied to anything the Coens have done (if ever). Even with the comedic aspects of the film penetrating further into the story that one would expect, by the time it reaches its climax and begins to wind down, the result is actually moving (though completely free of schmaltz). While the story basics and characters may have been traversed before, for the Coens, True Grit is bold new territory well-explored.

Grade: B/B+

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Documentary Double-Whammy

I rarely talk about or review documentaries on this site. Prior to 2010, I only reviewed one: 2008's Waltz With Bashir. Yet this year, while the available offerings (thus far) for foreign language films have been on the underwhelming side, the docs have picked up the slack. Earlier this year I reviewed Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop, and today I've got two more that are worth taking a look at.

Restrepo - dir. Sebastian Junger & Tim Hetherington:
Despite being released a year later, this Afghan-war doc makes a perfect companion piece to 09's excellent fictional piece The Hurt Locker. Directors Junger and Hetherington follow a US platoon stationed in the Korengal Valley, considered one of the deadliest regions on earth. As one soldier recounts, 4 or 5 firefights a day is standard, with the sloping, forested valley provided plenty of room for Taliban insurgents to surround and attack at any time. While their, the platoon is tasked with establishing a new outpost, pushing deeper into the valley while under fire and trying to find ways to connect to the local populace, in an attempt to put a dent in the Taliban's control of the region. And while this may be a documentary, it has all of the intensity and emotional weight of a fiction piece. We as an audience spend barely any time with Capt. Restrepo, after whom the men name their new outpost, but that's not important. What is is the way Junger and Hetherington are able to capture the whirlwind of emotions that these men go through over roughly a year spent in the valley, fighting and dying together. The result, which mixes in on-the-ground footage with a healthy does of talking-head bits, is a powerful experience, particularly when the talking heads recount the worst part of a three-day operation, only to have the film jump to the actual footage of the tragedy. It's often said that truth is stranger than fiction, but Restrepo is proof that truth can also be just as moving as fiction.

Grade: B+/A-

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work - dir. Ricki Stern & Anne Sundberg:
As evidenced by footage of a vocal heckler, not everyone loves Joan Rivers. Yet while there is some self-promotion involved in this bio-documentary of the iconic comedian, the goal doesn't seem to be to convert you. It simply wants to shed light on a surprisingly complex individual's (continuing) journey through show business. As the film traces one year in the life of Rivers' career, we get a behind-the-scenes look at a woman who considers herself an actress first and above all, despite her place as a stand-up legend. And whether you're familiar with the personal details or not, by the time the doc is over, it's hard not to feel like you at the very least understand and respect Rivers a little more, even if you still aren't a fan. Granted, some parts feel incredibly slanted. When the doc covers Joan and Melissa's stint on The Celebrity Apprentice, we hear the pair talk about how NBC will likely edit the footage to make Melissa appear as the "bad guy" in the situation. But we're not shown anything that even begins to resemble the full picture of what happened between Rivers and competitor Annie Duke. So while A Piece of Work may have some incentive to be biased in certain aspects, it's still a surprisingly affecting piece, and an insightful look at how even legends can still have ups and downs in their careers.

Grade: B

Monday, December 20, 2010

Trailer for Joe Wright's "Hanna"

Much more interesting that I thought it would be. This could have easily come off as something too kiddie-friendly, but Wright and co. really seem to be planting this firmly in the PG-13 area. Given the slightly less cartoonish look of this compared to, say, Kick-Ass, I'd be surprised if the film didn't attract some controversy for showing someone so young being so brutal (did she snap that woman's neck!?). And it's good to see Cate Blanchett back on screen after that awful Robin Hood film last year. We haven't seen Wright tested by action scenes before, which could end up hindering the film, but the cast and the footage here are strong enough to make me think that perhaps he's pulled it off.

What I watched this week: December 13-19

The Fighter (2010) dir. David O. Russell:
Just when you thought the boxing genre had nothing else to offer, along comes David O' Russell's The Fighter, telling the true story of "Irish" Mickey Ward and his last shot at success. While Russell and crew may not turn the genre on its head, they invest enough time in the complexities of the characters that by the time the film reaches its somewhat generic climax, there's actually some tension as to whether Ward (Mark Wahlberg) will come out on top. Yet while Ward may be the main character, the film completely belongs to Christian Bale as Mickey's dodgy brother Dickey. From the opening sit-down interview scene, Bale's performance completely holds your attention, and not just because of the actor's disturbingly gaunt physique. Like the movie itself, he's a live-wire, and you'll have a hard time looking away. Rounding out the superb cast are Melissa Leo as Mickey and Dickey's mother Alice, and Amy Adams in a surprisingly believable turn as the girl who starts to lure Mickey away from his traditional outlook on boxing. In addition to the fiery performances, Wahlberg grounds the movie with his everyman appeal. In a film filled with so much shouting, Wahlberg is able to lend the film a stabilizing presence. Spanning nearly 2 hours, The Fighter ranks among the year's best when it comes to editing, never lagging for an instant despite its lack of reliance on boxing scenes to drive the story forward. Character is key here, and by giving the actors room to breathe, we're left with an ensemble of real people, as opposed to potential caricatures. And even though the film's ending may wrap up just a tad too neatly after all of the bickering and conflict, O. Russell manages to avoid sappiness. Like Wahlberg's Mickey Ward, O. Russell's film is lean and tough, but still full of heart.

