Saturday, February 23, 2013

2013 Oscar WINNERS [Complete]

Correctly predicted 20 out of 24 Oscar winners!! 

We are now less than 24 hours from Oscar night (or, as it should be called for those in LA, Oscar afternoon), Hollywood's biggest night of self-congratulation, tears, and cheers. And, barring a few major categories, tomorrow night's show will conclude one of the most exciting Oscar races in years. The top prize may be all but locked for Ben Affleck's Argo, but plenty of other categories are, refreshingly, up in the air, including Best Director, and half of the acting categories. There are a handful of risks in my predictions for tomorrow's ceremony, but predicting these awards shows isn't fun without at least one gutsy choice. Come tomorrow night/afternoon, we'll know all of the winners, whether they be completely expected, or shocking upsets. And then we get to start the countdown to the 2013 awards season and 2014 Oscars, and go through the whole cycle of ups and downs all over again.

For a refresher on the nominees, click HERE

Best Picture
Front Runner: Argo
Alternates: Silver Linings Playbook, Lincoln
Winner: Argo

Best Director
Front Runner: Ang Lee - Life of Pi
Alternates: Steven Spielberg - Lincoln, Michael Haneke - Amour
Winner: Ang Lee - Life of Pi

Best Actor
Front Runner: Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln [99% lock]
Alternates: Bradley Cooper - Silver Linings Playbook [0.5%], Hugh Jackman - Les Miserables [0.5%]
Winner: Daniel Day-Lewis - Oscar

Best Actress:
Front Runner: Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook
Alternates: Emmanuelle Riva - Amour
Winner: Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook

Best Supporting Actor
Front Runner: Tommy Lee Jones - Lincoln
Alternates: Robert DeNiro - Silver Linings Playbook, Christoph Waltz - Django Unchained
Winner: Christoph Waltz - Django Unchained

Best Supporting Actress
Front Runner: Anne Hathaway - Les Miserables
Alternates: N/A
Winner: Anne Hathaway - Les Miserables

Best Original Screenplay
Front Runner: Amour
Alternates: Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty
Winner: Django Unchained

Best Adapted Screenplay
Front Runner: Argo
Alternates: Lincoln
Winner: Argo

Best Editing
Front Runner: Argo
Alternates: Zero Dark Thirty
Winner: Argo

Best Cinematography
Front Runner: Life of Pi
Alternates: Skyfall
Winner: Life of Pi

Best Production Design
Front Runner: Anna Karenina
Alternates: Les Miserables
Winner: Lincoln

Best Costume Design
Front Runner: Anna Karenina
Alternates: Mirror Mirror
Winner: Anna Karenina

Best Animated Film
Front Runner: Brave
Alternates: Wreck-It-Ralph
Winner: Brave

Best Foreign Language Film
Front Runner: Amour [Austria]
Alternates: N/A
Winner: Amour [Austria]

Best Make Up
Front Runner: Les Miserables
Alternates: The Hobbit
Winner: Les Miserables

Best Original Score
Front Runner: Life of Pi
Alternates: Anna Karenina
Winner: Life of Pi

Best Original Song
Front Runner: "Skyfall" - Skyfall
Alternates: "Suddenly" - Les Miserables
Winner: "Skyfall" - Skyfall

Best Sound Mixing
Front Runner: Les Miserables
Alternates: Argo, Life of Pi
Winner: Les Miserables

Best Sound Editing
Front Runner: Life of Pi
Alternates: Argo
Winner [TIE]: Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall

Best Visual Effects
Front Runner: Life of Pi
Alternates: N/A
Winner: Life of Pi

Best Documentary [Feature]
Front Runner: Searching for Sugarman
Alternates: How to Survive a Plague, The Invisible War
Winner: Searching for Sugarman

Best Documentary [Short]
Front Runner: Inocente (??)
Alternates: Redemption (??)
Winner: Inocente

Best Animated Film [Short]
Front Runner: Paperman
Alternates: N/A
Winner: Paperman

Best Live Action Film [Short]
Front Runner: Asad
Alternates: Buzkashi Boys
Winner: Curfew

Friday, February 15, 2013

Review: "No"

Director: Pablo Larrain
Runtime: 118 minutes

The muted visuals of Ben Affleck's Argo work on an aesthetic level in part because they call to mind the faded footage and photographs of the time period. Yet that film still possesses a certain Hollywood sheen (I don't mean this as an insult). If you're looking for a film that really goes all out in recreating a certain aesthetic, then look no further than Pablo Larrain's No. Currently nominated for Best Foreign Language Film (it hails from Chile), Larrain's third film won't ever win any awards for its visuals, and that's entirely on purpose. Shot like a home movie from the time period (the late 80s), it is easily one of the ugliest films to come along in quite some time. Yet once one adjusts to the choice Larrain made, the craftsmanship still comes through to create a stirring political drama.  And while it may not be quite the triumph it's been billed as, No is still worth a look, even if it sometimes feels too simple and safe. 

