Saturday, July 31, 2010

Thank you for making that worth the wait

After a week of missed chances and failed DVR-ing, I was finally able to catch up with the season premiere of AMC's Mad Men, and it only reinforced my opinion that this is the best drama on TV. In short, what made the season 4 premiere so strong were the elements that make up the best of Mad Men's episodes: strong, more dialogue-heavy writing, more energetic pacing that still allows for drama, and plenty of sharp, funny exchanges between characters. As many of the critics have said, the changes that have occurred story-wise, which I won't spoil for non-viewers, have given the show a new vitality, after season 3 had a few too many slow-burning episodes that were far too slow. As usual, the fantastic production values were as good as they've ever been (and enhanced by the show's continued decision to shoot on 35mm film. I know these haven't exactly been deep, insightful thoughts, but I just wanted to write a brief little post about how glad I am that the show is back, and off to a great start. Here's hoping that the remaining 12 episodes of season 4 continue in the footsteps of the season opener.

Friday, July 30, 2010

"Inception" - REVIEW

It's almost hard to discuss Inception, along with the positive and negative responses to it, without looking at the traits and changes of its director, Christopher Nolan. His personal project, which would probably never have made it to the screen were it not for the success of his first two Batman reboots, is something of an intriguing oddity. Like James Cameron's Avatar, Nolan had an early draft of the script in his drawer for years, but only recently found that he had the capabilities to make it. In some sense, Inception is something like Mr. Nolan's attempt at delving into the head-spinning story-telling and structure of his indie breakout Memento, with the big-budget trappings and gloss of The Dark Knight. With expectations sky high after that second Batman film, and with enough time having passed for its detractors to step into the sunlight without fear of being ripped to shreds, Inception arrives more open to negative (or at least non-ecstatic) reception, and in some ways, this is a good thing. For while Nolan has made a movie that engages viscerally and intellectually, it can't always engage the heart as fully as it should. Not that it isn't strong film making - keep reading and you'll see that I liked or loved lots of it - but it feels like a cautionary film, one that suggests that perhaps Mr. Nolan should (after Batman 3, which I'm still super excited for) return to the smaller, more organic roots of the film that made him a name.

Inception is that sort of film that needs to be talked about as vaguely as possible in regards to plot. What I'll say isn't much different from what you can glean from the trailers: Cobb (DiCaprio), part of a team who can hack into dreams to steal or plant ideas, needs to get one last, daunting job done in order to "get home," (what that means, you'll have to discover). The rest of his team includes Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Eames (Tom Hardy), and Ariadne (Ellen Page). Also along for the ride are Ken Watanabe as Cobb's client, Marion Cotillard as Cobb's wife, and Cillian Murphy as the group's target. Yet for such a wonderful ensemble (Mr. Hardy being the most fun), this is not an actor's film by any means. The ensemble isn't one-note, but most of them are far from being fully fleshed-out. Yet even so, with the exception of Ken Watanabe being somewhat difficult to understand, I have no complaints about anyone.

Like any Nolan movie, the women are bound to come up as a subject of debate (as one critic wrote, they tend to be "effective window-dressing" in his films), but as for me, I found both ladies were used to lovely effect. Cotillard is predictably beautiful, but also intriguing though hers is the hardest performance to discuss considering its spoiler-ish nature. For now, let's just say that it's leagues ahead of her work in her last mainstream summer outing, Public Enemies, in that she's interesting and engaging during the whole movie, and not just in the last 20 minutes. Page however, I can talk more freely about, and gladly so. She certainly creates a sharp divide among movie-goers, but after this film, I'll plant myself firmly in the "like" camp. Ariadne is, as predicted, used as the audience insert (ie: the one who can ask "why?" so that the others can explain the dream world to the audience in some manner other than a Star Wars-esque prologue scroll). But thankfully Nolan gives Page more to do than ask "why?" (or at least doesn't keep those questions strictly to the job at hand), and her one-on-one scenes with DiCaprio are some of the best character-oriented ones. Page is likable, smart, and believable as a depiction of how a "normal" person would react after being thrust into such a daunting world.

The men are an interesting story as well. DiCaprio, headlining his second head-twister this year after Shutter Island, makes an effective leading man, but I can't help but wish that Nolan had gone with someone who could more easily call for sympathy and give off shades (heh) of warmth, considering Nolan's slightly distant way of handling his characters in his writing. Still, he does the role well, and he certainly fares better than Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who aside from getting the film's show-stopping hallway-fight-turned-zero-G sequence, doesn't bring quite enough spark to his role, though his chemistry and bickering with Hardy suggests a relationship that I'd like to have a deeper look at. Mr. Hardy, however, exudes more charisma as the shapeshifting forger, delivering some nice little quips with ease and bringing in some of the needed humor. But for me, the real MVP of the men, and maaaaybe the movie, is Cillian Murphy, who has a much larger role than anticipated. Let's just say that the payoff of his story arc is the closest to a fully-realized emotional payoff that Inception has, perhaps more so than Cobb's own interests. Perhaps the problem can be traced back to something I noticed in The Dark Knight. With Nolan's (alleged) coldness in his films, emotional payoff is generated more out of a visceral response to pure intensity, than to a deep attachment to the characters. But what made those visceral moments practically enough of a substitute for heartfelt emotion was probably built on the fact that there were fewer (front and center) characters to keep track of. With Inception, we're dealing with a crew five shy of an Ocean's 11 sized set of protagonists, and the emotion elicited (and thereby the intensity of the film) is hampered as a result, which makes me glad that Nolan stopped expanding his ensemble where he did.