Grade: B+

The Story of Adele H. (1975) dir. Francois Truffaut:
One of those classic cases of truth being stranger than fiction, Truffaut's tale of Adele Hugo's (daughter of Victor) quest for unrequited love ranks up there among the strangest of them. When Hugo, under the fake name of Ms. Lewly, arrives in Halifax in 1863, she searches for Lt. Pinson, giving a different connection (niece's boyfriend, cousin, etc...) to everyone who she asks about him. It's just the start of what turns into a truly bizarre story of deception and obsession. As the film's central focus, Isabelle Adjani commands the screen as a woman who refuses to give up on a love that she genuinely believes in, even after Pinson repeatedly rejects her and tries to avoid her. Unfortunately, the movie itself isn't up to the same level of Adjani's work. Quick glimpses into Adele's dreams/nightmares, which usually involve drowning, are horribly overwrought. The film would have been better off simply focusing on Adele writing in bed, rather than having the dream sequence partially dissolved over her. The film somehow loses intrigue even as Adele becomes increasingly unhinged and her desperation grows. By the time it reaches its conclusion in the Caribbean, Truffaut seems to have run out of steam, and this mutes the effect of what is, at its core, a fascinating tale of real-life obsession.

Grade: B-

Touch of Evil (1958) dir. Orson Welles:
It's hard to live up to an opening shot as brilliant as that in Touch of Evil, but this noir, one of the last of its kind, is up to task. Granted, certain parts have aged awkwardly given the current state of Mexico's drug/gang violence, and at times the film seems to want to become more intricate than it ought to be, but overall, this ranks as one of the greats of the noir genre, and one of the finest moments of Welles' career as a director, writer, and actor. Though I was never quite sold on Charlton Heston as the film's leading man, he's competent enough, and co-star Janet Leigh holds her own in the role of his surprisingly tough (relatively speaking) wife. But the star here is Welles on all fronts. As a director and writer he beautifully captures a sense of menace and danger in the film's border-town setting. And as an actor he creates a noir villain for the ages as Hank Quinlan, a police captain playing both sides of the bombing investigation that sets off the story proper. It's hard not to view Quinlan as some forerunner of great neo-Western villains like The Judge in McCarthy's "Blood Meridian," albeit slightly more theatrical. But the film also benefits from fantastic tech aspects, namely the striking cinematography which beautifully utilizes deep focus and low Dutch angles that add tension to even the sunniest of shots. And even though time has worn it in spots, it's hard to deny the significance and craftsmanship of this last-of-a-dying-breed story all these decades later.

Grade: A-

2010 Satellite Award Winners

Best Picture (Drama) The Social Network
Best Picture (Comedy) Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Best Picture (Foreign) The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Best Picture (Animated) Toy Story 3
Best Picture (Documentary) Restrepo
Best Director David Fincher, The Social Network
Best Screenplay (Original) The King's Speech
Best Screenplay (Adapted) The Social Network
Nothing surprising here aside from the win for Scott Pilgrim, which is pretty impressive. Not too many critics bodies give out separate screenplay awards, so I guess we can count this as an indicator that The King's Speech is a front-runner for original screenplay.

Best Actress (Drama) Noomi Rapace, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Best Actress (Comedy) Anne Hathaway, Love and Other Drugs
Best Actor (Drama) Colin Firth, The King's Speech
Best Actor (Comedy) Michael Cera, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Best Supporting Actor Christian Bale, The Fighter
Best Supporting Actress Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom

Not crazy about the Noomi Rapace win, and I'd really like this performance to vanish from awards season. Anne Hathaway is an acceptable choice though, as is Cera, who actually managed to be slightly different than his usual nerd schtick in Scott Pilgrim. Glad to see Weaver and Bale (more on The Fighter later today) pick up more awards. Bale already has his fair share of critics prizes, but for Weaver, every award counts, especially after being snubbed by the Screen Actors Guild.

