Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Toronto International Film Festival '13 Diary

Here's the Toronto International Film Festival Diary I wrote for Detroit's Metro Times (It will be continually updated as more entries are completed):

Day 1: Heard It Through the Grapevine

Day 2: 13 Inches of Awesome

Day 3: Rock and Roll Can Save Your Life

Summer Writing: Game of Thrones & Cinetopia

Some writing I did over the summer for other sites:

First, I started a Game of Thrones Power Rankings column that I did a few test runs of for Metro Times, and I hope to continue it regularly for season 4.

Season 3, Episode 4: And Now His Watch Is Ended

Season 3, Episode 5: Kissed by Fire

Season 3, Episode 6: The Climb

And I also wrote a preview of Ann Arbor's Cinetopia International Film Festival for, which you can see here:

Five Things to See at Cinetopia This Weekend

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Roger and Me: A Personal Eulogy of Roger Ebert

Click HERE to read this post on Detroit's Metro Times. 

“Of all the arts, movies are the most powerful aid to empathy, and good ones make us into better people.”
     -Roger Ebert, 2002

I first read those words in early 2006, during a particularly cold winter and a particularly cold time in my life. I had just graduated from college after a long series of changes to “the plan,” and the path to a life that I was interested in living still seemed painfully foggy. I had also just been the unwilling participant in a particularly painful break-up, and I was suddenly facing the prospect of weekends with no girlfriend and no college parties to go to. Though I didn’t know it yet (because I hadn’t actually seen the film yet), I was just as directionless—and just as non-waspy—as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. All I wanted was an adult to do something other than ask me about my future, to say something other than “plastics.”

Roger Ebert filled that void. During one of many evenings spent aimlessly wandering around Borders (RIP), I stumbled on the first volume of Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” books, and I can honestly say it changed my life.

I had always been a bit of a cineaste. Seeing Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption in theaters as a 13-year old first opened the floodgates of my movie love, and before I knew it, I was probably the only 8th-grader in Muncie, Indiana checking out old Scorsese and Kubrick movies from the local Hollywood Video. This love of film continued through high school, when I was dazzled by late-90’s masterpieces like Being John Malkovich, Magnolia, American Beauty, and Three Kings. But college nights and weekends simply presented too many temptations and distractions, and I went through a period of several years where I just didn’t see that many films. I eventually finished college with an English degree and the idea that I would be a rock critic, but I quickly realized that I just wasn’t very good at writing about the mechanics of music.

Finding Roger Ebert’s “The Great Movies” on the shelf at Borders that cold January day was the moment of clarity that I needed. I couldn’t believe how many of these films I’d never heard of, and I couldn’t wait to start watching them. As luck would have it, TCM was playing one of the movies, The Third Man, that night, and I loved that film so much that I eventually named my blog after it. My journey had begun, with Roger Ebert as the best tour guide I could ever imagine.

One of Roger’s favorite quotes is from Groucho Marx, who once said “I would never want to be a part of any club that would have me as a member.” It’s a funny idea, but perhaps the reason Roger loved it so much is because it couldn’t have been farther from his ethos. Roger Ebert wanted everyone to be a part of his club. No one has ever made the discussion of art feel more inclusive, more accessible, and downright friendlier than he did. That he was able to do this without ever dumbing down himself or his subject matter is a truly remarkable achievement.

While Roger was an academic in the most flattering sense of the term (it’s difficult to fathom anyone understanding or studying film more than he did), he never came across that way in his writing. To Roger, the point was never to speak only to other cineastes, but rather to help everyone become cineastes.  Roger wanted the conversation to have the widest reaches possible, to touch everyone. As he says in the quote at the top of this piece (taken from the introduction to “The Great Movies”), the best movies can “make us into better people.” Roger truly believed that (as do I), and that’s why he wanted everyone to have the opportunity to be so affected.

