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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

My Week with Marilyn (Limited Release Date: 11-23-2011)

        One of the oldest, most trusted cliches in all of Oscar-dom goes a little something like this: Portray a real-life icon, and you might just be headed up to the podium. In the last decade alone, this game plan has worked out for Cate Blanchett (The Aviator), Jamie Foxx (Ray), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote), and Reece Witherspoon (Walk the Line), and has lead countless others to a nomination. This year has already produced one attempt to snag a statue by stepping in for a legend of the past, and will also see a cinematic Freud and Margaret Thatcher before 2011 has come to a close. Today, we address possibly the most blatant Oscar-bait to come our way this season, the Marilyn Monroe/Lawrence Olivier saga, My Week with Marilyn.

        Despite the presence of these two towering figures, it's actually a young man named Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) who serves as the film's protagonist. Wanting nothing more than to break into the world of film, Colin travels over to Britain, where he is hired on as a third assistant in the production of Olivier's newest film. Soon, the star of the picture, the glamourous Marilyn Monroe herself (Michelle Williams), arrives on set, but her various antics and unsightly methods drive Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) up the wall. Feeling ostracized by the demanding film crew, Marilyn takes solace in young Colin, the two forming a sexually-charged bond despite everyone near them urging Clark to keep his distance.

        There are only two real reasons for this film to exist, so I'd might as well address them first. Both Williams and Branagh are good in their roles, and that's right around where my praise for them has to end. Sure, Williams has Monroe's bodily movements and whispery voice down pat, and Branagh has fun with Olivier's signature, half-tempo over-enunciation, but you never once forget that you're watching performances, neither actor ever disappearing into their role. Williams is particularly reminiscent of Cate Blanchett's aforementioned performance as Katherine Hepburn; a mesmerizing impression, but a skin-deep incarnation, no less. 

        There are plenty of reasons not to like Marilyn. Besides the two fairly underwhelming performances discussed above, the film's lead character is neither interesting nor particularly likable, and the movie's depiction of other icons of the time are continuously mishandled, as is the ending. However, like standing in Monroe's presence during another of her pill-fueled self-pity-parties, there's something about this film that draws you in and stirs interest even when you know it's all fraudulent. Perhaps its the production value, which includes great locations, lovely lensing, and brisk and zippy editing. But more than that, the movie's greatest success is in giving you a sense of what it might have been like to fall in love with such a larger-than-life person, even if it's only a vague sense. It's a small accomplishment in the middle of a considerable mess, but it deserves to be noticed.

Grade: C-

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Muppets (Release Date: 11-23-2011)

        In the year 2011, the world has forgotten about the Muppets. Kermit the Frog roams aimlessly around the halls of his giant mansion, Fozzie Bear serves as the highlight of an underwhelming Muppets cover-band, and Miss Piggy works as an editor for a plus-size fashion magazine. This isn't how they always planned it, but decreased demand for the felt friends has resulted in the essential breaking up of the band. But there's at least one man (or a muppet?) who isn't ready to let them go: The two-feet-tall, bespectacled Walter. Walter tags along with his brother Gary (Jason Segal) on his ten-year anniversary celebration with his bow, Mary (Amy Adams), the three venturing to Muppets Studios, only to find the place in ruin. Having long idolized the manic puppets, Walter convinces Kermit to round up the gang for one last variety show, an attempt to raise ten million dollars before evil oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) tears the place down for good.

        There aren't many opportunities to say this in the world of film criticism, so I'd might as well just go with it: This is a Puppet Passion Project if ever there was one. Segal, who has been working on the project for years now, does everything from writing and starring, to operating muppets in select scenes. His genuine, unabashed enthusiasm, along with the unbridled zest of just about everyone else in the project, make The Muppets an almost impossible movie to dislike. Sure, if singing, dancing, wise-cracking puppets isn't really your thing, the flick might have a hard time winning you over, but if you're a sucker for shameless glee the way that I (and the rest of the world... I hope) am, there's not really any going wrong with this one.

        All the flesh-covered performers do their job, Segal's part crammed near the beginning, Adams given sacred little screen-time to work with, and a cascade of cameos hitting almost each and every single time (Sorry, Selena Gomez... what are you doing here?). But the humans aren't the point. The flesh and blood of the picture is handled by beings without flesh or blood, a slew of clever cracks, wonderful and hilarious musical numbers, and palpable nostalgia leading the way. Not that it's had the most competition for this mantle, but the Muppets is, without any form of doubt, the best American movie musical since Sweeney Todd, its songs becoming earworms on initial impact. There's not much reviewing that really needs to be done here. If you like your movies silly and fun, and don't might them being completely trivial and having a slightly saggy mid-section, then you kind of just need to buy a ticket to this one. It's glaringly obvious, from first frame to last, that everyone on screen is having a blast. The feeling is infectious.

Grade: A-

Friday, November 25, 2011

Hugo (Release Date: 11-23-2011)

        There's a big, fat oxymoron seated right at the center of film criticism, tucked away in plain sight for everyone to see. On one hand, those seeking to publicly evaluate movies are expected to be guinea pigs, toiling through whatever the world of celluloid throws at them, and reporting the results to all who want to listen. In this sense, it is a critic's primary job to speculate what his or her readers might enjoy, and subsequently present findings and hypotheses. And yet, anyone who's judging movies for the right reason will tell you that they are driven by a personal love for the flicks. Thus we arrive at that juicy contradiction: That critics see movies and enjoy movies for themselves, and then must report back on their qualities while primarily concerned with the pleasures and preferences of others. My brain has been racked with this conundrum for the last several days, and it all started when I walked out of Martin Scorsese's latest, Hugo.

        Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is a young boy living alone inside the inner-workings of a giant clock in a 1930's Parisian train station. He keeps the time-keeper ticking, and steals little bits of food or various other supplies in order to stay alive. But thievery doesn't always treat young Hugo well, as he is caught a Toy Vendor working in the station (Ben Kingsley) and forced to fork over his most prized possession; A notebook filled with drawings and diagrams whose meaning Hugo refuses to explain. To get it back, Cabret enlists the help of a young girl living under the vendor's care (Chloë Grace Moretz), who's been itching for an adventure for quite some time now. The two look to unlock a mystery from the past, all while avoiding the attention of the cruel, kid-hunting Station Inspector (Sasha Baron Cohen).

        Hugo has been oft sighted as representing a couple of firsts in legendary Scorsese's career; His first kid's movie, and his first 3-D presentation. Only one of these is true. Under Marty's watch, Hugo is absolutely nothing short of a 3-D wonderland, endless corridors, falling ash, and clamoring crowds all brought vividly, almost tangibly to life. In this sense, the movie puts on a true clinic, showing how to do 3-D right both in terms of immersion and promotion of a narrative. You really feel like you're along with Hugo on his many misadventures, and the feeling of being so completely enveloped in a film is magical. Simply put, it's one of, if not the greatest 3-D presentation I've ever seen. Calling it a kid's movie, on the other hand, is a pretty big stretch. It's not wrong in the sense of profanity; the film's PG rating is exactly what it deserves, but it is a tad long (just over two hours), filled almost entirely with talk, and, near the end, takes on a cause that I'm sure every little tot finds near and dear to their heart: Film Preservation.

        And so, we arrive back at my first paragraph. I've studied movies for a decent amount of my life, not as long as many, to be sure, but enough to have fallen in love with them the way that all film-lovers do. When Hugo decides to take a trip down the road of film history, I was all for it, but I'm not so sure how much casual movie-goers will enjoy this movie's second half. That's why, for today anyways, I am giving you my grade for me, not you. It's because I really, really like this movie, and even if I think you might not, I just can't lie to myself. In terms of both visual and story content, Hugo recalls a great many  monuments in the on-going saga of celluloid, movies like The 400 Blows, Amacord, Sullivan's Travels and The Bicycle Thief. Despite all of its allusions, it never loses its sense of self, unlike earlier 2011 reference-athons like Rango and Drive. Hugo is a beautiful film, visual stunning, and emotionally true, made by a master of the medium who has always made it his task to honor those who came before him. There's a not-terrible chance that it might bore you to bits, but for me, and the multitudes of people across the world with a deep passion for the moving image, its quite a thing to behold.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Happy Feet Two (Release Date: 11-18-2011)

        There are a lot of different things that a flick could do to prompt its audience to ask, 'what is this movie about?' It could be a languid, slow-moving indie, along the lines of Sophia Coppola or Gus Van Sant, or a piece dealing in psychedelics and symbolism, in the vein of David Lynch or Terrance Malick. Then again, it could just be Happy Feet Two, the sequel to 2006's Best Animated Feature Oscar-winner Happy Feet. I've spent a decent amount of brain power over the last few days trying to land on a sufficient plot summary for what the singing, dancing penguins have cooked up this time around, but brevity of explanation still alludes me. We'll give this a try:

        Mumble (Elijah Wood) and Gloria (Pop singer P!nk, taking over for the late Brittany Murphy) are pretty much right where we left them, dancing and singing along with the thousands of Emperor Penguins whom they call neighbors. They've even got a little one named Erik (Ava Acres) who, like baby Mumble in the previous film, struggles to fit in with the group. Fearing permanent ostracization, Erik and a couple of friends leave the pack, their misadventures leading them to Sven (Hank Azaria), a puffin posing as a penguin who uses fancy speech and the power of flight to both inspire and seduce. Mumble manages to track them down, but while away on his quest, he whole heard of Emperors becomes trapped by the movement of giant slabs of ice, global warming the clear culprit. Oh, and there's a subplot involving a pair of rebellious krill (Brad Pitt and Matt Damon), who may or may not have anything to do with the rest of the movie.

        Trust me, there are more subplots to be discovered, ranging from human intervention, to promise-breaking Elephant Seals, to the schism between omnivores and herbivores (The Brad Pitt Krill is obsessed with moving up the food chain, declaring at one point that, 'the next thing I eat will have a face). And yet, all the wile, the singing and dancing numbers somehow manage to make their way into this over-stuffed plot. Trust me, I would rather have a movie work overtime to earn my adoration than simply cash in on simple gags attached to a simple story, but Director George Miller and the screenwriting team of four simply don't have what it takes to tie this thing together. It's a film that's equal parts about gyrating aquatic birds, and the need to find one's self within the establish parameters of society, with a hefty helping of environmental PSA dispersal (though, to be fair, a far more subtle helping than in the first entry.

        Happy Feet Two isn't a bad movie by any means, but it stacks the chips against itself from the beginning by trying to be a transcendent, important, massive family entertainment, and falling woefully short. Still, the tale is intriguing (if often in spite of itself), and the animation is nothing short of stunning. The scenes with the krill, especially, mine the odd beauty of the arctic seas for all that they're worth, and several actions sequences play particularly well. Oh, and there's a whole lot of cuteness to go around, too, many a mushy, 'ahhh,' escaping from your mouth before you even know what's happening. Happy Feet Two may fall short of its lofty expectations for itself, but that doesn't make it a bad watch. Like the scene in which that same Brad Pitt Krill decides to chow down on a Leopard Seal, it just bites off way, way more than it could ever hope to chew.

