Wednesday, February 29, 2012

"Prometheus" goes viral, "Frankenweenie" rises + more "Avengers"

Prometheus, TED Talk Viral Video:

Aside from the fact that I'll watch just about anything with Guy Pearce, this new piece of viral marketing from Ridley Scott's Prometheus has sent my interest skyrocketing. Granted, this sort of set up - the overly ambitious corporation that stumbles upon something dangerous - has been used in plenty of sci-fi films before. Still, those other sci-fi films didn't have Alien helmer Ridley Scott sitting in the director's chair. According to Scott, Prometheus is not an official prequel to the Alien film series, though other interviews have suggested loose ties in the film's final act. Either way, Scott's return to sci-fi is reason for plenty of excitement. In the aftermath of the Transformers films, it will be nice to have a (hopefully) adult and intelligent slice of sci-fi horror/thriller to liven up the summer.

Grade: B+


For Tim Burton, 2012 is 2005 all over again. In addition to a star-studded live action effort (May's Dark Shadows), the director also has another stop motion film ready for release that instantly evokes the style he first exhibited in The Nightmare Before Christmas. The premise is simple, but if anyone can deliver on the execution, it's Burton (love that Bride of Frankenstein gag with the poodle). In a year where Pixar will likely return to dominance (Brave), Frankenweenie, a full length adaptation of an old Burton short film, could provide a quirky rival, and possibly earn the director an Oscar (at last). If only they could cut that mention of Alice in Wonderland from the trailer. Burton has directed so many wonderful films, and it's a shame that the marketing team is trying to lure audiences in by name-dropping his worst (as well as his most profitable) film.

Grade: B

The Avengers (#2):

Come May 4th, the buildup to The Avengers (which began with 2008's Iron Man) will finally be complete. While I haven't been crazy about some of the individual films leading up to this Joss Whedon-directed effort (Thor in particular), this looks like it will deliver the fun, glitzy popcorn goods in spades. The only thing that's worrisome at this point is whether or not all of the different stars involved will click as an ensemble. Considering the big four (Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, and Captain America) are all leads in their respective franchises, The Avengers' biggest hurdle will be whether or not it can balance the various personalities without shortchanging one (or more). And even though Joss Whedon's name inspires confidence, that metal behemoth at the end is eerily close to something out of Michael Bay's Transformers universe.

Grade: B

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Run Down: The 84th Academy Awards

Oscar turned 84 last night, and celebrated by honoring the past. Not only were two movies about cinema's early years big winners (The Artist and Hugo), but Billy Crystal rose to host once again, and Christopher Plummer became the oldest acting winner in history at 82, making him just two years younger than the award he accepted. As with many of the recent Oscar ceremonies, surprises were few and far between, though there was certainly a major one (we'll get there later). And, as with any Oscar ceremony, there were moments worthy of applause, and moments worthy of total mockery, although thankfully nothing was as painful as James Franco's complete lack of effort last year.

The Good

The Artist reigns supreme: The Artist and Hugo earned 10 and 11 Oscar nominations respectively, but ultimately AMPAS went with Michel Hazanvicius' black and white silent film. Not that Hugo was shunned; Scorcese's tribute to cinema managed to pick up 5 trophies in the technical categories. In the end, though, The Artist came out on top, also winning 5 trophies, but in three of the top categories (Picture, Director, Actor), which was a welcome change of pace after the Hugo-dominated first half of the ceremony. To paraphrase one commenter last night, Hugo tells you why old cinema is important, but The Artist actually shows you why old cinema is important.

The Presentation: Despite some awkward attempts at comedy by the presenters (Downey Jr. and Paltrow's bit really didn't work), the show flowed incredibly well, handing out awards without much lag.
Except for this mess...

Even the totally superfluous Cirque du Soleil performance didn't slow the show down, which only ran about 5 minutes past its 3 hour time slot. Pretty damn good when you consider that some ceremonies have lasted upwards of 4.5 hours.

Clips: One of the strangest trends in recent Oscar ceremonies has been the omission of clips during the presentation of the acting nominees. Thankfully this year's ceremony corrected that, and gave the nominees strong clips to demonstrate their efforts (the clips for Viola Davis and Rooney Mara were particularly well-chosen).

