Monday, February 28, 2011

The 83rd Academy Awards: Winners and Observations

Well, here they are, the winners from the 83rd Academy Awards. Pretty entertaining show from Anne Hathaway and James Franco. Not too many surprises, though Jennifer Lawrence looked amazing, and I had my money on David Fincher and The Social Network at the Best Director point. But, disappointingly, Tom Hooper and The King's Speech take out the top awards.
I thought it was interesting that The King's Speech lost Art Direction early, which I thought it would win, and then was beaten twice by The Social Network for Editing and Score. I really can't quite believe that Hooper won over Fincher for his direction. When Hooper won, his film had only won one other award, for Original Screenplay, and at that point, Inception, The Social Network, The Fighter and Alice In Wonderland had picked up more awards. Doesn't make much sense, but then it rarely does.
I really liked Natalie Portman's speech, and Colin Firth's too. Why did they let Melissa Leo talk for so long? That was painful. I'm not sure why I predicted "If I Rise" to win Best Song, I guess I thought the one they chose to nominate was going to be one of the GOOD songs in 127 Hours. Glad Randy Newman got recognized, though. Inside Job is a fantastic documentary, and I'm happy it won despite my hopes to see what Banksy had in store for the ceremony. I got 16 out of the 21 categories I predicted, correct.

Here is the complete list:

Best Picture: The King's Speech

Best Director: Tom Hooper (The King's Speech)

Best Actor: Colin Firth (The King's Speech)

Best Actress: Natalie Portman (Black Swan)

Best Supporting Actress: Melissa Leo (The Fighter)

Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale (Then Fighter)

Best Adapted Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network)

Best Original Screenplay: David Seidler (The King's Speech)

Best Animated Film: Toy Story 3

Best Documentary: Inside Job

Best Foreign Language Film: In a Better World

Best Cinematography: Inception

Best Editing: The Social Network

Best Art Direction: Alice in Wonderland  

Best Visual Effects: Inception

Best Original Score: The Social Network

Best Sound Editing: Inception

Best Sound Mixing: Inception

Best Original Song: Toy Story 3

Best Costume Design: Alice in Wonderland

Best Make-up: The Wolfman

Animated Short: The Lost Thing

Documentary Short: Strangers Among Us

Live Action Short: God of Love

Best Picture: The King's Speech

Congrats to The King's Speech for taking out Best Picture, Director, Lead Actor (Firth) and Original Screenplay! The final listing of all the winners will be posted later. I am currently drowning my sorrows with red wine...

Thanks for reading!

Back with you soon. Andy Buckle

Recent Poll Results: Best Picture

It looks like The King's Speech is the public favorite to take out Best Picture at today's Academy Awards. With 13 votes, it easily recorded the victory. As expected The Social Network (5), Black Swan (3), and Toy Story 3 (3) all received a few votes. No votes at all for 127 Hours, The Fighter and The Kids Are All Right, the outsiders amongst the nominees, but all quality films. It will be interesting. Will the late hype for The King's Speech be enough to warrant a sweep vote by the academy, or will it be The Social Network to match its Golden Globe victory, with a Picture, Director, and Screenplay trio? Personally, I hope so!

Thanks for voting and reading. Enjoy the Oscars!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

My Oscar Hopefuls

With Oscar Day approaching the day after next, and with my predictions now uncomfortably posted, I thought I'd acknowledge the winners I'd hope to see take the stage. Many of these seem to be unlikely chances, but it is still fun to hope nonetheless. Tell me what you think!

Best Picture: The Social Network

Best Director: David Fincher, The Social Network

Best Actor: Colin Firth, The King's Speech

Best Actress: Natalie Portman, Black Swan

Best Supporting Actor: John Hawkes, Winter's Bone

Best Supporting Actress: Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit

Best Adapted Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network

Best Original Screenplay: Lisa Cholodenko, The Kids Are All Right

Best Animated Film: Toy Story 3

Best Documentary Feature: Exit Through the Gift Shop

Best Foreign Language Film: In a Better World

Best Cinematography: Matthew Libatique, Black Swan

Best Editing: Kirk Baxter, Angus Hall, The Social Network

Best Art Direction: Inception

Best Costume Design: True Grit

Best Make-up: The Way Back

Best Original Score: Inception

Best Original Song: "If I Rise", 127 Hours

Best Sound Mixing: Inception

Best Sound Editing: Inception

Best Visual Effects: Inception

Winners: Inception - 5 Wins, The Social Network - 4, True Grit - 2, Black Swan - 2

Friday, February 25, 2011

New Release Review: The Way Back (Peter Weir, 2010)

The Way Back is the highly anticipated new film from renowned Australian director Peter Weir, a man known for the acclaimed films Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, The Truman Show and Gallipoli. Many have come to expect greatness from Weir, and despite The Way Back once again proving that Weir is a gifted director capable of making a grand visual epic, it feels overlong and emotionally disengaging. From a screenplay written by Weir and Keith Clarke, inspired by The Long Walk by Slawomir Rawicz, this war drama tells the story of a group of prisoners who escape a Siberian Gulag camp during World War II, and embark on a journey that takes them across the Siberian border, through Mongolia, via the Gobi Desert and the Himalayas, and into non-Communist India.

The events of the film are set in 1942, but opens with text explaining that in 1939, Poland had been invaded by Germany from the West and by Russia from the East, dividing rule over Poland. The first sequence is an interrogation of Janusz (Jim Sturgess), a Polish POW, by a Soviet officer. Janusz refuses to confess to the allegations that he is a spy, but the evidence supplied by his wife (who had been pressured to testify through Soviet torture) results in Janusz' sentence to the Gulag for 20 years. At the Siberian camp he meets the men he will eventually escape with. Included are Mr Smith (Ed Harris), Valka (Colin Farrell), a hardened Russian criminal, and Khabarov (Mark Strong), an actor with visionary methods of escape. Khabarov quickly befriends Janusz and confides in him his proposed escape plan, which targets the south Siberian border, passing Lake Baikal. Despite lacking Janusz' resolve, Mr Smith joins him in the escape, along with Valka and four other men. They escape during a severe snowstorm, barely managing to survive the first night, before Janusz navigates them through the harsh forests to the Siberian/Mongolian border.

When they reach Lake Baikal, they meet up with a young girl named Irena (Saoirse Ronan), who tells them that she had escaped from a collective farm outside of Warsaw, and that the Russians had murdered her parents. This story is falsified by Mr Smith, but later revealed to mask an even sadder tale. She is warmly welcomed to the group, and matches the determination and stamina of the men. After Valka leaves the party at the Mongolian border, the six remaining continue to Ulaanbaatar, only to discover that Mongolia is also under Communist rule. Janusz decides they should pass through the Gobi Desert and scale the Himalayas to reach friendly territory in India. This seemingly impossible task is willingly agreed to by everyone and they set out. We know from the opening texts that only three of the men make it to India, so it is inevitable that they begin to fall one by one. Crossing the seemingly endless plains they become weakened with blisters and sunstroke, and in a grueling display of human survival, reach freedom.

We never actually see the escape, and besides Janusz' talk and food rationing with Mark Strong's character, we see little of their preparation. Khabarov is really a pointless character, other than to plant the idea of escape in Janusz' head, and Mark Strong really added nothing special to a character that could have been written into an interesting cameo. He declines the invitation to accompany the escapees. In this tale, it is not the escape that is the most extraordinary feat, but their survival during the months that follow, and the huge stretch of treacherous terrain they cover. The film tries to address their desire to be free men and documents their strength, determination and togetherness to overcome such hardships. It is a powerful and inspiring adventure, but as the audience you tend to feel emotionally detached throughout. I actually felt very little for the characters by the end, and after the better half of two hours with them, I still felt like I didn't know them. The scope of their journey, and the way the journey is portrayed, as a seemingly endless struggle with nature, leaves very little time for the characters, who we find captured from a long distance to situate them in their struggle. Even the moments when we are revealed to them interacting, it is almost never beyond the immediate situation, and apart from finding out a way to identify them within the group, you will be hard pressed to even remember their names by the end.

