Friday, December 23, 2011

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011): Haven't We Met?

We don’t live in a vacuum.

This makes reviewing David Fincher’s new film more challenging than it ought to be, because, as a global phenomenon, the late Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy is the biggest thing since the Harry Potter series. To date, the Trilogy’s first novel, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, has sold around 30 million copies worldwide, and the first film adaptation (which, you might recall, ended up at #4 on my list of 2010’s best films) set the stage for the adaptation of the rest of the trilogy in its mother tongue.

So, here’s the thing. We know the story, and we know it well.

As such, it’s tough to watch the American interpretation without sitting with a mental checklist firmly at the forefront of the cranium, with telepathic pen ready to mark off what’s improved, unimproved, the same and completely different.

It’s not entirely fair, and I admit that freely. I’d like to have been able to watch the new film without any baggage and be able to report to you on exactly what it accomplishes on its own merits, but that’s just not possible.

So, what do we know?

For one, that the story is mostly the same. I’ve made the assumption that it’s one you know, but, of course, you might have been living under a rock, for which you have my pity and the following: Mikhail Blomkvist, the recently disgraced editor of Millenium magazine, takes a job to solve the 40 year old murder of millionaire tycoon Henrik Vanger’s niece, Harriet. After various twists and turns, he finds himself working with Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant, troubled hacker with a knack for collecting and interpreting information. What neither of them realize is how deeply the trail goes, and how much they will be changed by the journey.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo looks fantastic. Fincher’s attention to detail and commitment to craftsmanship certainly don’t go amiss, even if he doesn’t take the material as far down as he might have. There are some sinister, sinister goings on here, and that Fincher chooses not to linger on, shall we say, certain instances of depravity is a bit of a surprise, particularly given where his sensibilities have taken him in the past. It certainly doesn’t descend to the moral or visual depths that he’s capable of, most notably in his darkest (and I’d argue best) film, Se7en. Personally, I feel that Niels Arden Oplev’s 2009 film hit harder insofar as shocks go, which is surprising, given Fincher’s skill for unsettling an audience. Ironically, I’d heard that there was talk that MPAA was considering giving The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo an NC-17 rating. It’s an idea that I find laughable, because, if any Fincher film should have an NC-17 rating, it’s Se7en. In this one, the action onscreen never really goes past atypical R-rated content, though it’s certainly a “hard” R.

One of the highlights of the film is the work of editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is one of the better edited films I’ve seen in years. As the story’s told from both Mikail and Lisbeth’s vantage points, the editors do a terrific job of linking the two when they’re not sharing the screen. What’s more, they take their continuity cues from various sources. A lingering or abrasive sound in one scene can serve as a link to the next, or a moving shot toward one object might be where it jumps off into the next scene with a similar visual. It becomes more natural as the story progresses and Mikail and Lisbeth come closer in both physical and emotional proximity. More than anything, it’s Baxter and Wall who help to provide The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo with its strong sense of rhythm. It may be over 2 ½ hours long but moves along very well, if not quite with the zippy pacing of Inglourious Basterds, the single zippiest 2 ½ hour movie I can recall.

Composers Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor play a big part in maintaining the film’s fluid continuity. Their work here and in The Social Network provide for some of the more exciting advances being made in contemporary film scoring. I think that Ross and Reznor’s two film scores to date continue a trend that began with Johnny Greenwood’s score for 2007’s There Will Be Blood, even if Greewood’s work is nearly traditional by comparison. With Ross and Reznor, their emphasis is on using music as a kind of invisible, referential sequence of sounds rather than as a collection of recognizable themes and motifs. While I don’t think that you’re going to be able to walk out of the theater and hum a single bar of the score, its influence upon the narrative is unmistakable.

The single best thing about The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is the same thing that stood out in the Swedish original: Lisbeth Salander. She’s one of the strongest characters to hit the screen in years, and, as written, is remarkably compelling regardless of who’s playing her. I’m exaggerating, but it’s almost as though a paper sack could play Lisbeth and be incredibly effective. She’s that well-written of a character. While Lisbeth’s so tightly wound up to try and keep anyone from hurting her, there’s also a twinge of an idealist in there too. She’s the type that keeps her head down so nobody sees her face, but just can’t help peeking up at the stars.

Rooney Mara brings a very different sensibility to the part than Noomi Rapace did, and that’s not something I was quite expecting. For one, Mara’s got a much slighter physique, which, while Rapace isn’t bulky by any means, certainly changed the way I viewed the character. Where Rapace was withdrawn, introspective, and intensely private, Mara has a certain openness that’s unique to her take on Lisbeth. Daniel Craig, on the other hand, is fine, but it’s very much the same brooding action everyman that we’ve gotten used to seeing him play in every film he’s in. It’s not a bad act, certainly, but I’d like to see him branch out a little bit and try and play a few different notes on that piano.

A notable difference between the two films is the chemistry between the two leads. With Craig and Mara, Blomkvist seems to be the dominant one in the relationship, but with Nykvist and Rapace, it’s definitely Salander. Personally, I’d have to give the chemistry edge to Nykvist and Rapace. The way that their relationship evolved seemed more authentic and consistent with who they were and the influence of their life experiences upon their ability to interact with others. Mara and Craig, while a solid pair, don’t quite have the same cohesion, and there were moments when I felt that Mara’s Salander had a dependence on Blomkvist in a way that wasn’t entirely consistent with who I knew the character to be.