But now that we've taken a look at the actors of what is not an actor's film, it's time to look at, well, everything else. In The Dark Knight, people accused Nolan of overwriting scenes with expository dialogue. For whatever the reason, this is one of those complaints that I can respect and understand, yet despite repeated viewings of that film, it never really makes an impact, and remains a non-issue. For most of Inception this is also likely the case, BUT I'm curious to see how the portion of the film that deals most with explaining the rules holds up on a second viewing. Will it become slightly tedious hearing it all again, or will it hold up because of one of the true stars of the film (that being Lee Smith's editing)? It's hard to say, though Nolan and crew do keep the pace nice and sustained, especially considering the run time and increasing layering of the dreams unfolding on screen. A pair of other standouts dominate the film. First is Wally Pfister's cool, rich cinematography (which is a knockout on an IMAX screen). And even though some of the film's shootouts and chases feel slightly routine in their setups and choreography (Nolan should probably focus more on "adventure" than "action," even though that vehicular chase/battle from TDK is still incredible), they're bolstered by the occasional gorgeous use of slow-motion, and the last part of the arts/tech triumvirate, Hans Zimmer's score, a mix of the intricate and the blaring. If at time a bit too loud as it pours out of the speakers, it's still engaging as all get out, and matches the beats of the movie perfectly. Like I am Love, the blaring score is part of what helps the film shake you and make an impact, although in Nolan's film, that feeling of being shaken also comes with an actual sense of satisfaction when the credits start. Fourth place goes to the special effects, the most prominent in any Nolan film. I've saved them for last because it almost feels needless to talk about them. In a word, they're seamless, and never was I thinking that I was looking at pixels. That said, as far as how Nolan uses the effects, I sometimes wish he had gone a little more mad with his vision. Dreams aren't usually as orderly as Nolan presents them, and the dreams could have used more moments (albeit small ones) where the characters improvise creations, such as when Ariadne makes a bridge rise up in front of her as she navigates through her first dream.

So while Inception doesn't quite inspire the rapturous response the expectation and pre-hype had created like it did for The Dark Knight, this is still thoroughly engaging slam-bang entertainment, even if it is a bit cold to the touch. Nolan's direction is strong, even if some of his writing needs work to serve an ensemble who prove themselves more than up to the task of filling up their roles further were they given the material. It's also a technical marvel as previously mentioned, and can perhaps best be compared to its visual effects: engaging, intense, detailed, slick, a bit too distant, yet somehow wholly believable (ie: the anti-A-Team) because of the effort put in. Even with its flaws, Nolan's blockbuster, likely to remain the best of mainstream cinema of the summer along with Toy Story 3, does manage to accomplish what its tag line promised: The dream is real.

Grade: B+

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Why "Modern Family" deserves the Emmy

It's simple, really...

Bad timing...

So apparently the past two and a half weeks were simply overloaded with cinema related goodness, all of which I had to wait until now to figure out about (I'm sure there's still some significant new casting news/trailer/etc... I haven't seen yet), because trying to translate those articles in German was giving me a headache. Since there's too much to cover in individual posts since it would be old news anyway), I'll just throw in a few quick thoughts about the most eye-catching things that appeared while I was in Germany:

The Miral trailer: A bit uneven (it should be shorter), but very interesting, though I'm going to have a hard time adjusting to see Hiam Abbass in that haircut. Schnabel's background as a painter is still evident in the color scheme (the shades of blue are beautiful), albeit in a more subdued way than in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and it will be interesting to see how he handles this more-or-less two-part story (the first half of which would be oriented around Abbass, the second around Freida Pinto's titular character). The film will also offer a chance to see if the stunning Pinto can really act, or if she should stick to modeling.

The complete line-up for the Venice Film Festival: Black Swan and Machete are confirmed for a double-bill opening (appropriate considering Machete's origins in the Tarantino/Rodriguez collaboration Grindhouse), and Julie Taymor's The Tempest will finally see the light of day as the closing screening. Not making it to the festival? Tree of Life (oh, come ON already), and Rabbit Hole, which will thankfully make it into Toronto. I'd hope there aren't behind-the-scenes troubles; Abel Korzeniowski has been replaced as the film's score composer, which I'm assuming means whatever he came up with didn't fit with Mitchell's vision. Let's just hope the delay doesn't have to do with overall quality, though. A certain tall, Australian actress could really use a widely-acclaimed film on her resume right about now...

The trailer for Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch: is friggin' insane. Snyder's current film, the gorgeous-looking The Legend of the Guardians, hasn't even hit theaters yet, but that hasn't stopped the flashy director of 300 from working on another project. The action looks, well, extreme, which could either be really cool or headache-inducing. However, I love the idea of Abbie Cornish as an ass-kicking (supporting) heroine. She should have plenty of built-up rage after that Bright Star Best Actress snub.

The first round of confirmed films at the Toronto Film Festival: In addition to lots of big names (including big Cannes titles like Biutiful), this year's TIFF will also launch Guillaume Canet's Little White Lies starring Marion Cotillard along with Robert Redford's Lincoln assassination (sort of) flick The Conspirator and John Madden's The Debt. Festival circuit ubiquity Blue Valentine will also appear, along with a slew of foreign films, with a handful of more commercial titles, like Emma Stone vehicle Easy A.

The trailer for The Town: Ben Affleck's second directorial effort after the excellent Gone Baby Gone (2007) is set in the heart of Boston's criminal district, and though it seems plenty gritty, this first glimpse at the film does showcase a more "commercial" looking film, with gunshots, car chases, and exploding cars. The real hook here for me, however, is the cast, led by Jon Hamm, Affleck, and burgeoning talents Jeremy Renner and Rebecca Hall, both of whom are starting to appear more regularly in more prominent film roles (if you can see Please Give in theaters, do so, if only for the lovely work from Hall and her co-stars), which is a very good thing.