None of the performances are particularly memorable, but not bad either. Jim Sturgess was a solid and likable lead, who assumed leadership of the men, despite being one of the youngest. He is resourceful and encouraging, and attached to a desire for kindness. Ed Harris is always great as a grizzly veteran who just seems to tag along and offer his world-weary wisdom. Colin Farrell's brief role was disappointing though. Sporting a pretty ordinary Russian accent, he plays a tough guy hardened by the prison system. He only joins the posse to escape a debt with one of the prisoners and he separates from the group at the Mongolian border, forever viewing Russia as his homeland, and Stalin as a hero. The best performance, I would argue, was Saoirse Ronan. For much of the first half, the screen is dominated by the three distinguished male stars, with the other four barely given a minute. But during the latter half, they are given more involvement. Their performances, like those of Harris and Sturgess, are also quite impressive.

The entire film is beautifully shot, and the rugged natural terrain they cover, be it the icy forests of Siberia, the endless plains of the Goby Desert or the mountainous slopes of the Himalayas, is the most eye-catching feature of the film. The troupe has to overcome nearly every obstacle nature can throw at them, while scouring the harsh climate and needing to constantly re-supply food and water. After leaving the camp amidst a snowstorm, they are forced to overcome extreme heat exhaustion, sandstorms and mosquito attacks. But at each obstacle the film plows through it without any real drama, and we are thrust into another ten-minute sequence of their journey accompanied with unimportant dialogue and that triumphant score. There are parts where it becomes an ordeal to stay interested. I thought, once they reached the Mongolian border, that they were still doing rather well. It didn't really focus on their health struggles up until that point, more on different episodes of the journey, but once they find themselves trapped in the desert, their survival beyond actually seemed pretty incredible. There has been some debate over the reliability of the source material. Rawicz's account in The Long Walk has been debunked, and claims made that the account was actually about a man named Glinski, while the tale itself of a troupe of Siberian Gulag escapees that marched into India is also believed to be suspect. Nevertheless, Weir has declared that his film is based on the account of The Long Walk, which is very likely a fictional struggle. The film actually seems that way. In one sense you believe it to be based on true events, but during the film you begin to question the plausibility of their survival. It seems unfathomable. The way the film is shot, the terrain seems ready to swallow up the travelers at any moment.

The Way Back received its sole Academy Award nomination for Makeup, and it has a chance too. The artists certainly did a fantastic job. Weir's direction of the epic adventure is best realized in Master and Commander, but the early sequences outlining the hardships of the Gulag, are captured in quite elaborate and epic fashion, utilizing aerial tracking shots over large sets and incorporating lots of extras. But following the escape, and once the action becomes a more personal struggle, it isn't as compelling as it should be, which is disappointing because the film is a grand technical achievement, with really stunning shooting locations throughout Bulgaria, Morocco and India. Look, I'm not going to try and dissuade you from seeing The Way Back, because it really is an epic story on a grand scale. It's great to look at, and it's a powerful account of human survival. It was just disappointing to leave the cinema, and really not feel anything. I should have been inspired and pumped by their struggle, but I wasn't. None of the characters are particularly memorable, and there was plenty of time to develop them. Not the quality of film you come to expect from Peter Weir, but certainly worth a watch.

My Rating: 3 Stars

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Releases: 24/02

Opening this week we have four films: The Way Back, Peter Weir's long anticipated new film, I Am Number Four, directed by D.J Caruso, Season of the Witch, Nicholas Cage's newest project, and Conviction, starring Hillary Swank and Sam Rockwell.

Conviction premiered at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival. After viewing a trailer, and seeing Hillary Swank headlined in another award-baiting role, I dismissed Conviction as overblown Oscar bait. The Academy didn't bite, leaving leading chance Sam Rockwell off the ballot. With a strong cast also including Melissa Leo, Minnie Driver and Peter Gallagher, the film follows the true story of Betty Anne Waters (Swank) who devotes 18 years of her life to have the murder conviction of her older brother, Kenny (Rockwell), overturned. Convinced of his innocence, the Massachusetts wife and mother of two puts herself through college and law school in a quest for the truth that will exonerate him. Could be worth checking out. I expect the performances to be quality, but reports are that the film is less compelling than it should be and plagued by legal inaccuracies and temporal exaggerations.  

 - Conviction is playing at Event Cinemas, George Street and Palace Norton/Verona.

I have no idea what I Am Number Four is about, but it sounds dreadful. It is the first in a series of adaptations from the novels of Pittacus Lore. Directed by D.J Caruso (Eagle Eye, Disturbia) this 'action-packed thriller' follows an extraordinary young man, John Smith (Alex Pettyfer), who is a fugitive on the run from ruthless enemy set to destroy him. He changes his identity and stays undetected with the help of his Guardian, Henry (Timothy Olyphant). It's not receiving very good reviews (32% on Rotten Tomatoes) and it sounds familiar and predictable. I think it's a wise decision to give it a miss. John Smith (??)

 - I Am Number Four is playing at Event Cinemas George Street.

Other current releases to steer clear of are Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son (9% on RT), and Season of the Witch (4% on RT). The former is also playing at Event Cinemas George Street (opening last week I believe), while I haven't found any cinema with enough guts to play the latter so far.

The Way Back is Academy Award nominee Peter Weir's highly anticipated new film. Weir has great films like Master and Commander, The Truman Show, Dead Poet's Society and Gallipoli to his name. The films stars Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris and Colin Farrell as prisoners of a Soviet Union labor camp, who, along with four others, flee from their Siberian Gulag and bagin a treacherous journey across thousands of miles of hostile terrain. Saoirse Ronan (The Lovely Bones) co-stars. It sounds like a pretty inspirational story of human endeavor. I'll be checking it out this weekend, and it looks to be the only new release really worth seeing.

 - The Way Back is playing at Event Cinemas George Street and Dendy Newtown.

Also, with the Academy Awards drawing near, if you haven't yet seen prominent nominees The King's Speech, True Grit, Black Swan, The Fighter, 127 Hours, Rabbit Hole or Another Year you are missing out and should certainly try and find a cinema playing them over the weekend. Happy viewing! 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

New Release Review: Inside Job (Charles Ferguson, 2010)

Charles Ferguson's captivating and comprehensive investigation into the origins and effects of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis is the front-runner amongst this year's strong group of nominees for Best Documentary Feature. With most of the world wondering what happened back in 2008, we finally receive what appears to be definitive proof of the individuals involved. It is a truly shocking revelation, that delves into the complex defrauding techniques of Wall Street's leading merchant bankers and insurance company CEO's, who invented methods of turning mortgage debts of national citizens into multi-billion dollar investments via credit default swaps and the derivative market. This was made easier for these companies by the decisions of political advisers and financial bureaucrats who heartily lobbied to keep the system deregulated. Ferguson's scathing examination points fingers at almost everybody, but especially former Federal Reserve and Treasury advisers Alan Greenspan and Hank Paulson, who have been involved with the Federal Government from terms dating back to before Bill Clinton. Ferguson argues that some of the most destructive decisions were made during the term of Clinton, where two of his closest advisers, James Rubin and Larry Summers, were successful in lobbying against legislation that had constrained banks from indulging in high-risk credit loans. The crisis began when the credit ratings of AIG (one of the largest insurance corporations in America) were discovered to be far less than many within the financial services industry had speculated and traded upon. They suddenly had to cover the costs of loans and debts they had no money for.  It is these high-risk loans, falsely rated to appear like top investments, which made the most money for the ludicrously greedy high-stakes investors. But as a result, the American economy was crippled, with trillions of dollars in investment losses, and left millions of people unemployed and in financial ruin.

Ferguson tries to interview some of the major players, but to no surprise, all of them refused his request. Ferguson still manages to make some important men squirm uncomfortably. One of the most notable is Glenn Hubbard, the Dean of Columbia University's Business School, who recoils from his smug complacency when his sideline work as a consultant to several big financial service companies is raised. He refuses to comment about the extent of his outside earnings from those companies. Another case is that of Frederic Mishkin, a former member of the US Federal Reserve, who nervously stammers excuses after Ferguson asks him about the favorable report he wrote about the stability of the economy of Iceland, several months after it had begun to crash disastrously. He was allegedly paid $124,000 from the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce for the article. Amongst a formidable line-up of testimonials, Ferguson even interviews a brothel keeper who states that many of her high paying clientele were Wall Street entrepreneurs, who regularly paid for her services with company credit cards.