There are a few changes in the script that provide for a bit of a different effect than the original had. In particular, there’s a significant change to the story’s ending. Fortunately, it’s one that works, even if the staging of the initial reveal is poorly managed and dilutes what should be a pretty powerful moment. Additionally, where the Swedish film left out the novel’s affecting final scene, writer Steven Zaillian left it in, and ends the film on a poignant note that I think really does it credit.

Ultimately, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is stylishly engaging and a worthy adaptation of a story that now belongs to the world. If it’s not quite up the standard set by the 2009 film, it’s consistently entertaining and I hope it does the kind of box office that will be needed to ensure that Fincher gets the chance to make the remaining films in the trilogy.

I don’t often choose to see a film more than once theatrically, but I’m thinking that I might make another trip for this one. In my book, Lisbeth Salander is such a terrific character that any chance to spend some time following her around is time well spent.

I'm hooked, ok?

starrating-4stars.jpg image by hobster70
4 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Linkage: Podcasting & Sherlock Holmes

For yours truly, the past few weeks have been busy ones on the cinematic front.

New reviews of some 2011 heavy-hitters coming soon.


Saturday, December 3, 2011

My Week With Marilyn - The Young Man in the 22nd Row Tells All

When your name is Harvey Weinstein and you’re looking to figure prominently in the discussion around the award show water cooler at year’s end, you push out a biopic. The Aviator. Finding Neverland. Miss Potter. Factory Girl. Nowhere Boy. The King’s Speech. Pick any of those, and you're still not past 2004.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there really aren’t many drawbacks to making biopics. Studios love them because they’re usually able to get a big name actor to play whichever historical figure’s on the docket, stand a very good chance at making some dough, and might get some hardware. Actors love them because if they prove to be particularly good at mimicry, wearing that prosthetic nose, and bringing that historical figure to life, they stand a good chance of gaining a ton of critical recognition and, yes, getting some hardware. Audiences love them because they usually get to enjoy a rags-to-riches story and have the opportunity to feel better about all of the times they fell asleep in high school when they were supposed to be learning about these folks in the first place.

2011, in particular, has so many biopics as to inspire washed-up conspiracy theorists everywhere to come out of retirement. Initially, My Week With Marilyn wasn’t something I was particularly enthusiastic about, particularly when compared to something like J. Edgar, The Iron Lady, or A Dangerous Method. But, as fate would have it, it was the first that I had the chance to see and, for whatever reason, I got pretty excited about seeing it. I think I unexpectedly fell a little bit in love with Michelle Williams after seeing the adverts so many times.

My Week With Marilyn tells the story of Colin Clark, a 24 year old British aristocrat with a dream of working in the movie business. After working his connections, he becomes third assistant director on the set of Laurence Olivier’s The Prince and the Showgirl, a starring vehicle for Sir Laurence and Marilyn Monroe. When Marilyn starts to crumble underneath pressures both personal and professional, she and Colin form an unlikely connection and spend a bit of a “lost week” together.

As promising as that sounds, it seems to me that the primary thing that holds the film back is that it's told from the perspective of the young man, Colin, instead of the movie star, Marilyn. I think that it would have been much more effective and infinitely more interesting to have been able to start with her, stay with her, and see exactly what made her tick and what caused her idiosyncrasies.

To that end, while watching the film, there were a ton of times that I really wanted to get some sense of what exactly was in her head. There are moments when she seems so lost and so overwhelmed, and then there are others in which she seems to be in complete control of her image. I wish there had been some dot connectors to point out where the woman ended and the movie star began.

For what she was given, Michelle Williams (who's sure to get a ton of award nominations and maybe a few statuettes) is really good. While she’s a terrific choice to play the actress formerly known as Norma Jeane Baker, sadly, I don’t think the script fully equips her to bring her complete set of talents to bear. It’s not Williams being inconsistent so much as it’s Simon Curtis’ script that’s incomplete.

As for Eddie Redmayne’s turn as Colin Clark, it’s solid, but the half-baked script holds him back too. At the beginning of the film, he seemed to be a bit of a greenback. You know, means well but doesn’t have a lot of practical life or work experience? Well, the kid decides to park his keister on the couch of Olivier’s production company’s office until he’s given some kind of job to do. Good, right? Shows initiative. But when he’s finally given a task by the film producer, he handles it, we’re led to believe, without any problems at all. Uh, hello! He was asked to get NOEL COWARD’s number, which, I might add, he’s told is unlisted. That’s no small thing. How about a moment a la Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada? It’s a real chance to gain more insight into his character. How does he get stuff like that done? While we see him get them into Windsor Castle later through a family connection, we have no idea how he gets that pesky number. Did he rely on another connection? Did he struggle before finally getting it done? Was he really just that good? I’d have liked to have seen that process outlined rather than being given “BOOM, it’s done!” as an answer.

