Sunday, January 30, 2011

WHAT DO THE WEEKEND AWARDS MEAN?

This weekend two big movie award ceremonies were held. One was the Director's Guild Awards and the other was the Screen Actor's Guild Awards. And the outcome of them has sent the blogging world into a frenzy analyzing what it all means. Why? Because THE KING'S SPEECH won both.

Now a film that garners 12 Oscar nominations and figured on over 50 major critic's 10 best lists should not be that much of a surprise anywhere it does well. But because the pundits widely figured that David Fincher, the director of THE SOCIAL NETWORK, would handily win the DGA and didn't, losing it to Tom Hooper who directed THE KING'S SPEECH, they seem to be already handing the best director Oscar to Hooper as well. And because the cast of THE SOCIAL NETWORK did not triumph over the actors in THE KING'S SPEECH, some prognosticators are saying the Oscar race is over and it's going to be a sweep for the film from across the pond. I say, not so fast.



Sure, these two award shows are often harbingers of things to come, but how about the almost 50 best picture wins for THE SOCIAL NETWORK handed out by film critics in December? Doesn't that have some weight too? Especially since THE KING'S SPEECH won virtually none? Or what of the four Golden Globes that THE SOCIAL NETWORK won just two weeks ago? At that time, because of all those accolades for the Fincher film, the sure bet was the Facebook film. But not now? My my my, how fickle the Hollywood pundit community is. And worse, the surprising showing of THE KING'S SPEECH has let loose a rage that would suggest that THE KING'S SPEECH is an unworthy Lifetime TV movie that has no place being in the race. Well, that's nuts. 



Truth be told, I think THE SOCIAL NETWORK is the better film. But THE KING'S SPEECH was terrific too. In no way is it unworthy of the merit it's now getting. It's a clever, moving and beautifully written. Its production values are top notch. And it's got three standout performances of the year in Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter.

All 10 Oscar nominees for best picture this year are quite good. Not a dog in the bunch. Hard to believe that once the Oscars would nominate a film like DOCTOR DOLITTLE alongside other 1967 best picture nominees BONNIE AND CLYDE, THE GRADUATE, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT and GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER. Nothing that embarrassing or wildly out of place this year.

So THE SOCIAL NETWORK may still prevail. You never know how the Oscars will go. They are their own beast. And one that surprises again and again. Only at the Oscars could CRASH beat foregone conclusion BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. Only the Oscars would have no trouble honoring the controversial Roman Polanski with a best director Oscar for THE PIANIST. Trying to predict the Oscars is always tough. And nothing is ever a sure thing. Just ask Lauren Bacall.


But no matter what happens with the Oscars, THE KING'S SPEECH should not be knocked. It may not be as good as THE SOCIAL NETWORK to most. Or as timely or as "of the moment" as THE SOCIAL NETWORK is, but in no way is it unworthy. All the overreaching put-downs of it by Oscar predictors and pundits are.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

BUY MY "2010 THE YEAR IN MOVIES" POSTER!


Every January I commemorate the year in movies by drawing an original caricature of the year's highlights. Then I turn that art into a poster so I can share it with friends. They have been hugely popular over the years, so I've decided to sell this year's version here on my new movie blog. The poster is 15 1/2" x 23" and printed on a glossy white card stock. This year's poster shows Leonardo DiCaprio from INCEPTION dreaming of some of the year's most notable movies including:

THE SOCIAL NETWORK   THE KING'S SPEECH   BLACK SWAN 
127 HOURS   THE FIGHTER    THE GHOST WRITER   THE TOWN  
THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT   HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON
KICK-ASS   TOY STORY 3   GET LOW   DESPICABLE ME 
THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO ALICE IN WONDERLAND   SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD   TANGLED   WINTER'S BONE  
WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS   RABBIT HOLE  TRUE GRIT
copyright 2011 by Jeff York
The following stars are caricatured in it: Leonardo DiCaprio, Natalie Portman, Colin Firth, Christian Bale, Mark Wahlberg, Geoffrey Rush, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Jesse Eisenberg, Nicole Kidman, Justin Timberlake, Andrew Garfield, Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Ewan McGregor, Mila Kunis, James Franco, Ben Affleck, Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, Robert Duvall, Jennifer Lawrence, Chloe Moretz, Scott Cera, Noomi Rapace, Armie Hammer and lots of animated characters!