The acting winners' acceptance speeches: I really hope the Oscars' Youtube page adds clips from last night soon, because I really can't wait to watch these speeches again. In short, they were both extremely humble (not to mention adorable) and well handled. And as much flack as Streep has taken for winning awards these past few months, she has remained a class act through all of it.

The Original Score Presentation: Instead of simply listing off the nominees and playing some brief samples, the show went in a surprisingly epic direction for the Original Score category by sending up a massive screen designed to look like a stand with sheet music. Making it even better was Crystal's priceless reaction to the spectacle, an unimpressed "eh..."

Baxter and Wall, 2 for 2: After scooping up an incredibly deserved Best Editing Oscar for The Social Network last year, Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall scored again for their excellent work on David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It was a welcome surprise in the tech categories, which were otherwise dominated by Hugo and The Artist.

Jim Rash mocks Angelina Jolie: Angelina Jolie's extreme slit on her dress was certainly eye-catching, though it was slightly confusing when the actress tried to make a big deal of it by flaunting her leg. Not missing a beat, Jim Rash, one of the three winning writers for The Descendants, struck his own pose during the trio's acceptance speech, and provided one of the best improvised laughs of the night.

Natalie Portman: The Swan Queen returned to present Best Actor, and looked damn good doing it.

Will Ferrell and Zach Galifiankis being ridiculous:

The cast of Bridesmaids' drinking game: Continuing a gag from the SAG awards last month, the ladies from Bridesmaids drank anytime the name Scorcese was mentioned. Even funnier was the fact that Scorcese was unaware of the joke; the director looked positively baffled during the moment.

This picture:

The In-Between

Billy Crystal: There's no doubt that Billy Crystal is one of the Oscars' best hosts, but last night won't go down as one of his better efforts. Some of the material felt stale, and even the opening sequence featuring the host inserted into the nominated films (a Crystal staple) fell flat in comparison to years past. I can't believe I'm saying this, but Hathaway and Franco did a better job stealing Crystal's schtick last year.

Meryl Streep wins her third Oscar: It's been a long time coming, but Queen Meryl finally won her third Oscar statue, providing the only surprising acting winner of the night. Most everyone thought Viola Davis had this locked up, and the shock was palpable.

Meanwhile, in the balcony: What on earth was with those commercial bumps featuring the band sitting up in the Kodak Theater's box seats?

Wait, didn't Nicole Kidman wear that 5 years ago?:

The Bad

Hugo wins Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects:
One day, day...

Comparing the efforts of Hugo to those of The Tree of Life and Rise of the Planet of the Apes only makes these two wins look like complete jokes. The cinematography win is particularly troubling, considering that Lubezki's work on Malick's opus is some of the best DP work in years.

Supporting Actors are special too: Why were the lead actor/actress nominees given individual tributes by the presenters while the supporting actors were presented just like every other award? Some of the greatest performances of all time are supporting roles, and it looks pretty condescending to treat the leading nominees as more important.

Harry Potter and the Oscarless Film Franchise: The mega-successful film series' last film went home empty handed, leaving the massive 8-film franchise completely devoid of Oscar wins. They couldn't even throw an award to Stuart Craig's mind-blowing art direction, even after all of these years of bringing J.K. Rowling's world so beautifully to life. For shame.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Predictions for the 84th Academy Awards

At long last, another awards season is about to come to a close. Overall, 2011 was a strong year for cinema, yet ultimately AMPAS' nominees don't fully reflect this. There are any number of films and performances that ought to be attending the ceremony as nominees tonight (Michael Shannon, Elizabeth Olsen, etc...) but sadly won't. Still, at the very least I can hope that AMPAS will pick worthy winners out of some line-ups with rather uneven quality among the nominees.

For a refresher on the nominees, click HERE.

Best Picture
Will Win: The Artist
Should Win: The Tree of Life

I can't really say anything bad about The Artist as the likely winner of the top prize. It's a delightful, wonderfully made film through and through. In fact, out of the entire line up, The Artist is the only film really deserving of the title of Best Picture. Except for that little Terrence Malick movie. Whatever charms The Artist has, Malick's magnum opus really ought to be taking home this trophy. The film is only my second favorite of 2011 (#1 being Take Shelter), but I can't deny that The Tree of Life is last year's defining cinematic achievement.