I get it. Boy meets movie star. Boy falls hopelessly in love with movie star. On that level, his performance is very effective, but, as with Williams', more was needed. I know that the scene I’ve described might seem petty and inconsequential in the big picture, but it would have contributed significantly to fleshing out his character and making him that much more three-dimensional instead of relying on such a simplistic character outline.

The rest of the cast is uniformly solid, with particular props going to a scene-stealing Kenneth Branagh as Lawrence Olivier. He’s fantastic, and I hope he gets some much-deserved love at year’s-end. Judi Dench is really good too, and has a wonderful line about how much mascara a woman should wear. However, the one person that completely surprised me was Dougray Scott. It struck me that the guy playing Arthur Miller was really believable, but I had no idea whatsoever that it was Scott until the end credits. Seeing Julia Ormond (one of my favorites!) pop up as Vivien Leigh was a nice surprise too. After The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Temple Grandin, and The Music Never Stopped, it seems like she’s back.

Lastly, I think My Week With Marilyn ends one (or two, if you count the end credit musical sequence) scene too late. There’s a wonderful shot of Colin staring at a blank movie screen in a small theater that seemed announced itself as the film’s final shot . . . and then things continued with a bit that’s supposed to tie things off in a knot when I think, ironically, a messier approach would have served the film better. By that point, by all intents and purposes, the film was done, and to try and spell everything out was the wrong choice.

It’s really too bad. While My Week With Marilyn isn’t a bad film and certainly isn’t unenjoyable by any stretch, a real opportunity’s been missed here. It strikes me as a bit odd that we’ve got a definitive look at the formation of Facebook on the books, but there’s no authoritative piece on the life of one of the cinema’s biggest stars.

There’s a wonderful scene in the middle of the picture. Colin is sent to a much-the-worse-for-wear Marilyn’s dressing room to find out what’s keeping her from the set. He gets starstruck, and ends up revealing that one of his jobs is, essentially, to spy on her. A bleary-eyed Marilyn looks up at him and asks, “Colin, whose side are you on?” He looks back at her, eyes wide with a heart no longer his own, and says, “Yours, Miss Monroe.” I only wish that My Week With Marilyn had been able to say the same thing.

3 1/2 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, November 27, 2011


Well, friends, it has been a while, hasn’t it? The past few months have seen me quite busy in some respects and quite lacking in the blogging persuasion in a lot of others. In a simple man’s English, I’ve had stuff on my plate, but have been mostly more complacent than I care to admit.

However! There are some new developments that you need to know about, aside from my usual recommitment to a newfound undying enthusiasm to blog and blog and blog.

I’m now a contributor to Movie Smackdown!, a site with the unique predisposition to put a new flick in the ring with an “old” one to see which is better. You know, essentially reviewing two movies at once. It’s an interesting challenge, and I’m grateful to be on board. Currently, you can find my pieces on Puss In Boots and Immortals on the site, with more to come. I’ll be sure to post links to any new Smacks here as well, and would be most grateful for any reading, commenting, rating, and sharing you feel up to.

Also, over the past several months, I’ve been fortunate enough to become a regular guest contributor to Out Now With Aaron and Abe, which, you might recall, was the podcast I guested on back in June to break down The Tree of Life. Currently, you can find our Art House/Indie Showcase 2011 Spectacular on the site, with a rich back catalog of podcasts to enjoy.

Enjoy, my droogs. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a screening to get to.


Friday, June 10, 2011

The Tree of Life, 3 Intelligent Gentlemen, and Me

A few days ago, Aaron of The Code Is Zeek and I were discussing The Tree of Life, and he invited me to be part of a round table discussion of the film on his podcast, Out Now With Aaron and Abe. Having a chance to discuss the film with Aaron and his other guests, Mark Hobin of Fast Film Reviews and Jordan Grout (of a blog whose creation is imminent), was great fun, and the conversation proved enlightening. Below, you'll find the podcast in its entirety. Beware, spoilers abound!


Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Tree of Life – Looking Through the Eyes of the Almighty

To watch The Tree of Life is to look through the eyes of god. For a being like that, time would have no meaning and even less value. To see the beginning of the universe would be of no more difficulty than to look at the life of one person or onward to the end of days. The truth of what people are feeling and thinking would become apparent, even as they express the opposite. To describe the narrative, I cannot get around the fact that the film is much more like a poem than a story. Poems use language to try to burrow inside of an emotional reality. This is not the same as the way things actually “are.” In the world you and I live in, people can’t fly, the Light Brigade is long dead, and we don’t have the chance to talk with people who have died. But in a poem, you can say anything that you need to say, and you can do it in any way that you want to.

Terrence Malick is clearly very, very sincere. This is a personal film above all else, and I mean that as a compliment. It takes courage to put one's deepest emotions out for all to see as explicitly as Malick has done. Normally, when discussions begin of cinematic bravery, they relate to an artist’s commitment to tackling material that’s widely thought of as difficult. I wonder, however, if there is any material more difficult than the honest exploration of what one truly thinks and feels about the nature of love, life, death, spirituality, and the universe itself. These are the deepest things that a person can hold within. It is so easy to laugh and poke fun at someone when he/she is being sincere, and the vulnerability with which Malick has opened himself is something that has my deepest admiration.

