Archive | February 2011

And The Oscar Went To…

Here are my predictions w/winners:

Best Picture

The King’s Speech

Best Director

Tom Hooper (should be David Fincher)

Actress

Natalie Portman

Actor

Colin Firth (should be James Franco)

Supporting Actress

Melissa Leo (should be Hailee Steinfeld)

Supporting Actor

Christian Bale

Original Screenplay

The King’s Speech (but I love The Kids Are All Right)

Adapted Screenplay

The Social Network

Original Score

The Social Network

Original Song

127 Hours (toss up with Toy Story 3)

Best Animated

Toy Story 3 (is there really any contest here?)

Art Direction

Inception

Winner = Alice in Wonderland

Cinematography

True Grit

Winner = Inception

Costume Design

Alice in Wonderland (didn’t see but I can imagine…)

Make-up

Barney’s Version (total guess)

Winner = The Wolfman

Sound Editing

Inception

Sound Mixing

The King’s Speech (could also be Inception)

Visual Effects

Inception

Documentary Feature

Exit Through the Gift Shop (toss up with Inside Job)

Documentary Short

Killing in the Name (total guess though heard good things)

Winner = Strangers No More

Film Editing

The Social Network (should be 127 Hours)

Foreign Language

Biutiful (didn’t see but heard good things)

Winner = In A Better World

Animated Short

Day & Night (total guess)

Winner = The Lost Thing

Live Action Short

Wish 143 (total guess)

Winner = God of Love

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Best Picture Nominees Nine & Ten

Tonight’s the night! We’ll be spending time with **Arlene & Jason** with the Oscar’s in the background. Here are the last two movies that round out the ten nominated films for Best Picture in addition to my complete list of predictions (with an idea of which films I think really deserve the award). This marks a milestone for us – the first year we’ve watched every single Best Picture nominee! Enjoy, Mari & Paul

127 Hours

It seems fitting to round out the ten nominees with two bio pics. The first, 127 Hours, a superb translation of the incredible story of Aron Ralston, the climber forced to amputate part of his right arm using only a pocket knife and makeshift tourniquet. Director Danny Boyle (of Slumdog Millionaire fame—one of my all time favorite movies) expertly weaves this harrowing tale that he adapted from Ralston‘s own memoir, Between a Rock and a Hard Place. Danny Boyle introduces flashbacks and fast-paced editing to spice up the action as we follow Aron (James Franco) through one of the most excruciating experiences I have ever witnessed on film.

I can’t say enough about this movie. It’s the only one that made me cry—hard—and to me it demonstrates everything that our contemporary cinema has to offer. The inspired editing from the very first frame sets up a beautiful dichotomy in split screen between Aron alone, preparing for his fateful hike, and shots overflowing with active people (marathoners, the running of the bulls, soccer stadiums). This opening sets the pace for the rest of the film while also setting up a striking contrast not just of a solitary man verses a group of people but of thriving populated scenery against the vast desert context we will experience for the remaining 90% of the film.

The beauty of 127 Hours is that the audience pretty much already knows the story about “the hiker who cut his arm off” but few of us know about the particulars or really much about the man behind this headline. Knowing the punchline before the joke in this case actually ratchets up the drama for the first portion of the film as the viewer continually wonders when the fateful accident will occur. The drama is palpable and at one point I was cringing through several scenes as I waited for it to happen. When it finally does it is still a shock and I, for one, felt like I was going through a faint echo of Aron‘s thought process as he tries to figure out what to do next.

Danny Boyle gives Franco and the viewers enough breathing room for the rest of the story to unfold organically and as real as I could possibly imagine it might. In an interview (I can’t recall where) the real Aron explains that the film is as factually accurate as possible. In addition, he explained, whenever the filmmakers took liberties it was in service of portraying his very real feelings and emotions.

I can’t think of a better actor to carry all of this out than James Franco. I believe he deserves the Oscar for the sheer ability to carry this film as a near one-man show but alas, I don’t think it’s in the cards for him (see my picks of likely winners are below).