Best Director

Will Win: Michel Hazanvicius - The Artist
Should Win: Terrence Malick - The Tree of Life

See above.

Best Actor
Will and Should Win: Jean Dujardin - The Artist

It's been a close race between Dujardin and Hollywood golden boy George Clooney, but the Frenchman took the lead in the last legs of awards season. Clooney still has a very strong chance here, but ultimately this will go to the 'newcomer' of the group (I guess Demian Bichir would count too, but his nomination is his reward). Besides, Clooney already has an Oscar, and I don't think AMPAS will mind making him wait longer for a second one.

Best Actress

Will and Should Win: Viola Davis - The Help

The Help may be little more than a decent film, but the work from its cast is excellent across the board, particularly Davis. While there's a chance that Meryl Streep could finally win her third statue, Davis' film has infinitely more support than The Iron Lady, not to mention serious momentum. Everyone else should just be glad that they're here.

Best Supporting Actor
Will and Should Win: Christopher Plummer - Beginners

Mike Mills' lovely Beginners should have significantly more nominations, but if it has to come down to one, Plummer is a fabulous choice. I hate that Ewan McGregor has been ignored, but at least his co-star will be able to represent the film with class tonight. Plummer is the film's heart and soul, so even though this might be something of a "career win," it's one that feels completely deserved.

Best Supporting Actress
Will Win: Octavia Spencer - The Help
Should Win: Jessica Chastain - The Help

As much as I'd like to see Chastain take this award (which would essentially be for all of the films she was in anyway), Spencer has had this locked up ever since the Golden Globes. That's certainly not a bad thing, but Chastain's mix of goofiness and vulnerability were one of The Help's highlights, and it's too bad that they're being passed over.

Best Original Screenplay
Will Win: The Artist
Should Win: A Separation

Best Adapted Screenplay
Will Win: The Descendants
Should Win: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Best Cinematography
Will Win: Hugo
Should Win: The Tree of Life

No commentary other than that this will be the travesty of the night.

Best Editing
Will Win: The Artist
Should Win: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Best Art Direction
Will Win: Hugo
Should Win: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2

The real question, though, is why the hell they overlooked Tinker Tailor here, of all places. The dense, dreary world of Cold War London looked immaculate.

Best Costume Design
Will Win: Hugo
Should Win: The Artist or Jane Eyre.

The costumes from Anonymous look incredible as well, but I haven't seen the film so I'll refrain from officially passing judgement. Strange that, in a year filled with so many amazing films, there really weren't too many with mind-blowing wardrobes.

Best Animated Film
Will and Should Win: Rango

Despite its early opening (March), I still think that Gore Verbinski's delightfully strange neo-Western will triumph here. I've heard good things about Chico and Rita, but it doesn't seem to have the industry support that Rango has.

Best Foreign Language Film
Will and Should Win: A Separation [Iran]

It's critically adored and has swept its category throughout awards season. If it loses, it'll be the biggest category upset since Pan's Labyrinth's loss (and even that one wasn't a complete surprise).

Best Original Score

Will and Should Win: The Artist

Given its lack of any other sounds, Ludovic Bource's score has to do quite a bit of heavy lifting, yet the composer makes it all feel effortless. It's not necessarily the best work of the year, but it's high up there, and it stands head and shoulders over its competition. If they give it to Williams for War Horse, I'm going to scream.

Best Original Song

Will and Should Win: "Man or Muppet" - The Muppets

Best Visual Effects
Will and Should Win: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

I guess I'll know in a few hours how good/bad/disastrous these were. Either way, it's Oscar night, so there isn't too much that can get in the way of a good time. It's not like James Franco is hosting again...

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Netflix Files: February 6-12

Mona Lisa (1986) dir. Neil Jordan
Neil Jordan is one of those directors whose films I really want to like, yet something always gets in the way, usually the pacing. Sadly, Mona Lisa is no exception, though it certainly has its strengths. Bob Hoskins gives a strong performance as a man slowly (very slowly) dragged into the seedy underbelly of London, and his chemistry with Cathy Tyson makes the film worth sticking with. It also features some nicely handled tense sequences, and the film's one big blow up of violence is quite effective in its simplicity. Mona Lisa isn't striving to be a crime epic; the nature of its story is small, even though the consequences can be severe. Unfortunately, Jordan's pacing isn't on the same level of consistency as the performances, and as such it's easy for one's mind to wander in the first hour, which becomes repetitive after a while. A noble effort with strong parts that ultimately add up to a whole that isn't quite all there.