The Tree of Life tells the story of the lives of the O’Brien family in Waco, Texas in the 1950’s, that most misunderstood of modern American decades. Mr. & Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) have three boys and very different ideas about how to raise them. Mr. O’Brien clearly loves his family, but has no idea how to properly express it as a husband and father. He’s never done this before, and it’s heartbreakingly obvious. There are a number of times where he’s shown playing with his sons, but I think they’re already so resentful and/or scared of him that it’s too little, too late. At the same time, he’s undoubtedly a passionate person. He truly wants his children to learn the things that he felt he never did or learned too late, and his love of music is the most tangible of any of his expressions of love. While Mrs. O’Brien loves her children and is clearly their emotional center, I think they resent the fact that she lets her husband do what he wants without standing up for them. There’s only so much a person can stand of being told how much he/she is loved to his/her face without it being proved when it matters most.

While the family has five members, the narrative revolves mostly around Jack (Hunter McCracken/Sean Penn), the oldest son. His transformation is something that resonated with me. I can clearly remember the day that my internal life changed forever. Overnight, I went from being a carefree kid to an adolescent dealing with thoughts and emotions much too complicated for him. Like Jack, there was nothing I wanted more than to get back to where I’d been before, to somehow find a way to navigate myself back to the space I’d occupied where the only thing I had to worry about was whether or not I’d like what was being served for dinner. I was so desperate then. What no child ever realizes at first is that one cannot go back. There is no way to unlearn, barring illness or senility, what it is to be an adult and to have to deal with things heretofore relegated to the “grown up” and “mature.”
The Tree of Life is a study in mirrors, types, and shadows. At the outset, the family learns that their middle son is dead. It’s a devastating moment in their lives, both individually and collectively, and I don’t think it’s one that they ever fully recover from. From there, the film moves into dazzlingly abstract territory to the formation of the universe. It’s beautiful to look at, and I’ve never seen VFX used in quite this way before. Some shots are so beautiful as to appear to be footage taken by the likes of the Hubble Telescope. After the creation of the earth, the long-awaited (and til this point rumored) dinosaurs emerge. Yes, you heard right. Dinosaurs. It’s all right. Go with it. Then, the meteor strikes, and life on earth is irrevocably changed. After that, things shift to the formation of the family. We see the birth of the children, and we get a sense of the rhythm of their daily lives. The only difference is that we already know what their meteor will be. We know exactly what will change their lives forever.

So much of the film is a conversation with god. Even as Jack is saying his nightly prayers, with the obligatory “make me a good boy” and so on, we hear his heart. “Where are you? Do you see me?” One of the most significant bits for me occurred when he says “I’m not going to try and be good. You aren’t.” As the universe is being born, we hear Mrs. O’Brien asking god why it has allowed evil to befall those who try to be righteous. That most ancient of questions. A preoccupation of some of the surviving members of the family is speaking with their deceased son/brother, and there’s an interesting malleability of names and subjects at work here. At times, it’s unclear if who’s being addressed is the dead boy or god itself.

The way that Terrence Malick and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, have shot the film is dazzling, even virtuosic. The camera (and, by extension, the film’s rhythm at times) is so fluid as to seem to be alive. It flies, swoops and swirls like a force of nature all its own. There are a half-dozen directors I’d like to make study Malick’s work here to learn how to create a sense of motion without cutting every 2 seconds. There are some gorgeous shots that make better use of a crane than just about anyone I’ve seen. The camera glides down hallways, often turning to look at the scenery with a mind all its own. But motion, endless motion, is what Malick seems to be striving for here.

It didn’t strike me until a little bit after the film was over, but the “dramatic” climax of the film occurs so early in the film as to sneak right past the viewer. It’s a few words spoken over the phone in an elevator that become a brief moment of connection in an attempt to rectify the past. It’s a rare moment of near-irony in a piece that exists almost completely in the absence of insincerity.

In The Tree of Life, fantasy and reality collide, the past, present, and future are interchangeable, and the inner lives of a few common people are expanded in bright, bold relief. Ultimately, Terrence Malick is using the lives of one family in Waco, Texas as a microcosm of the life and death of the universe itself. I know that it sounds incredibly pretentious to put it like that, but it’s true. People are born and they die, often for no discernable reason. What’s left is for the living to go on, treasuring the memories they have, picking up the pieces that are left, and making the most of every precious fragment that remains.

One of 2011's best films.

4 1/2 stars (out of 5)

Friday, June 3, 2011

Midnight In Paris - A Landaulet 184 Is Just As Good As A Pumpkin Coach

Unlike many, I’m the guy who’s enjoyed many of Woody Allen’s recent films. There’s a large number of folks, critics and regular janes alike, who think that, with a few fingers worth of notable exceptions, his post-2000 output has really sucked. While I don’t think that much of his recent work (Vicky Cristina Barcelona aside) is on par with his work in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, there’ve been some really fun pieces in the bunch.

