Sunday, February 26, 2012

My Oscars 2012

Movies fuel our dreams, combust our fantasies, and show us who we are. Movie going is a personal journey of self-discovery and magic. So why not cap off a private/public year immersed in the multi-plexes by crowning my own heroes/heroines/auteurs of the silver screen in my own way. The Oscars are all about who is most popular. If these once golden statuettes were given on merit of pure cinematic energy and near-perfection alone, the winners SHOULD be:

The Tree of Life, Fox Searchlight, 2011.

Picture - The Tree of Life
Director - Terrence Malick "The Tree of Life"
Actor - Demian Bichir "A Better Life"
Actress - Michelle Williams "My Week with Marilyn"
Supporting Actor - Christopher Plummer "Beginners"
Supporting Actress - Octavia Spenser "The Help"
Adapted Screenplay - Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Original Screenplay - Midnight in Paris
Cinematography - The Tree of Life
Art Direction - Hugo
Costume Design - Hugo
Film Editing - The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Sound Editing -War Horse
Sound Mixing - War Horse
Visual Effects - Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Makeup - The Iron Lady
Original Song - Man or Muppet from The Muppets
Original Music Score - War Horse
Foreign Language Film - A Seperation (Iran)
Documentary Feature - Pina
Animated Feature Film - Rango

The 84th Annual Academy Awards

Jean Dujardin, The Artist, Weinstein Company, 2011.

So here we are. Tonight is the night. After an especially rich year in world cinema, all of the industry's quality and quantity films come banging at the gates for sublime validation. Will the Academy vote with their hearts or their copies of Variety hammering into their heads what is good and what is garbage. This year has an unusually ripe selection; in the best picture race alone, there are three spellbinding masterpieces, some of their creator's strongest work (Midnight in Paris, The Tree of Life, War Horse), three excellent films which shine in their creator's ouevres (The Artist, The Descendants and Hugo), one very good sports drama (Moneyball), as well as two of the worst best picture nominees ever; the insultingly simplistic The Help and the painfully bad Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close).

All of this only goes to show what a variegated year we have had.

The Oscar WILL go to:

Picture - The Artist
Director - Michel Hazanavicius "The Artist"
Actor - Jean Dujardin "The Artist"
Actress - Meryl Streep "The Iron Lady"
Supporting Actor - Christopher Plummer "Beginners"
Supporting Actress - Octavia Spenser "The Help"
Adapted Screenplay - The Descendants
Original Screenplay - The Artist
Cinematography - The Tree of Life
Art Direction - Hugo
Costume Design - Hugo
Film Editing - The Artist
Sound Mixing - Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Sound Editing - War Horse
Visual Effects - Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Makeup - The Iron Lady
Original Song - "Real in Rio" from Rio
Original Score - The Artist
Foreign Language Film - A Seperation (Iran)
Documentary Feature - If a Tree Falls
Animated Feature Film - Rango

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Wim Wenders: Pina

Pina, Sundance Selects, 2012.

In the key of Renoir, Saura, Altman and Wiseman, German New Wave master Wim Wenders realizes the splendid Pina, a cinematic tour de force which pays tribute to legendary choreographer Pina Bausch.

Wenders investigation into movement, form and color through Bausch's dance(r)s liberates the constraints of the documentary genre in a fascinating way. The viewer becomes hypnotized by the heavenly movement of the camera's eye, becomes hypnotized by the dizzying heights of the music. Wenders opens our eyes to the true glorious possibilities of 3-D. No director this side of Herzog has reached that tier.

Immersing us in the energy and passion of Bausch's spirit, we feel we are apart of the entire cinematic process as it reaches out to us and takes us away only to wipe us out with its mysterious beauty.

Michael Sucsy: The Vow

Channing Tatum, Rachel McAdams, The Vow, Screen Gems, 2012.

Tearjerkers can be dangerous ground; done well they can be old-fashioned, moving and cathartic. Done wrong they can be condescending, idiotic and unbearable. Its all in the slant of the material. Nicholas Sparks has made a mint off of the latter, only redeemed when a good director tackles his source. The Vow might have been written by him; treacly manipulations. Both of its leads have starred seperately in filmizations of his massively consumed work. Yet this one falls somewhere in between the two categories.