Inside Job is a meticulously constructed masterpiece of investigative journalism that not only covers the period of the crisis, but also delves into decades worth of history about the U.S Financial Sector. He even begins the film in Iceland, with a series of stunning cinematic captures of the picturesque country, and explains the disastrous crash to its very stable and prospering economy when the deregulation policies were introduced. The same policies are introduced by Washington and remained unchanged through the terms of Clinton, George W. Bush and now Barrack Obama. Amidst many experts desperate public forecast of the impending crisis (Ferguson reveals numerous journals and books written on the topic), no steps were ever taken to prevent it, despite their awareness of the threat. What is so maddening, and I guarantee you will be leave the cinema enraged, is that most of the corrupt CEO's actually walk away from the destruction of their agencies with their huge bonuses still intact, and many still hold down prominent government advisory positions. Even more of a revelation, is that many of the academics implicated in the documentary have huge influence at America's leading business schools. Inside Job is densely informative and full of complex financial chatter and accompanying diagrams, but this is essential viewing for everyone. In a year of fantastic documentaries, this is one that will forever be remembered as a feat of scathing revelation.

My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Scene Analysis: Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1968)

The sequences I have selected for this critical analysis are a trio of scenes beginning about forty-five minutes into Franklin J. Schaffner's 1968 film, Planet of the Apes. I will be examining the films distortion of the convention of the foreign 'Other', commonly featured as an antagonist to humanity in the science fiction genre. At this point of the film, Taylor (Charlton Heston) has been captured by the Apes and held captive inside a cage within the walls of the city. Dr Zira (Kim Hunter) brings Dr Zaius (Maurice Evans) before Taylor with the goal of making him speak again, and to suggest that he may in fact be more interesting than Zaius had previously suggested. Taylor tries to speak but because of his gunshot wound to the throat during his capture he is incapable of verbally communicating with Zira. Zaius finds it amusing to see a man "acting like an ape". This is a very interesting comment because, commonly, when we see animals captured through the media, we are amazed and amused when we see animals, and particularly apes, behaving with a personality that seems to closely resemble the human being. It is Zira's belief that Taylor can understand them and is capable of communicating, but Zaius quickly rejects the idea, sternly responding that "man has no understanding; he can be taught a few simple tricks, but nothing more" before concluding that man is a nuisance and that complete extermination was the only necessary response.

The concept of the 'Other' in Planet of the Apes is reversed. The audience is initially asked to identify with Taylor, but when we are confronted with the humans already living on the planet, we quickly reassign our identification to the Apes, but at the same time feel mildly threatened by their superiority. The Apes possess many key human characteristics; they are sophisticated, they have desire to be clothed and have the ability to talk. It is interesting that we are asked to differentiate Taylor and his crew from the primitive humans before we meet the apes. This is important to demonstrate the idea that the human has regressed to a state of primitive survival on a planet we know to exist in the future. The Planet of the Apes presents the humans as the feared 'Other' on a planet they clearly do not belong to. This is opposed to that of an alien or mutated being entering the human sphere and attacking humanity, as commonly represented in the genre.

The first interior scene fades out, and then cuts to an outdoor location. We see Taylor and Nova pacing inside another large cage. As they walk the camera tracks them in a circular motion to the left of the frame from outside the cage, visually expressing their claustrophobic confinement. In this sequence, Zira brings her fiance Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) to see Taylor, but they are interrupted by the arrival of Dr Zaius. We see the first evidence of hierarchy within the ape colony, as Zaius is referred to by Cornelius as 'Number One'. As an orangutan he represents an ape of the highest order in the city, an ape that both gorillas and chimpanzees answer to and whose respect they want. It is amusing to see him refer to Cornelius as an 'ape with a shovel', a derogatory mocking of his inferior class and ignorance of his profession. During Taylor's continued attempt to communicate (now by scratching in the dirt that lines the cage) a brawl breaks out between Taylor and one of the other humans. There are no sounds emitted by the men (as they remain incapable of speech) but the score is piercing and the tension of the sequence is heightened by a cross-cutting of varying camera angles from both inside and outside the cage. At the conclusion of this sequence when Taylor has once again been contained, Zaius and one of the guards laugh about Zira's idea of domesticating man, deeming it impossible. This is a perfectly acceptable response following the 'primitive' scuffle. Clearly Taylor has the capacity for intelligence, but until he is able to demonstrate his full knowledge, he will remain non-differentiated from the other humans, and a figure of ridicule and disgust amongst the Ape population.

The final sequence I will look at immediately follows this one. Taylor is once again enclosed inside. He grabs Zira as she approaches and steals a pen and paper from her. He demonstrates an ability to write ('my name is Taylor') and an even stronger bond is developed between the two. In a rare alteration of power within the film, we see a point-of-view (POV) shot of Zira looking up at Taylor within the cage, followed by one from inside the cage of a now free standing Taylor looking down at Zira. For the first time Taylor has some element of power, and non-primitive capability. The scene then cuts to Taylor writing notes to Zira and Cornelius at a desk in a small room. Cornelius dismisses the possibility at first and refuses to accept the existence of another planet when Taylor writes that he learned his skills at 'Jefferson Public School, Fort Wayne, Indiana'. We discover at the conclusion of the film that there is no other inhabited planet and that the planet now ruled by Apes is in fact Earth. Planet of the Apes raises ideas about the survival of the species and suggests that humans may eventually become the cause of their own destruction, forced to resort to a primitive period of survival.

Planet of the Apes cleverly reverses the role of the white male, placing Taylor in a position at the bottom of the natural hierarchy. While the Apes have significant intelligence, it is interesting that they have no knowledge of flight (Cornelius deems it a 'scientific impossibility') and are bewildered by Taylor's capacity for intelligence as he throws the airplane as a demonstrative signifier of his crash. The plane is a simple task but Taylor successfully turns the written media into a diagram. Thematically, Planet of the Apes is a layered film and one that poses a threatening, thought-provoking tension in relation to the future of humanity and the planet. Our expectation of the treatment of the human in many other science fiction films is reversed, leaving the viewer forced to identify and relate to an ape, which is ultimately a problematic experience for many viewers.

Five Worst Films Nominated for Best Picture (2000-2009)

There were a number of strange choices made by the Academy over the last decade when they have selected their Best Picture nominees. Here is a shortlist of films I think were lucky to be considered:

Chocolat (Lasse Halstrom, 2000), Seabiscuit (Gary Ross, 2003), Ray (Taylor Hackford, 2004), Crash (Paul Haggis, 2005), Babel (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 2006), Atonement (Joe Wright), The Reader (Stephen Daldry, 2008), The Blind Side (John Lee Hancock, 2009) and Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire (Lee Daniels, 2009)

5. Seabiscuit (Gary Ross, 2003)

Seabiscuit looks great, and its nominations for cinematography, art direction and costumes are certainly deserved. But this feel-good tale of the spirit-lifting racehorse, Seabiscuit, which became a national success story during the Depression lacks dramatic flair, and fails to be engaging throughout the entirety of its lengthy running time. Some of the supporting performances are quite good, but in the lead, Tobey Maguire struggled. 

Alternatives: City of God and Finding Nemo

4. The Reader (Stephen Daldry, 2008)

Kate Winslet won her first Academy Award for lead actress here and it is a fine performance, though not her best in my opinion. This adaptation of the 1995 German novel by Bernhard Schlink is a moving story but Daldry's film drags in the latter half and achieves little dramatic impact. It's pretty forgettable considering the other nominees, and those not considered.

Alternatives: The Wrestler, WALL-E and In Bruges

3. Atonement (Joe Wright, 2007)

I really liked the cinematography, the score and Saoirsre Ronan's performance (I wish she had stayed in the film longer). The first forty minutes are excellent, but the film completely falls apart once it leaves the Tallis estate. The beach sequence is an impressive technical feat, but feels very out-of-place. The story doesn't allow us to like any of the characters, and the romance between Robbie and Cecilia is so briefly examined that it feels barely believable. My interest quickly wavered. Atonement had no chance against No Country for Old Men and There Will be Blood though. 