*

The Fighter

The Fighter is another bio-pic starring Mark Wahlberg as Micky Ward, Christian Bale as his brother Dicky Eklund, Melissa Leo as Micky & Dicky’s mother Alice, and Amy Adams as Micky’s girlfriend Charlene Fleming. The drama in this film focuses on the dysfunctional family surrounding struggling boxer “Irish” Micky Ward from Lowell, Massachusetts and his unlikely rise as an amateur boxer.

The town of Lowell should be credited as another of the main characters and it has been widely reported that most of the extras were cast from the area. Having grown up in Massachusetts myself, I can say that this is one of the most spot-on recreations of Massachusetts characters and of course the Baahston accent.

Christian Bale is deservedly the front runner for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Dicky, a drug addict and former boxer himself who now trains and mentors his brother. Like several of the films up for Best Picture this year, the negative influence of family is a strong theme throughout this drama. Although the anticipation is less than in 127 Hours (is it possible to have more anticipation?) the viewer is also on the edge of their seat waiting for Micky’s next big success or even his next big failure. Will his family bring him down or help to propel him to victory and bigger paydays as a fighter?

In the end, Micky must fight to bring together the two strong influences in his life: the new training team keeping him on the straight and narrow including his new girlfriend Charlene, and his self-distructive and selfish mother and brother, whose motivations for Micky’s career are put into question.

While this film definitely deserves to be up for Best Picture Oscar I can’t see it going all the way, however, I predict Christian Bale will take home the golden statue for his intense transformation into the complex and magnetic personality that is Dicky Eklund.

And the Oscar goes to…(my predictions)

Best Picture

The King’s Speech

Best Director

Tom Hooper (should be David Fincher)

Actress

Natalie Portman

Actor

Colin Firth (should be James Franco)

Supporting Actress

Melissa Leo (should be Hailee Steinfeld)

Supporting Actor

Christian Bale

Original Screenplay

The King’s Speech (but I love The Kids Are All Right)

Adapted Screenplay

The Social Network

Original Score

The Social Network

Original Song

127 Hours (toss up with Toy Story 3)

Best Animated

Toy Story 3 (is there really any contest here?)

Art Direction

Inception

Cinematography

True Grit

Costume Design

Alice in Wonderland (didn’t see but I can imagine…)

Make-up

Barney’s Version (total guess)

Sound Editing

Inception

Sound Mixing

The King’s Speech (could also be Inception)

Visual Effects

Inception

Documentary Feature

Exit Through the Gift Shop (toss up with Inside Job)

Documentary Short

Killing in the Name (total guess though heard good things)

Film Editing

The Social Network (should be 127 Hours)

Foreign Language

Biutiful (didn’t see but heard good things)

Animated Short

Day & Night (total guess)

Live Action Short

Wish 143 (total guess)

Best Picture Nominees Seven & Eight

The King’s Speech

*

Winter’s Bone

At first I started to write a joint post about these films in the interest of time. The 83rd Annual Academy Awards are almost upon us, broadcasting on Sunday, February 27th, leaving just two days to add my two cents before the festivities begin. Then, I started to think about how there is more here than meets the eye.

The King’s Speech and Winter’s Bone have more in common that you might think. Beyond the fact that both directors: Tom Hooper and Debra Granik are making their Academy debut, their films share some interesting similaries. Sure, The King’s Speech is set in 1930s England and centers around the most privileged people in the entire world, while Winter’s Bone is set in the present day Ozark mountains among this country’s least privileged. So, how are they similar, then? You ask.

Both stories center around quietly courageous individuals put into difficult situations by others—one just happens to be in line to be King of England (George ‘Bertie’ VI played by Colin Firth) and the other, a 17-year-old struggling to provide for her family (Ree played by Jennifer Lawrence).

The lives of both of these characters are shaped by their fathers to an extreme degree. While we are all shaped by the experiences we have growing up, I think it’s fair to say that these two individuals have experienced abuse—both physical and emotional—that has very much made them into who they are.

Both Bertie and Ree wear the scars of this abuse and yet they persevere to achieve their goals. In the case of Bertie, his goal is to find his voice to deliver an important speech and in Ree’s case it is to save her house in order to provide for her invalid mother and struggling siblings. In each of these narratives the stakes are incredibly high for the main characters regardless of how many people will be affected by the outcome.