Rachel McAdams (The Notebook) and Channing Tatum (Dear John) are the young lovers tested by fate. After a car crash causes her to lose her memory, he must make her fall in love with him again. Jessica Lange and Sam Neill linger in the background as her gargoylesque parents.

Abby Kohn's script is so cliche ridden and simplistic, it truly is bad. And yet, first time director Michael Sucsy salvages the human element in the heap, and that warmth is what saves the picture. In spite of their mouths full of wretched dialogue, McAdams and Tatum are good together. There's no denying their screen chemistry. McAdams is especially excellent in making us believe in her character. Sucsy is aided immeasurably by Roger Stoffers' crisp camera work and Rachel Portman's lilting love theme.

The medium found between true love and bad cinema make The Vow a sheer guilty pleasure.

Daniel Espinosa: Safe House

Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Safe House, Universal Pictures, 2012.

With all of the half-baked thrillers we are deluged with on the regular, there will always be the ones like Safe House; so generic, yet so well crafted that we can't help but enjoy every second, inconsistencies and all. David Guggenheim's screenplays is a new engine made out of all the old parts. It may not run smoothly, but it runs.

Norwegian action/thriller director Daniel Espinosa makes his stateside debut, materializing Guggenheim's material material. A watered-down political-action-thriller with a double back plotline, Oliver Wood's layered,textured cinematography goes a long way in helping it all go down smoothly. The severity of the images, sharply recalling Tony Scott, suck us into an entertaining cat and mouse game. Ramin Djawadi provides a terse, goading score. Set to the slums and government buildings of South Africa, this spy game spirals into multiple climax, which doesn't flow as well as what came before.

Denzel Washington brings his heat to the match, and turns in his usual star turn/character identification. Ryan Reynolds is strong as well, matching Washington step by step. The cast is a treasure trove of beloved character actors. Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard, and Robert Patrick are all utilized well enough. Espinosa shows considerble promise as a new action director in our country.

For all of the pretensions of the genre, anything done well is well enough. Espinosa's Safe House is vivid, engaging and smells like cash and popcorn.

Angelina Jolie: In the Land of Blood and Honey

In the Land of Blood and Honey, GK Films, 2012.

With the gilded dexterity of a seasoned pro, actress Angelina Jolie makes an impressionable directorial debut with the propulsive Bosnian war drama In the Land of Blood and Honey.

Eschewing Hollywood convention for a more naturalistic approach, she has refreshingly chosen to shoot her film in Croatian and with actors who are Bosnian/Serbian and therefore unfamiliar to Western audiences. Zana Marjanovic is brilliant as Ajla, our put-upon heroine. Jolie basically asks her to carry the atrocities of this war on her shoulders, and she pulls it off astoundingly. Goran Kostic is also top notch, providing an inpenetrable portrait of cultural masculine identity. Their star-crossed lovers afford Jolie a classical cinematic framework within which she explores the fissures in class, gender and politics, which have torn the region apart.

This tale is affecting, and well-told. Jolie's script is precise and poetic. As the plot unfolds we become entrenched in the escalating horror. Rade Serbedija makes for a despicable villain, his eyes surveying slyly the damage around him. Jolie's utilization of the great composer Gabriel Yared is inspired. The lush score he crafts for her film is moving.

Through her wandering lens, the director tries to bring order to the disorder of war. Her inspirations appear to be Lean, Pontecorvo and Spielberg. In finding her own voice as a storyteller, the world has found an exciting new auteur.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Rodrigo Garcia: Albert Nobbs

Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs, Roadside Attractions, 2012.

Gender stratification, sexuality and class come under the lens for inspection in Rodrigo Garcia's well intentioned period piece Albert Nobbs. Set in turn of the century Ireland, Garcia follows the world of Nobbs (Glenn Close), a woman masquerading as a man while working for a big hotel.