Regardless of one’s position on the post-millenial Woodster, Midnight In Paris is a delight, filled with laughs, beautiful photography, and surprisingly valid insights into human behavior. Per one of his usual aesthetics, the hero is an insecure writer in an unfulfilling relationship. Gil (Owen Wilson) is a successful screenwriter with very real insecurities about his literary ambitions. In Paris with his fiancé, he’s forced to spend time with her unfriendly parents and insufferable friends until a fateful moment at midnight where he finds himself in a random classic car headed for a party (well, a BUNCH of parties) in 1920’s Paris. Suddenly Gil’s spending his days with a bunch of people he likes less and less, and his nights with his literary heroes.

Crazy setup, right? Wrong! Surprisingly, the whole thing really works. Wilson’s “aw, shucks. Me?” schtick is really effective when he starts running into Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso, and Stein. (and a wonderfully funny Adrien Brody taking a turn as Salvador Dali) He can’t believe he’s meeting these people, and we can’t believe our good fortune at getting to see him meet them. Over and over, just when he doesn’t think it can get any better, it does just that.

Additionally, Woody’s dialogue is just the kind of thing you’d expect. What’s wonderful about it (well, one of many such things) is that Woody doesn’t look down on his audience. Will you know who everyone is that Gil meets? Unless you’re smarter than this writer, which is a real possibility, probably not. Despite that, much as in the case of Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall, knowing everything about these people isn’t the point. When Hemingway starts to wax eloquent (as he often does here) about bravery and courage, it’s funny. When he gets drunk and asks Adriana (Marion Cottilard) if she’s ever shot at a charging lion, you laugh out loud.

One of the things I love most about Midnight In Paris is the good, solid look it takes at the human tendency to ignore the good things to be found in the present because of a belief in the glory of an idealized past. See, when we look back, the rose-colored glasses come on. We don’t remember going to bed hungry. We remember that “times were hard, but we were happy!” So, for Gil, the artistic community of Paris in the 20’s is exactly where he thinks he wants to be, but what would he actually do there? Would you really be willing to throw away (because, yes, that’s exactly what you’d be doing) your life if you could go “back?” I think that, a few days after arriving, we’d realize that we were in a place just as crummy as the one we came from, albeit with a far less efficient plumbing system. I’d also argue that we’d want to get back to where we once belonged as soon as possible, but not because of penicillin and Facebook. Nope. We’d want to be there because of the people in our lives that give meaning to the often lousy situations we find ourselves in. I might regret not having valued things in my past like I should have, but if I went back, far too much would be lost in the transfer. Now, if you’re wanting to send me back about 30 years with enough money to do some investing in some little companies called Microsoft and Apple . . . well, then we can talk.

I’m very pleased to see such a strong piece of work after the limp, blandly uninteresting screenhog that was You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger. In many ways, Midnight In Paris is closest to The Purple Rose of Cairo in the Allen canon, but that’s a topic for another day. I did feel that the ending snuck up on me, much like the case of The Social Network. In both cases, I would have happily stayed in my seat for another half hour to see where the story might go. With Midnight In Paris, I felt that there was a bit more that could have been explored in the end, but, in the days since seeing the film, it’s bothered me less and less.

Currently, Midnight In Paris is in limited release, but I’d recommend that you make the effort to seek it out. You won’t be disappointed.

4 stars (out of 5)

Monday, May 23, 2011

2011 Cannes Film Festival - Awards

Every year, the Cannes Film Festival opens my eyes.

While I do my best to keep up with the wide world of cinema, it’s a frontier that’s continuously expanding. For me, Cannes’ official selection serves as a barometer to point out the artists and films I ought to be paying attention to. It’s easy enough to keep track of the 5-10 American films that will receive a ton of marketing money from major studios in their turn as eventual (though painfully obvious) Oscar bait.

Were it not for Cannes, it’s possible I might still not have found my way into the work of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Pedro Almodovar, Michael Haneke, Wong Kar-Wai, Abbas Kiarostami, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Olivier Assayas, Cristian Mungiu, or Lars von Trier. That’s a long list of some of contemporary cinema’s most influential artists, and they don’t receive exposure on most mainstream media channels. Even with some websites and publications expressly devoted to film, there’s a tendency toward Anglo-centrism and films funded by major American studios. Sure, sometimes they’ll go highbrow and talk about period pieces featuring characters speaking with British accents (even if they’re supposed to be ancient Romans or something), but I don’t really think that counts.

For my money, the films that need to be sought out are often the ones that matter in the grand scheme of things. As recently as last year, my pick for the best film of 2010, Certified Copy, was one that I was initially exposed to through Cannes.

Unfortunately, I (for whom the Festival circuit is, in some regard, my business) have never had the opportunity to go to Cannes in person. However, a colleague of mine made the trip only days after we attended an 8-day U.S. Festival, and I’m hoping to bring you some of his thoughts on what he saw in the near future.

So, in what seemed to be a particularly strong year for the films In Competition, here are the films/artists rewarded by Robert De Niro’s jury at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.


· Palme d'Or
(Easily one of if not THE most anticipated film(s) of the Festival. I truly believe that if any filmmaker remains who’s capable of making a single film that attempts to encompass things like life, love, death, innocence, spirituality, and mankind’s place in the universe, it’s Terrence Malick. While I don’t yet know if his film is successful to that end, the fact that he’s got a chance at all is not to be underestimated. It opens in New York and Los Angeles this week, and I hope to have a review up within the next 10 days.)