Larrain wastes no time in setting up the historical backdrop. After 15 years in power, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, under international pressure, calls for a vote on his regime. If the majority votes 'Yes,' Pinochet will remain in power for eight more years, and if the reverse happens, then Pinochet's regime will end. The campaign will last a mere 27 days, during which the Yes and No sides will be allotted 15 minutes of airtime per day. Joining the No campaign is advertiser Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), who we first meet as he presents a borderline satirically cheery ad for Coca Cola. What starts off as a seemingly simple assignment soon takes over Saavedra's life as he tries to balance somber honesty with pandering emotional appeals. 

In one sense, No shares a central thematic arc with, of all things, Zero Dark Thirty. The protagonists enter into an assignment thinking of it merely as work. Yet as time progresses, they grow more and more invested, only to be left uncertain once their goals have been accomplished. Yet for Saavedra, the shift is more unsettling, because unlike Zero Dark Thirty's Maya, he isn't really prepared for how much his life will potentially change, and how extreme his opposition will become. Hired thugs show up outside of his home. Pinochet supporters vandalise his house and brand him a Marxist intent on selling out his fellow countrymen. And the opposition doesn't just stop with the No campaign's political rivals. Even within the No camp, there are those who question Saavedra's tactics. When Saavedra pitches an idea to a room full of No supporters, and explains that he is fully intent on using the language of advertising, one man leaves in disgust. 

As much as No is about a very specific moment in time, it also hits on a more universally important shift across the world: the increase of flashy, sensationalist advertising in political campaigns. Larrain has tapped into something special with his subject matter, because he never has to stretch to get the larger point across. This is a film that tells its story, and has the integrity to let the larger implications brew in the backs of people's heads, without ever becoming heavy-handed. Almost. 

What throws No off is that it engages with its compelling subject matter in a rather safe way. Despite a few bursts of low-key humor, No's script has very little bite in its commentary, satirical or sincere. And as enjoyable as Bernal is in the central role, the film gets wishy washy when it comes to focus, and can't seem to decide whether it's more interested in Saavedra as a man, or only in so far as he relates to the No campaign. There are mild links between the two, but they feel tenuous at best. When Saavedra's big, internal moment comes, it almost feels out-of-left-field (contrast this with Maya's final scene in Zero Dark Thirty, which fits perfectly both narratively and thematically). It's not that these scenes are jarring. Larrain's direction ensures that the whole film feels perfectly cohesive. The problem is that they don't all feel entirely fleshed out or even compelling in the moment. Bernal (and the rest of the cast) handle it all well, but once No reaches its stirring climax, the aftermath can't help but feel a little empty. 

Ultimately, No's subject matter ends up being more compelling than the actual film. For all that Larrain accomplishes as director, he is unable to bring anything more to the surprisingly light script. The easy way to close out this review would be to say that No is "definitely a YES," but I can't go quite that far. It's a worthwhile film with efficient storytelling (it feels roughly 20 minutes shorter than the actual length), and nice performances. However, No's execution rarely digs beneath the surface of its rich material. So say "Yes" to No, but not without a few reservations.

Grade: B/B-

Friday, February 8, 2013

Review: "Lore"

Director: Cate Shortland
Runtime: 109 minutes

Lore is only the second film from Australian director Cate Shortland, whose last film - Sommersault - was released in 2004. However, Shortland's sophomore effort is more than just a welcome return. It fulfills the promise of her debut so fully that it should immediately establish her as one of the most compelling new voices in world cinema. By melding historical and social commentary with poetic visuals, Shortland enables Lore to stand out among one of film's most crowded genre categories: WWII dramas. The year is young, yet Lore is a promising way to kick-off the year in terms of foreign imports.

Adapted from Rachel Seiffert's novel (which contains three separate stories), Lore examines the fallout after Hitler's death and the collapse of the Nazi regime. In particular, it focuses on the titular Lore (Saskia Rosendahl), a teenager separated from her parents (both with Nazi ties of some sort), and left to care for her four siblings. As she leads her family on a lengthy journey to her grandmother's house, she must face both foreign occupation, and the crushing realization that the all of the glory and promise of the Third Reich (and its ideals) have been brought crashing down.