Further, each film explores the advent of a new invention and its effect on society. For early 20th Century England the new invention was radio (“the wireless”) that forced public figures to become, as George V remarks, into actors. In our present context this new invention is crystal meth and in Winter’s Bone we see the widespread damaging effects of its production, distribution, and consumption. These two themes: new technologies and drugs, are relevant to our present day realities and speak to the issues with which our society is currently grappling.

What I love about movies is that at the very core of any film, you can find these kinds of commonalities that speak to universal truths and express current hopes, dreams, desires, anxieties, and fears. It helps when there is also a great script, clever directing, and fitting visuals. Both of these works have all of these qualities and more.

The Particulars

Although I think that Colin Firth delivered a nominee-worthy performance, it is Geoffrey Rush who shines in his role as Bertie’s speech coach, Lionel Logue. He breathes life into his character without overreaching—conveying more with a sigh or a pause than Bertie’s stammering.

Perhaps it’s because of the way the script is written but I felt at the end of the film like I knew Lionel and his motivations significantly better than Bertie’s. Similarly, Helena Bonham Carter delivers the kind of solid supporting performance that allows both Firth and Rush to sparkle. I’ve always been a fan of her performances as quirky and strong females and although more conventional in this role, she also does not disappoint.

While the story is a predictable, feel good piece, it delivered in all of the ways I was expecting and in the end I felt satisfied because of this.

Winter’s Bone was a totally different story in terms of expectations. I had none. I didn’t even know what the film was about until I rented it on iTunes. Imagine my surprise when I discovered this sparse and jarring gem. Another incredible performance by a young woman—Jennifer Lawrence—who portrays Ree with graceful tenacity, another girl with “true grit.”

Winter’s Bone transported me into a distinct reality that, in contrast to The King’s Speech, was almost too realistic. This was not a polished and propped up version of the truth like The King’s Speech, an abstract rendering of the truth like Black Swan, or a mythologized version of true events like The Social Network, this just felt real and ugly and scary.

This film haunts me and I think that’s why I liked it so much.

Best Picture Nominee Six

The Kids Are All Right

There are several factors that make The Kids Are All Right stand out. Besides the superb acting by Annette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo, there is of course the much talked about fact that the family the film centers around is led by two mothers, Nic and Jules. To make matters more complex the plot revolves around the reunification of Nic and Jules’s two children with their sperm-donor father, Paul.

However, there are also several factors that make it just like any other family dramedy. In the end, this film is really about family. It’s about insecurities and losing trust and how you navigate the tricky waters of expectations. I’ve known quite a few nontraditional families personally so this wasn’t any kind of leap for me, but it was nice to see lesbian parents represented on the big screen.

The best part of this movie is the fact that this family is just like so many other families out there, facing the same ups and downs as any other and the kids just happen to have two moms and a sperm donor dad.

The script is great, acting pitch perfect, and solid direction by Lisa Cholodenko. I really enjoyed her other films, High Art and Laurel Canyon, as well. Her style is laid-back and often focuses on the intricacies of relationships set in particular contexts that may, for some, be seen as out of the mainstream.

While I enjoyed this movie for all of the qualities listed above, as I watched it I couldn’t help thinking, “Would this be up for Best Picture if the parents were straight?” Honestly, I don’t think it would be. But, does that matter?

With such a diverse slate of nominees, I wonder if the Academy is just naturally bringing a wide spectrum of voices to the forefront and if each film represents a side of the movie-making business it wants to celebrate. Maybe this is a good thing. Each of the stories represented is unique, the way the story is told is unique, and the point of view of each director is unique.

In this batch of nominees we have a psychological thriller (Black Swan), a Western remake (True Grit), a sci-fi/corporate espionage picture with a twist (Inception), a current courtroom drama (The Social Network), an alternative family film (The Kids Are All Right), an outdoorsy bio-pic (127 Hours), a feel good British period piece (The King’s Speech), a sporty Boston bio-pic (The Fighter), a sparse Indy drama (Winter’s Bone), and finally, an animated kid’s movie that isn’t really a kid’s movie (Toy Story 3).

I guess it’s like they say: It’s an honor just to be nominated.

Best Picture Nominee Five

Toy Story 3

Last time I checked this was my nephew **Sam’s** favorite movie. On one hand I can see why, on the other hand this scares me. I can’t believe this film is G-Rated. While it may seem out of place in the Best Picture category, there is quite a bit to like about Toy Story 3, so I’ll start there.