· Grand Prix Ex-aequo (tie)
(My experience with Ceylan is somewhat limited. Climates is gorgeous from a visual standpoint, but is sadly inert dramatically. However, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia picked up some strong late buzz at the Festival.)

(Ah, the Dardennes’ streak continues! Having twice won the Palme d’Or, a third would have been unprecedented. By all indications, The Kid With A Bike generated strong support as an archetypical Dardenne film that departs from their usual aesthetic in a few key areas. Along with The Tree of Life, this is the film I’m most looking forward to out of Cannes.)

· Award for Best Director
(I've heard mixed things about Drive, and to see it win this award was a bit of a surprise. I'd thought that either Malick or Almodovar were the real contenders for this one.)

· Award for Best Screenplay
(This one didn't pop up on the radar screen either way as far as buzz goes, but on the list it goes.)

· Award for Best Actress
(For some reason, Dunst is often disparaged as actress, which I don’t really understand. I’m pleased for this win on that level. Maybe now her detractors will take the opportunity to reexamine her work. I’m also grateful that the jury didn’t allow von Trier’s rocky press conference to dissuade them from keeping Melancholia in consideration.)

· Award for Best Actor
(By all intents and purposes, The Artist is probably the 2011 Festival’s most beloved film. It’ll be interesting to see if/how a silent film breaks into the popular consciousness, but, if I know Harvey Weinstein, it’ll do just fine.)

· Jury Prize
(I’ve heard mixed things about this one. Apparently, there were some catcalls in the press room when the film won. It's a reminder that the winners are determined by a group of people largely set apart from the rest of the viewing audience. At 35, Maiwenn’s the youngest director with a film in competition. If anything, it’ll definitely be worth a look.)


· Palme d'Or - Short Film

· Jury Prize - Short Film


An aside: traditionally, I only get to see the award ceremony after the fact. This genius got to thinking: "It's 2011. There has to be some way to stream this thing, even for a square like me." Thanks to a couple of Tweeters to whom I shall remain forever indebted, I found my way to a site streaming the show live. One problem. When watching the show the next day on Cannes' official site, the linguistics are adjusted per the language you selected upon entering. Hence, when they're speaking in English, there's no translation, but when it switches, the translator comes in to keep things smooth. This stream had no such preconception. It was French to the bone. So, imagine my fun as I tried to sift through Kirsten Dunst's speech (in English) as it was being overdubbed with a French translation. I really need to learn French. 10 words isn't nearly enough.

A second aside: Mélanie Laurent was a beautiful host for the opening and closing ceremonies, and she kept things running smoothly. Seems that graceful efficiency is the name of the game. The Academy should take notice. If you'd like to see it, the entire closing ceremony can now be streamed from their site (with the proper translation!).

Friday, March 4, 2011

Linkage: Gold Statues, Authentic Fakery, & Very Nice

Manohla Dargis, one of my favorite film critics, went to the Oscars for the first time on Sunday. Here's her take on the show and the public's fascination with award shows in general.
Pablo Villaça's thoughts on Certified Copy, my favorite film of 2010, and the self-sustaining logic that governs characterization in dramatic narrative.
A fascinating discussion with one of the finest actresses of our time.

Monday, February 28, 2011

2011 Academy Award Wrap-up: March of the Underachievers

Has there been a less interesting Oscars in recent memory? I’m not sure that I’d go as far as many folks have and call it the worst in history, but almost everything about the show screamed “We’re not really trying!”

The hosts: I haven’t been a big fan of replacing the atypical Oscar host with these newfangled experiments of having various pretty people do the job. I’m almost inclined to offer Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin an apology for picking on them last year. They were Abbott and Costello compared to James Franco and Anne Hathaway. It’s strange. I had a good feeling about these two. When the show started with the obligatory homage to all of the year’s big movies, I felt genuine hope that this show was going to be really fun. Hathaway’s “dance of the brown duck” was hilarious, and the montage as a whole had a nice rhythm to it. What’s more, IT WAS FUNNY, which was a luxury that Franco and Hathaway would soon be no longer capable of affording. The opening “monologue” (or should I call it an “opening dialogue?”) was ludicrously short and woefully unfunny. Hathaway was quick to establish herself as the purportedly funny one to Franco’s straight man, but she came across as much too hammy, while Franco just didn’t show up. I’m not sure if he was high or what was going on, but a guy with a lot of natural energy/charisma was doing his best Dustin Hoffman impression. One bright spot: Hathaway’s zinger of a song directed at Hugh Jackman. THAT was funny. I just didn’t know that it would be the last laugh the hosts would provide. Having two of Hollywood’s prettiest, most charming people host was a nice idea, but this experiment was a gargantuan dud. Grade: D.