The set-up is relatively unique, in that is asks us to become invested in characters who have been brought up thinking that Jews are evil, and that Hitler is a great and generous leader. Yet because the characters are younger, they remain sympathetic, because of their youth and lack of experience. This is more true, however, of Lore's siblings, considering just how young they are. Lore herself isn't old, but she's old enough to make the decision to believe Nazi propaganda and really mean it. As such, she often says and does things that are less than kind. When she discovers that a young man named Thomas (Kai Malina), who follows them for part of their journey, is Jewish, she holds onto the fact so that she can use it to demean him later. 

Yet because Lore is the most "corrupted" of the children at the center of the story, she also has the most capacity for change, which is what anchors this poetically beautiful, abstractly put-together film. Lore's journey is the bulk of the story, and yet Shortland finds ways to beautifully weave in the larger ramifications of the war's end. Once Lore and her siblings reach a bombed-out town, the film seques into a haunting mini-montage of the other people in the town, showing how different generations are coping now that their world has been turned upside down. It's an inspired moment that broadens the film's scope just enough before it plunges back into Lore's internal and external transformation.

And as the titular Lore, newcomer Rosendahl is excellent. Both in dialogue or through facial expressions, the young actress both reveals different sides of Lore's personality and demonstrates her struggle to process revelations from the War. Most telling is when an older woman rants about pictures of bodies in concentration camps, and claims that they've all been staged by the Americans. Lore doesn't contradict her, but the look in her eyes shows that even though she'd like to believe it, she can't. Each of Lore's encounters reveal something about her, along with something about older generations. This keeps the film feeling eventful, even as it indulges in arty techniques like landscape shots and images of small animals and plants. 

Shortland's visual approach to the story, filled with camera-work and framing that feels like a combination of The Tree of Life and The King's Speech, enriches, rather than cheapens, the material. For as much of Lore takes place in the forest, the settings never feel redundant or repetitive. The balance between the internal and external journey is excellent, and repeatedly achieves a quiet, nuanced impact. Despite the tricky themes and issues in the story, Shortland and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw communicate them effortlessly through visuals, turning the spare script into a subtle wonder on screen. There are no political diatribes or lengthy speeches about ideals, which is for the best considering that Lore doesn't need any. 

In a film of such elegance, however, there is one unfortunate standout: Max Richter's score. While quite strong at the very beginning and end of the film, Richter's music in most of the first act often comes on far too strong. It's good in its own right, yet feels like it belongs in a much different WWII drama. The direction and the camera-work often achieve desired emotional impact, and the score sometimes undercuts them by flooding the screen with over-the-top foreshadowing. 

This one issue aside, however, Lore is one of the most impressive WWII-centric tales to come around in a long time. The subject matter (the generation known as "Hitler's children"), and lyrical execution elevate the film in the most unexpected ways. Lore doesn't sugar-coat its subject matter, so much as it communicates them in an abstract and poetic manner. Through its images, the film is able to translate an unfathomable struggle - overcoming a life and mindset filled with lies - into a vision of rarefied beauty and harrowing elegance.

Grade: B+/A-

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Review: "House of Cards: Season 1"

Whether or not Netflix's much-hyped House of Cards will have a significant impact remains to be seen. There is a certain pleasure to be derived from the fact that, starting yesterday, the entire first season was available. On the other hand, with the power to blast through an entire season in a day or two, the wait for the next season (which begins shooting this spring) will likely feel even longer than the usual wait between seasons for high-end series. There's also less chance to discuss the specifics of individual episodes, and speculate about what happens next. Contrast this with, say, Homeland, which always prompts discussions (good, bad, or neutral) after each new episode airs. There's room to let developments really breathe. However, on the flip side, there's also more room for certain plot elements to fall out of people's attention, as they go through the week between episodes going about their lives. 

With this new method of release, Netflix has done something that, on paper, seems borderline counter-intuitive. In an age where writers, directors, and actors are flocking to TV (which, despite the Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo, is still very much in a Golden Age), Netflix has condensed the TV viewing experience. Despite having different directors and writers across its 13 episode freshman season, House of Cards could honestly be described as one 13 hour movie, chopped up into broadcast-length episodes. Having recently finished the first season, I can confidently say that this isn't a bad thing.