Best Score Hans Zimmer, Inception
Best Song Dianne Warren and Cher "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me", Burlesque
Best Sound Mixing and Editing Unstoppable
Best Cinematography Wally Pfister, Inception
Best Visual Effects Alice in Wonderland
Best Film Editing Robert Frazen, Please Give
Best Production Design Guy Dyas, Inception
Best Costume Design Colleen Atwood, Alice in Wonderland
Best Cinematography Wally Pfister, Inception
As random as it is, I really love that Please Give picked up an award for its editing. Though it make lack the story-telling scope of more obvious choices like Inception or The Social Network, it was a surprisingly well-paced, well-paced film that never lagged. On the opposite end of the spectrum, what on earth were people smoking to think that Alice in Wonderland deserved to win over something like Inception.

TV Prizes
Series (Drama) Breaking Bad
Series (Comedy) The Big C
Miniseries Sherlock Holmes
Made for TV Movie Temple Grandin
Best Actress (Series, Drama) Connie Britton, Friday Night Lights
Best Actress (Series, Comedy) Laura Linney, The Big C
Best Actress (Miniseries or Movie) Claire Danes, Temple Grandin
Supporting Actress Brenda Vaccaro, You Don't Know Jack
Best Actor (Series, Drama) Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad
Best Actor (Series, Comedy) Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock
Best Actor (Miniseries or Movie) Al Pacino, You Don't Know Jack
Supporting Actor David Strathairn, Temple Grandin

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Oscar Predictions: December

With Awards Season firmly underway, and with several of the heavy hitters (NYC, LA, NBR) out of the way, I've decided to go and update my predictions. Of course, with groups like the BAFTAs, certain performances could gain traction or lose steam, but overall, we're looking at a somewhat clearer picture than we were at the start of the month.

*nominees listed in no order

Best Picture:
The Social Network
Black Swan
The King's Speech
The Fighter
Toy Story 3
True Grit
The Kids Are All Right
127 Hours
Winter's Bone

Best Director:
David Fincher - The Social Network
Christopher Nolan - Inception
Darren Aronofsky - Black Swan
Tom Hooper - The King's Speech
David O. Russel - The Fighter

Best Actor:
Colin Firth - The King's Speech
Jesse Eisenberg - The Social Network
James Franco - 127 Hours
Jeff Bridges - True Grit
Robert Duvall - Get Low

Best Actress:
Natalie Portman - Black Swan
Annette Bening - The Kids Are All Right
Nicole Kidman - Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence - Winter's Bone
Julianne Moore - The Kids Are All Right

Best Supporting Actor:
Christian Bale - The Fighter
Geoffrey Rush - The King's Speech
Andrew Garfield - The Social Network
Mark Ruffalo - The Kids Are All Right
John Hawkes - Winter's Bone

Best Supporting Actress:
Melissa Leo - The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter - The King's Speech
Amy Adams - The Fighter
Jacki Weaver - Animal Kingdom
Mila Kunis - Black Swan

Best Original Screenplay:
The King's Speech
The Kids Are All Right
The Fighter
Black Swan

Best Adapted Screenplay:
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
127 Hours
Winter's Bone
True Grit

Best Editing:
Black Swan
The Social Network
127 Hours
Toy Story 3

Best Cinematography:
Black Swan
True Grit
127 Hours
The King's Speech

Best Art Direction:
The King's Speech
Black Swan
Alice in Wonderland
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1

Best Costume Design:
The King's Speech
Black Swan
True Grit
Alice in Wonderland
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1

Best Original Score [assuming they're eligible...]:
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross - The Social Network
John Powell - How to Train Your Dragon
Alexandre Desplat - The King's Speech
AR Rahman - 127 Hours
Carter Burwell - True Grit

Best Original Song:
"You Haven't Seen the Last of Me" - Burlesque
"If I Rise" - 127 Hours
"I See the Light" - Tangled

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Houston Film Critics Society Award Winners

Best Film: The Social Network
Best Director: David Fincher: The Social Network
Best Actor: Jesse Eisenberg - The Social Network
Best Actress: Natalie Portman - Black Swan
Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale - The Fighter
Best Supporting Actress: Hailee Steinfeld - True Grit
Best Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin - The Social Network
Best Cinematography: Wally Pfister - Inception
Best Animated Film: Toy Story 3
Best Foreign Film: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Best Documentary: Restrepo
Best Original Score: Hans Zimmer - Inception
Best Original Song: "We Are Sex Bob-Omb" - Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Worst Film of the Year: Jonah Hex

Friday, December 17, 2010

"Rabbit Hole" - REVIEW

Losing a child can never be an easy experience. It's the sort of event that lingers and lingers, and even when you think it's gone, it finds ways of reminding you that it's still there in your thoughts. It's also a subject that has been done to death (excuse the pun) on film. It's an excuse for big weepy moments, filled with angst-y dialogue and blubbering. Sometimes it's the main part of a film, and somethings it's just a point in the overall story, but either way, it's a story/device that is often used to wring out tears, often by shamelessly yanking at audiences' heartstrings. And differing from these traits is exactly what makes Rabbit Hole, John Cameron Mitchell's adaptation of David Lindsey-Abaire's Tony-winning play, such a success.