Garcia's fascination with women and their roles in our society has fueled some of the more underrated "small" American films of the past decade. Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her, Nine Lives and Mother and Child are practically begging to be rediscovered. With Nobbs' receiving Oscar noms and poised to be his first real breakthrough film, its a shame that something good could have been great.

The cast and crew have done nothing wrong here. Close is meticulous and fascinating in the titular role; Janet McTeer, Pauline Collins and Brendan Gleeson all have similar impacts with their performances. Michael McDonough's camera is sorrowful and seething; Patrizia van Brandenstein's sets are breathtaking, placing us firmly within the milieu.

Rather it is the screenplay, co-written by Close, which fails to find any human connection for us between these maddening characters. The glacial austerity of Garcia's perplexing picture is what ultimately cuts us off.

Brad Peyton: Journey 2: The Mysterious Island

Josh Hutcherson, Dwayne Johnson, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2012.

Following in the fancy-free footsteps of its ultimate escapist predecessor, Journey 2 is about as up-front and old-fashioned as a popcorn movie can get. Holding its own against the first one, director Brad Peyton utilizes 3-D to fun effect, and replacing Brendan Fraser with the Rock is an ingenious step in the right direction.

Dwayne Johnson knows how to instill his persona into a character, and in golden movie star fashion, we cant get enough. The adventure plot is incidental to the visual hijinks and Saturday matinee serial feeling to the affair. We are here to participate in a silly, visceral adventure. Peyton, Johnson and company make sure we get just that.

Madonna: W.E.

Abbie Cornish, W.E., Weinstein Co., 2012.

The interstices of memory, history and desire are visualized brilliantly in Madonna's hypnotic, meandering sophomore feature film, the uncompromising W.E. The choices and loves of two women interconnect and react in the mind of one, our indefatigable heroine Wally ( enchanting Abbie Cornish), and in the mind of another, our tireless director, Madonna.

Mirroring the scandal of the century, free-spirited divorcee Wallis Simpson's (remarkable Andrea Riseborogh) love affair with the enamored Duke of Windsor (James D'Arcy), we follow Wally through her waking life, her job, her wanderings, her fascination with this particular love story from the past.

Meeting a kind security guard (Oscar Isaac) at an exhibit on the Duke and Duchess, her dreaming life begins to take over. Dazed images bruise the frame and blur the edges of Wally's desire. Not in some time has the inner world of a woman been portrayed so freshly on the big screen.

Hagen Bogdanski shoots the tale with an ecstatic leaning towards the visualizing the dreaming we all do. Composer Abel Korzeniowski creates themes of gorgeous beauty to accompany these sumptuous images. Madonna and Alek Keshishian's screenplay is adventurous and committed to unraveling the spell its creator has wished to cast.

In the end, we are left with the inescapable feeling that we've been dreaming awake. While imperfect, Madonna's second film stings with the conviction of dreams truly achieved.

Josh Trank: Chronicle

Chronicle, 20th Century Fox, 2012

With a crashing thud falls the American Cinema, as represented by the majority of our mass consumed product. When unknowns beat the big boys at their own game and fail just as miserably, we are in big trouble.

loaded with visually stunning, soulless CGI and really nothing else, this "gimmick" flick attempts to follow in the cinema verite footsteps of The Blair witch Project and Cloverfield. The problem is, the script is so poorly written, the acting so arbitrary and direction so misguided that we are aware we are watching something false meant to be taken as real. This conundrum may sound interesting in theory, but just plain does not work. Bad filmmaking is bad filmmaking.

Impressive effects aside, this wannabe super hero/actioner leaves the more discerning viewer with much to be desired.

James Watkins: The Woman in Black

Daniel Radcliffe, The Woman in Black, CBS Films, 2012

Entering cautiously the Gothic horror genre, first-time directorJames Watkins shows considerable skill with mood and suspense. In the recent tradition of Amenabar's masterful The Others, The Woman in Black is a creepily stylish suspenser, old-fashioned and fascinating in its own curious way.