{Spoiler alert: I discuss specific plot points that you might not want to read until you’ve seen the movie.}

The Good

It’s hard to resist the gorgeous visuals from most any Pixar movie and from a Toy Story movie in particular. As a child of the 80s, the depiction of the recognizable toys from my youth are my favorite: Barbie & Ken, Chatter Telephone, and Mr. Potato Head (even the cameo by the farm-themed See ‘n Say toy during the gambling scene). With this latest installment of the Toy Story franchise, we meet a whole new set of toys at the Sunnyside Daycare Center.

This was the best part for me—seeing how the artists give life to a whole new set of toys and how they expertly set the scene of a daycare center from the drawings hanging up on the wall to the cubbies to the outdoor sandbox. In junior high my friend **Anna** and I volunteered at a daycare center down my street and seeing this film brought back memories of sippy cups and nap time for me.

It is easy to relate to part of this story, whether you are a toddler or an adult, and this is surely why the Toy Story movies have been so popular—these are movies you can usually enjoy with the whole family. However, I was surprised (see below) with some of the content of this latest installment.

On the whole, the first part of the story had me reflecting about what it means to “grow up” and I appreciated that. It also had me feeling like a kid at points too, which is another part of the Toy Story charm. In addition, I enjoyed the dialogue (again, it can be enjoyed by young and old) and the cast of familiar, as well as new voices.

Check out the creative and interactive Toy Story 3 Official Website to see all of the new toys, play games, and hear music from the movie.

The Bad

As I commented above, I am surprised that this movie garnered a G Rating. I’m used to kids’ movies including a moral and allowing young viewers to explore new worlds, feelings, and occasionally to confront the scariness of the real world from the safety of their chairs, but this was too much for me.

Unlike the death of a loved one explored in other Disney movies from Bambi to Finding Nemo to Lion King (which were all controversial in their day) this movie overtly tackles potent and timely adult anxieties beyond the death of a loved one.

Not only do we experience the threat of death (of every single one of the beloved main characters) by incinerator (do I have to spell out the connection to WWII?) but we see the reign of terror imposed by a totalitarian regime complete with intimidation, jail cells, torture, and reprogramming. In one of the scenes we even see the specter of a guarded watchtower in the background reminiscent of the Berlin Wall. While it is a jungle gym by day that has been cleverly turned into a temporary watchtower at night does this make it any less scary?

For me, it makes it even scarier to think that the familiar could be turned into tools for evil—like the reprogramming of Buzz. In an age of sleeper cells, suicide bombs, and human rights abuses I understand why these themes are at the forefront of our consciousness. All of these adult anxieties are presented in a lighthearted way for the most part, but can’t we let kids be kids for just a little while longer?

Explore what it means to say good-bye to old friends, to grow up, to be left behind, to lose one’s imagination—fine, but can’t you do that without involving a gang of rejected toys bent on revenge reminiscent of the Third Reich?

I understand that this movie was also made for the children who watched the original 15 years ago and for the parents of toddlers who will be forced to watch this on DVD over and over again. But, that’s just the point. A story like this (albeit with a happy ending) passes along our society’s current anxieties to the youngest among us through multiple showings. Is this what we want to teach our children?

How long do kids these days really get to be free to play with their toys before worrying about how scary the world can be?

I really wanted to like Toy Story 3 but I’m going against the popular sentiment on this one. With this year’s crop of stellar films I don’t even think it should be up for Best Picture.

Best Picture Nominee Four

The Social Network

I’m always cautious when I get around to seeing a movie after it has received a lot of hype. Though we were late in seeing The Social Network, it did not disappoint.

There has been a lot of talk about Director David Fincher’s ability to make the seemingly boring (coding at a computer, a business deal, a court case) into something more exciting, but I think the strongest parts of this film are the writing by one of my favorites, Aaron Sorkin, and the acting by Jesse Eisenberg.

Mr. Eisenberg impresses by moving out from the shadow of supporting actor/son roles to shine as a leading man to portray Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook. Without Mr. Eisenberg this would be just another courtroom drama. To me, trying to understand Mark Zuckerberg—his motivations, his decisions, his desires—is the most fascinating part of this film. 