Everything I missed: Here I don't mean news, I mean the reason for this blog in the first place: movies. I'm nearly three weeks late to the Inception debate, and I need to run out and see Cyrus and The Kids Are All Right and hope that they don't randomly vanish from the art house/indie theaters in Houston soon (reassuringly, Cyrus was given a slot at at the mainstream theater near my house, which is a good sign). The much delayed and painfully released Agora is also near(ish) me, and only in one theater, so I'll need to catch that one soon as well. I'm also behind on TV, and have missed at least two episodes of True Blood, Entourage, and of all things, the impressively reviewed start to Mad Men's fourth season (and apparently Dexter season 5 has a trailer out somewhere...GAH).

Lastly: The first images from Aronofsky's ballet mystery Black Swan emerged. You can see the rest of them here (love that full-body shot of Portman in costume), but the image that caught my eye was the one below. Frankly, I hope Mr. Rachel Weisz f-ing loses his mind with this project, involving a ballerina and her (imaginary?) rival.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

"The Last Airbender" - REVIEW

Many people jumped on the anti-Last Airbender bandwagon the instant they found out that it was being directed by M. Night Shyamalan. They brought out the one-hit-wonder charges, and talked about how everything since The Sixth Sense has been terrible. I'll admit, I was skeptical at first, but when I started watching the trailers, and I thought "maybe this is it; maybe this is the film to bring M. Night out of his slump." Unfortunately, Mr. Shyamalan is determined to prove folks like me wrong, because The Last Airbender is one of the worst films to come around since, well, Shyamalan's own The Happening (2008).

Based on the popular and critically acclaimed Nickelodeon anime series, The Last Airbender is set in a world divided among kingdoms of the four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. Certain people in these kingdoms can "bend" (ie: manipulate) elements, with a prophecy telling of an "Avatar" who will come and be able to bend all four, and bring balance to the world (the fire nation has become increasingly aggressive; air is all but gone, etc...). I'll admit, I'm a sucker for this type of action/fantasy, and from what I've heard, the cartoon pulled it off with an almost Miyazaki-like grace. This can't be said for Shyamalan's adaptation, which takes on too much (condensing the 20-episode first season into 90 minutes) and delivers waaaaay too little. It's almost easier to write this review from the angle of "what went right?" because so little does. And there are some things that do go right. Some of the visual effects are nice, even fun (the swirling elements have a genuine verve to their pixelation), and James Newton Howard's score has some shining moments. Everything else? A bit of a train wreck, though not as laughably enjoyable as The Happening. The potential (though really, is there any doubt?) Avatar, Aang is played with too much seriousness and becomes boring, and the other performances aren't helped by Shylamalan's sloppy directing of his players. Characters also spout stiff, expository dialogue, with occasional narration, which leads to one of the most horrendously rushed romances in screen history. We're told in narration that two people like each other, and then only 20 minutes later, without ever seeing them do or say anything remotely charming or romantic, we're put in a scenario that's supposed to make us believe that they've been in a love affair for the ages. Then there are the elements of the world that are just slapped on, like the importance of (apparently) vital "spirits" to the water kingdom, that the fire army is going to try and kill to reduce the water benders' power. So wait, does this mean that all of the kingdoms have/had spirits of their own? I'll be damned if I know. Oh, and Aang can talk to a strange dragon creature whenever he (involuntarily?) enters some nether-world, and he has a flying bison for a pet, which barely gets any screen time at all and is never explained or discussed in any manner. The film seems to expect its audience to simply buy whatever it throws out as part of its world/mythos, without ever doing these myriad elements any justice in terms of development or explanation. Really, the only aspect of the story that holds any interest is that of exiled Prince Zuko (Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel) and his uncle (Shaun Taub), both members of the fire kingdom, and villains (sort of). But perhaps M. Night's biggest error is that he took a (again, allegedly) engaging, exciting story and made it dull, through both casting and writing, much like George Lucas ruined his own universe with the Star Wars prequels. But perhaps Shyamalan's offense is worse, because instead of ruining something that he created, he's ruined the creation of others. Here's hoping that the title proves prophetic.

Grade: D+

What I watched this week: July 5-11

Repulsion (1965) dir. Roman Polanski:
Polanski's first English-language film may not be the director's shining moment as far as dialogue goes, but the second half of the film demonstrates brilliantly that fear is universal. Catherine Deneuve stars as a young woman left to watch her sister's apartment while she and her boyfriend go on a vacation. While on her own, she experiences increasingly disturbing dreams that take an increasingly dark turn. After a sluggish, even tedious first half or so (did the calm before the storm need to be that long?), the film really takes off as Carole's mental state begins to deteriorate. The slightly jazzy score, often clashing with the images on screen, never outstays its welcome, always cutting off right when it starts to feel overdone. Deneuve, in a role that is silent for large stretches, turns in dazzling work, emoting almost purely through her eyes as a woman quite past the verge of a nervous breakdown. Enhanced by great in-camera effects (walls are used to fantastic effect), subtle but effective art direction, and excellent cinematography. While Polanski's film could easily be dissected in trying to figure out what makes Carole snap (I'm sure more than a few writers have used her virginity as a spring board for their theses), it also works strictly as a surface-only thriller: watch a young woman's downward spiral into madness. Though it may not be everyone's cup of tea, it's certainly an unsettling film with some images that you'll have a difficult time forgetting.

Grade: B+

The Last Picture Show (1971) dir. Peter Bogdanovich:
Essentially a slightly more character-specific, American predecessor to Fellini's Amarcord, Bogdanovich's film is a sparse, bleak, yet very rewarding film. As we see follow a group of soon-to-be-high-school-graduates in Arnene, Texas as they come of age, Bogdanovich (working off of Larry McMurtry's adaptation of his own novel) crafts a methodically paced, understated film that builds. It it the epitome of what "quietly moving" cinema should aspire to; it has enough to make you feel, but never indulges in any jarring moments of blatant heart string-tugging. Performance-wise, there's not a weak link in the group, although I do slightly question Ellen Burstyn's Best Supporting Actress nomination. The same cannot be said for her co-star, Cloris Leachman, who picked up a well-deserved Oscar for her performance as a conflicted, adulterous house-wife. Just when the film leads you to believe that it's done with her, the end brings Leachman back to powerful effect. Fellow winner Ben Johnson also turns in nice, understated work as the father of a somewhat mentally deficient boy. His monologue when he takes his son and Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) to a nearby like is a thing of magnificent, quiet beauty, much like the film around him.