Bad Ideas:

  • Letting Melissa Leo speak without a script. She reprised her Space Cadet role from the Golden Globes without a second thought. I know that she’d just had one of the biggest shocks/surprises/gifts of her life thrown in her lap, but c'mon.
  • Kirk Douglas going on and on and on and on. I’ve got a lot of respect for the man, and it was funny at first, but then it just kept going to the point that I started to feel sorry for him.
  • The strange segues back to classic films. Wait, wait, we need to present an award, let’s talk about Gone With The Wind first! I love that film, but what’s going on???
  • Turning the backdrop for the Animated film categories into Far, Far Away and teasing me with “Look, there’s Shrek!” . . . WITHOUT ACTUALLY PRODUCING A GREEN OGRE. Look, having a character or two present that category is a time-honored tradition, so why must they torment me with something that might have actually been entertaining???
  • Having all of the night’s winners pop out on stage at the end. I dug the kid’s choir, but having everyone come back to the stage with their little gold men almost makes you expect to hear, “Ladies and gentlemen, the graduating class of 2011!”

Now, I’ve got to take some time to point out some particularly egregious decisions. These are things for which a simple bullet point just won’t do.

The telecast’s direction: Once again, the folks in that little truck let us down. I’ve spent some time directing various things live in studio, so I do have some concept of how difficult it can be. That said, these are professionals with about 2 million cameras/shots to choose from. Should they really need to be told that a shot of people walking in front of the camera during a montage is a bad idea? When Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin walked out, they stopped for a few seconds to waltz. Did I get to see it happen? No, because we cut to a reaction shot of some star or another. Gee, don’t you think it’d make more sense to show us what’s going on and THEN cut to the crowd for about a second or two before cutting BACK to the action? Just saying.

Tom Hooper: The decision to award this man the Best Director Oscar is a baffling one, but I’ll tell you exactly how he won. Dude got lucky. Right place, right time, right movie. It’s still a bad choice. Hooper’s annoyed me as a director for years. Elizabeth I is one of the worst miniseries I’ve ever seen, and John Adams (mostly) succeeds despite his decidedly questionable direction. (I swear, if I have to look at ONE more establishing shot tilted by 45 degrees . . .) I’m hard-pressed to find anything about The King’s Speech that sets it apart from any other WWII period piece, aside from the wonderful script. Darren Aronofsky made Black Swan what it is. The Coen Bros. made True Grit what it is. David Fincher had a large part in making The Social Network what it is. What did Tom Hooper do exactly? I sure don’t know.

The King’s Speech: Look, it’s a nice movie and all, but that’s it. I’m surprised to see the Academy fall for such a clear case of Oscar bait. British? Check. Period piece? Check. WWII? Check. Nazis? Check. Hero overcoming adversity? Check. The King’s Speech is very much a by-the-books historical drama that doesn't do anything that hasn't already been done. Even in the case of Slumdog Millionaire, another winner I felt was undeserving, I can at least see why the film won. With this one, I just don't get it. It's not that I dislike the film. I just don't think that it's anywhere CLOSE to being the best film of the year. It sure pays off to be under Harvey Weinstein’s wing.

Bright spots ('cause there actually were a few):

  • Cate Blanchett going off the script by saying that the makeup/visual effects used in The Wolfman were “gross.”
  • Billy Crystal showing up. It was like tossing a line to a drowning audience. They were so excited to see him that you could almost hear the wheels turning, “YES YES YES! A host who knows what he’s doing! Can you stick around for the rest of the show?”
  • Aaron Sorkin’s speech. They tried to play him off, which was remarkable. You do not play AARON SORKIN off the stage. To his credit, he never missed a beat in a well-paced, articulate speech that actually seemed to thank everyone he wanted to.
  • David Seidler’s speech. Funny, charming, and touching, which is everything an Oscar speech should be.
  • Luke Matheny’s speech (Best Short Film – Live Action). “I should have gotten a haircut. . . I want to thank my mom, who did craft services” Gold.
  • The decision to have a song performed during the “In Memoriam” segment. It eliminates the CLAP CLAP CLAP for the big names and the golf-like pitter-patter for people most folks hadn’t heard of.
  • Florence Welch and A.R. Rahman’s performance of "If I Rise." After a several less-than noteworthy performances, that one hit the spot. See what you get when you throw in some Eastern influence?
  • Randy Newman’s speech. His performance was a bit of a mess, due to that silly backing track rendering his voice unintelligible, but his speech was gold. Irreverence at its best.

By the way, I went 18/24. Should have entered the Outguess Ebert contest, ‘cause I outguessed the guy. There’s always next year.

Let's start the Billy Crystal 2012 campaign. It's gonna happen, kids. Bet on it.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Oscar Night 2011: Welcome to the Big Dance

Hello, Oscar night. It seems like an eternity since last year’s ceremony, but here we are again. Changes? We still have 10 nominees for Best Picture, unfortunately. Can’t win ‘em all.

I have to admit that I have a good feeling about James Franco & Anne Hathaway as hosts. I think they’ll be charmingly, disarmingly cute, but here’s hoping they take a risk or two.

Here are my predictions in each category, with the “Big 6” getting some extra time. If you win big in your Oscar pool, message me, and I'll tell you where to send my share of the winnings.