Alternatives: Zodiac and Ratatouille

2. Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire (Lee Daniels, 2009)

Shoddy direction, poor performances (yes, even Mo'Nique), and just unpleasant imagery make this one of the most grueling film experiences of my life. If the Academy tends to stand clear of harrowing, confronting cinema (heavily favoring The King's Speech over Black Swan for example), what were they thinking with Precious? Last year was a pretty weak year, and the first time the Academy opened up ten slots, but I couldn't believe it's inclusion. It irked me even more when it beat out Up in the Air for adapted screenplay.

Alternatives: Fantastic Mr Fox, The Messenger, A Single Man and Where the Wild Things Are

 1. The Blind Side (John Lee Hancock, 2009)

The Blind Side received just two nominations. For Best Picture, and for Sandra Bullock. Bullock's near-unfathomable victory in the Lead Actress category is certainly the best feature of the film, which feels like a soppy, well-funded midday movie. The script for this glossy, American Dream/coming-of-age/sporting triumph story is dire. Full of cheesy montages, annoying child actors and predictable obstacles, there is almost nothing original here at all.

Alternatives: Anything. You have to agree that Fantastic Mr Fox, The Messenger and A Single Man are all far superior to this film. How bout Star Trek, Moon...Zombieland. Anything!

What are some films nominated for Best Picture you question the inclusion of?

Monday, February 21, 2011

New Release Review: Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Mitchell, 2010)

Directed by John Cameron Mitchell (writer and star of Hedwig and the Angry Inch), and adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his own 2005 Pulitzer winning play, Rabbit Hole is an American drama centered around a formerly happily married couple (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) whose life is turned upside down by the untimely death of their 4-year-old son, Danny.

The film begins about 8 months after his death, and both Becca (Kidman) and Howie (Eckhart) are struggling to heal from their trauma together, and find themselves coping with their grief in different ways. Howie finds a solemn pleasure in interacting with videos of Danny he has kept, and sneaking the occasional peek into Danny's still furnished and toy-adorned room in the hope that he will find his son poking his head out from under his bed. Becca is slowly, one day at a time, removing parts of her son from the house. The pain of looking at his drawings on the fridge and his fingerprints on the door frame is just too much to cope with. Danny had chased their dog out onto the street and had been hit by a car. While the circumstances are tragic and no one (not even the driver) is to blame, none can help but blame themselves. Had Becca not answered the phone just before the incident, had Howie not bought the dog in the first place, and had the driver been a few kilometers under the speed limit, all could have been avoided.

Becca and Howie have been attending nightly meetings for parents of deceased children, but Becca has found it to become increasingly frustrating, and decided to discontinue going. Howie continues to attend, but finds a means of escape through Gabby (Sandra Oh), one of the women from the support group. Becca starts meeting the young teenager driver who hit her son. They converse and share his artistic talents and ultimately find understanding and comfort from one another. Their private decisions may bring individual comfort but it puts strain on their marriage when they are uncovered. Both put on brave faces in front of one another, and their families, but it is evident that not all the wounds have healed. Howie begins to stray from his faith to Becca and has a number of aggressive blowups at his wife, while Becca even slaps a woman in the supermarket when she overreacts to some disagreeable parenting.

Many will think that this seems way too heavy and depressing to be enjoyable, and I thought the same thing after seeing the trailer. But I was very surprised how much I liked it. I found the story tragic, but it is kept engaging by the strength of the performances, and it is ultimately uplifting. Kidman, who has received much acclaim for what is surely one of her greatest performances, is sensational. I really liked her, and I normally do not. Not only does she have to personally overcome her guilt and suppress her grief, she has to try and prove that she is coping. The contradictory emotions that are coursing through her body are perfectly balanced. She can't bear to part with the memories of her son, but she knows it is necessary to get her life back on the right track and for her to once again socialize with former friends she has pushed away. The scenes between her and Jason, when they discuss the possibility of parallel universes and that a happier version of their lives exists out there in space and time, is especially touching. She has received a series of nominations for her performance, including from the Academy. I don't think she will beat out Natalie Portman or Annette Bening, but it just confirms that the quality of the performances this year is vastly superior to recent years.

I have never seen Aaron Eckhart better either. Dianne Wiest also provides great support as Becca's mother Nat (who had also faced the grief of losing her only son), and it is exciting to see the great Giancarlo Esposito back in film. He stars as Auggie, the boyfriend of Becca's sister, Izzy (Tammy Blanchard). The excellent screenplay is handled sensitively by John Cameron Mitchell, who purposefully allows the camera to remain with it's characters to fully capture every nuance of their emotions. The suburban setting is sharply photographed and the beautiful backing score accompanies the action well. It was also humorous at times to keep it lighter than it certainly could have been. I really enjoyed Rabbit Hole, and much like Mike Leigh's Another Year, it is a painfully honest depiction of genuine people placed under the strain of significant changes to their lives. The event cannot be reversed, but how they choose to move on with their lives is at the center of tender examination here. Nicole Kidman is superb, and is one of many reasons to make the effort to see it.

My Rating: 4 Stars

Classic Throwback: The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

The Birds is one of Alfred Hitchcock's most effective horror chillers, and deservedly stands as one of the most respected horror films ever made. I first saw The Birds at a university lecture, and I think I watched it in the same week as Psycho. Compared to the latter classic, I didn't care for The Birds as much as I thought I would. But my recent viewing presented me with a completely different opinion of the film. Hitchcock is the master of building suspense, and there are many memorable moments of agonizing intensity in the latter half. Amongst his wealth of skill with film techniques, Hitchcock's work with the POV shot (much like in Vertigo) to either present the fears of the characters from their perspective, or to suspend their awareness of the horrors they are about to witness, is just masterful. Some of the special effects of the bird attacks seem very dated now, but are no less effective. The film begins quite silly, and Melanie's strange motives are put under question. But most Hitchcock films begin with the same deliberate pacing, and the intensity gradually begins to grow. Once all the characters remain trapped in Bodega Bay, and the series of bird attacks begin, it is very engaging. If you haven't yet seen The Birds, the rest of the review does contain some plot spoilers, as I analyze a few of the sequences, so don't read too far on if you wish to watch the film (and I urge you to do so) without knowing all the surprises. 

The story centers on the blossoming romance between Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren), a wealthy socialite and daughter of a powerful newspaper mogul, and a San Francisco Lawyer, Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor). The pair first meet in a pet shop, when both are shopping for birds. Brenner recognizes Melanie from a recent trial she was involved in, but pretends to mistake her for a salesperson, a role she flirtatiously adopts. Brenner is shopping for lovebirds for his younger sister, and begins to inquire about the birds in the store. When Melanie is caught out and discovers his game, she is both infuriated and intrigued, and decides to purchase the lovebirds for Brenner herself, who she tracks down through a contact at her father's newspaper. She learns that every weekend he travels down the coast to a small town called Bodega Bay in California, where he lives with his mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy) and sister, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright). 

Melanie seeks out his address and travels across the bay by motorboat, sneaking into the back of his house, and leaving the gift. Brenner, after discovering her stealth retreat across the bay, chases her down and invites her to accompany his family at first for dinner, and then to remain for the weekend. She reluctantly agrees. Melanie's arrival in Bodega Bay coincides with a series of bizarre altercations with birds, which gradually worsen. As soon as she arrives we see a large flock of birds flying ominously together above the town. Melanie is swooped by a seagull, inflicting a cut on her head, a seagull flies into the door of the house of local schoolteacher Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), killing itself, and at Cathy's birthday party the next day, the playing children are swooped incessantly by seagulls.
Viewers are unlikely to forget the moment when Melanie sits on the bench outside the school, and crows begin to assemble on the play equipment behind her. At first there are only two or three, but by the time Melanie realizes, there are hundreds covering the entire playground and fence, formulating an intimidating presence. Accompanying this scene there is a complete absence of a score. All we hear are the occasional flapping to indicate that another crow has arrived, and an occasional chirp that is inaudible to Melanie. The Birds actually lacks a conventional, incidental score but rather uses sound effects and sparse source music in counterpoint to the calculated silences. It really works to heighten the suspense.