Grade: A/A-

The Red Balloon (1956) dir. Albert Lamorisse:
A small exercise in charm, Lamorisse's Oscar-winning film (which clocks in at only 34 minutes), is a winning example of how to use less to create more. The plot is simple: a balloon with a life of its own follows a young boy as he walks around Paris. And thankfully, that's all the film really does with the premise. You could speculate all you wanted to about deeper meaning, but the film seems to work best as an innocent (but not naive) fairy tale with a magnificent ending.

Grade: B

Saturday, July 10, 2010

"Predators" - REVIEW

Remaking and re-imagining the 80s has been all the rage in summer 2010, much like summer 2007 was the year of "based-on-the-popular-line-of-toys". The Karate Kid and The A-Team both opened last month, and they are now succeeded by Nimrod Antal's Robert Rodriguez-produced sequel/update of the 1987 AHNULD horror-actioner. After lambasted attempts at sequels and cash-ins (Aliens vs. Predators), the 1987 original has at last found a decent follow-up in Antal's film, despite some significant shortcomings. There may be no "getting back to" of "choppahs," but it's worth the ride.

The film opens with Royce (Adrien Brody) falling unconscious through the air, in what I can only assume is some unintentional metaphor for Brody's career path as of late. Royce awakens, and after much fumbling and panicking, his chute opens on its own. In an extremely quick (thankfully) manner, Royce meets up with a group of different-yet-similar characters, all of whom have backgrounds in killing (soldiers, mercenaries, drug cartel enforcers, CIA) and one with a background in saving (Topher Grace's disgraced doctor). As they unwillingly band together to figure out what the hell is going on, they discover that they may not even be on earth, but someplace different entirely. If you've seen the trailer, you know what the answer to that question is, but even so, for the first hour or so, Antal's film remains solidly suspenseful.
The introduction of spiked, dog-sized creatures indicates something larger than the "one preying on many" angle of the original film, and allows for a greater sense of mystery than "who/what is picking us off one by one?". The characters, thin as they are, are slightly more interesting than the original as well, if only because of the fact that they come from so many different forms of the same position. And while Antal seems to have more skill (or at least concentrate his efforts on) jump scares than sustained suspense, I'd be lying if I wasn't at least slightly anxious continuously during the first half. Unfortunately, the film can't sustain its energy and tension. As the predators are revealed more and more, the thrill evaporates; the film is more effective when we see less. Still, the film does benefit from cast members who are genuinely trying their hardest with the B-movie material that they're working with, and there are even a few solid moments of humor, for which is Grace's character is effectively used. Brody, best known for The Pianist, is in action mode here, significantly bulked up and surprisingly convincing as a mercenary. As far as the action, it's fairly standard, and is more exciting on the basis of how loud it is instead of how scenes are shot and the way fights are staged (a predator vs. predator fight and a predator vs. "samurai" fight are both horribly clumsy). By the time we reach these fights, we're well into the second half of the movie, and with the suspense and interest depleted, the last 20 minutes devolve into a series of blunt injuries and kills that bore more than thrill. Still, even with such a lackluster second half, the end does surprisingly leave me longing for a (better executed) sequel, because in spite of its faults, this new Predators introduces a B-movie universe that I'd actually enjoy revisiting. It may not having anyone getting back to a CHOPAH, but there's certainly enough here to make it worth your while (and if you're not normally a fan, it's really not that gorey, which surprised me).

Grade: C+

Friday, July 9, 2010

Who says that commercials can't be art?

The fact that its purpose it to advertise a pair of jeans feels silly, but if you disregard that, it's really a beautiful little short. FYI, the director is John Hillcoat (of The Proposition and The Road).

Where We Stand: Original Score, Animated Film, and Visual Effects

I've decided to leave out Original Song, seeing as many contenders (unless they're performed in the film) are written after a film is completed, it's hard to know what films have original songs in their awards arsenal. So, with that category out of the way, we move onto score, VFX, and Animated. This will be the last installment of my July Predictions, seeing as sound categories aren't exactly the sort of categories that get people giddy with excitement over awards season (regardless of how important sound design is).

Best Original Score:

1. Tree of Life - Alexandre Desplat

2. Biutiful - Gustavo Santaolalla

3. Black Swan - Clint Mansell

4. Inception - Hans Zimmer

5. Rabbit Hole - Abel Korzeniowski

Other Contenders: True Grit, The Conspirator, Miral, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Get Low, Toy Story 3, Never Let Me Go, The King's Speech, Hereafter, Tron: Legacy

Best Animated Film:

1. Toy Story 3

2. How to Train Your Dragon

3. The Illusionist

Other Contenders: Legend of the Guardians, Tangled, Shrek the Fourth, Megamind, Despicable Me

Best Visual Effects:

1. Inception

2. Iron Man 2

3. Tree of Life/Voyage Through Time

4. Tron: Legacy

5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Other Contenders: Salt, Let Me In, The Last Airbender, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Alice in Wonderland

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Emmy Nominations [Updated]

Update: Additional nominees (Guest Actor/Actress, Writing, Directing) can be found HERE.