Grade: B/B-

Trainspotting (1996) dir. Danny Boyle
Long before Danny Boyle was filling the screen with zombies or taking us through the streets of Mumbai, he made a little movie about drug addiction that catapulted him into the limelight, and for good reason. It's got Boyle's signature all over it, which helps keep the often dour plot from becoming unrepentant misery porn. There are even a few moments of black comedy that work nicely to punctuate the unsettling subject matter. Yet when Boyle wants to make the film hit hard, he does so masterfully. In what is easily the film's best scene, we see Renton (the wonderful Ewan McGregor) going into withdrawal in his childhood bedroom. Boyle pulls out all of the surreal stops here, and the longer the sequence goes on, the more powerful it becomes. Even though smaller characters don't feel as well-rounded as Renton does, Boyle captures the lower middle class druggie lifestyle with such skill that it does little to hamper the film's impact. Pair this with a screening of Requiem for a Dream, and you'll never even think about doing meth or cocaine for quite some time.

Grade: B+/A-

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Reboot Central: "The Amazing Spiderman" and "The Bourne Legacy" Trailers

When Sony first announced that it would scrap Spiderman 4 in favor of a series reboot, I thought it was one of the dumbest big studio decisions in quite some time. Spiderman 3 wasn't exactly, er, good, but it wasn't bad enough to kill the Raimi-helmed franchise. Sony continued with the plan, and after months of on-set photos and a brief teaser (featuring some bizarre first person footage), a proper trailer has arrived, and it's pretty solid all around. I have to admit, I really like this more sarcastic, humorous Peter Parker/Spiderman; not all heroes need to brood and sulk in existential crisis 24/7. And as much as I love this cast and the inclusion of the Lizard (Rhys Ifans) as a villain, there's a certain punch that's missing from the action shots. Part of this is likely due to the fact that the film is still in post-production, where additional sound mixing and VFX work will be done. Even so, what we're given here looks like more of the same, and still brings up that initial question: why do we need to start this story over, despite the different characters? While I'm glad that the trailer doesn't focus on the origin story part of the film, part of the result is that one simply wishes that Raimi had been given the chance to make another good Spidey film, one free of the studio meddling that sank Spiderman 3 (critically/fan-wise, at least).

Trailer Grade: B

Also being given a major make over: the Bourne franchise. No, Jeremy Renner isn't the new Jason Bourne, but his character - Aaron Cross - is part of the same story. In fact, many characters, including those played by Albert Finney, David Strathairn, and Joan Allen, are all back along with new faces like Edward Norton and Rachel Weisz. Though the trailer itself doesn't have as much footage, I like how this one pulls out its reveal gradually, and builds an intriguing set up: Jason Bourne's story was only the beginning. So even though Damon and director Paul Greengrass are gone, the smart and talented Tony Gilroy (who wrote the first three Bourne films along with writing and directing Michael Clayton) is a comforting replacement in the director's chair. Renner is another plus, a strong actor who can be the character actor or the leading man (or both), as well as a convincing thinking man's action hero.

Trailer Grade: A-

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Review: "The Woman in Black"

There may not be any wands in The Woman in Black, James Watkins' take on the classic British ghost story, but there's plenty of supernatural elements to fill that void. So even though Daniel Radcliffe's Harry Potter days are finally behind him, and the actor has certainly grown quite a bit. Yet despite Radcliffe's maturation and earnest efforts, Watkins' film fails to generate much in the way of suspense or scares.

Opening with a quietly unsettling set of deaths, followed by hazy close-ups of a husband and wife exchanging their wedding rings, the story proper begins with Arthur Kipps, now a widower, leaving behind his young son to settle the accounts of a old house out on an island. Upon his arrival, he slowly gets to know the various townsfolk, who all seem more than a little chilly towards the great manor on the island. Eventually Kipps finds himself the object of suspicion and hostility, driving him further into his work to discover the mystery behind the titular woman in black.