Another brilliant sequence is when Lydia drives around to the house of a local who had supplied her with chicken feed. She enters the house but finds it strangely quiet. As she walks from room to room she finds broken coffee cups and signs of a struggle. She finally enters the man's room at the end of the hall, and the camera adopts her point of view as she slowly scans the room. She spots the smashed window, which has cracks coated with blood and a seagull ensnared in the glass. Her eyes move to the right as she notices the room has been torn apart. She looks down and finds the legs of a man, his pajama pants ripped and bloodstained. She moves into the room, past the door and looks further, and spots the man slumped in the corner of his room. His eye sockets are bloody and empty and his eyeballs obviously gouged out, we assume by the birds. Hitchcock makes a series of quick zooms into his face. Lydia turns and sprints out of the house, gasping and choking in shock. Hitchcock implies that there is something horrible to be found in the room, but he withholds sight of it for as long as he can, and there are about six cuts, both of Lydia's face as she scans the room, and of what she sees, before the body is revealed. 

Following the attack on the school children, Melanie and Brenner and a few of the other locals find shelter in the local bar. An argument erupts about the existence of such an attack. Melanie claims that the children were attacked by the crows, which an elderly lady, who just happens to be an expert ornithologist, claims is impossible. Melanie's story is backed up by a local fisherman, who claimed that seagulls had recently attacked his boat. Another resident believes that the attacks are the sign of the Apocalypse. The conflicting arguments cause unrest, and force a lot of the residents to question leaving the town. Outside there is another bird attack, as a motorist at a gas station is knocked unconscious, and pumps gasoline down the main street. A series of violent explosions ensue, and another bird attack on the town, resulting in the loss of more lives. It is a truly terrifying film, full of many memorable sequences. Few people feel the same way about a flock of birds having seen this film. This is one Hitchcock classic that isn't as famous as more notable titles like Psycho, Vertigo, North by Northwest and Rear Window but it is a true marvel of the horror genre, and in my opinion is one of Hitchcock's most technically effective cinematic ventures. 

My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Poll Results: Best Actor

The Best Actor poll is now closed. Votes were spread pretty evenly across all five nominees. Colin Firth, for his fantastic performance in The King's Speech, was voted the best actor of the year, and will very likely take out his first Oscar next week.

The next poll will be for Best Picture. Thanks to everyone who voted. Would love to see you back voting again.

Friday, February 18, 2011

83rd Academy Awards: Predictions (Cinematography, Editing and Other Technical Awards)

The technical awards are always the hardest to predict. I'll give it a go. 

Best Cinematography

Matthew Libatique, Black Swan
Wally Pfister, Inception
Danny Cohen, The King's Speech
Jeff Cronenweth, The Social Network
Roger Deakins, True Grit

Any of these nominees could take out this award, and this list doesn't even include 127 Hours (which has arguably the finest cinematography of the year). Roger Deakins should be wondering when his time will come, and the Academy may just award him this year for his gorgeous work in True Grit. Personally, I loved Matthew Libatique's dazzling work in Black Swan. Using a combination of dizzying, circling steadicam, with raw hand-held, we become fully immersed in Nina's world. The use of mirrors is also wonderful. The Academy will likely give it to either Jeff Cronenweth for The Social Network (never has Harvard looked so brooding), Danny Cohen for The King's Speech or Wally Pfister for Inception. The cinematography in the latter was absolutely stunning and the film overall is a marvelous technical achievement, so I predict the award will go to Pfister, though if either The Social Network or The King's Speech take a sweep, then they will likely win. Very high quality work this year.

MY PREDICTION: Wally Pfister (Inception)

ALSO LIKELY: Jeff Cronenweth (The Social Network)/Danny Cohen (The King's Speech)

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY THAT WON'T WIN: Matthew Libatique (Black Swan) 

Best Editing

Andrew Weisblum, Black Swan
Pamela Martin, The Fighter
Tariq Anwar, The King's Speech
Jon Harris, 127 Hours
Kirk Baxter, Angus Hall, The Social Network

This is another category that is full of quality work. The notable exclusion of Inception is puzzling, but I feel that the work of Weisblum, Harris and Baxter/Hall are the standouts here. The latter won the BAFTA and I think their seamless syncing of the dual lawsuits with the recounted events in The Social Network in just perfect. They are my pick.

MY PREDICTION: Kirk Baxter, Angus Hall (The Social Network)

ALSO LIKELY: Andrew Weisblum (Black Swan)

BEST EDITING THAT WON'T WIN: Jon Harris (127 Hours) 

Best Art Direction

Alice in Wonderland
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I
The King's Speech
True Grit

I think this will either go to The King's Speech or Inception. Although Alice might win too. I think Inception deserves numerous technical awards, so I'm going with it. 



Best Costume Design

Colleen Atwood, Alice in Wonderland
Antonella Cannarozi, I Am Love
Jenny Beaven, The King's Speech
Sandy Powell, The Tempest
Mary Zophre, True Grit

I think Colleen Atwood's luscious costumes in Alice will be enough to win this. Perhaps for Alice's red dress alone. Tilda Swinton looked beautiful in I Am Love, so I'd be happy if it won. I haven't seen The Tempest, but the costumes weren't the best features of either The King's Speech or True Grit. Still, The King's Speech is the favorite for a sweep, so it may win again here.

MY PREDICTION: Colleen Atwood (Alice in Wonderland)

ALSO LIKELY:  Jenny Beaven (The King's Speech)

BEST COSTUME DESIGN THAT WON'T WIN: Antonella Canarozi (I Am Love)

Best Make-Up

Barney's Version
The Way Back
The Wolfman

I haven't seen any of these films so I really have no idea. I'm going to go with The Wolfman.

Best Original Score

John Powell, How to Train Your Dragon
Hans Zimmer, Inception
Alexandre Desplat, The King's Speech
A. R Rahman, 127 Hours
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, The Social Network

Another great category. If you could extend this category to six or seven, you could definitely include Daft Punk's work in Tron: Legacy, which was the best part of the film, and Randy Newman's beautiful work in Toy Story 3. Nevertheless, the score of How to Train Your Dragon is superb, but is the outsider here. I don't think Alexandre Desplat will win for The King's Speech, although it was very, very good. A. R Rahman will likely win Best Song for "If I Rise" for 127 Hours but his pulsating score was a perfect accompaniment to Boyle's dynamic vision and the character's adrenalin-junkie lifestyle. Hans Zimmer's score for Inception is hugely epic. When I first walked out of the cinema after seeing Inception for the first time, I thought it was one of the greatest film scores I had ever heard. I still stand by that now. The likely winner, however, is Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, whose mesmerizing score for The Social Network won the Golden Globe and Critics Choice award for Best Original Score.

MY PREDICTION: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network)

ALSO LIKELY: Hans Zimmer (Inception)

BEST SCORE THAT WON'T WIN: A. R Rahman (127 Hours

Best Original Song

"Coming Home", Country Song
"I See The Light", Tangled
"If I Rise", 127 Hours
"We Belong Together", Toy Story 3

I have only seen 127 Hours and Toy Story 3 and if I had to choose one, it would be "If I Rise".

MY PREDICTION: "If I Rise" (127 Hours)

Best Sound Editing

Toy Story 3
Tron: Legacy
True Grit 


Best Sound Mixing

The King's Speech
The Social Network
True Grit

I just don't know. Probably The King's Speech, but both Inception and The Social Network are deserved of this award too.


ALSO LIKELY: The King's Speech

Best Visual Effects

Alice in Wonderland
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I
Iron Man 2 

First of all, no Tron: Legacy! For some reason Hereafter was included, will a single scene of special effects. Sure, it was impressive, but the film shouldn't have been included here. There is no way they will award HP7 this award for being half a film. Alice in Wonderland and Iron Man 2 are outside chances. The winner will be, and should be, Inception. 


There you have it. My entire predictions for the 83rd Academy Award ceremony on February 27th (airing around midday in Australia on the 28th). Will The Social Network reclaim the lead and take out the top award, or will the recent momentum of The King's Speech cause a surprise? 