One of the wisest choices Abaire made (he adapted the screenplay himself) comes down to timing. Instead of dealing with the loss of a child in the immediate aftermath, the story of Becca and Howie Corbett (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) is set 8 months after the tragedy. This gives Abaire, Mitchell, and the actors room to play their roles as more fully formed characters, as opposed to "grief stricken wife" or "grief stricken grandmother." And most surprisingly, it even allows Abaire's script the opportunity to present moments of *gasp* humor. It's these tiny moments of levity and relief that keep the film from drowning the audience in mawkish, non-stop suffering. That his writing is often quite swift only helps the scenes and story move with a certain briskness that prevents the heavy tone from weighing the movie down the whole way through. And remarkably, Mitchell, known for such outrageous films as Hedwig and the Angry Inch, directs with a beautiful simplicity, working in just enough to keep to film from feeling stage-y. But of course, none of that would matter if the performances weren't up to task.

And leading the charge through it are Kidman and Eckhart as the central couple. Kidman, who's had a rough few years, finally gets a chance to show us what a three-dimensional actress she can be. She plays Becca as a woman who has been so battered by grief that it's left her as a jagged cliffside of a person. And yet, despite some of the things she says and does, the performance never goes overboard to the point where we dislike or hate her. Even early on when she calls out a grief-therapy session member for being a "god-freak," we get a sense of why this character is acting this way, even if we wouldn't have done the same thing. In both her quiet/layered scenes, and in her few "showy" ones, she sells the character, as does Eckhart, who is every bit her acting equal in this, and deserves every bit of recognition. As the more overtly sympathetic character, Eckhart never manipulates the audience into thinking that he's character is the "right one." The two of them together, both when they share scenes or when they're apart, create a beautifully compelling pair of performances that easily rank among the year's best.

Lending them support are Dianne Wiest as Becca's mother, who has endured loss of her own, Tammy Blanchard as Becca's free-spirit of a younger sister, and Miles Teller as the teenager responsible for the death of the Corbett's son. As the Corbetts interact with these and others, the story unfolds in a slightly episodic, but never clunky manner, clipping along at a generally nice speed, and bolstered by Anton Sanko's beautiful and delicate score. At moments, the script puts the actors into such awkward/tense places, that it feels as if they're performing on a high-wire, and the result is electrifying.

But what's best about it, above all, is the honesty in the script, the direction, and in the beautiful performances. The part of the film that hit me hardest - no spoilers - was one that if I were to describe it, would probably make you scratch your head. But in context of the film, it was a strange yet fitting point for the emotions that have been so deeply buried throughout the film to pour out. And best of all, when it seems like there's no way out for the characters or the audience, the film concludes on a perfect final scene that mixes in an appropriate dose of heaviness while still offering a glimmer of hope.

Grade: B+/A-

2010 SAG Nominees + Delayed Reactions

Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture:
  • Black Swan
  • The Fighter
  • The Kids Are All Right
  • The King's Speech
  • The Social Network
I was worried that Black Swan would miss here. Everything else is pretty expected.

Outstanding Actor in a Leading Role:
  • Jeff Bridges - True Grit
  • Robert Duvall - Get Low
  • Jesse Eisenberg - The Social Network
  • Colin Firth - The King's Speech
  • James Franco - 127 Hours
Bridges makes a comeback after the surprise sub at the Globes (along with Duvall). The real question though, is who among the three front-runners is going to take this. Eisenberg has fared better than I ever thought he would, and with Mark Zuckerberg having just been named as Time's Person of the Year, they might just swing his way over the One Man Show and the Royalty Performance.

Outstanding Actress in a Leading Role:
  • Annette Bening - The Kids Are All Right
  • Nicole Kidman - Rabbit Hole
  • Jennifer Lawrence - Winter's Bone
  • Natalie Portman - Black Swan
  • Hilary Swank - Conviction
Uh, hi there Hilary Swank, really didn't expect to see you here along with the other four and WAIT A MINUTE. Julianne Moore? Ms. Moore? Are you out there?...oh. Well that's awkward.