Adapted from the British series (which was adapted from a novel) of the same name, House of Cards zeroes in on the back-room dealings of the power-elite in and around the government in Washington D.C. At the center of it all is Democratic House Majority Whip Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey). Francis  has been cheated out of the Secretary of State position, a job he was promised upon the election of the incoming President (Michael Gill). Rather than sulk, Underwood decides to carefully manipulate and undermine those around him to work his way into the Secretary of State position, or perhaps further up the ladder.

Appropriately, House of Cards is filled with plenty of characters, all of whom are engaged in various forms of manipulation and deception. It's a plot set-up that could easily become a labryinthine nightmare. Yet under the careful guidance of creator/head writer Beau Willimon, and a talented stable of directors (led by David Fincher, who directs the first two episodes and exec. produces), every plot development is kept in check, without needlessly holding the audience's hand. As the series weaves its tale of backstabbing and manipulation, it still understands how to treat its characters as people, rather than pawns to be shuffled around the narrative chessboard. 

This is most evident in the arcs of three major characters: Underwood, his steely wife Claire (Robin Wright), and Pennsylvania Congressman Peter Russo (Corey Stoll). In Fincher's two-part kick-off for the show, the Underwoods are effectively shown as quite the ambitious and icy power couple. It's a dynamic that both actors handle effortlessly. We can see in their exchanges that while there may be love in their relationship, for the time being their main concern is how to get what they want at any cost. Affairs don't matter too much to them, which is for the best considering that Mr. and Mrs. Underwood both engage in them. What matters at the end of the day is that they can count on each other when it comes to the power struggles that so thoroughly pervade life in the nation's capitol.

Yet once Mr. Fincher leaves the director's chair, House of Cards elegantly deconstructs the Underwoods, allowing them to function as people with blood flowing through their veins. They remain ambitious and calculating, and often unlikeable (moreso with Francis), yet across the 13 episodes we at least gain an understanding of them, and see enough sides of their personalities to make them worth the investment. We may not approve of many things that they do, but they remain compelling figures. 

The same can also be said for the significantly more sympathetic Peter Russo. After a well-handled introduction in the pilot, Russo's character is somewhat sidelined. At times, the scenes with his secretary/girlfriend (Kristen Connolly) threaten to throw off the show's pacing. However, around episodes 4 and 5, the narrative finally calls on him, and Russo's subsequent arc is far and away the series' most emotionally involving. Stoll came to the public's attention for his richly entertaining portrait of Ernest Hemingway in Midnight in Paris, yet here the actor proves he's equally capable of digging deep into thornier, murkier emotional territory, and the results are heartbreaking.

The series' fourth major player comes in the form of ambitious journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara, older sister of Rooney). Of the big four characters in the series, Zoe changes the least. As such, she's more interesting (and her material stronger) in the season's first half. While she obtains a newfound sense of purpose as the season closes, the role, though often well-written, is the only major part that doesn't quite have a big moment to shine. Thankfully, Mara injects enough verve into the role to make her more than a generic spunky journalist out to prove herself. In the early episodes, she often does the best job of handling the sharp dialogue, and never tries too hard in her delivery to make certain lines sting. Mara also has a good chemistry with Spacey, and the relationship between the two characters helps gives the series such a strong start in regards to both character and plot dynamics. 

Supporting roles are also handled effectively, though often they're used more as plot devices than real people. Gill's President Walker is, purposefully, not much of an entity. More intriguing are Connolly (whose character thankfully avoids being a mousy wallflower) and Ben Daniels (as Claire's old flame). The two have roles that could have easily been little more than distractions, but their characters are fleshed out enough so that they, like the central quartet, are worth following. 

Backing up the performers are the tart, tightly written scripts. Some have complained that Underwood's asides to the camera/audience are overdone, but I can only partially agree. They certainly take getting used to, yet for the first half of the season, they're often quite enjoyable. One in particular, which takes place during a eulogy, of all places, is absolutely hysterical. As the series progresses, the asides show up less frequently, which is appropriate given the more somber events in the plot. When they do show up in later episodes, they can sometimes feel unwelcome. However, the device is ultimately successful, though perhaps season 2 ought to focus on being more careful with how to use them. 