Roger’s conversational tone has been a great influence to my own writing, and reading his work over the years has taught me an incalculable amount of lessons in how to convey ideas clearly, effectively, and simply (though I still have some work to do on that last point). I clearly remember my first few weeks and months pouring over “The Great Movies,” and eventually it’s sequels. The anecdote from Omar Sharif that begins his Lawrence of Arabia piece—about how unlikely it was that the film would even get financed—still informs many of my ideas about the business of Hollywood. When Roger spoke of The Shawshank Redemption absorbing you to the extent that you lose the realization you’re watching a movie, I knew just what he was talking about. When he discussed the concept of real truth versus perceived truth in his JFK piece, he helped me realize that the latter can be just as important, even more so, than the former.

And reading Roger’s work might have been the first time I realized that simply stating what you like wasn’t breaking the rules. It seems obvious now. After all, isn’t stating what you like what a critic is always doing, at least to some extent? But nobody did it better than Roger, and nobody did it more passionately. Roger’s favorite movie scene was in Casablanca, when the singing Nazis are suddenly drowned out by Victor Laszlo leading the singing of the French National Anthem, La Marseillaise. For someone who believed that good movies could make us better people, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Roger was a sucker for people overcoming the odds to do the right thing.

But I am too, and good movies have definitely made me a better person; hopefully they still are. My thoughts on murder are inseparable from those of William Muny in UnforgivenIt’s a hell of a thing killing a man. You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have. One of my favorite movies, Groundhog Day, is literally about learning how to become a better person. And The Third Man, the very first movie I ever watched on the recommendation of Roger Ebert, ends with its protagonist doing the right thing knowing it would cost him the girl, and yet he still goes after her at the end just to watch her walk away.

In recent years, I’ve found that I haven’t agreed with Roger’s taste as much as I used to. As his health continued to decline in the last few years, I felt that his taste was becoming a little less discerning, as though he was so thrilled to still be able to go to movies he just couldn’t bear to be as critical of them. But there’s an important lesson to be learned there, and it’s that no one has ever loved what he did more than Roger Ebert.

Here’s a painful truth to consider: Roger Ebert has probably seen more terrible movies than most of us have seen movies, period. When Michael Caine won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2000 for The Cider House Rules, he famously joked in his speech about how much crap he’s made. Well, Roger Ebert saw all of that crap. He saw all of everyone’s crap. He saw every latter-day Eddie Murphy movie AND every Katherine Heigl movie. He saw four Scary Movies, but the Movie Gods mercifully saved him from a fifth with just a few days to spare. And yet there was no one more excited for the next movie he’d see than Roger Ebert. Even after a long series of health setbacks robbed his ability to speak, Roger still looked forward to interacting with an audience.

I noticed this when I encountered Roger at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. He sat two rows in front of me for a surprisingly uncrowded interview with the heads of Sony Pictures Classics. Despite the fact that a handful of major directors (Jonathan Demme, Gus Van Sant, and Atom Egoyan off the top of my head) were in the room and chatting with people after the interview, I only wanted to meet Roger. I could tell he was having trouble moving, he seemed tired, and obviously he couldn’t speak, so I didn’t want to keep him. I didn’t bother him with talking about my writing, I didn’t give him a business card, and I didn’t even introduce myself. This wasn’t networking. It wasn’t about what Roger could do for me, but what he had already done for me. I simply told him that his writing has been very important to me, and I shook his hand.

But of course, that was an understatement. Roger Ebert has been so important to me that, like Bruce Springsteen, I no longer even like the informality of referring to them by their last names. I (falsely) feel like I know them too well for that. Just Roger will do nicely. And something Roger has always done is steadfastly called them “movies,” not “films.” Films sound stuffy, while movies sound enjoyable. Roger always thought movies were enjoyable. In my own writing, I’ve often struggled with this to the extent that sometimes in the same paragraph I switch back and forth between the two terms. Should they be films or movies? I’ve never really figured out an answer I’m satisfied with, but today at least, they’re movies.