Who knew that the birth of Facebook was a tragedy of Shakespearean or even Greek proportions? Oh, the back stabbing! Oh, the ambition! Much like a Shakespearean story the plot is actually quite simple: jilted lover’s fury fuels wildly successful new project but ambition ensures that he will kick out every rung behind him on his ladder to success.

If you like (or at least respect the idea of) Facebook then it follows that you might want to like its co-founder. The beauty of this story is that you kinda hate the guy even if you admire what he was able to create. This tension is present from the very first scene, one of my now all-time favorite opening scenes (see clip below). Usually we shoot for the little guy—the kid who wasn’t a legacy and didn’t have a trust fund—but in this instance I find myself sympathizing with those same over-privileged boys who, in this version of the Facebook story, are the chumps who are used and spit out by Zuckerberg. Well done David Fincher!

“Dating you is like dating a StairMaster.”

For anyone who has ever dated someone from Harvard (I’m not naming any names) you might be familiar with the condescending wit and class consciousness on display in this clip. Beyond the surface, though, this conversation epitomizes the entire social networking culture. The back and forth of this dialogue is like instant messaging on dial-up—two parallel conversations are happening, words pass like ships in the night, and then suddenly the two strings of dialogue come into alignment.

There is so much left unsaid, too much reading between the lines, and for me this encapsulates the worst of what the internet has to offer: hollow communication. But, inherent in this is the magnetic push and the pull of digital communication. It makes us closer while simultaneously distances us from one another. We are able to find old friends, keep in touch with people around the world, but none of it means anything if we can’t also thrive in face-to-face interactions.

I believe The Social Network is the first film to tap into this zeitgeist—not just the phenomenon of Facebook itself but of how we have changed as a culture as a result of it. {Don’t forget to share this on Facebook!}

Best Picture Nominee Three

True Grit

I admit I haven’t seen the classic 1969 John Wayne version of True Grit but I think one of the strengths of remakes is that they stand on their own. This is one of those movies.

We saw this movie as a matinee at the Cobble Hill Cinema in Brooklyn on a whim. Boy am I glad we did! This film transported us to the days of the Wild West where 14 year-old Mattie Ross, played by the incredible Hailee Steinfeld, seeks out her father’s killer. Along the way, Mattie negotiates horse deals, hires a curmudgeon of a bounty hunter/U.S. Marshal named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges),  butts heads with a rival Texas Ranger (Matt Damon), and confronts her father’s killer Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin).

It’s not so much what happens during the film that interests me the most—it’s a bit slow by today’s standards—but it is the acting and the cinematography that really stands out. I’ve never been that much into Westerns, but this one was presented in such a way that I couldn’t help but put myself in Mattie’s shoes and ask myself, would I be able to do what she did at her age? In her time period?

I was especially impressed with the acting by Ms. Steinfeld, who embodies the spunky and stubborn Mattie with just the right mixture of precociousness and vulnerability. Her eyes tell the whole story and for an actress who was just 13 years-old herself during shooting this is quite a feat! Jeff Bridges stands out in another memorable performance as does Matt Damon in one of his more unflattering roles but I think the true star is Ms. Steinfeld.

In terms of direction, I find the Coen Brothers to be somewhat inconsistent filmmakers. I love all of their early stuff but Ladykillers and Intollerable Cruelty? Really? Then, they surprise us with No Country for Old Men (2007) after the forgettable Burn After Reading (released in 2008 and filmed on location next to my old Brooklyn Heights apartment). I, for one, am happy about the return to the Coen Brothers’ glory days when they made The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), Fargo (1996),  The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) all in a prolific 6-year period.

As someone who covers her eyes for egregious violence in films and on TV, I appreciated True Grit’s lack of superfluous bloodshed and the noticeably elevated tone from the shoot ’em up movies of the 50s. What the Coen Brothers do best is to create stylized stories that through their witty banter, sepia images, and caricatures allow the viewer insight into truths that can only be portrayed by fiction.

The sprawling vistas, impeccably recreated Western town, the lawlessness of it all—that’s what really rang true to me. My only complaint is the coda—I think we could have done without the peak into the future. That being said, this was a really enjoyable film with some standout performances.

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