Thanks for reading. I warmly welcome any comments or thoughts. Good luck with your picks!   

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Releases: 17/02

Opening this week in cinemas on a wide release are the 3D animated family film Gnomeo and Juliet, and Unknown, an action film starring Liam Neeson that seems to closely resemble his work in Taken, from a few years ago. Gnomeo and Juliet appears to be a cute makeover of Shakespeare's master work, but this time, with garden gnomes. It is directed by Kelly Asbury (who directed Shrek 2), and features the voice-cast of James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Michael Caine and Maggie Smith. Unknown (directed by Jaume Collet-Serra) is an action thriller which finds Liam Neeson waking up from a motor vehicle accident in Berlin to discover that his wife (the lovely January Jones) doesn't recognize him, and his identity has been assumed by another man (Aidan Quinn). He finds himself hunted by unknown assassins, and alone on the run. Sounds fairly ridiculous and implausible, and only 29% of critics have rated it 'fresh' at Rotten Tomatoes.
With a more limited release we have the John Cameron Mitchell film, Rabbit Hole, starring Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart and Dianne Wiest, Certified Copy starring Juliette Binoche, and the Oscar nominated political documentary, Inside Job. For the first time since the global financial crisis in 2008, comprehensive analysis of the crisis is tackled in Inside Job. Through exhaustive research and extensive interviews with key financial insiders, journalists, politicians and academics, the film traces the rise of a rouge industry which has corrupted politics and financial regulation. It has near-unanimous praise (97% at RT), and is sure to leave you squirming in anger. I intend to see it this weekend. I haven't heard anything about Certified Copy but Juliette Binoche always makes great films, so it could be worth a look if you can find a cinema playing it. Rabbit Hole, which features Nicole Kidman's Oscar nominated performance, tells the story of a formerly happily married couple (Kidman and Eckhardt) who try and return to their normal lives following the tragic shock death of their son. This sincere and honest screenplay is adapted by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire from his Pullitzer-Prize winning play, and directed by John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch). It has been well-received, but is certainly not a film that will appeal to everyone.  

So, there you have it for this weeks releases. What are you going to see this weekend?

83rd Academy Awards: Predictions (Screenplays, Animated, Documentary and Foreign Films)

Best Original Screenplay

Mike Leigh, Another Year
Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, The Fighter
Christopher Nolan, Inception
Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg, The Kids are All Right
David Seidler, The King's Speech

I really loved Another Year, but I just don't see Mike Leigh winning this. His screenplay drew some beautiful characters, which was also the result of months of rehearsal with his actors prior to filming. The result is a series of well-constructed episodes documenting the span of one year in the lives of its central married couple. The Fighter was driven more by David O. Russell's direction and the performances, than the screenplay, which quite cleverly weaved together the inspirational tale of Mickey Ward with the suffocating strain placed on him by those closest to him, providing surprising depth to the familial drama. Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg's often hilarious work in The Kids are All Right likely won't be recognized here, but is stellar. One of my favorite screenplays of the year. The complex emotional journeys these characters take throughout this film is beautifully drawn out in the performers, who feel like people you know by the conclusion of the film. Mr. Christopher Nolan, when will your time come? It should be here, but I doubt it. To turn such a complex, well-conceived idea into an engaging story that remains quite concise for the audience, is a feat in itself. He certainly deserves it. David Seidler will likely continue the sweep for The King's Speech. The tale of King George VI is an inspirational one very well told, with Seidler's lines delivered wonderfully by his cast.

MY PREDICTION: David Seidler (The King's Speech)

ALSO LIKELY: Christopher Nolan (Inception)

BEST SCREENPLAY THAT WON'T WIN: Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg (The Kids Are All Right)

Best Adapted Screenplay

Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy, 127 Hours
Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network
Michael Arndt, Toy Story 3
Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit
Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini, Winter's Bone

This award will go to Aaron Sorkin. He has it locked in. The other screenplays are all excellent, especially what Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy managed to create from Between a Rock and a Hard Place. It is puzzling to see Michael Arndt's screenplay in this category but it is considered an adaptation of the preceding films in the trilogy. If he had ended Toy Story 3 at the pit of fire, it would have been the gutsiest ending to a family film ever. But, the second ending drew just as many tears. I have been led to believe that the Coens' re-adaptation of the Charles Portis novel is closer than the John Wayne version, and superior in almost every way. I don't think it will be enough. The same with Debra Granik/Anne Rosellini with Winter's Bone. Very commendable writing, just not enough to take down Sorkin, who's screenplay for The Social Network is riddled with memorable dialogue, and flawlessly weaves together the dual lawsuits with flashback captures of the events unfolding. A work of genius.

MY PREDICTION: Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network)


BEST SCREENPLAY THAT WON'T WIN: Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours)

Best Animated Feature 

How to Train Your Dragon
Toy Story 3

Pixar will likely continue their dominance in this category by taking it out again with Toy Story 3, the end to one of the greatest trilogies in cinema history. The story remains just as strong as its predecessors, and it is visually stunning in 3D. How to Train Your Dragon is good enough to win this category any other year. It is the best film ever released by Dreamworks Animation, and it's action sequences rival everything else released this year. I haven't seen L'Illusionist, but I believe it is the last script conceived by Jaques Tati before he died. Sounds intriguing. Last year there were five films in this category, and it was a strong year (Fantastic Mr Fox should have joined Up in the Best Picture category), but apart from Tangled, I don't know what else would have made it this year. Not Despicable Me that's for sure. Toy Story 3 for the win, but a surprise victory for Dragon wouldn't disappoint.




Best Foreign Film           

In a Better World
Outside the Law

I am sad to say I am yet to see any of these foreign features. Buitiful has a release sometime in March I think, and is the only nominee with a second nomination (Javier Bardem for Best Actor). Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu hasn't made a bad film yet, nor one particularly uplifting. I have read that this is as bleak as they come, and the reviews have been mixed. I have heard lots of positive things about Dogtooth, but perhaps it is too confronting for the Academy to vote for it. Outside the Law looks quite good, as does In a Better World. The latter picked up the Golden Globe, which doesn't necessarily mean it will repeat here. I'm going to go with Incendies, from Canada.


Best Documentary Feature

Exit Through the Gift Shop
Inside Job

I loved Exit Through the Gift Shop. Not only one of the best documentaries of the year, but best films. Banksy has created a hilarious work of genius, at first delving into the secret world of Street Artists and capturing unique and unseen footage of the world's best at work. Banksy then turns the camera onto the obsessive cameraman himself, Thierry Guetta, which follows his overnight transformation into artist sensation, Mr Brainwash. A really eccentric study of consumerism and celebrity. But is it all a hoax, as many believe? Restrepo is the only other documentary I have seen in this category, and it is a harrowing account of dedicated journalism. Working for Vanity Fair, American journalist Sebastian Junger and British Photojournalist Tim Hetherington spend a year in Afghanistan shadowing a platoon stationed in the Korengal Valley, where they build an outpost that changes the tide of the war in one of the most dangerous war zones in the country. An incredible first hand account of warfare. I missed Gasland, which was disappointing, but Wasteland and Inside Job are yet to reach Australian cinemas. I kept hearing that Waiting for Superman was the sure winner here, but it's not amongst the nominees. The praise for Inside Job has been huge (97% on Rotten Tomatoes) but then they are all highly acclaimed. I'd like to see Exit Through the Gift Shop win this, but I think it will either be Restrepo or Inside Job. 




Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Review: Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009)

This hugely enjoyable Zombie comedy/horror flick is all-round great entertainment. Directed with enthusiasm by Ruben Fleischer from a collaborated screenplay between Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, Zombieland follows four survivors of a Zombie apocalypse, which has left the entirety of America a deserted wasteland, as they embark on a road-trip across the country in search of a Zombie-free sanctuary. Following the tradition of Edgar Wright's Shawn of the Dead, this horror spoof is full of witty cultural references, hilarious performances, plenty of action and uses Metallica's 'For Who The Bell Tolls' over the opening credits.