When the news of Roger’s death hit Thursday afternoon, I immediately felt the need to honor him somehow in what I watched that night. Then I figured out what seemed like the perfect solution. Just a few days prior, I had checked out Gates of Heaven from the library, which was one of the 14 movies from Roger’s first volume of Great Movies that I hadn’t gotten around to seeing yet. Ostensibly it’s a documentary about Pet Cemeteries, but really it’s a film about how people deal with death, so it felt like the perfect movie to watch as I celebrated the life of Roger Ebert in my own little way.

To my surprise, I didn’t really like it. The pacing was a little too glacial, the action a little too sedate, the interviews a little too meandering. But like I always do with a movie that Roger recommends, I read his review afterwards. And even though Gates of Heaven had disappointed me, Roger’s essay about it did not. Through his words, I understood what he saw in it, why he found it so interesting, so revelatory about the human condition. Tastes will never overlap all of the time, and the goal of the critic isn’t to get people to like everything (you think) they ought to. But that doesn’t mean you can’t help them understand the things they don’t like, and maybe even appreciate them. I’ve never learned more from disagreeing with someone than I have with Roger. And on the night that Roger Ebert died, he was still teaching me.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

2013 Oscar Predictions!

Click HERE to read this post on Detroit's Metro Times Blog. 

Here we go folks, it’s Oscar time! There are 24 statues up for grabs, and since most of you probably only care about five of them, allow me to suggest how to place your bets for the other nineteen. As always, the goal is to go 20 for 24, and one of these years, it’s gonna happen. With every race, I’ve tried to include an alternate prediction, because there’s nothing quite like having my back-up logic to lean on when you disagree with my primary logic.

In years past, I’ve also included a “Who Got Screwed?” section for the major categories, but these nominations were so bizarre and so much has been written about what went wrong and why that I think it’s time to finally turn the focus on who was actually nominated.

Best Picture
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Les Miserables
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

What Should Win? People tend to delude themselves that Best Picture ought to go to the most important film of the year, but that rarely happens and it’s not even a fair request. It’s too difficult to accurately measure the importance of films which have mostly only been released a few months prior. Rather, it’s generally understood that the Best Picture Oscar isn’t a measure of importance, but some amalgamation of artistic achievement, technical achievement, and entertainment achievement (with a dash heaping of office politics thrown in). While history might prove Zero Dark Thirty to be the most important film of 2012, the dust (and the truth) needs some time to settle on that one. But Argo nails every box on the checklist, and does so without ever feeling like Oscar bait. While Lincoln drags at times, Silver Linings Playbook often feels too light-hearted, and Amour tries so damn hard not to entertain you, Argo just gets everything right.

What Will Win? I started saying by the end of October that Argo would win Best Picture, and in November I even wrote a long piece about why. I stuck with that prediction until the Oscar nominations came out and Ben Affleck was inexplicably left off of the Best Director’s ballot, seemingly crushing all hopes for a Best Picture win. (Only one time in the last 80 years has a movie won Best Picture without a Best Director nomination, Driving Miss Daisy in 1989.) But a funny thing happened on the way to the Kodak Theater: Ben Affleck’s Best Director snub has galvanized support/enthusiasm/sympathy for Argo like nothing anyone could have imagined. In the last two months, Argo has won the top prize from the Golden Globes, the Critic’s Choice Awards, the Writer’s Guild, the Director’s Guild, the Producer’s Guild, the Screen Actor’s Guild, and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA). For those keeping track at home, that’s everything. That’s every single Oscar precursor that “matters.” Six weeks after looking dead in the water, Argo now seems virtually unbeatable. But having said that, a Lincoln upset isn’t out of the question, and as far as underdogs go, Steven Spielberg is a pretty formidable one.