What follows is a disappointingly amateurish ghost story, filled with both predictable story arcs and predictable scares. You may not know what exactly is going to go 'bang' at a specific moment, but you'll see whatever it is coming from a mile away. So even though the production design is quite handsome and there's some nice photography, a consistent atmosphere never develops. It's a series of BOO! moments that sometimes work, and sometimes fall flat. And with such thinly drawn characters, the film's lackluster success rate with its scares only becomes more problematic. After a certain point, you'll likely get tired of the film's build-ups to the next spooky happening, because Watkins makes it so painfully obvious. This is a film designed to get jumps out of people, rather than instill a compelling sense of chilling horror.

Add to this the massive cop-out of an ending, and what you're left with is nothing more than a cheap shell of a ghost story. Radcliffe is trying, and the material suits him quite nicely. The problem is that there simply isn't enough for him to work with. Ciaran Hinds is wasted in a purely functional role, while Janet McTeer has some fun with her character's loony, warped mind. Ultimately, though, all they've been given are scraps. Obviously, the film's purpose isn't to act as a character study, but here the characters really are just audience stand-ins meant to navigate us from one scare to the next. Compare this to say, The Others, which featured its fair share of jumps along with some strong performances, and the whole thing simply pales in comparison. And while that film's ending, which utilized back-to-back twists with hugely effective results, resonated, here the conclusion feels forced, and doesn't feel strongly connected to the main plot. It's just a contrived way to pass off a strange sort of happily ever after scenario, and it comes across as awkward and unconvincing. And those two adjectives, as it turns out, sum up the film as a whole all too well.

Grade: C

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Month in Review: January 2012

Best Film (Theaters):
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Despite considerable obstacles and a (very) deliberate pace, Tomas Alfredson's adaptation of Le Carre's spy classic is a triumph, through and through. The ensemble is stellar, the production values outstanding (how did AMPAS pass this over for Art Direction?), and the film's slow burn builds to an understated, yet hugely satisfying conclusion.

Best Film (DVD/Streaming): Farewell My Concubine

Its scope is massive, yet this never detracts from what is, ultimately, a very human story. Kaige Chen's film masterfully covers decades of Chinese history in addition to the lives of the three main characters, and makes it all seem easy.

Best Direction:
Tomas Alfredson - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

His pacing is steady, yet he knows how to up the story's intrigue with a brilliant sense of timing. The dinginess and darkness of Cold War-era London comes to life thanks to his smart, sticky visuals. In a story with so much information to dispense, he helps it all flow together with expert craftsmanship.

Best Male Performance:Peyman Moadi - A Separation

As the only definitive lead in Farhadi's film, it's up to Moadi to more or less carry the whole film, and he does it impeccably. Whether he's verbally sparring with his wife in one of the many high-voltage dialogue exchanges, or quietly reigning in his frustration and sadness, he delivers in spades.

Best Female Performance:
Laura Linney - You Can Count on Me

The performance that earned Laura Linney her first Oscar nomination is also one of her very best. As Samantha, Linney's mix of confusion, tenderness, and anger all flow together to create a beautiful, authentic character. In a film filled with strong individual parts, Linney still manages to stand out as the highlight.

Best Ensemble Cast:
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

It's a film where even the smallest roles have key importance to the narrative, and despite some limited screen time, even the small roles make their marks. Everyone ranging from Kathy Burke's Connie Sachs to more prominent figures like characters played by Gary Oldman and Mark Strong deliver top-flight performances, working beautifully in-sync, whether they're sharing the screen or not.

Best Screenplay:
A Separation by Asghar Farhadi

What's immediately apparent from the opening scene of Farhadi's film is that the man knows how to write a good argument. And given all of the conflicts present in A Separation, that skill gets put to good use over the course of the film's two hours. Though the characters' logic can seem strange or archaic at times, the truth of Farhadi's writing still comes through. The verbal battles keep your eyes glued to the screen, as do the occasional moments of silence.

Best Cinematography:
Changwei Gu - Farewell My Concubine

Gu was faced with a big challenge in DP-ing Chen's sprawling film, yet his efforts paid off beautifully. Six decades of history come together under his fluid, roving camera movements and soft, hazy lighting. It's precisely this photography that allows for the film to achieve its strong mix of narrative broadness and emotional intimacy.