Grade: B-

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 (Release Date: 11-18-2011)

        The original Twilight movie, released back in 2008, remains the best film in the series... or, perhaps the worst, depending on how you see it. The exact same could be said of Eclipse (Sorry, New Moon. No one loves you). The third entry in the franchise is easily the most sure in its craft, Director David Slade handling the ever-silly story with a largely straight-face, staging sequences of action and dialogue that finally, for once, prompted genuine, non-mocking interest rather than stifled laughter. Catherine Hardwicke's 2008 original, on the other hand, is all about stifled laughter, complete with hilariously bad special effects, cheese-ball dialogue and performances, and a mind-numbingly simplistic view of both High School life and young romance. All of these things make it the worst in the lineage, but the goofy, dunder-headed mirth that one feels while watching it is without match. If you plan on putting any level of stock my opinion of the newest vampire romance, Breaking Dawn Part 1, it is important that you first understand my warped standard for the series: This is a moronic story, worthy of gleeful mockery, and by that standard, the worst entries in the saga are far and away the most enjoyable.

        Breaking Dawn Part 1 opens with the preparation for a wedding, star-crossed lovers Bella (Kristen Stewart) and Edward (Robert Pattinson) making sheepish, amorous eyes at each other as Jacob (Taylor Lautner) continues to pout furiously in the rain. Their matrimony occurs in a wooded area, cloaked in cascading white foliage (awww!), and when it's over, Bella is whisked away on a honeymoon that turns out to be just as wrought with sexual tension as the rest of their courtship. Crazy things go down, a plethora of native Americans tackily transform into werewolves, and Bella sighs a lot. This is Twilight.

        When Bill Condon first signed on for this climactic double-feature, I wondered if the director of such, 'actual movies,' as Gods and Monsters, Kinsey, and Dreamgirls was brought in to finally take this story into more intellectual, adult territory. Thank god this is not the case. Condon's directorial stamp is almost no where to be found: The only way that anyone would think this chapter had a different helmer than the rest is if they were told. The performances remain wildly over-the-top, and completely unbelievable, a true accomplishment in ineptitude considering that Stewart and Pattinson are real-life lovers.

        The penultimate Twilight entry is receiving some of the worst reviews of the series, and it's not hard to see why. The movie is lengthy, slow-moving, and completely fails to justify splitting the last book in two; Not only is Part 1 punishingly uneventful, but it also leaves one with the impression that there's even less ground to cover in the upcoming climax. And all of this, yes, all of this, is why the first half of Breaking Dawn stands as my second favorite Twilight flick. It might be the very worst of the sequels, but it's also the guiltiest pleasure, and the funniest unintentional comedy, both of which are paramount to my enjoyment of these things. We're talking about a yarn that is essentially trivial and hollow here, so the more trivial and hollow, the better. Breaking Dawn Part 1 is a pretty lousy movie, and that's just why I loved it.

Grade (By, 'Real,' Movie Standards): D+
Grade (By, 'I know Twilight is the bane of man, but I just can't help myself,' Standards): B+

Friday, November 18, 2011

Oscar Predictions 2011: Round Two

        Alright, it's been a month and a half since I posted my last series of Oscar rankings/predictions, so I think it's about time to go at it again. A lot of it still looks the same, but there are some noticable differences. Also, as with the previous post, all film titles contain links to the respective movie's imdb page, so you can study up before the golden man arrives. Here they are:

Best Picture:
1. The Descendants (Previous Ranking: 2)
        This has been the darling of the season so far, which is, more often than not, a curse coming down the home stretch (see: Brokeback Mountain, Up in the Air, The Social Network). Peaking early is something to be weary of, but at this point in the year, with so many big names faltering, and only a handful of big names still slated for release, this kind of has to be the de facto #1.
2. The Artist (Previous Ranking: 4)
        Just like The Descendants, The Artist has been a festival darling for months now. I can't give it first, simply because it's daring aesthetic (A silent film?!? Really?!?), and it's no-name actors. Still, one of only two movies that I would go as far as to call a lock at this point.
3. War Horse (Previous Ranking: 1)
        I had this as my #1 last time, and there is one reason, and one reason alone that it has slipped: No one has seen it yet. A historical, inspirational war epic directed by Steven Spielberg sounds just like the Academy's cup of tea. Even if it's only OK, I say it gets in, I just can't rank it higher than this until some real buzz finally comes through.
4. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Previous Ranking: 5)
        David Fincher directing a seedy story to which America has already shown favoritism (by buying bazillions of books), with a cast featuring Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer, Robin Wright, and a potentially career-defining turn by Rooney Mara? Are you really gunna bet against this thing? Have you seen that extended trailer?
5. Midnight in Paris (Previous Ranking: 6)
        Sure, there's a real chance that the often dour Academy might find this one a bit to light-hearted to be considered for the night's top prize, but there's also ample reason to predict that they might not. First and foremost, they love Woody Allen, having nominated the man for a jaw-dropping 21 oscars through-out his prolific career, a number that doesn't even factor in other nods garnered by the film's he's helmed. Plus, the movie is undeniably old-skewing, courting to the exact type of person that will be voting come February.
6. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Previous Ranking: 3)
        Just judging from the trailer, I have some pretty extreme doubts about young thespian Thomas Horn's ability to lead a Best Picture nominee, and old Oscar has yet to really warm up to 9/11 source material. Still, the film is written by a man that the Academy likes (Eric Roth), and Directed by one that they love (Stephen Daldry). Not to just keep repeating this point, but this is the same voting branch that elected The Reader over Wall-e and The Dark Knight. Assuming that there is a limit to their love of Daldry is a fool's gamble.
7. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Previous Ranking: 10)
        The trailer plays like gang-busters, the cast is amazing, and the man behind the camera last brought us the frost-bitten classic Let the Right One In. I'm pretty worried about the British Import's ability to gain traction state-side, but with 38 positive reviews against 1 on rottentomatoes at the moment, anything is possible.
8. The Tree of Life (Previous Ranking: 7)
        The more time that passes, the more that I think this one might just be wishful thinking, but there's at least a bit more to it than that. Terrance Malick will likely be invited to the Best Director category, which always puts your film in contention, and there is a school of people (myself included) that champion the flick with fiery passion. Is that enough to snag 5% of the #1 overall votes? We'll see...