Best Director
Michael Haneke – Amour
Ang Lee – Life of Pi
David O. Russell – Silver Linings Playbook
Steven Spielberg – Lincoln
Benh Zeitlin – Beasts of the Southern Wild

Who Should Win? Ben Affleck. Oh, what’s that, he’s not nominated? Fine then, give it to Kathryn Bigelow. Wait, what? Ummm… Can I take a mulligan? Seriously though, without Affleck and Bigelow, I don’t think this race even has a “should win” anymore. While Spielberg is a perennially deserving master, I don’t find Lincoln to be among his best work. Life of Pi is a great achievement, but unfair as this may be, Ang Lee just doesn’t feel like a director that should have two Oscars (only four living directors do). David O. Russell conjures amazing performances from his actors, but Silver Linings Playbook isn’t a film that offered many technical challenges. Haneke is in the same boat as Russell, and Zeitlin will probably be wearing a tux this weekend for the first time since senior prom. So without a “right” answer, it depends what you specifically want to award. Spielberg’s career is most deserving of more recognition, Lee is probably most deserving for the film he’s actually nominated for, and Russell leads the “Guys who ought to win an Oscar at some point” sweepstakes. I’ll go with Ang Lee, because his film was the best, and careers aren’t supposed to matter (even though they absolutely do).

Who Will Win? This is the biggest WTF race the Oscars have seen in a long time, and because of that, it seems like the most obvious category for an upset. The safe bet is Steven Spielberg. Some prognosticators are going with Lee, but I don’t give him much chance for the following reason: If voters want to pick a guy who hasn’t won an Oscar, they can’t vote for Lee, and if voters don’t care about picking a guy who’s already won, they’ll probably vote for Spielberg. In other words, I feel like Lee will be the first guy that people decide not to vote for (well, after Zeitlin, who has completely redefined the concept of “happy just to be there”). But I think Russell and Haneke both have excellent chances. Actors represent the largest voting body, and they love Russell, while the always-geriatric academy might really respond to Amour. I still think this is Spielberg’s race to lose, but there’s significant upset potential, and never underestimate how much people don’t like voting for someone that’s already won twice. Unless it’s Daniel Day-Lewis.

Best Actor
Bradley Cooper – Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln
Hugh Jackman – Les Miserables
Joaquin Phoenix – The Master
Denzel Washington – Flight

Who Should Win? Okay, don’t hate me. I promise I have nothing bad to say about Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance, which really was wonderful. But I also never felt like I was seeing a performance I would always remember. In The Master, that’s exactly what I got with Joaquin Phoenix. I say this completely devoid of hyperbole: That was one of the ten best acting performances I have seen in my life. Short of Robert De Niro channeling Jake La Motta, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a performance so raw and primal. With Method Acting, the key is becoming the character. But with Phoenix’s performance in The Master, he made me feel like that character was locked up inside of him all along, waiting to be un-caged. If only he weren’t considered mildly crazy, he might be able to get a few votes.

Who Will Win? Back in September, I saw The Master with my cousin Jordon, which prompted a conversation between us about the very early stages of the Best Actor race. At the time I thought John Hawkes would win for The Sessions (and it’s a tragic oversight that he wasn’t nominated). Lincoln was still at least a month away from even its first critics screening, but Jordon was convinced that Daniel Day-Lewis would win, because he was just too good an actor not to win an Oscar for a role like that. And I went on a tirade telling Jordon that if there was one thing I could absolutely promise, it’s that Daniel Day-Lewis had no chance of winning another Best Actor Oscar, no matter how good Lincoln was. No one had ever won Best Actor three times, and no one ever would, I said. I gave him my guarantee. Well Jordon, five months later I’m finally ready to admit I was wrong. In a few days, Daniel Day-Lewis will become the first person to win a third Best Actor Oscar. You have my guarantee.

Best Actress
Jessica Chastain – Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva – Amour
Quvenzhane Wallis – Beasts of the Southern Wild
Naomi Watts – The Impossible

Who Should Win? This is the highest quality Best Actress race I can ever remember seeing, and Chastain, Lawrence, and Riva all could have won in most any other year. Those are three monumental performances that should all be remembered by history. For the last month I’ve been struggling with whom I think is more deserving between Lawrence and Chastain, never even considering that Amour would be a game-changer when I finally saw it last week. Emmanuelle Riva was a revelation. Spotlighted by the long unbroken takes that Michael Haneke likes to use, Riva makes you lose all realization not just that you’re watching an acting performance, but that you’re even watching a dramatic film. Amour feels like a documentary at times, and it’s because Riva’s portrayal feels so real.