More about them later, seeing as I have a dentist appointment in an hour. Suffice it to say, they're pretty awesome for the most part. I'll go ahead and say now, though, that while I'm disappointed that Justified's mostly strong first season was left out in the cold, what's even more surprising is the complete snubbing of NBC's Community, while NBC's other oft-snubbed, acclaimed show Friday Night Lights, managed to score some big nominations. On a separate note, I really wish the Emmys would make it more clear as to the number of nominees per category, because for the most part I kept my predictions to five, meaning I was constantly off by one more than expected.

What I Like: As expected, many of my favorites made the cut, including the single best new show of the 2009-2010 season, ABC's Modern Family, which may have one of the strongest pilot episodes in recent memory; rarely has an ensemble felt so perfectly balanced and understood right from the get-go. I'm especially glad to see that MF cleaned up in the acting categories. I've been a fan of Julie Bowen since she appeared on seasons 2 and 3 of Boston Legal. Bowen has a skill at playing the "straight" role in a comedy without being bland, and her delivery of "That'll teach her to screw with me!" in one episode of Modern Family was so perfectly snarky. But Bowen isn't the only cast member deserving of accolades. Fellow category nominee Sofia Vergara was wonderfully wacky as loving trophy-wife Gloria, while the three nominated male counterparts (Burrell, Ferguson, and Stonestreet) all have their fantastic moments of weirdness. It's also nice to see a repeat nomination for SNL's Kristen Wiig, who is currently the only female cast member really making any impact at the moment.

Glee, perhaps the "It" show of the season, didn't do so shoddy either, raking in 19 nominations, the most for any series (HBO's miniseries The Pacific was the total winner with 24 nominations). Coming off of the love from the Golden Globes, it was no surprise that Michele, Morrison, and Lynch were nominated (Michele pretty much for singing so damn well), but I'm also pleased to see Chris Colfer in the supporting actor category. If the Emmys really go crazy over the show when it comes to who wins, Colfer could stand a decent chance. The men of Modern Family risk internal competition, and the voters may want to give someone new a chance, rather than repeat winners Jon Cryer or Neil Patrick Harris. Of course, unless she kills someone, Colfer's co-star Jane Lynch is a 99% lock for her category, especially after she lost at the Golden Globes (where supporting categories aren't separated by Drama/Comedy). Also, bravo to the Academy for the nominations for Glee's Mike O'Malley and 24's Gregory Itzin as the deliciously slithery President Logan (a shame that co-star Necar Zadegan was left out for her portrayal of conflicted IRK first wife Dalia Hassan).

On the returning front, of course it's always good to see 30 Rock, Mad Men, Dexter, and Breaking Bad do well as expected. I'd complain about 30 Rock's Jack McBrayer not being nominated (along with Tracy Morgan), but his prominence was reduced in season 4, not affording him as many golden moments as in seasons 2 and 3. On the drama front, it's great to see the Holy Trinity of Women from Mad Men, score nominations (we'll pretend that your episode of SNL never happened, January Jones). After seeing the writing and directing nominees, I'm also pleased with what my favorite shows were nominated for. As expected, 30 Rock's two writing nominations came from later in the season, when the initially rocky 4th season finally resumed its usual levels of consistent hilarity. On the drama front, Mad Men's season-best, beautifully constructed (and surprisingly hilarious) episode "Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency" scored a writing nomination as well, while Dexter's wrenching season finale earned a well-deserved directing nomination.

What I Didn't Like: As expected, Better Off Ted, ABC's criminally unseen sitcom was left out in the cold. Surprisingly, both Community and Parks and Recreation were totally snubbed (save for Amy Poehler). That had to sting for Joel McHale (Community), who was one of the nominee-announcers this morning (ouch). I at least expected one of the supporting members from each show (Danny Pudi? Nick Offerman? Aziz Ansari?) to make it, but I guess the TV Academy is content to make those shows wait. On the drama front, I'm disheartened to see that Justified was unable to earn a single major nomination, not even for star Timothy Olyphant. Then there's the omission (not entirely surprising) of Jennifer Carpenter, who was at her finest in the fourth season of Dexter. Anna Gunn from Breaking Bad, who could arguably be either lead or supporting in Breaking Bad's third season, was also snubbed, as were supporting cast mates Dean Norris and Betsy Brandt. In the guest acting categories, I can't help but think that Tina Fey's Guest Actress (Comedy) nomination for Saturday Night Live had to do more with general love for her, because the episode as a whole was lackluster (most notably a green screen-reliant sketch about a 9 inch tall hooker that all but left the studio audience out of the joke). Even worse, Michael Sheen was snubbed for his hilarious guest role on 30 Rock as Liz Lemon's insufferable unwanted soul mate. Glee's Dianna Agron is also missing from Supporting Actress (Comedy). While she's one of the show's weakest singers, Agron's character arc (and her performance) brought a lovely amount of nuance to a show built on hyper-stereotypes, and she would have been a perfect complimentary nominee to the outrageous Lynch.

Overall, these are still some pretty damn good nominees, and I look forward to seeing who wins at the ceremony on August 29th (which feels early; isn't the show usually in September? Not that I'm complaining...). And best of all, there aren't a bucket-load of precursor awards to ruin the fun, leaving more room for surprises and upsets.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Trailer for "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger"

While I'm not as excited as I was while this was being cast/filmed, there's always the chance that this will be more in the vein of Vicky Cristina Barcelona and less in the vein of Whatever Works. I like the cast a lot, and depending on the execution, it could be a breezy, enjoyable romp. However, some of the word from Cannes was that the film was quite somber, though to what degree was never specified.