(NOTE: They are no longer for sale via PayPal. Thanks to those however who did purchase one!)





Tuesday, January 25, 2011

THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE OSCAR


 The 83rd Academy Award nominations were announced this morning at 7:40 central time and as always there are the expected, the pleasantly unexpected, and some real head scratchers. There are no terrible nominations this year, but rather some very worthy surprises. And my complaints are mostly in the technical categories where the egregiousness is stupid and obvious.

Let’s start with the good. There are no heinous nominations in any of the acting categories this year. As expected, the usual suspects were called and there were only four semi-surprises. The bitching by Sean Penn and Julia Roberts on behalf of Javier Bardem for being ignored this awards season for his lead role in Mexico’s BIUTIFUL must have persuaded enough members in the actor’s branch to make amends. His name was called this morning instead of Robert Duvall, who was expected to be recognized for his work in GET LOW. 
The other surprises in the acting categories were Michelle Williams for best actress for her lead in BLUE VALENTINE; John Hawkes for supporting actor in WINTER’S BONE; and Australian Jackie Weaver for supporting actress in ANIMAL KINGDOM. All have been figuring in other awards competitions or year-end critic’s best lists, but Oscar recognition this season was considered to be less of a sure thing. Nice to see that enough of the actor’s branch saw their work. And kudos to the acting branch for remembering Hailee Steinfeld for TRUE GRIT and Jennifer Lawrence for WINTER’S BONE. In years past these young talents might have been overlooked, but thankfully the Academy has gotten better about lauding newcomers.

The rest of the nominations in the lesser categories are mostly admirable but a few misses are really unfortunate. How Christopher Nolan was overlooked for his direction of INCEPTION, a film that got 8 nominations this morning, I do not know. Perhaps he’s too successful for many in the director’s branch. At least Nolan was recognized in the original screenplay category, but his direction work was a major achievement in 2010 and should have been noted. 



I also wish that Mila Kunis had matched her Golden Globe and SAG nominations for best supporting actress with an Oscar one as well, but she was not called this morning. BLACK SWAN got only 5 nominations when it was expected to be tapped for its original screenplay, costume design and sound design as well. Perhaps that horror movie was still a little too edgy for some voters. And the horror film genre always comes up short with the Academy.

Sadly, once again, the costume designers think that period pieces are the way to go with only one contemporary piece, I AM LOVE, scoring a nomination out of the five. THE FIGHTER and BLACK SWAN should have been recognized for their brilliant costume work done in the modern era but costumers love costumes that scream costumes like in ALICE IN WONDERLAND or THE KING’S SPEECH.

Perhaps the most amazing snub this year was the inexplicable exclusion of WAITING FOR SUPERMAN from the best documentary category. It was the heavy favorite to win there and I cannot imagine why it was ignored. It also missed out on a best song nomination that was considered a lock as well. Teachers just don’t get their due, even from the Academy. 



Of course, some love expressed for THE GHOST WRITER, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, SOLITARY MAN, NOWHERE BOY, I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS and SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD would have been wonderful, but those films were probably a little too outside the mainstream for most voters in the Academy.

Going into the Oscar nominations, THE SOCIAL NETWORK was considered the heavy favorite to win best picture and I think it still will. (But where’s Andrew Garfield’s nomination for best supporting actor?) Watch out for THE KING’S SPEECH though as it not only received the most nominations with a whopping 12 bids, but it is also a terrific “feel-good” film and those do well at the Oscars. It’s also Harvey Weinstein’s production and he always has a way of getting top Oscar wins for his films. (SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, THE ENGLISH PATIENT, CHICAGO were all best picture winners.)


The show on February 27th should be an interesting one. The two hosts, Anne Hathaway and 127 HOURS nominee James Franco should give it a fresh and contemporary flavor. And at least there won’t be any cringe-worthy winners announced as this year’s nominees are, by and large, quite admirable. Now if the Academy would just drop that ridiculous best song category and replace it with a stunt work category I might be a happy camper willing to forgive them for their woeful ignorance of THE GHOST WRITER.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

THE PROBLEM WITH ROMANTIC COMEDIES


I see a hundred movies in the theater each year. (I sort of consider myself a professional fan.) And because I see that much, the problems with Hollywood’s output become quite apparent, particularly when it comes to genre films. So today I am starting an examination of various genres that I find are struggling. Let's start with romantic comedies. I’ll take an establishing shot at what I think are the core problems and what can be done about them. And I look forward to hearing your thoughts about this beleaguered genre as well.

Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back.

If only finding someone to love forever was as simple as that tried and true three-point story arc that has been driving romantic comedies since the beginning of movies. But relationships aren’t that easy. They’re complex, full of problems and conflict, some big, and some small. None of which your standard rom-com wants to make time for. A rom-com clocks in usually around 90 minutes and that means the story will be told quickly and with bold strokes. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and boy gets her back. That simple. And more often than not, that boring. In order to check off those three points that quickly, a romantic comedy’s conflict will usually revolve around one, and only one “big obstacle” that will get in the way of its couple’s everlasting happiness. In the movie GOING THE DISTANCE (2010) the problem is that Justin Long is in New York while his girlfriend Drew Barrymore lives in San Francisco. That’s it. If they can live in the same city, all will be well. You think they figure out a way to do that by the end? In THE BACK-UP PLAN (2010) Jennifer Lopez becomes pregnant through artificial insemination and then meets the man of her dreams. You think she’ll get him to love her and someone else’s baby? These premises are one-note: simple, obvious, and because of it, very limiting.

In contrast, 500 DAYS OF SUMMER (2009) examined not one big problem but dozens of the niggling little things that eat at the relationship between its two lovers. And in the end, the boy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) does not get the girl (Zooey Deschanel). It was a movie of many notes, including many sour ones. And because of that, it stood in marked contrast to all of the other over-simplified dreck in the genre. It was also the best romantic comedy I have seen in years.


Another drawback to the genre is the way a lot of the male leads are written these days. It seems lately that the female screenwriters, who are writing most of the rom-com’s, are creating the perfect man they’d like to encounter. Or perhaps that which they think the target audience desires. So we get all these gorgeous men with great jobs, big hearts and one teensy-weensy flaw that can easily be fixed by a smart and modern woman like Katherine Heigl. Ashton Kutcher has made a cottage industry now out of playing these kind of guys and it’s getting quite inane. He’s always  handsome, fit, successful, with a heart of gold and a perfect little butt to ogle. In his latest, NO STRINGS ATTACHED (2011), he and co-star Natalie Portman have a nice, sexy chemistry together, but again he’s playing an idealized man with no real discernible faults. It's not realistic and frankly, not very interesting.


 My third biggest issue with the rom-com genre is the fact that one movie looks almost exactly like the next. They have the same a bright lighting; the same soundtrack full of tinkling pianos or the latest pop songs cued to the emotions we’re supposed to be feeling in a scene; the same well-to-do, well-dressed characters with high-powered jobs in big cities; the same smart-ass friends. It's like there's a rom-com factory and they're sending the same film off the line every few weeks. Even the posters of these movies tend to look remarkably similar. Check out the two Katherine Heigl movies below. Frightening how alike they seem. And then look at the characters that J-Lo, Heigl, Kate Hudson, Cameron Diaz, even Renee Zellweger have played in recent rom-com’s. They’re all the same type too – smart, beautiful, with perfect bodies and successful careers. Not very colorful, just idealized and again, quite boring. My God, they’re female Ashton Kutchers.


The genre is stuck in a rut. It needs to break out of its cookie cutter formula with perfect Barbies and Kens living in shiny plastic worlds that have no relation to reality. The romantic comedy needs to start  exploring modern relationships more honestly, with the focus on the ups and downs of what real couples go through, not the manufactured silliness of one-note obstacles put in their way by high-concept Hollywood. The movies need to have believable characters, ones that are flawed, seriously flawed, struggling to relate to one another.

The romantic comedies I've really responded to, movies like WHEN HARRY MET SALLY (1989), ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004), KNOCKED UP (2007) and 500 DAYS OF SUMMER, were ones that tried harder. They were more honest, less predictable, full of believable and fascinating men and women trying to make their relationships work. Everything wasn't so gorgeous. And they were a lot easier to love because of it.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

THE FORGOTTEN?