The virus spreads following a mutated strain of mad-cow disease, that has turned humans into aggressive flesh eating Zombies. The central character is 'Columbus' (Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network), a timid college student trying to make his way back to Columbus, Ohio, so see if his parents are still alive. He has managed to remain alive by strictly adhering to a list of rules. These inventive survival procedures, including the requirement of strong cardio and the 'double tap' to ensure the Zombie is really dead, are revealed to the audience in quite an imaginative way before the opening credits, and are a common point of comic reference for Columbus throughout the film. Having survived an attack from his sexy dorm neighbor, 406, which is shown in flashback, Columbus eventually runs into 'Tallahassee' (Woody Harrelson, The Messenger). Tallahassee is a man who has made it his mission to kill as many zombies as he can, and is on a direct quest to find the last remaining edible Twinkies. They form an allegiance, and set out for Columbus' home town. When they stop for supplies at a grocery store, they meet 'Wichita' (Emma Stone, Easy A) and 'Little Rock' (Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine), a pair of con-artist sisters, who steal their weapons and their vehicle. Later, when Columbus and Tallahassee by chance locate a truck full of guns, they catch up to the girls (whose stolen vehicle has subsequently broken down) and propose they travel together. The group decides to head for Pacific Playland, an amusement park rumored to be Zombie-free.

The film takes a series of crazy turns, as the group start to bond during their road trip, and even stop to visit Bill Murray's mansion when they pass through California. Murray's brief cameo is absolutely fantastic, as he disguises himself as a Zombie so he can walk amongst the infected and play golf on his favorite course without being threatened. The film culminates in several terrific video game-like sequences at the Pacific Playland amusement park as the group use the rides to their advantage and ward off a huge Zombie attack.
Though relatively short in length, the action is fast-paced, smart-mouthed and riddled with humorous cultural references. Jesse Eisenberg (in the geeky, awkward role that likely had him singled out for The Social Network) and Woody Harrelson are a great mismatched pair. Their comic timing is impeccable, and Eisenberg's voice-over narration is particularly witty. Emma Stone (who's very sexy here) and Abigail Breslin, are also quite likable in their performances, and well cast.

The film also looks great. The scenes of post-apocalyptic carnage are particularly impressive, as is the groups random destruction of a souvenir store. The special effects used in this film also contain several effective visual elements, notably the use of 3D rendered texts to display of the "Rules for Survival in Zombieland", which appear as they are announced by Columbus. Often they are involved in the action, animated to reflect the rule itself, and splattered with blood. I saw this film as designed, and especially in the final sequences, to replicate a video game. The filmmakers use an abundance of stunts, including slow-motion shootouts, fast back-tracking shots of the characters being pursued by the Zombies and once especially cool looking shot from within the roller coaster car with Tallahassee as he battles the Zombies. It also made me think of Max Brooks' novel, The Zombie Survival Guide, which is a survival manual dealing with the potentiality of a fictional Zombie attack. I don't know this figured into the script, but it's material that certainly should be considered within the genre. The make-up artists did a great job on the Zombie's, made to resemble the hyperactive, supremely mobile 'Infected' of 28 Days Later rather than the lumbering undead of George A. Romero's horror classics.

From the opening moments of Zombieland, all the way through the forgivable predictability of the conclusion, I enjoyed it. But this isn't to say it is perfect. It's lack of plot doesn't prove to be a distraction, but you can't help but notice that there is very little driving the narrative, beyond the desire for the filmmakers self-amusement. All we know is that there was has been an apocalypse and the characters need to make for the West coast because of a rumor (which we never hear personally) that there exists a Zombie-free zone. The film is made up of a series of really cool locations and ideas, from their relaxing escape amongst the empty rooms of Bill Murray's lavish mansion to the Zombie-film-set-in-an-amusement park idea, without anything concrete justifying why they all exist within the same film. Still, Fleischer's wonderfully energetic Zombie romp is great fun. Recommended for everyone, but those with weak stomachs may struggle through the copious amounts of gore.

My Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

83rd Academy Awards: Predictions (Picture, Direction, Performances)

With less than two weeks to go before Oscar night, I thought I would get started on my predictions for the big day. Leading the way with 12 nominations, and consistent success at the lead-up ceremonies, is The King's Speech. Following this we have True Grit (10), The Social Network and Inception (both 8).

Best Picture 

127 Hours
Black Swan
The Fighter
The Kids are All Right
The King's Speech
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter's Bone

Having now seen all of the nominees if I had to choose a top 5 here it would be The Social Network, Black Swan, Inception, 127 Hours and The Kids are All Right. But, again we have ten nominees (and ten strong ones this year), and it looks like The King's Speech is now the favorite. Leading the way with 12 nominations, and picking up DGA, SAG and BAFTA awards, it has surpassed The Social Network as the one to beat. I really enjoyed The King's Speech, and I hope Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush find themselves rewarded, but I really don't think it is the best film of the year. 127 Hours, which just made the cut, was one of the years best film experiences, but a victory looks unlikely. And Toy Story 3, which wasn't as good as Pixar's representative last year, Up (in a weaker year), also doesn't have much of a chance. Winter's Bone and The Kids Are All Right are certainly two of the years best indie darlings. Great screenplays, exceptional performances from their ensemble, and beautifully directed by both Debra Granik and Lisa Cholodenko. It is sad to foresee they may walk away with nothing. True Grit and The Fighter, both quite conformative to popular genre, were both propelled by exceptional performances and astute direction from The Coen Bros and David O. Russell, who both featured amongst the nominees for Best Director. They have very strong outside chances, but I don't see it. Inception was the best film of the year until The Social Network came along, but even then it seemed like a two film race. Christopher Nolan's greatest film is unlikely to surprise, especially since he was mysteriously snubbed for direction. That leaves two. Black Swan is a masterpiece of psychological horror, which likely won't attract too many votes from the Academy, and features the best performance of the year. But snubs for supporting actress, screenplay and sound (leaving a total of 5 nominations), doesn't give me confidence. The Social Network, propelled by Aaron Sorkin's brilliant adapted screenplay and Fincher's marvelous direction, is the BEST film of the year, and my personal selection as the winner. Still, I can't shake the thought that The King's Speech will take it out.

MY PREDICTION: The King's Speech

ALSO LIKELY: The Social Network

Best Director

Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
The Coen Brothers, True Grit
David Fincher, The Social Network
Tom Hooper, The King's Speech
David O' Russell, The Fighter 

The most glaring absence here is Christopher Nolan, with the Coen Bros' taking his spot. Despite being a grand Western and sensational re-adaptation of Charles Portis' novel, this is not the Coens' best work. David O. Russell transformed what could have been a generic boxing biopic into a moving family drama that managed to balance the stories of both Mickey and Dicky, and made it more than a film about boxing. Tom Hooper must be commended for drawing outstanding performances from Firth and Rush (but then Firth was even better in A Single Man), but his win at the DGA was somewhat unjustified. The Social Network is Fincher's best work since Se7en (1995) and he has made some great film (Zodiac!!) and he is the likely winner here, despite The King's Speech taking out the top gong. I personally feel that the best directed film is Black Swan. Darren Aronofsky matched his work in The Wrestler (2008) here, and transformed this psychosexual thriller into a visionary work of art. He would be my pick, but is sitting in third place at the moment.

MY PREDICTION: David Fincher (The Social Network)

ALSO LIKELY: Tom Hooper (The King's Speech)

BEST DIRECTION THAT WON'T WIN: Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) 

Best Actress

Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone
Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

Natalie Portman looks set to win it this year. She won the Golden Globe, the SAG and the BAFTA, which all but locks you in for the Oscar. Her nearest competitor is Annette Bening for The Kids Are All Right, who was also noticeably exceptional. Jennifer Lawrence and Michelle Williams also gave outstanding performances, but they will have their year in the future. I haven't seen Rabbit Hole but reports are that Nicole Kidman is incredible. Despite the strong group of nominees, I think Natalie has it wrapped up.