The rest of the writing is quite strong, however, filled with dialogue ranging from deeply human to richly stylized. It's a tricky balance to pull off, yet series creator Willimon and his writing staff have pulled it off quite smoothly. It doesn't hurt that the scripts are brought to life by such strong performers, and fleshed out by the outstanding production values. Netflix reportedly spent quite a lot on House of Cards' first season, and it shows. The entire project could be screened in theaters as a 13-hour mega-movie considering that it's so well-crafted. Fincher's directing in the first two episodes beautifully sets the tone, with elegant camera work and gorgeous lighting that brings out appropriately murky shades of yellow, green, and white. The editing is often quite crisp, and keeps scenes on edge when necessary, yet isn't afraid to calm down in the quieter moments. 

By the time House of Cards cuts to the closing credits for the last time, it's clear that Netflix clearly has high hopes for the series. Release format aside, this is a show that could easily stand as a "prestige drama" on HBO or Showtime (it certainly looks as good or better than the output of those two networks), and remain captivating even on a week-by-week basis. It might not be the game changer some have tried to hype it as, but it has certainly delivered when it comes to quality. It's a gorgeous production filled with excellence in every department, and it marks a bold step forward for Netflix as a provider of original content. Francis Underwood is a man who knows how to plan ahead, to ensure his longevity. Let's hope Netflix takes the same level of care with this series.

Season 1 Grade: A-

Friday, February 1, 2013

Review: "I, Anna"

Director: Barnaby Southcombe
Runtime: 87 minutes

I, Anna, the directorial debut of Barnaby Southcombe, is exactly one third of a good movie. It is also roughly one third of a good performance from leading lady Charlotte Rampling. Unfortunately, before one can get to the film's good third, one must first trudge through the (admittedly well-photographed) first two thirds, and they aren't easy going. Despite rescuing itself in the last act, I, Anna takes far, far too long to become consistently compelling, resulting in a semi-admirable misfire, rather than a promising debut.

Based on the novel by Elsa Lewin, the film follows Anna Wells (Rampling), a 50ish divorcee who spends many a night making the rounds at speed-dating events across London. One night she goes home with the agressive George Stone (Ralph Brown), who is found murdered the next morning. Enter DCI officers Bernie Reid (Gabriel Byrne) and Kevin Franks (Eddie Marsan), who believe Stone's death is linked to drug-smuggling violence. 

Yet before I, Anna can even hit the 15 minute mark, Southcombe's pacing has already become a large hurdle. Despite some nice musical touches via the score, and some moody and nicely framed shots, the plot remains sluggish. It doesn't help matters that two divergent paths - Anna's seemingly normal life and the investigation - both take ages to intertwine, but also feel as though they've been written far too vaguely. After being introduced to Anna, the story's jump to the investigation is a distraction that takes up equal time across the first hour. It doesn't help matters that Byrne's performance fails at subtlety and emotional reserve. Rather, he comes off as sleepy, and even a little bored, even at the film's emotional high point. Marsan does his best to liven things up by at least injecting some energy into his role, but it's too thin a part to make much of a difference. 

As for Rampling, she's quite good once the films lurches into the final act. Yet for the first hour (58 minutes, to be precise), the film requires her to be so distant and opaque that there ends up being precious little for her to do. There are occasional shifts across her face or in her eyes that she communicates well, but the first hour or so is annoyingly thankless and underwritten. If it weren't for the final 30 minutes, I'd be tempted to label the film a criminal waste of a supremely talented actress. 

However, I can't deny that the final half hour did engage me, both from a narrative and emotional standpoint. This isn't a case of a film being a slow-burner (though it is pleeeeeeeenty slow). This is a case of a film miraculously finding its footing just in time to end on a borderline satisfying note. The final act not only affords Rampling the chance to delve into richer emotions (make that any emotional at all), but it gets to the bottom of a key part of the story, one which you'll have figured out loooooooooong before the detailed revelation arrives on screen (to be fair, the key flashback is somewhat arresting). For the first time, I, Anna develops a sense of momentum and purpose, and it's a shame that it happens so late in the game. Southcombe goes too heavy on atmosphere for almost an hour, and then tries to reconcile this by giving his full attention to performances and storytelling at the end. It's hard to get too harsh, considering that it's Southcombe's debut, but it is indicative of a problem one often sees in directorial debuts that enter thriller territory: narrative drive and character building are suffocated by labored attempts at atmosphere.

In fairness, once Southcombe starts getting to the emotional core of his story, he achieves some decent results, at least with Rampling (who also happens to be his mother). Yet, as is often the case it these sorts of films, the good stuff is too little, and comes too late. It's not that Southcombe's film doesn't showcase promise, because it absolutely does. There's just too little promise scattered across roughly 90 minutes to get terribly excited about.

Grade: C