 The Oscar nominations will be announced this coming Tuesday, and we will surely hear the acting names called that have been dominating awards show competitions and movie website chatter all season long. And those recognized will be quite deserving. Film critics and movie bloggers have been trumpeting these actors for months now, and the Academy members will follow their lead. And the Academy members do follow conventional wisdom. It saves them time and face for not actually making the effort to watch all the DVD screeners they’re sent.

But no matter how rich some performances are, every year there are those that remain egregiously overlooked. Somehow critics, even though they see everything, decide to jump on certain bandwagons and everyone else follows suit. For example, this year’s front-runner in the best supporting actress category, after a couple of key wins, is Melissa Leo for her turn as the smothering and clueless mother in THE FIGHTER. It’s a good performance, albeit a bit two-dimensional. (We get everything from her performance in the first 10 minutes and the script doesn’t give her role much of a character arc.) But for my money, I cannot understand why this is the performance to beat.

Olivia Williams not only plays a much more complex supporting character in THE GHOST WRITER, but she added nuance and shadings to it that made hers one of the great performances of the year. And yet it’s largely gone unnoticed and unrewarded. (Though she did just score a coveted BAFTA best supporting actress nomination.) In her work, you’ll see a villain who is by turns vulnerable, vicious, witty, secretive, sexy and smarter than anyone else in the room. So why has she been ignored by awards voters while Leo is everywhere? Is it laziness? An obligation to go along with the status quo?


Sometimes a performance gets overlooked if it’s in a film that didn’t do well at the box office. Both Michael Douglas in SOLITARY MAN and Jim Carrey in I LOVE YOU, PHILLIP MORRIS gave exemplary lead actor turns in 2010, but they haven’t been recognized properly, most likely due to the fact that their films weren’t big business. The same could be said of the lead work done by Tilda Swinton in I AM LOVE or brilliant supporting turns by both Anne-Marie Duff and Kristin Scott Thomas in NOWHERE BOY. But it's a shame that the critics and bloggers who raved about these performances haven't done more to keep them top of mind. Instead they've listed the likes of Nicole Kidman and Jeff Bridges and others as the contenders to beat for months, long before anyone even saw their performances. They should have been doing a helluva lot more to keep the performances that they had seen top of mind. Now, it's too late. The awards season is coming to a close and many worthy nominees aren't even in the running.


But explain to me how the star-making performance of Noomi Rapace in the international and American hit THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO is not a lock for a best actress Oscar nod. Hers was one of 2010's seminal performances, and was talked about by everyone for months and months. Yet she remains the darkest of dark horses for a nomination. Why? Is it because Hollywood just doesn't want to push her performance knowing that the American made version debuts in late 2011 and they're focusing on that?


Obviously there are politics and lack of fairness in everything. And far more horrible injustices instigated throughout the globe in more important arenas than award shows. But in the movie world, I wish there was more proper due given. If there was, Olivia, Michael, Jim, Tilda, Anne-Marie, Kristin and Noomi would have been making room for many trophies on their mantles. And they might be getting ready to sail over the moon upon hearing their names called this Tuesday morning. Along with me.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

MY FAVORITE IMAGES FROM 2010 MOVIES


 So many movies, so many images. What were my favorite shots from movies this past year? Here are my top 10 choices. (And you’ve been warned as there are spoilers!)

1.) THE GHOST WRITER
There are very few end shots in film that are the most brilliant; even fewer that are the most chilling. Yet leave it to the dark mind of Roman Polanski to save his best shot for last in this unsettling thriller. It’s the single image that gave me the biggest thrill of any from a movie this past year.

The lead character in this film is a helpless sap, a hack ghostwriter (Ewan MacGregor) who doesn’t even get a name in the film except for “Ghost.” His name also foreshadows his end, of course. In the last moments of the clever film, he’s finally figured out the murder mystery and put all of the pieces together.  The answer is in the manuscript of the book he’s just finished penning. But what does he get for his troubles? He becomes one more piece in the morbid puzzle he just solved. And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will never be able to put the pages back together again.



2.) BLACK SWAN
Picking just one shot from this magnificent high-end horror tale was difficult. The entire film is filled with them – from all the mirror shots to the visual transformation of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) into a literal black swan during “Swan Lake.” (That vivid metamorphosis is director Darren Aronfsky’s greatest directorial flourish ever.) But the end shot with Nina leaping backwards and falling to her death in character was as chilling and memorable as anything in this amazing head-trip of a movie. The cinematography echoed the end of “The Red Shoes” and Lee Remick’s fall off the balcony in “The Omen” as the camera follows Nina falling backwards in hyper slow motion. And in that final study of Nina’s face we see pride as well as the sad resignation that her greatest performance is also going to be her last.