Emmy Award Nominees Predictions

Tomorrow brings an awards race of a different color; one without 500 precursor and critics awards to make the winners (entirely) predictable. That's right, it's Emmy Season. Certain returning favorites are bound to be nominated, along with a host of newcomers in what has been deemed an unusually strong TV season. So, what should we expect when Sofia Vergara and Joel McHale read off the nominees tomorrow morning? Well, considering that the Emmys have an insane amount of categories, I'll stick to the Best Series awards and the central acting awards, or else this post would take up more than a page. The possibilities:

Best Drama Series:
Mad Men
Breaking Bad
The Good Wife

Should be there: Justified

Best Comedy Series:
Modern Family
30 Rock
The Office
Parks and Recreation
Curb Your Enthusiasm

Should be there: Better Off Ted

Actor in a Drama Series:
Michael C. Hall - Dexter
Jon Hamm - Mad Men
Bryan Cranston - Breaking Bad
Hugh Laurie - House
Kiefer Sutherland - 24

Should be there: Timothy Olyphant - Justified

Actress in a Drama Series:
Julianna Margulies - The Good Wife
Glenn Close - Damages
Kyra Sedgwick - The Closer
Sally Field - Brothers and Sisters
Mariska Hargitay - Law and Order: SVU

Should be there: Anna Gunn - Breaking Bad

Actor in a Comedy Series:
Alec Baldwin - 30 Rock
Steve Carell - The Office
Joel McHale - Community
Matthew Morrison - Glee
Jim Parsons - The Big Bang Theory

Should be there: Jay Harrington - Better Off Ted

Actress in a Comedy Series:
Edie Falco - Nurse Jackie
Tina Fey - 30 Rock
Toni Collette - United States of Tara
Lea Michele - Glee
Julia Louis-Dreyfuss - The New Adventures of Old Christine

Should be there: Portia DeRossi - Better Off Ted

Supporting Actor in a Drama Series:
Terry O'Quinn - Lost
Aaron Paul - Breaking Bad
John Slattery - Mad Men
Michael Emerson - Lost
John Goodman - Treme

Should be there: Walton Goggins - Justified

Supporting Actress in a Drama Series:
Elisabeth Moss - Mad Men
Rose Byrne - Damages
Chloe Sevigny - Big Love
Chandra Wilson - Grey's Anatomy
Sandra Oh - Grey's Anatomy

Should be there: Jennifer Carpenter - Dexter

Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series:
Ty Burrell - Modern Family
Neil Patrick Harris - How I Met Your Mother
Tracy Morgan - 30 Rock
Eric Stonestreet - Modern Family
Rainn Wilson - The Office

Should be there: Rico Rodriguez - Modern Family

Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series:
Jane Lynch - Glee
Kristen Wiig - Saturday Night Live
Jane Krakowski - 30 Rock
Julie Bowen - Modern Family
Vanessa Williams - Ugly Betty

Should be there: Dianna Agron - Glee

Where We Stand: Cinematography, Art Direction, and Costume Design

When it comes to direction, performances, and writing, it can be difficult to make predictions so far out because most of the major contenders have little to no actual buzz other than whatever "prestige" ingredients. Thankfully, we have the "shallow" categories; those that we can actually make decent predictions based purely on what we know about a film's crew, setting, and previous work; you didn't have to be a genius to call a film like The Young Victoria (the eventual winner) a good shot for a nomination this time last year. So, for the three "pretty" categories, out slightly more likely contenders are:

Best Cinematography:

1. Tree of Life

2. Inception

3. Miral

4. Black Swan

5. True Grit

Other Contenders: 127 Hours, Never Let Me Go, The Fighter, The Tempest, The American, Hereafter, The Town, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Biutiful, The Conspirator, Burlesque

Best Art Direction:

1. The King's Speech

2. The Conspirator

3. The Tempest

4. Black Swan

5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Other Contenders: Inception, Tree of Life, Shutter Island, Miral, The Way Back, True Grit, The Rum Diary, Alice in Wonderland, Biutiful, Never Let Me Go, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Agora, Burlesque

Best Costume Design:

1. The King's Speech

2. The Tempest

3. The Conspirator

4. Miral

5. Black Swan

Other Contenders: Alice in Wonderland, Burlesque, True Grit, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Agora, Love Ranch, Tree of Life, The Rum Diary, Shutter Island, Secretariat, The Rum Diary, Get Low, The Way Back, Sex and the City 2

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

At long last: "Tree of Life" reaches completion (well...maybe not) and obtains a rating

UPDATE: I think I need to stop making definitive posts about this movie, because within hours or a few days something comes up that throws it all into doubt. Case in point, this latest article at FirstShowing. One of these, this movie will see the light of of these days...

Well it had to happen eventually: the much talked about, much delayed Tree of Life (it can be assumed) has at least completed an initial theatrical cut. Though there are no official confirmations from studio Apparition, the cast, or the reclusive Malick himself, the online community has been able to glean this thanks to Rope of Silicon's lastest MPAA Ratings Bulletin. Exciting news, because it means that, short of complete distributor chaos/implosion (it's been moved from Apparition to Cottonwood), the film will receive its intended late 2010 release and maybe even play at key festivals in Venice or Toronto, which would mean early reviews, which would mean actual information about the carefully guarded, ambitious film. Reset your clocks everyone; only another 15 years until the next Malick project nears completion. Although frankly, I'd have trouble completing a film too if all of my shots looked like this:

P.S. Is it legal to marry a picture?

James Bond: 1962-2008 (for MGM, that is)

Word over at Cinematical is that the upcoming Bond 23, scheduled to be directed by Sam Mendes, has been permanently canceled, which is a real shame. As the linked article states, MGM, the studio behind the franchise since 1962's Dr. No, has a staggering debt of nearly $4 billion. This also casts doubts on the increasingly delayed adaptation of The Hobbit, with Sir Ian McAwesome stating that he will eventually pull out of the film if it doesn't start pre-production soon enough. You can rant about how big studios keep making the same crap over and over again year after year, but there's no denying that they've also brought us classic franchises, and to see two of them in danger at once is disheartening to say the least. Still, hopes are higher for 007, as the franchise is far and away one of the most successful in history, and I wouldn't be surprised if we heard news about various (stable) studios bidding to produce the next installment. The only downside is that the reliable Daniel Craig may be too old (regardless of how ripped he is) to play the role for a studio's liking. This is the real tragedy of the situation, because Craig's Bond, while certainly a tougher, more Bourne-esque figure, certainly had his strengths, best displayed in his first outing in the excellent Casino Royale. Personally, I'm hoping that the franchise finds a new home quickly, so that a third Craig-led Bond film can get underway. Besides, shouldn't Craig's Bond get a better final installment than Quantum of Solace?