As of now, I am predicting that these will be the Eight that get nominated (I don't have some crazy math problem that helped me determine the number, these just seem like the ones). The following is where I rank the next movies in line.
9. The Help (Previous Ranking: 11)
        I swear, I might be the only one on earth that still doesn't have this as one of their nominees, which, you know, probably means I'm wrong, but I just still can't see it. Sure, the movie has the right subject matter, and was a big hit with audiences, but do you really, really think this is high enough quality to play with the big boys? Chances are I'll bump it into the nominated category next time, but I feel the need to hold out just a little while longer.

10. Moneyball (Previous Ranking: 12)
        A movie about baseball, statistics, and multi-million dollar contracts doesn't really sound like a safe bat for the Best Picture mantle, and the flick's September release gives me further pause. Yes, it's winsome entertainment, and it's got a great performance by Academy favorite Brad Pitt, but do you really think there's enough passion behind this one to get it all the way there?

11. The Adventures of Tintin (Previous Ranking: 21)
        Easily my biggest upgrade from last post, the ascent of Tintin honestly has more to do with the failings of other movies than it does the motion-capture epic's actual pedigree. Still, the movie is already a sensation over-seas, and Spielberg just isn't a name you want to mess with most of the time.

12. Young Adult (Previous Ranking: 8)
        The trailer for this one pretty much put an end to me sighting Young Adult as awards season's biggest sleeper. It's not half-bad, it just doesn't appear to be angling for Oscars to any degree whatsoever. Still, Jason Reitman has proven himself as one of our nation's strongest young film-makers, and that alone is enough to keep this one the list.

13. The Iron Lady (Previous Ranking: 14)
        Do you really think there's any chance that Meryl Streep won't get another nomination for playing Margaret Thacher? Her performance will ensure that there are eyes on the film as a whole, so if it's good...

14. The Ides of March (Previous Ranking: 13)
        It's got some serious names, and some serious subject matter, which is enough to keep its name involved all the way until announcement morning, but its theatrical release was met with a critical and box office shrug. Seems kind of dead to me.

15. Coriolanus (Previous Ranking: 17)
        Shakespeare, as directed by Ralph Fiennes, featuring a much-championed performance by Vanessa Redgrave. That all spells potential spoiler to me.

16. Martha Marcy May Marlene (Previous Ranking: 15)
        If old Oscar is looking to dig deep into his indie pockets, my guess (or hope, anyways) is that this is the one he'll pull out. Still, saggy box office ain't doing this one any favors.

17. J. Edgar (Previous Ranking: 9)
        Yes, this is letting my own biases affect my rankings, but this one is just plain not good enough. You always have to leave Eastwood's new movie on your rankings somewhere, but if they've passed on his last several films, I'm not thinking they're coming over to this one.

18. Hugo (Previous Ranking: 22)
        Who knows, man, who knows? Counting out Scorsese is pretty damn idiotic, but this trip into family-film territory does feel awfully misguided if we're only judging trailers.

19. We Bought a Zoo (Previous Ranking: 20)
        It's been a while since Cameron Crowe has made a real impression with voters, but this family-oriented, feel-good drama might be just the thing. Emphasis on might.

20. Drive (Previous Ranking: 25)
        Much like The Tree of Life, the people that like this one seem to really love it. That being said, I'm not too sure how much hyper-violence the greying voters can really take.

Best Actor:
1. Jean Dujardin (The Artist) (Previous Ranking: 1)
        Supposedly great unknown who headlines one of the buzziest movies of the season, and he doesn't have to deal with the, 'he already has one,' argument like Clooney does.
2. George Clooney (The Descendants) (Previous Ranking: 2)
        If gorgeous George didn't already have a little golden man on his mantle, this would already be all locked up. As is, he's looking like a runner-up
3. Gary Oldman (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) (Previous Ranking: 6)
        Un under-recognized veteran if ever there was one, Oldman headlines an amazing cast, and his movie has a perfectly timed release date. Both should manage to turn heads.
4. Brad Pitt (Moneyball) (Previous Ranking: 3)
        One of the Academy's very most favorite thespians, but is the role showy enough, and did the movie come out too early?
5. Michael Fassbender (Shame) (Previous Ranking: 8)
        The performance already has all kinds of support in various circles, and it would be a great way to recognize the phenomenal year that this up-and-comer is having, but that NC-17 rating is going to be hard to push through
6. Leonardo DiCaprio (J. Edgar) (Previous Ranking: 4)
        He's easily the best aspect of the movie in which he stars, but does Oscar really want to hand out this important of a nomination to such a not-that-good movie?
7. Michael Shannon (Take Shelter) (Previous Ranking: 5)
        Always a long shot for his little indie drama, but now more so considering said little indie drama didn't scare up too much attention in it's limited release.
8. Jeremy Irvine (War Horse) (Previous Ranking: 7)
        I have no earthly idea what this performance will even be like, but one thing is certain: It will be central to a film that absolutely every academy voter will see, and that's enough to keep him in the hunt.