Outstanding Actor in a Supporting Role:
  • Christian Bale - The Fighter
  • John Hawkes - Winter's Bone
  • Jeremy Renner - The Town
  • Mark Ruffalo - The Kids Are All Right
  • Geoffrey Rush - The King's Speech
Jeremy Renner just doesn't seem to want to go away. Don't get me wrong, I like the guy, but the script for The Town gave him nothing to do except talk "tough." And while we're on the subject of one-note performances, hey there, John Hawkwaes; it's nice to see that glowering scored you a nomination for a certain overrated indie. But the real surprise here is that Ruffalo got in while co-star Moore was left in the dust, especially since the reverse happened at the Globes. Not that it matters; congratulations Christian Bale/Geoffrey Rush.

Outstanding Actress in a Supporting Role:
  • Amy Adams - The Fighter
  • Helena Bonham Carter - The King's Speech
  • Mila Kunis - Black Swan
  • Melissa Leo - The Fighter
  • Hailee Steinfeld - True Grit
I don't like seeing Jacki Weaver snubbed here at all. If she doesn't have the actors' brach behind her, it could mean trouble ahead, regardless of the critics' love and the surprise Globe nom. Interesting to see Steinfeld score here (apparently it's a case of category fraud), along with Kunis. Lastly, I guess it's officially time to say "goodbye" to Dianne Wiest and Aaron Eckhart's Oscar chances. It's really a shame, especially for Mr. Eckhart (more on him and Rabbit Hole later today).

For the rest of the nominees (for TV/mini-series) go HERE.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

"The Tree of Life" Trailer

Every bit as glorious as I remember it from when I saw Black Swan. The mix of the intimate and epic (and also confusing) imagery, along with the swelling music is all so beautiful and enticing. I'm sure that one of those CG shots was supposed to be from the view of someone/thing standing on an asteroid/moon floating in space. One thing's for sure, we've never seen Terrence Malick go this epic with his poetic and meditative style. Composer Alexandre Desplat said in a recent interview that he was going for a "trance-like" score, which would seem to fit the vibe of the trailer (along with Emmanuel Lubezeki's stunning images). The real question here, though is this: are we still getting that much-whispered about dinosaur scene?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

2010 Golden Globe Nominations + a few short thoughts

Best Motion Picture - Drama

Glad to see that Black Swan made it in here, although I'm surprised at the lack of love for True Grit (not a single nomination).

Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy

Wow...these are just awful. Alice in Wonderland AND The Tourist? This is the HFPA star-fucking at its worst. They could have put the likes of Please Give, Scott Pilgrim, Easy A, Another Year, or Made in Dagenham in there, and they pick this list? Shame.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Drama

A little surprised that Wahlberg got in, although I guess I shouldn't be considering the recent streak the film has been on. And yay for Ryan Gosling's mention. See HFPA, nominating indies doesn't hurt that much, does it?

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama

I think I called all of these except for Berry, and now that I think about it, it was silly of me not to predict her. Portman will take this, and if not, look for Lawrence or Kidman.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy

That Johnny Depp double nomination is horrific. His Mad Hatter was weird all right, but not in a good way. And as far as The Tourist goes, well, he had a few little moments, but other than that he was totally flat.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy

Jolie's nomination here is just as bad as the film's nomination for Best Picture. There's just nothing there except a star. A vacant, joyless star. Oh, and while I'm at it: so long, Lesley Manville/Another Year.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture

Two words: Jacki. Weaver. That is all (oh, and good for Mila Kunis).

Best Director - Motion Picture

Best Original Song - Motion Picture

Burlesque (2010/I): Diane Warren("You Haven't Seen The Last of Me")

Country Strong (2010): Bob DiPiero, Tom Douglas, Hillary Lindsey, Troy Verges("Coming Home")

Tangled (2010): Alan Menken, Glenn Slater("I See the Light")

Oh boy, they passed over Mansell and Burwell for...Danny Elfman at his most generic/boring. That's just great HFPA...

Best Animated Film

Best Foreign Language Film

Biutiful (2010)(Mexico/Spain)

The Concert (2009)(France)

The Edge (2010)(Russia)

I Am Love (2009)(Italy)

In a Better World (2010)(Denmark)

Best Television Series - Drama

Best Television Series - Musical or Comedy

Best Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television

Best Performance by an Actor in a Mini-Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television

Best Performance by an Actress in a Mini-Series or a Motion Picture Made for Television

Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series - Musical or Comedy

Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series - Musical or Comedy

Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series - Drama

Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series - Drama

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television