Best Picture

· “Black Swan”

· “The Fighter”

· “Inception”

· “The Kids Are All Right”

· “The King's Speech”

· “127 Hours”

· “The Social Network”

· “Toy Story 3”

· “True Grit”

· “Winter's Bone"

Predicted winner: The King’s Speech
If I was voting: True Grit
Possible upsets: The Social Network

Analysis: The change in momentum that’s occurred over the last month has been almost dizzying. The Social Network had a full head of steam behind it and was the clear picture to beat. Then . . . The King’s Speech . . . happened. After winning almost all of the major “Best Film” awards (with the exception of the Golden Globe – Drama), it’s practically vaulted over the competition to the top. Look for it to pick up the big one on Oscar night, with a very strong possibility that The Social Network could swoop in, flip back the clock and take what lots of folks thought it was going to get anyway.


· “Black Swan” Darren Aronofsky

· “The Fighter” David O. Russell

· “The King's Speech” Tom Hooper

· “The Social Network” David Fincher

· “True Grit” Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Predicted winner: David Fincher
If I was voting: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Possible upsets: Tom Hooper

Analysis: I know that Tom Hooper’s won the Director’s Guild Award. I know that that’s an almost frighteningly accurate indicator of who’s going to walk off with Oscar. I still think that the Academy’s going to see this as David Fincher’s “time” and reward his second nomination with the win. Besides, Hooper’s young, British, and probably not going anywhere. He’ll have other chances. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Christopher Nolan should be one of the nominees. While I’m not a big fan of his film, he did a very gutsy thing in making a $160 million art movie. I’d give him Russell’s spot.

Actor in a Leading Role

· Javier Bardem in “Biutiful”

· Jeff Bridges in “True Grit”

· Jesse Eisenberg in “The Social Network”

· Colin Firth in “The King's Speech”

· James Franco in “127 Hours”

Predicted winner: Colin Firth
If I was voting: Jeff Bridges
Possible upsets: None.

Analysis: Colin Firth will win. Period. I think the Academy ought to pull a Tom Hanks and give it to Jeff Bridges for his outstanding work in True Grit, but it ain’t gonna happen.

Actress in a Leading Role

· Annette Bening in “The Kids Are All Right”

· Nicole Kidman in “Rabbit Hole”

· Jennifer Lawrence in “Winter's Bone”

· Natalie Portman in “Black Swan”

· Michelle Williams in “Blue Valentine”

Predicted winner: Natalie Portman
If I was voting: Natalie Portman
Possible upsets: Annette Bening

Analysis: Lesley Manville should be nominated in this category, and she should win. Her performance in Another Year was that good. Silly Academy. (sighs back into reality) Black Swan was the first occasion that Natalie Portman’s ever blown me away, and I think she’s a strong favorite. While I’d be very surprised if she didn’t win, Annette Bening might challenge her here. She’s lost a couple of times previously, and some might say that this is her last, best chance to win. I still don’t think it’s going to happen. Besides, if you’re going to nominate someone from The Kids Are All Right, it should have been Julianne Moore.

Actor in a Supporting Role

· Christian Bale in “The Fighter”

· John Hawkes in “Winter's Bone”

· Jeremy Renner in “The Town”

· Mark Ruffalo in “The Kids Are All Right”

· Geoffrey Rush in “The King's Speech”

Predicted winner: Christian Bale
If I was voting: Christian Bale
Possible upsets: Geoffrey Rush

Analysis: The Fighter is a film that’s really lucked out this year. It’s decently entertaining, but never takes flight in the way that it could. Christian Bale’s outstanding performance is the finest thing about the film, and I think it’s going to be rewarded. However, if Geoffrey Rush pulls off an upset in one of the first prizes of the telecast, get ready for a British avalanche of The King’s Speech winning everything under the sun.

Actress in a Supporting Role

· Amy Adams in “The Fighter”

· Helena Bonham Carter in “The King's Speech”

· Melissa Leo in “The Fighter”

· Hailee Steinfeld in “True Grit”

· Jacki Weaver in “Animal Kingdom”

Predicted winner: Melissa Leo
If I was voting: Helena Bonham Carter
Possible upsets: Hailee Steinfeld, Helena Bonham Cater

Analysis: This is the trickiest of the 6 majors to call. Hailee Steinfeld is the fresh, young face that impressed a lot of people with her plucky (LEAD) performance in True Grit. Helena Bonham Carter has the good fortune to be attached to The King’s Speech (and had a nice turn to boot). However, I think Melissa Leo’s got the momentum, and might squeak out the victory. This is a very tough category. Could go to any of the aforementioned 3.

  • Animated Feature Film: Toy Story 3
  • Art Direction: The King’s Speech
  • Cinematography: Roger Deakins – True Grit
  • Costume Design: Alice In Wonderland
  • Documentary (Feature): Exit Through The Gift Shop
  • Documentary (Short Subject): Strangers No More
  • Film Editing: The Social Network
  • Foreign Language Film: In A Better World
  • Makeup: The Wolfman
  • Music (Original Score): Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross – The Social Network
  • Music (Original Song): “We Belong Together” – Randy Newman (Toy Story 3)
  • Short Film (Animated): Day & Night
  • Short Film (Live Action): Wish 143
  • Sound Editing: Inception
  • Sound Mixing: Inception
  • Visual Effects: Inception
  • Writing (Adapted Screenplay): Aaron Sorkin The Social Network
  • Writing (Original Screenplay): David Seidler – The King’s Speech

Happy Superbowl Sunday to all!