Daniel Radcliffe displays considerable gravitas in his first post-Potter role, invoking Jonathan Harker as a notary drawn into the dark mystery of a haunted manor in a ghostly town. Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer lend their clandestine countenances to this gallery of shadows.In adapting Susan Hill's popular 80s kids' book, scripter Jane Goldman adheres to the rules of the game, paying homage not only to Browning and Whale, but inescapably Hammer horror. DP Tim-Maurice Jones lights the happening menacingly, and Marco Beltrami's score pulses with dread. Cumulatively, this team delivers the shivery goods.

As far as early year scares go, we could not have asked for a better popcorn pleaser than Watkins' atmospheric first foray.

Ken Kwapis: Big Miracle

John Krasinski, Drew Barrymore, Big Miracle, Universal Pictures, 2012.

The feel-good family friendly animal movie gets a considerable boost from usually hacky helmer Ken (Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) Kwapis. Big Miracle is a true story which occurred in 1988, and the genuine way in which Kwapis allows the proceedings to unfold is refreshing, for a film which easily could have devolved into sap.

The adroit cast is headed by John Krasinski and Drew Barrymore, both doing what they do best; exude the personas which endeared them to audiences in the first place. Ted Danson, Tim Blake Nelson, Kristen Bell, Dermot Mulroney and JoBeth Williams round out the character players.

A family of whales trapped under the ice in Alaska, its media circus and how it affects not only the small icy town but the world at large, is played out in well observed, enjoyable scenes which cater to the humanity of its audience. For a harmless trifle, this picture is sharper than most.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Stephen Daldry: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Nick Horn, Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Warner Bros., 2012.

Stephen Daldry is a consummate craftsman who chooses questionable material and delivers it questionably. His grasp of cinematic energy is obvious, yet the methods which he employs to unfold his plots are condescending and manipulative to say the least.

His debut film was the hugely overrated Billy Elliot, which set the tone for his career thus far; elements of excellence aswim in a sea of shit.

His sophomore feature, The Hours, was a masterpiece which betrayed what agreeable material he could translate into something important and immense. The easy transitions in time and space, as well as his cast of brilliant actresses and crew of ingenius craftsmen, delivered the ultimate women's melodrama. Cukor and Sirk would have been pleased.

But to follow that excellence with the cliches and foul plot manuevres of The Reader, another overrated film featuring top-notch acting was an act of career-masochism at its most acute. His new picture, the obnoxiously titled Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, is a gratingly obvious literary adaptation featuring one of the most disagreeable child actors (Nick Horn) in some time. Although admittedly talented (he carries the film) he is insufferable, portraying a supremely annoying character. The plot is ludicrous to say the least, and all we are left with is Daldry & company's artistry, and an excellent cast. Sandra Bullock has never been better, which is sad because this movie is awful. Her grasp and inhabitation of her character are astonishing. Max Von Sydow and Viola Davis are both deeply moving.

The theme of 9/11 and its affect on the victims' families is mishandled grossly. Aside from the wretched plot machinations, Chris Menges' camerawork is gorgeous and Alexandre Desplat's score is fantastically woven. If only Daldry could get past the trendy literary adaptations and sub-par Spielbergian water wells, we would all be better off. This film and Tate Taylor's execrable The Help are the two worst best picture nominees in the last decade. In the same year!!!!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Anthony Hemingway: Red Tails

Red Tails, 20th Century Fox, 2012.

Ensconced in the classical climes of Second World War propaganda infused with a modern cultural consciousness, bristling television director Hemingway (Treme) makes an impressive big-screen debut with the George Lucas funded Red Tails, a rip-roaring aviation-war film and racially historic period-piece.

An exceptional cast of up-and-coming young actors ( most notably Nate Parker, Tristan Wilds) holds their own against old-pros Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Terrence Howard, finding their way into their characters with an ease supplied by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder's well-written script.

And yet it is the glorious aviation battle sequences, Ben Burtt and Michael O'Halloran's kinetic editing and Terrence Blanchard's epic score which stay with us most. Despite script strucure problems, Hemingway, Ripley, Lucas and company have delivered a terrific film which is uncommon this time of year.