Best Actress:
1. Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs) (Previous Ranking: 1)
        It'll be an uphill battle for Close, who's performance comes from a very small film, and who is, if we're talking statistical commonalities here, a bit old to win the lady's top prize. Still, she earns veteran points, and I just don't see the Streep vrs. Davis battle going down the way everyone else does.
2. Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) (Previous Ranking: 2)
        I don't have the slightest inclination one way or the other on whether Streep can win this thing, but do you really think there's a snowball's chance in hell that she won't at least get the nod?
3. Viola Davis (The Help) (Previous Ranking: 6)
        Man, oh, man, it huuuurts me to rank her as high as this, but I'm thinking it's about time to stop being stubborn. I still have massive doubts, but if just about everybody close to the industry says she's a lock, I'm might as well try to play by the rules.
4. Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) (Previous Ranking: 4)
        Big, splashy role at the center of what's likely to be a big hit. Consider her the, 'it,' girl of the season.
5. Charlize Theron (Young Adult) (Previous Ranking: 3)
        Director Jason Reitman has guided the protagonist of each of his three films so far to some major awards recognition. This looks like a nice, juicy part for Theron.
6. Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn) (Previous Ranking: 5)
        Early word is very kind to Williams, though decidedly less cheery about the film itself, only time can tell if she can survive a few bad reviews.
7. Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) (Previous Ranking: 4)
        If Mara falters, looks for Olsen to pick up the, 'it,' girl mantel. I had her higher before her film opened and only managed to make a blip on the radar
8. Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin) (Previous Ranking: 9)
        A contender for many awards over seas, Swinton is allegedly sensational in the role, but trying subject matter, and meager distribution have her stuck all the way down at #8.
9. Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia) (Previous Ranking: 8)
        Winner of Best Actress at the Cannes film festival, Dunst remains in the hunt, though being under the direction of divisive Lars Von Trier will likely prove unsettling for some.

Best Supporting Actor:
1. Christopher Plummer (Beginners) (Previous Ranking: 1)
        From the most crowded category of the night to the least, Supporting Actor looks like something of a graveyard this year, which is what makes it a perfect time to reward trusty-old Plummer, and his warm, winning performance.
2. Albert Brooks (Drive) (Previous Ranking: 2)
        Both the only other veteran, and the only other lock in the category. More so than any other race of the night, from this far out, Supporting Actor has seemingly already been narrowed down to two.
3. Max von Sydow (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close) (Previous Ranking: Unranked)
        Highly regarded, statue-less, and old as dirt. In a year like this, that's probably enough.
4. Kenneth Branagh (My Week with Marilyn) (Previous Ranking: 5)
        What does it tell you about this category that my faith in Branagh has dwindled some, and yet he moves up the ranks?
5. Brad Pitt (The Tree of Life) (Previous Ranking: 5)
        ToL is a pretty big unknown at this point, but Pitt's terrific work in the film (not to mention a chance to double-nominate him with Moneyball), should prove too much for the voters to ignore.

Best Supporting Actress:
1. Berenice Bejo (The Artist) (Previous Ranking: 2)
        This is a category that specifically loves to recognize fresh faces, and with everyone in town singing the movie's praises, she'll have a lot of attention, and a truly great shot at taking it.
2. Vanessa Redgrave (Coriolanus) (Previous Ranking: 1)
        A favorite of prognosticators for a while now, Redgrave might suffer from I-Already-Have-An-Oscar syndrome, but her invite is all but assured.
3. Shailene Woodly (The Descendants) (Previous Ranking: 3)
        Playing opposite George Clooney in one of the night's real heavyweights should be enough to get Woodly in.
4. Octavia Spencer (The Help) (Previous Ranking: 4)
        This is the only super-hyped potential nomination for The Help that I fully buy in to.
5. Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life, The Help, The Debt, Take Shelter, or Coriolanus)
        The four above seem pretty locked in and ready to roll. Filling out the last slot is difficult, so I'll play it safe and go with an actress having a great year, and with a zillion films to choose from.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

J. Edgar (Release Date: 11-11-2011)

        Clint Eastwood is on a cold streak. Sure, just a few short years ago, the former man with no name crafted a string of extremely respected films, from Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and Letters from Iwo Jima all garnering Best Picture nominations. Nothing of the sort can be said of his last several talkies, Gran Torino winning audience admiration while failing to truly titillate critics and Oscar voters, The Changeling, Invictus, and Hereafter all inspiring yawns through-out. For Eastwood to make a wholly, 'bad,' film seems impossible by now; The guy has worked his way into an extremely distinctive directorial stamp, his craft and work with actors more or less ensuring that his films will never sink below palatability. What remains to be seen, however, is if a single movie on the back half of his helming career can be anything less than deliriously serious, and taking on a decades-spanning biopic of an american icon doesn't really sound like the way to start having fun.

        His newest joint stars Leonardo DiCaprio as infamous F.B.I. innovator J. Edgar Hoover, following him through his entire, lengthy tenure at the head of the bureau. Late into his life, Hoover dictates something like his memoirs to a small, nervous man in his office. He's currently dealing with a fall-out of sorts, but as we come to learn through rampant flashbacks, surly waters are all that the man has ever really treaded. We see his younger days, somehow being appointed to the head of the bureau in the midst of a mishap between him and his higher-ups, building a relationship with his stoic, trusty personal secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts). As he accrues more and more power, he appoints a right-hand man, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), and the two form an impenetrable bond, spanning decades, straddling laws, and enduring endless paranoia.

        J. Edgar is soul-crushingly straight-faced, existing in a world purged of both laughter and vibrant colors. In other words, it looks and behaves like everything else that the man has done of late, slowly unfolding over the course of two hours and seventeen minutes, featuring enough false endings to make the cast of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King start to feel impatient. Still, this is the best film that old Eastwood has made in a few years, benefiting mostly from its interesting subject matter, and DiCaprio's fierce commitment. The movie almost seems intent on seeing him fail, inviting in scenes of canned, emotionless dialogue, covering his face in horrid old-person make-up (though, my god, does Hammer pull the short straw in this regard), and even dressing the man up in drag. Still, Leo labors on, his hammy accent and bodily deterioration providing intrigue in a wasteland of snoring.

        If it isn't extremely, painfully obvious by now, I'm a pretty firm Eastwood detractor; I find his un-smiling world-view to be extremely redundant, and tend to be frustrated with his ill-lit, washed-out aesthetic. Admittedly, I was engaged for a good deal of J. Edgar, and some scenes really, honestly do pop. But on filmic terms, this has to be viewed as another failure, if for nothing else, simply because the thing lasts for an eternity without ever establishing a shape or real end goal of any kind. The way that Clint jumps back and forth between time without ever offering an exact date makes the man's exploits seem a bit random, lacking perspective on how one past triumph or failure shaped another. It's a slog, one populated by one grand-standing speech after another, colored exclusively in jarring white and muted grey, performed by faces that may or may not be melting as we watch. Not exactly Best Picture material, if you ask me.