Where We Stand: Screenplays and Editing

Best Original Screenplay:

1. The Kids Are All Right

2. Hereafter

3. Inception

4. The King's Speech

5. Toy Story 3 (could be deemed adapted, since it's a sequel)

Other Contenders: Another Year, Tree of Life, Somewhere, The Fighter, Black Swan, Biutiful, Animal Kingdom, The Conspirator

Best Adapted Screenplay:

1. The Way Back

2. The Social Network

3. Miral

4. Love and Other Drugs

5. Rabbit Hole

Other Contenders: Winter's Bone, True Grit, Toy Story 3, Never Let Me Go, London Boulevard, The American, The Tempest, Brighton Rock, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I, The Rum Diary, Shutter Island, The Ghost Writer

Best Editing:

1. Inception

2. Love and Other Drugs

3. The Way Back

4. 127 Hours

5. Miral

Other Contenders: Black Swan, Biutiful, Never Let Me Go, The Kids Are All Right, Rabbit Hole, The Conspirator, The Fighter, Animal Kingdom, True Grit, The Town, Tree of Life, The Social Network, Love and Other Drugs

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Where We Stand: Best Supporting Actor and Actress

Arguably the more fun categories in comparison to their leading counterparts, the races for Best Supporting Actor and Actress, with a few exceptions (the past three years for S. Actor) are generally more colorful. Supporting performances have the ability to either arouse acclaim (Mo'Nique, Javier Bardem, etc...) or confusion (Ruby Dee), and even have the occasional left-field winner (Tilda Swinton). Unlike the past few years, there are no buzzed about front-runners poised to sweep everything up until AMPAS' big night, but here's who's probably going to receive a healthy campaign starting in a few months:

Best Supporting Actor:

1. Ed Harris - The Way Back
  • Why: A 4-time nominee with no wins; the Academy usually loves to reward its veterans
  • Why: WWII subject matter
  • Why Not: Co-star Colin Farrell may be pushed as supporting as well, leading to internal competition
  • Why Not: Veteran status aside, it feels eerily similar to that for Liev Schreiber for Defiance, which didn't exactly go anywhere
2. Sam Rockwell - Conviction
  • Why: Rockwell has been building steam recently, and delivered a stellar performance in Moon last year, for which he was snubbed
  • Why: He also has the success of Iron Man 2 to keep him in people's minds
  • Why: A true-story victim role
  • Why Not: If the film doesn't go over well enough, he could be forgotten, or it could just be Swank's film
3. Bill Murray - Get Low
  • Why: Good early word of mouth out of Toronto last year
  • Why Not: Film might not go over well aside from Duvall's performance
4. Geoffrey Rush - The King's Speech
  • Why: Rush has a history of excelling in period pieces, especially in supporting roles (Elizabeth, Shakespeare in Love)
  • Why: Playing a real-life figure
  • Why Not: The film could simply be ignored in the acting categories like The Young Victoria
5. Mark Ruffalo - The Kids Are All Right
  • Why: An actor who has been in the game for a while now, this could be his big break with the Academy
  • Why: If the film (a comedy) is embraced in a big way, expect his performance (along with Bening and Moore) to get swept up with it
  • Why Not: There aren't too many people out there who seem to think that he's ever been snubbed (unlike Rockwell)
  • Why Not: He'll need to be a strong stand-out against the film's more likely leading ladies

Other Contenders: Christian Bale - The Fighter, Brad Pitt - Tree of Life, Andrew Garfield - The Social Network, Aaron Eckhart - Rabbit Hole, John Malkovich - Secretariat, Joseph-Gordon Levitt - Inception, Giovanni Ribisi - The Rum Diary, Chris Cooper - The Town

Best Supporting Actress: The Category where I lose my mind

1. Helena Bonham Carter - The King's Speech
  • Why: Playing real-life royalty
  • Why: Hasn't been nominated since The Wings of the Dove and has done some strong work since (Sweeney Todd, most notably); perhaps it's time to finally give her that second nomination?
  • Why Not: Still no word/buzz on the film or the performance; the category is still anyone's game
2. Mila Kunis - Black Swan
  • Why: Her role (Portman's "is she real or imaginary?" rival) is plenty mysterious
  • Why: She's made most of her "mark" in comedy (Meg on Family Guy, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) so she could be doubly surprising in this ballet-themed drama
  • Why Not: She may not be able to pull it off
  • Why Not: The role may be too much of an "emblem" and may be harder to identify with (ex: Melanie Laurent in Inglourious Basterds)
3. Freida Pinto - Miral
  • Why: Weinstein backing
  • Why: A chance to actually show if she can act (she looked pretty in Slumdog, but didn't have too much else)
  • Why Not: Complications with category placement; apparently she may start off as more supporting, only to become lead in the second half (she plays the title character)
4. Dianne Wiest - Rabbit Hole
  • Why: A two time winner who hasn't been an Oscar-presence in a long time
  • Why: Grieving grandmother role that was a critical goldmine for Tyne Daly on stage
  • Why Not: Too much competition?
5. Amy Adams - The Fighter
  • Why: As of now the film may not be embraced by AMPAS (O'Russel's films never have been), but the key for Adams is simple: she's playing against type
  • Why: A well-liked, younger actress with two previous nominations to her credit; AMPAS obviously likes her quite a bit
  • Why Not: May not be able to pull the role off well enough OR the Academy simply may not take to Adams in a darker role

