Tuesday, January 25, 2011

83rd Annual Academy Awards Nominations

The 83rd Annual Academy Awards nominations were announced this morning in Beverly Hills. In a time where it becomes more and more apparent that they were once the holy grail of all film awards, they seem more and more inconsequential, with their awarding of undeserving films and feeding into the hype frenzy. Yet for all their pomp and circumstance, this big night still retains some of the magic we felt as children, sprawled before the television screens of our parents' living rooms, engulfed in a celebration of cinema, dreaming those big, fat dreams.

This year offered a few delightful surprises in the ranks. Though the "Big Ten" Best Picture nominees were to be expected, with the well made costume drama The King's Speech and Fincher's quaint The Social Network vying for the top prize which rarely goes to the most deserving film. Nolan's Inception and Granik's Winter's Bone are the two "best" films in this category, perfect fusions of solitude and celluloid, with Black Swan, The Fighter, 127 Hours and True Grit not too far behind.

The four acting categories were all pretty much as expected. All of the performances were splendid this year, though I don't think Eisenberg(The Social Network)deserved to be in a category with those four wrenching performances. He was good, it was the best thing he'd ever done, which is far from great. Bardem, Bridges, Firth, and Franco were all sublime, and it looks to be a repeat of last year, with Bridges and Firth competing once more as front runners.

The surprises came tumbling out in the remaining three acting categories, everything to be expected but for Michelle Williams, exceptional in an otherwise standard "hip" indie film(Blue Valentine), John Hawkes(Winter's Bone) creepy and touching, Jeremy Renner(The Town) old school gutsy and Jacki Weaver(Animal Kingdom) brilliantly chilling.

I was excited to see two of my favorite directors, Darren Aronofsky and David O. Russell,get well earned first nods for their hard work and vision, alongside Fincher and Hooper, who both did very well while the surprise here was the Coens, who reconfigured the Western with marked bravado. I was disappointed to see Nolan snubbed, when he truly was the craftsman of the year with his incredible Inception.

Other standouts include Mike Leigh's original screenplay nod for the amazing Another Year, Exit Through the Gift Shop in Documentary Feature, The Illusionist in Animated Feature and all five of the Foreign Language Film Nominees, which are very solid this year. Hans Zimmer's score for Inception is a high point in his illustrious career.

Come the night of greatest show on earth, hopefully we'll see some good old fashioned black horse shockers and not the same tired obvious wins of the past decade or so, where the voters vote for what they think they should vote for and not who and what truly was the best!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Peter Weir: The Will to See It Through

From the uncompromising The Cars That Ate Paris to the conundrum that is The Way Back, Peter Weir has made his voice heard across the oceans, stimulated us in ways we'd never comprehended before. His great obsession: the preciousness of man, his humanity in the face of technology and nature.

Weir has made some of the most marvelous films of the past forty years; Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Last Wave, Witness, Fearless, The Truman Show and Master and Commander:The Far Side of the World spring to mind with the force of the singular vision behind them.

His new film is not to be missed. Mr. Weir has stated on the record that this is his final film. Only time will tell, but for now we can relish his newest creation.

He lays before us the twisted amalgam of Communism, wrecked lives and literal prisoners, beacons of light in a midnight Siberia. Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell, Ed Harris, Mark Strong and Saorsie Ronan are all incredible, perfectly cast as the denizens of this decrepit past, Soviet fringe dwellers who, as Strong's brief but memorable character puts it, have "the will to see it through".

The gritty squalor of their existence is juxtaposed with Weir's trademark old school grandiosity, a robustness reminiscent of Lean. Russell Boyd's slow darkness creeping around focal points of low hard light soothes the omnipresent theme of man's submission to the tyrrany of nature. As we move along with these characters we memorize the actions of the spirit it takes to survive our fellow men and the world. Religious iconography seeps into the frames as we think of both Solzhenitsyn, the triumph of the will and the immensity of human potential.

Later sequences that are hard to shake include the religiosity of sun rays severing the center of a decimated monastery and Ronan wearing a crown of twigs, filthy hands in unison carrying her as a Virgin Mary/Dorothy Gale surrogate.

Though it has it's prickly passages and evades the smooth sailing of Weir's last epic, The Way Back lingers with you as strongly as Sturgess' fevered hallucination of home, seen through to it's final conclusion.