MY PREDICTION: Natalie Portman (Black Swan)

ALSO LIKELY: Annette Bening (The Kids are All Right

BEST PERFORMANCE THAT WON'T WIN: Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine)

Best Actor

Javier Bardem, Biutiful
Jeff Bridges, True Grit
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Colin Firth, The King's Speech
James Franco, 127 Hours

Javier Bardem claimed the last spot over Ryan Gosling for his work in Biutiful, and it is the only performance I am yet to see. Jeff Bridges was great as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit but I don't think it warranted a nomination to be honest, and he certainly shouldn't win. Youngsters Jesse Eisenberg and James Franco are both outstanding. Eisenberg was given the best lines of the year, and made you feel sympathetic about a genuine asshole, and Franco's one man show in 127 Hours is just so good. He is Colin Firth's closest danger. Firth, who really should have won last year for A Single Man, will get the award this year, for his heartwarming portrayal of the stammering King George VI in The King's Speech. 

MY PREDICTION: Colin Firth (The King's Speech)

ALSO LIKELY (BUT UNLIKELY): James Franco (127 Hours)


Best Supporting Actress

Amy Adams, The Fighter
Helena Bonham-Carter, The King's Speech
Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom

I loved Jacki Weaver's performance in Animal Kingdom despite her character being written extremely over-the-top, but she is the outsider here. The Fighter duo were both exceptional, with Melissa Leo receiving the most recognition to date. She looks to repeat her Golden Globe and SAG victories with another one here. Hailee Steinfeld (who technically is a lead in True Grit), at just fourteen years of age, and in her first film role, is astonishingly good in the Coen Bros Western. She is my pick. Helena-Bonham Carter, who won the BAFTA on the weekend, really didn't do much at all in The King's Speech. I personally find her inclusion here a mystery, but she remains lost in her own hype. Lesley Manville, for Another Year, certainly missed out. I think it will go to Leo, but watch out for Hailee Steinfeld in the future.

MY PREDICTION: Melissa Leo (The Fighter)

ALSO LIKELY: Helena Bonham-Carter (The King's Speech)

BEST PERFORMANCE THAT WON'T WIN: Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) 

Best Supporting Actor 

Christian Bale, The Fighter
John Hawkes, Winter's Bone
Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech       
Jeremy Renner, The Town
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids are All Right 

No Andrew Garfield for The Social Network! Certainly one of the biggest snubs of the year. The second best performance on the years best ensemble. Jeremy Renner was the best performance in the other-wise underwhelming The Town, but i still find it hard to leave out Garfield, who was the emotional centre of his film. This is one of the best categories though. John Hawkes was great as Uncle Teardrop in Winter's Bone. Really worked well alongside Jennifer Lawrence, and his character has a great developmental arc. Mark Ruffalo, one of my favorite actors, makes it all look easy in The Kids Are All Right. In the end you find it hard to blame such an awesome guy for all the trouble he and Julianne Moore get up to. Geoffrey Rush, who won the BAFTA for his performance in The King's Speech, works brilliantly alongside Colin Firth. As a support, I think he is the winner here. I have a few problems with Christian Bale. I found him to be a co-lead, as nearly the entire first half is about him. Also, before he goes to prison, I think his performance draws way too much attention. He is more subtle once he is released, which is where I think he wins this. Once again, his impressive physical transformation shows his commitment to the role, which was demanding and challenging. Bale will take it out, but this is a strong category. A win for Rush (if The King's Speech takes the sweep) won't surprise though.

MY PREDICTION: Christian Bale (The Fighter)

ALSO LIKELY: Geoffrey Rush (The King's Speech)

BEST PERFORMANCE THAT WON'T WIN: John Hawkes (Winter's Bone)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Review: Bronson (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2008)

Bronson, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (Valhalla Rising) in 2008, is loosely based on the true story of Michael Gordon Peterson, who later changed his name to Charlie Bronson to better promote his brief bare knuckle boxing career. Petersen rose to fame by becoming Britain's most notorious and dangerous prisoner; a man who openly declared to love prison life and spent 34 years of his life behind bars, most of which was restricted to solitary confinement. This is a biopic, but it feels totally unlike any other biopic I have ever watched. The film has an added entertainment value, a blurring between comedy and sick horror, as Peterson personally narrates the film and recounts significant events in his life, broken up by a bizarre performance in front of an auditorium full of people.

Despite being raised in a respectable British middle-class family, Peterson (portrayed in repulsive fashion by British actor Tom Hardy, likely only known from Inception), was an extremely volatile man by nature who deliberately provoked fights with other prisoners and guards, and held a self-appointed lack of respect for anyone and anything. His success in standing up to the prison authorities caused the other inmates to worship him as a hero. Unable to be controlled, he was thrown around the British prison system in the hope that each subsequent facility could find a means to control him and a method to make him conform. But what can you possibly do with a man who willingly thrives in the prison system and has such an immunity to pain and fear? He is eventually sent to a psychiatric ward, where he is administered strong sedatives to keep him under control whenever he disobeyed or sought violence. He is moved again after he attempts to strangle a fellow inmate.

He is finally released on parole, but not before starting a large-scale riot at a different high-security psychiatric hospital and being branded "Her Majesty's Most Expensive Prisoner." Peterson spends 69 days on parole, where he briefly makes a name for himself (as Charles Bronson, after the film star) in the world of bare-knuckle boxing, before he is arrested again for the theft of an expensive engagement ring. Back in prison, Bronson continues to behave in a nihilistic and Godless fashion, seeking to uproot the system and repeatedly finding himself the victim of more severe punishment. But the latter half also follows Bronson down a more sophisticated path, as he becomes interested in art, and finds a natural talent. But even this brief endeavor is destroyed by Bronson's destructive state, and the film ends informing us that the man, at the time, is still in prison, and has not been granted a release date.

I want to quickly look at how the film portrays the events for the audience. It is told from the perspective of Bronson, at an age he seems to adopt for the entirety of the film. He is in prison a long time, but his appearance changes very little. They are captured, almost like memories or reminisces, from a theater staged seemingly within Bronson's deranged mind. Key moments are projected onto a screen for this audience, and Bronson, the face-painted performer (his own projection as a famous entertainer) provides entertaining explanations. In this way, the violence, which is consistent throughout, and brutal, is less sadistic, and more like a performance. In many instances, he sits and waits in his cell (often naked) for the authorities to enter, where he proceeds to unleash his violence upon them. It is glorified, and often portrayed in slow-motion. We then later see him bloodied and cut, and held pitifully in restraints like an animal. He never shows any remorse, nor any emotion.

Bronson is such an interesting character, and Tom Hardy's performance here is absolutely incredible. He is likely only known for his small role in Rock N' Rolla, or more recently Inception (where he was very good), but this is a tour-de-force performance, and one that has been sadly overlooked. He had to undergo a massive physical transformation to pack on the muscle required to convincingly play the role, and the result is a very gutsy portrayal, and one that is truly memorable. Opposing his rare but present charming sensibilities, we see horrific bursts of aggressiveness, presented through swift shifts in facial expression. Hardy's face explores a plethora of emotions here. The man's anarchic, nihilistic and psychopathic intentions are explained, in often sickly comedic fashion, through Hardy's deranged and charismatic performance. Bronson explains that he always wanted to be famous, and is always seeking attention. You get the impression that his entire life is comprised of performance. In a pair of notable sequences we see Bronson hold his librarian hostage, and forces him to rub war-paint over his naked body in preparation to fight the approaching riot officers, and later, when he holds his art tutor hostage, he covers himself with black paint and forces the Wardent to play music for him, while he paints his constrained and hapless tutors face.

The sequences where Bronson is addressing the crowd in an assortment of painted face designs, is an extension of his will to 'perform' and it seems like these sequences are a very unique way to present this quite repellent tale. But it is a technique that keeps the film thoroughly entertaining throughout and relatively engaging. If we were to see Bronson's life chronologically presented, beginning with his childhood and culminating in his final prison days, it would have proven to be monotonous and dull. With this mode of narration, time seems nonexistent, and we are thrust into key moments, and receive entertaining and insightful commentary as we go. It's a really indescribable experience, but i thought it worked quite effectively. I haven't seen any of Nicolas Winding Refn's other films, and I have read mixed comments about Valhalla Rising, but Bronson, though extremely intense, is definitely worth checking out for Tom Hardy's sensational performance.

My Rating: 4 Stars