Grade: D+

Monday, November 14, 2011

Like Crazy (Limited Release Date: 10-28-2011)

        We, the human race, are a bunch of suckers for romance. As often as movies get derided for excessive action and thin plots, the fact that nearly every flick ever made has a courtship near its center somehow never seems to rub anyone the wrong way. We love to see love on the big screen, because it’s just about the only narrative that everyone can relate to on some level. Quite frankly, romances don’t have to work as hard as other films to win us over; They’ve already got us in their pocket. The fact that Like Crazy packs some emotional punch is undeniable, because it’s so easy to see ourselves in the picture. It was always going to be an effecting movie simply because of what it is, and what it has to say. True merit is another thing, entirely.
        Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Ana (Felicity Jones) are madly in love. We know this because they make eyes at each other, read poetry together, and sprint aimlessly across gorgeous California beaches. They go to school together in Los Angeles, Jacob a resident, Ana from Britain, studying in the states on a student visa. In fact, the two are so intertwined with one another that Ana decides to stay the summer even after her temporary citizenship is spent. Just as things were going so well, Ana tries to hop continents, and is detained for her violation, and shipped back home. Forcibly separated, the pair endure years of missed calls, burning yearning, and botched side romances, unable to find happiness with their distance, but unable to fall for anyone else while apart.

        Yelchin and Jones are terrific in the movie, making eyes at one another, exploding into bouts of immature, fiery desire and jealousy. The early scenes, where the two are young and bright and new, crackle with their ever-grinning chemistry. Their connection is what Like Crazy truly has going for it: On just about every other level, all bets are off. The screenplay, as penned by Drake Doremus and Ben York Jones, is at times laughably sentimental, sending its characters through routine interactions without adorning them with any particular intrigue (unless you really, really, really like your movies to pile on the cute. I like some, but tis is ridiculous). Conversations about post-college life and feelings for other people are so plain and mundane in their verbiage, it often comes off sounding like a rough draft of a good idea that just isn't there yet.

        The aforementioned Doremus also serves as director, but his behind-the-camera efforts are mostly in line with his written contributions. The guy is obsessed with montages, subbing them in where meat-and-potatoes storytelling should be. Don't believe me? Wait until you see THE ENTIRE SUMMER that doomed their romance zoom by in an (admittedly lovely) collection of still photos of the two in bed together. This desire to turn its head away from trickier narrative elements remains prevalent throughout the film, choking out interesting, dicey moments for another fight, or another artsy time-filler. The film is at once far too hasty in its storytelling, and far too long in its runtime, right around the most damning thing that you could really say about a flick.

        The points that Like Crazy is trying to make are valid and worth lending voice, but the lack of conviction from all those not named Yelchin and Jones is mightily disheartening. American independent cinema's last high-profile downer-love-story, Blue Valentine, dished out it's tough-to-hear messages by being unflinching, showing the fissures in the partnership, and the way that those around the couple affected their fate. It dug deeply, and unearthed something troubling and true. Like Crazy knows it wants to bum you out, but it doesn't seem too interested in looking at the deeper implications and feelings of its protagonists. A better title might be, "Love Fades: The Movie." Messages of that levity and weight are better left to better films.

Grade: D

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas

        A simple disclaimer before I launch into this: I LOVE Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. Not like, LOVE. For my money, it's version of the episodic, moronic comedy is absolute top-teir stuff, funnier to me than The Hangover, Wedding Crashers, and just about everything else. Besides tickling me pink, I also find the flick to be one of the most subtle and savvy take-downs of race relations in modern America to come about in many a moon. Perhaps this is a tad aggrandizing for a movie about pot smoking and fast food compulsions, but that's why this is called a disclaimer. I drank White Castle's kool-aid like I was dying of thirst, a fact that I cannot even begin to say about the sequel, Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. I've always seen White Castle as being ripe with sequel potential, so I've got to say that I was pretty excited when they decided to pack the bong and give it another try.

        Six years have past since our heros' last mis-adventure, and the two have grown apart. Harold (John Cho) is now married to and living with the beautiful Maria (Paula Garcés) in a spacious, posh home that his swanky Wall Street job had afforded him. Kumar (Kal Penn), predictably, has still failed to make anything of himself, living in a crumby, dingy apartment, failing to shave, and losing both his job and his girlfriend Vanessa (Danneel Ackles) before the film opens. On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, a mysterious package arrives at Kumar's doorstep, addressed to Harold. Though the two haven't spoken in a couple years, Kumar decides to drop the package off on his way to a party, but when one disaster leads to another, the estranged besties find themselves in the middle of one hell of a night.

        The last four words in that paragraph are far and away the most important in this whole article. Where Guantanamo Bay messed with the formula by sending the stoners all over the world in a plot that developed over several days, Christmas goes back to the, 'One Crazy Night,' format, and my god is it the better for it. The scale is much more thought-out this time around, its ridiculous happenings better tailored to one time and place. For the first time in the franchise, Christmas is presented in 3-D, using the technology to throw all manner of foul matter at the audience. It's funny at first, but as a one-note joke stretched over an hour and a half, it gets old fast. As a matter of fact, a good deal of H&K's latest outing gets kind of old, missing the target completely just as often as hitting a bulls-eye. The comedy is hopelessly sporadic, prompting howling laughter and mild boredom in alternating turns. A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas proves two things, one good and one bad. It offers evidence that there is still humor to be wrung out of these two, but it also all but certifies that their wacky shenanigans will never play with the same verve and zest of the first film. I like these guys though; I'll take what I can get.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Skin I Live In (Limited Release Date: 10-14-2011)

        Hey! You! Yeah, you, the person who is easily disturbed: Whatever reviews you read, whatever your friends say, however attractive your potential date it, DO NOT GO SEE THE SKIN I LIVE IN. World-Famous Auteur Pedro Almodóvar's latest is a dark and twisty trip down the psycho-sexual rabbit hole, even by his standards. If your eyes or mind reacted with any vague discomfort at so much as reading the words psycho-sexual, then, please, do yourself a favor, and see something else. This one is a master-class in queasy-making, like a roller coaster ride that ensures your sickness thereafter. There's nothing for you here, person who likes to go to the flicks to, 'get away.' All others, proceed with caution, and know that the film as a whole is far, far more strange and unsettling than the strange and unsettling synopsis I am about to offer.

        Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is a brilliant plastic surgeon, capable of enormous scientific break-throughs and impossibly complex operations. He also so happens to be more than a little bit damaged, not to mention completely and totally insane. Ever since Ledgard's wife was burned to the point of deformity in a car crash, the Doctor has been obsessed with creating his own, man-made brand of skin, resistant to bug bites, flames, and other violences that regular flesh cannot ignore. Robert creates and tests his concoction on Vera (Elena Anaya), the beautiful woman who is imprisoned in the basement of his massive, secluded private property. With the help of the most understanding mother to ever walk the earth (Marisa Paredes), Ledgard keeps her hidden away, replacing her outer-layer with his newest creation one step at a time.

        To be perfectly honest, that plot summary could be deduced within the film's opening few moments, but all other developments that I could relay to you would only spoil the gut-wrenching fun that Almodóvar has in store. As is seemingly always the case in his works, issues of gender, identity, and sexuality abound: In some ways, The Skin I Live In could be seen as a mad-man's attempt at remaking Shakespeare's Twelfth Night for the modern age with more than a few mad-scientist/monster-movie elements thrown in for good measure. It's hugely disturbing, and only for those with thick skin (*pats self on back for great joke*), but Skin is also suspenseful, unpredictable, gorgeously produced, finely (over) acted, and morbidly fascinating. If you like a good pot-boiler, crafted by one of the most renown film-makers on the planet, The Skin I Live In is the movie for you. Just don't blame me when that skin starts to crawl.

Grade: B+

Monday, November 7, 2011

Martha Marcy May Marlene (Limited Release Date: 10-21-2011)

        To say that Sundance Film Festival favorite Martha Marcy May Marlene is wrought with dread would be the ultimate understatement. The film opens with hazy images of farm workers toiling away in idyllic, lush pastures, but even here, there's an unshakable feeling that something dastardly lurks just beneath the surface. A stoic young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) slips away through the trees, retrieving a pay phone and calling her long-estranged sister (Sarah Paulson), who immediately takes her sibling into her posh, yuppie lake side home. But Martha, as the sister calls her, can't seem to shake memories of her life on the farming commune, flash-backs constantly triggered by one mundane occurrence after another. In these sequences, she goes by the moniker Marcy May, a title bestowed upon her by the mysterious and strangely charismatic leader of the group, Patrick (John Hawkes). Paulson's Lucy and her husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) try to connect with Martha, but her demons threaten to tear apart her life, and her sanity.

        The story might sound vaguely familiar, and that's because a slew of such movies have been made in the very recent past. Films like Inception and Black Swan have had viewers questioning the lines between memories and hallucinations, while Winter's Bone's dreary, seedy, mercilessly chilled southern setting also comes to mind. Amidst its increasingly vast sea of brethren, it's amazing that Martha Marcy May Marlene doesn't just come off as a simple helping of more of the same. What's more, the film is nothing short of a revelation, an absolute miracle of tone and ambience.

        First time Writer/Director Sean Durkin took home the Best Director prize at Sundance, and, my god, is it easy to see why. The guy simply gets everything right, concocting something that is at once hugely stressful and compulsively watchable. The fashion in which Martha loses her mind is decidedly more subtle than the haunted-house theatrics of Black Swan, and is, to my mind, the better for it. If there is any justice in the world (and I'm willing to bet a $20 that there isn't), Editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier will gather an Oscar nomination for his brilliant work here, the film's dreamy structure only succeeding because of his graceful, effortless cuts between Martha's present and the memories of her past. Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes also deserves a deafening round of applause, composing one striking image after another, gorgeous, unsettling off-kilter angles abounding, a smoky camera filter silently alluding to the sinister happenings afoot.

        This of course all goes without mentioning the impeccable cast, each performance solid in its own respect. Though Paulson, Dancy, and the many other small players prove more than serviceable, the film's weight and sense of meaning come from Hawkes and Olsen. The former plays a much different shade of his smarmy devil than in Winter's Bone, conveying power and terrifying authority through smiles and silence, the kind of thing that only a great actor is capable of accomplishing. Olsen, the younger, seemingly untainted sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley, explores similar notions of the idiom, 'less is more,' her reluctance to share her damaging past betrayed by forceful looks of anxiety that occasionally flash across her otherwise placid face. She's sensational, and much has been made of her ever since the movie first started generating buzz, but, for my money, the most exciting talent here is Durkin.

        The movie is perhaps a hair too long, but the only reason you notice this error is because the film is otherwise pretty damn close to perfect. This is one of the most searing, elaborate, and fully-realized directorial debuts that I've ever seen, causing hearts to pound and race despite an almost impermeable sense of quiet. I could talk about this movie for days, but you'd probably be better off seeing the little terror for yourself. Not many achieve greatness on their first time out, but Durkin's not just anybody. He's a special talent, and here, he's created a special movie.