Other Contenders: Helen Mirren - Brighton Rock, Hiam Abbass - Miral (assuming she ends up in more of a supporting role), Elle Fanning - Somewhere, Melissa Leo - The Fighter, Bryce Dallas Howard - Hereafter, Saoirse Ronan - The Way Back, Barbara Hershey - Black Swan, Keira Knightley - Never Let Me Go, Blanca Portillo - Biutiful, Jessica Chastain - Tree of Life

What I watched this week: June 28-July 4

The Leopard (1963) dir. Luchino Visconti: I have no problem admitting it when a "classic" film doesn't go over well with me, and Visconti's acclaimed epic is one such film. Though it's an undeniably BIG, beautiful film, everything else leaves a lot to be desired. The point of film, based on the Italian novel of the same title, seems to be that the rich and powerful stay the same, regardless of what goes on in a country politics-wise. This would make for a fascinating look at Italy in the tumultuous 1860's (the Garibaldi days), but Visconti's film more than outstays its welcome. At just a smidge over three hours, by the time it's over, it makes you wonder, "so what was the point of all of that?" From a historical standpoint, a lot of sweeping events occur, but we get them only in snippets of dialogue (save for one big invasion/battle sequence in the first hour) and usually from quite a distance. We're looking at these events from the perspective of a prince, and as such, it feels like little has happened or changed. This also makes the great Nino Rota's (8 1/2, The Godfather, etc...) score seem utterly laughable in some of the film's massive pan shots of the Italian countryside. The film also seems oblivious to the irony that Prince Salina (Burt Lancaster), who gives a small speech about the difference between the stagnant nobility (the "lions" and "leopards") and the people who are always working for change (the "lambs"), comes off as a bit of a lamb himself, because he's so passive. The script also makes the mistake of keeping most of the final hour in one location, at an interminable ball sequence where nothing of great note is said or done. It's enough to make you want to quote Vicki Lawrence from The Carol Burnett Show's spoof of Gone With the Wind: "Well that's pretty, but it doesn't answer my question."

Grade: C

Lemon Tree (2009) dir. Eran Riklis: Hiam Abbass may be a potential Oscar contender for her work in the upcoming Miral, but that film won't be the first time that she's been the star of a story about tensions between Israel and Palestine. In Lemon Tree, the actress (who made her US debut in The Visitor) plays Salma Zidane, a Palestinian woman near the border who owns a field of lemon trees. When the new Israeli Defense Minister moves in next door, and the trees are deemed a potential security risk, obviously things go south. Riklis' film is a nicely told film that explores the innocent players in the Israel/Palestine conflict, without ever lurching into melodrama or hysterical political grandstanding. Abbass' Salma may be a tough, likable character, but her opponents are never painted in broad strokes so as to make the film totally lopsided (although it does still side with her). It's not a great film, but it does do a nice job of incorporating issues within its story, and shows how the innocent are affected during conflict.

Grade: B

Paris, Texas (1984) dir. Wim Wenders: A film that should probably be better remembered for its performances and cinematography than for its writing, Wim Wenders' film isn't the sort that struck me as a classic (the way it has many), but it's still a very good film, albeit in need of a better editor in spots. As the wandering Travis, Harry Dean Stanton gives a marvelous performance as a man trying to put his life back together, only without having any idea of how to do it. He's backed up (late in the game) by Natassja Kinski, with whom he shares the film's best scene; slow conversation is rarely this striking. The gorgeous cinematography, mixing landscapes and the glow of neon lights, combined with the sparse, twangy score only add to the experience. Unfortunately, Wenders' story telling doesn't always match up. I understand that Travis is supposed to be slightly "off," but it's a little much when he leaves his son sleeping out all night by a bank while he sits in his car (also asleep) across the street. Then there's Travis' son, Hunter, who in spots borders on precocious. Still, it's hard not to be taken away by the journey that Travis embarks, especially when you see what it all adds up to. Not quite the classic it's been hailed as, but strong work all the same.

Grade: B+

Secrets and Lies (1996) dir. Mike Leigh: Before he got caught up in the slice-of-life sub-genre, Mike Leigh used to make movies with some semblance of a forward-moving plot. Frankly, I miss this Mike Leigh, because Secrets and Lies outshines his more recent work quite a bit. When Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) decides to find her birth mother, she meets the lower-class Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), and from there everything bubbles to the surface. Leigh's screenplay seems less open to improvisation here, and the film is all the better because of it; Leigh is much better when he doesn't give up too much control to his actors. That said, he still needs to work on his pacing, because at roughly 2 hours and 25 minutes, it's far too long for what it is (the big revelation of Hortense meeting her birth mother comes over an hour in). Still, the performances are uniformly strong, especially from the very likable Jean-Baptiste. Blethyn, though at times grating (any chance she gets to squawk out the word "sweetheart," she seizes) is strong and has wonderful chemistry with Jean-Baptiste. The problem, aside from the revelation, is that by the time we reach the end, too much comes up at once, and it all feels a bit misshapen, plot-wise.

Grade: B/B+

From Here to Eternity (1953) dir. Fred Zinneman: Though parts of this romantic, WWII-set Best Picture winner haven't aged well, it remains an engaging, well-acted drama. The cast is full of strong performances, especially from Montgomery Clift and Donna Reed (Reed and Frank Sinatra won the Supporting Actress/Actor awards for their performances). However, with the characters' story lines somewhat spread apart, the Burt Lancaster/Deborah Kerr romance, while benefiting from the talents of the two stars, feels rushed and underdeveloped to be truly compelling. Not to mention that any character who has emotional baggage delivers it all at once in a slightly clumsy manner. Still, after over nearly 60 years, the film remains a stirring work that has survived because of its directing and acting.

Grade: B+