Ivan Reitman: The Harder They Fall

Anyone used to the Ivan Reitman with a sweetly slapstick soul will wonder where he's gone to with the middling new film No Strings Attached. A forced, by the numbers script is shaped into a mediocre waste of celluloid. Natalie Portman, still beaming from her triumphant cinematic pirouette, floats through unsundered, as we wonder what she's doing in this January joke with the boring Ashton Kutcher. Some of the supporting cast (Greta Gerwig, Chris Bridges) bring much needed spunk which still cannot wash away the bitter taste of the typical. Reitman's last two films were both criminally underrated, the surreal comedies Evolution and My Super Ex-Girlfriend. No Strings will hopefully provide him quick cash to return to form.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Michel Gondry and Ron Howard: Too Beautiful for You

Two new films have opened around the country, greeted with a collective groan by elitists desensitized by awards season hype. Despite the groaning consensus, they are both pleasures to behold.

Michel Gondry's sixth feature film, The Green Hornet, is a deceptively mainstream reconfiguring of the culty 60s television series. While the hipsters sound the death rattle for Gondry's banner as their darling, anyone with a cinematic sixth sense can see this is where his art has been headed. It may not be his best film, but Gondry is such a sensitive filmmaker, it is easy to see this as a playful stepping stone on his filmic journey.

Breaking down superhero stereotypes with a combination of Rogen's simple script and Gondry's own "music video" effects, he seamlessly flows the slapsick action into a coherent narrative commentary on the inherent homoeroticism of boys and their toys.

The high gloss cinematography illuminates the joy guided along by songs of The White Stripes and Van Halen to ridiculous and raucous fight scenes, piecing the plot together in Gondryesque phantasmagoric collages of action and violence. The preposterousness of the entire enterprise reaches a crescendo of Hamlet inspired surrealism in a blacked out, green backlit fight sequence.

While most have turned their heads, Gondry has spun a blissfully benign studio confection worth looking into.

Ron Howard has been a hit and miss director, mostly denied the reputation he so richly deserves as a low key auteur. His films have admittedly been uneven, yet even his worst (The Grinch, The DaVinci Code) have been interesting. The Missing, Cinderella Man and Frost/Nixon have been some of the most fascinating American inquiries into genre in the past decade.

His new film, the "comedy" The Dilemma, has also been nationally disregarded as a miss, yet the film is so unusual it is definitely worthy of closer study.

Allan Loeb (Things We Lost in the Fire) has crafted comfortable, naturalistic characters and dialogue within a typical plot framework/device, and Howard gently shapes his comedy drama around it, swabbing our tired eyes with Salvatore Totino's low sheen, homey images of downtown Chicago.

Vince Vaughn and Kevin James craft two of their most sensitive performances around two buddies who become wrapped up in the moral vicissitudes of one another's lives, where Howard brings to mind the power of Eric Rohmer, the triumphs and lows of love.

The element of suspense, the moral question he raises and builds around Winona Ryder's dynamic, gutsy comeback performance, is odd and ballsy.The urgent dynamic we are drawn into in this peculiarly likable film is palpable and deserving of more attention.

So those who won't even give these two lovely new films a chance, won't even admit the quirks and pleasures gifted to ungrateful American audiences by these two modern masters, I say these January gems are too beautiful for you.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A New Decade : The Future of Film

January 12, 2011

Welcome to my little place where we can exult together in the power of the moving image. Cinema has always for me been the ultimate art form, a way we, as human beings, express our hopes, dreams and desires. No other medium, not even the written word, utilizes every outlet of mortal expression to illuminate our triumphs and our frailties.

In the past decade, we have seen vast changes in the medium, struggling even more now to reconcile it's beauty with it's moorings as a big business. CGI and 3-D have signaled a death knell to many, but like any facet of the art form, it all depends on how it is used.

Von Trier, Lynch, Polanski, Eastwood, Malick, Aronofsky, Penn, Van Sant and Mann were the champions of the past decade in film, moving us in masterly ways which showed us there was and always will be so much more to be done with the craft of cinema. It truly is a magic lantern, always shining to guide us back home. I am hopeful as always for the possibilities in this next decade in cinema.

Please join me for the journey!