Grade: A

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Rum Diary (Release Date: 10-28-2011)

        It's a strange thing that Johnny Depp, truly one of America's most versatile thespians, has essentially been alternating between three things for the last several years. I don't need to tell you that hamming it up as Captain Jack Sparrow is one of them, and, at this point, each of his make-up drenched Tim Burton characters have started to blur together. But then there's Depp's fascination with Hunter S. Thompson, a preoccupation that goes far deeper than just aping the man in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In the same way that the actor harbors a clear desire to be remembered as his iconic swash-buckler, it would appear that Depp also wants to serve as Thompson's on-screen avatar. Having already been part of a not-so-subtle (like... at all) allusion to the man in Rango earlier this year, Johnny's Hunter-centric pet-project, The Rum Diary, finally hit screens this weekend after years of pre-production issues, solidifying his status as the cinematic Gonzo.

        Like some sort of coming-of-age story/prequel to Fear and Loathing, Depp stars as a much younger Thompson (here assuming the name Paul Kemp) who has just arrived in Puerto Rico, looking to write through his days, and drink through his nights. He's hired at a lousy english-language paper by a surly worry-wart of an editor named Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), and befriended soon afterwards by the trusty, plain-speaking Sala (Michael Rispoli). The party seems to be going just fine until Kemp meets Chenault (Amber Heard), a divine creature capable of triggering copious amounts of lust who would be Kemp's dream girl (or any man's, for that matter. The film walks miles to stress this) were it not for her smarmy, underground-deal-making boyfriend Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart). This is the frame-work of the film, not exactly a plot, per say, but a variety of fun locations and over-the-top characters to alternate between.

        If that last comment made the movie sound a bit meandering, then... BINGO! Like a kid with an impossibly vast array of toys to choose from, Writer/Director Bruce Robinson proves completely unable to stay on one subject or idea for any sustained period of time, a quality that, in the end, renders the movie a bit pointless. If someone were to ask me what The Rum Diary was really about, I would probably change the subject. This is also the culprit behind the film's saggy middle: At two hours, the movie is quite possibly the single most over-long flick of the year. But if there's one thing that Thompson's entire career proved, it's that pointlessness is its own brand of fun, and that's a notion that this movie takes to heart.

        Rather than developing a plot, or adhering to any real sense of progress, The Rum Diary plays out like a movie comprised of about 100 mini-One-act plays, each of them stuffed to the brim with gorgeously unrealistic dialogue, and actors playing it broad and maniacal. Jenkins rattles off a winning zinger at least once per minute of screen time, Heard throws herself at the sex-pot role with wild abandon, and Giovanni Ribisi plays the drunkest drunk that the world has ever seen, his intense commitment to theatricality either revelatory or obnoxious, though I have yet to decide. It also doesn't hurt that The Rum Diary is impossibly pleasing to the eye, Dariusz Wolski's utterly brilliant camera work meshing perfectly with the vintage, tan-tinged universe in which Robinson colors the film. TRD is aimless, purposeless, and a total blast, only really mis-stepping when it tries to marry Kemp's mischief with a sense of growing social consciousness. Forgettable it may be, but a bad time The Rum Diary is not.

Grade: B

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Netflix Instant Watch Picks for November 2011

Old-School Badasses Edition

High Noon
        If you've ever thought to yourself, "man, I wish The Western were just a tad faster, and a bit more streamlined," then High Noon is the movie for you. Don't let its 1952 release date fool you; Nearly all 85 minutes of Director Fred Zinnemann's classic are edge-of-your-seat-intense, colored by a sense of earnestness that is largely absent from modern flicks. Gary Cooper stars as Marshal Will Kane, the town hero who is set to both retire and be wed to the lovely Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly... Lucky...) before some demons from the past come back to haunt him. Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), a man Kane sent to prison a few years back, will be arriving in town on the noon train, and there's little to no doubt what his intentions are. As the town panics, its up to Will to find enough help to defeat his old foe once and for all. High Noon is brilliantly shot, and performed with a gleeful sense of grandiosity, most especially by holier-than-thou Cooper. It's brief runtime ensures that the heat is always on, and the music, most especially Best Original Song winner High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'), ensure that the menace never seems too far behind.

The Hustler
        One of, if not the greatest sports movie of all time, The Hustler stars none other than Paul Newman as "Fast" Eddie Felson, an up-and-comer in the pool-playing scene with more than a few skeletons in the closet. After losing a fortune by challenging reigning great Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), Felson hits rock bottom, meeting a similarly troubled soul (Piper Laurie as Sarah Packard) while he's down there. Finally, Eddie runs into Bert Gordon (George C. Scott... More on him later), a cut-throat manager who might just take him to the top, but at what cost. The Hustler is every bit the simple morality tale that it sounds like, but it gains extra traction from a sense of true unpredictability, and One of the best performances of One of the greatest acting careers of ever. More than anything else, the movie is a character study, and Newman fills "Fast" Eddie with enough nuance and soul that you never doubt his inner-turmoil. Bonus points for making a game like pool look impossibly cool, likely an impossible task were it not for Eugen Schüfftan's smoky Black and White camera work.
        I've seen a variety of great performances in my life time, but there are only a handful that pop up instantly when I consider the inevitable, "Best Performance of All Time," question. There's Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, and George C. Scott in Patton. Filling the role of the movie's namesake, Scott stars as One of the most divisive, ruthless, and infamous generals in the history of the American military. Gifted and brilliant, Patton sees more than his fair share of successes, but his fiery temper and unsightly ways of punishing insubordination find him in trouble time and time again. Patton is a quite a chunk, taking up nearly Three hours of screen time with a plot that meanders from One idea or place to another. The scale of the thing, however, is not to be denied, nor are the performances, the always-wonderful Karl Malden chipping in a brilliant supporting turn as General Omar N. Bradley. But this is the George C. Scott show, his strangely charismatic snarl and growl present in nearly every scene. It's a performance that towers over everything else that the movie has to offer, and, quite frankly, would be similarly mammoth in size regardless of what movie contained it.