3.) THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES
Technically a movie that opened last year, it didn’t play in Chicago until 2010. It’s a thriller heavy with melodrama, romantic yearning and brilliant images. It’s been a long, long time since close-ups of faces telegraphed so much, but in this Argentina film that won the best foreign film Oscar, the eyes have it. And they speak volumes, perhaps nowhere more so than in the scene where Benjamin and Irene encounter the rapist/murderer Gomez on the elevator. They had helped bring him to justice only a few short months ago, only to find out that a sleazy bureaucrat has released him to do the murderous biddings of the corrupt government. When they encounter him on the elevator, and he smugly checks his state-issued revolver right in front of their very eyes, their faces register the dread of what might be coming their way. They are frozen with terror.  And so is the audience.

4.) TOY STORY 3
Often times the greatest kids cartoons appeal to adults just as much. That’s certainly true of any of Pixar’s work. But I don’t know how many children appreciated the symbolism of Woody, Buzz and their gang holding hands in resignation to their fate as they inch closer and closer to the fires of the incinerator. This shot from the year’s best animated film couldn’t help but remind knowing adults of similar images of the Holocaust. It was an audacious and dramatic image for any movie, let alone a “Disney film.” 

5.) INCEPTION
Movies like Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster illustrate the never-ending wonders that can be created through special effects. This mind-bending adventure was chock full of unbelievable shot after unbelievable shot rendered absolutely believable by state-of-the art CGI work. For my 9 dollars, the most astounding visual in the movie, other than a radiant Marion Cotillard, was this one where Ellen Page’s imagination made a Parisian street roll over onto itself right before her eyes. 

6.) TRUE GRIT
Despite being ostensibly a comedy, the latest from the unparalleled Coen Brothers is dark and often brutal. The central character of Mattie Ross achieves her goal out west by the end of the film, yet at quite a price. I won’t elaborate for those who haven’t seen it yet, but this image, beautifully captured by cinematographer Roger Deakins, will haunt me for some time.

7.) THE SOCIAL NETWORK
In the year’s best movie, the vivid characters that Aaron Sorkin wrote use words as weapons, none more brutally than the anti-social Mark (played by Jesse Eisenberg) who takes down his former girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara) by slurring her in words and pictures on his Harvard blog. Director David Fincher shows no more than a fleeting reaction shot of her to convey her discovery of what’s he done, but it is devastating. Connecting socially has never been so isolating. 

8.) THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO
Another haunting image of a hurt woman, but this time that of a child. In the wildly popular Swedish crime thriller, there were many images I wish weren’t stuck in my head - the vicious rape of Lisbeth Salander by her parole officer, or her protracted revenge against him. But the sight that sticks with me the most is the one of the young Lisbeth Salander lighting her abusive stepfather on fire, and thus igniting a lifetime of rage that can never be extinguished. 

9.) I AM LOVE
The awakening of passion in lonely Italian housewife Emma (played by the sublime Tilda Swinton) starts with an exquisite meal prepared by Edoardo, the young chef she will soon have a torrid affair with. She has lived a repressed and dutiful existence her entire married life, but when Emma meets the handsome foodie he opens up her palate and her heart. Can a prawn be foreplay? Yes, it can, if as exquisitely prepared and presented as this.
  
10.) THE TOWN
I’ve seen many heist movies, with plenty of masked robbers, but this shot of a disguised thief gazing at a child en route to the bank robbery is chilling. Director Ben Affleck mixes Catholic guilt, violence and wit to great effect in his enthralling Boston thriller.


WELCOME TO THE ESTABLISHING SHOT

Hello, my name is Jeff York and this is my movie blog. Each week I will share thoughts on what's getting my attention in the movie world. What issues in Tinseltown are pressing my hot buttons, what's exciting me, what's making me lose sleep. It will be a place for you and me to share ideas about what's going on in the entertainment world. I'll start with an establishing shot. Then I'll look forward to hearing your thoughts soon after. Here goes...