Who Will Win? Like Best Director, this is a category that I really think could go any of three ways, with Lawrence, Chastain, and Riva all having a great chance. Lawrence won the SAG award and is probably the front-runner, but I just have a weird feeling that Emmanuelle Riva will win. There’s going to be an upset somewhere in the major categories, and I’m betting this is where it’s going to happen.

Best Supporting Actor
Alan Arkin – Argo
Robert De Niro – Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman – The Master
Tommy Lee Jones – Lincoln
Christoph Waltz – Django Unchained

Who Should Win? Five great films, five great actors, five Oscar winners, five wonderful performances. This is a tough category that doesn’t even seem to have a favorite. Figuring out who’s most deserving requires picking lots of nits, but here goes nothing. I’ll rule out Arkin and Waltz first because their performances seem largely to be the product of great and witty dialogue. And I just can’t totally get behind De Niro because his performance is a little too reminiscent of Meet the Parents. It’s a tough call for me between Hoffman and Jones, but while Hoffman often gets overshadowed in The Master by Joaquin Phoenix, I think Jones has the single best scene in Lincoln, a scene where even the great dialogue felt as though it could only be uttered by Tommy Lee Jones.

Who Will Win? This would be a lot easier to pick if Tommy Lee Jones hadn’t made that face at the Golden Globes. If he didn’t seem so unenthused by awards season he would probably be more of a front-runner. But despite winning the SAG award (where he no-showed), Oscar voters don’t like rewarding the indifferent, so this race is wide open. I don’t think Waltz will win because his international career is just two nascent to already be awarded two Oscars, and the blahness of De Niro’s last decade may turn some voters off. (Plus he already has two Oscars, though as discussed with Spielberg and Day-Lewis, that might not matter as much as it used to.) Arkin’s role probably doesn’t have enough weight behind it compared to Hoffman and Jones. As for Hoffman, I just don’t know if enough voters will like The Master to reward it. While Jones’ indifference to awards season will probably cost him votes, I don’t think it will cost him enough to lose. And Tommy Lee Jones has been one of Hollywood’s best supporting actors for 25 years, so winning this category twice seems well-deserved.

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams – The Master
Sally Field – Lincoln
Anne Hathaway – Les Miserables
Helen Hunt – The Sessions
Jacki Weaver – Silver Linings Playbook

Who Should Win? This is the category this year that I can’t seem to garner much enthusiasm for, partly because it seems like a foregone conclusion and partly because none of the performances really wowed me. Field was good, but her scenes were the weakest in Lincoln and I often couldn’t wait for them to end. Weaver gave the fourth-best performance in her own movie and the nomination seemed like a stretch. Helen Hunt’s performance was physically daring, but rewarding her for The Sessions seems wrong when John Hawkes clearly gave the film’s best performance and didn’t even get a nomination. And Amy Adams gave the most traumatizing hand job in cinematic history. I guess that leaves Anne Hathaway, who dies fifteen minutes into a nearly three-hour movie, but is still the most memorable part.

Who Will Win? Some people think Sally Field can upset here, but she’s only been nominated twice before and won both times. Winning three Oscars on three nominations just ain’t gonna happen. If anyone can beat Anne Hathaway, it’s probably Amy Adams, who feels due at this point (this is her fourth nomination). But her role just isn’t showy enough, while Hathaway has the benefit of being the only person on screen during the film’s best sequence. And she nails it.

Best Original Screenplay
Amour – Michael Haneke
Django Unchained – Quentin Tarantino
Flight – John Gatins
Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola
Zero Dark Thirty – Mark Boal

Prediction: While all of these screenplays have their attributes, this race has to be Boal all the way. His screenplay combines incredible research, snappy dialogue, three hours worth of high stakes and suspense, and an unforgettable main character. Despite the controversy surrounding the film and the veracity of the research, Mark Boal still won the Writer’s Guild award, and he should be recognized in a relatively weak year for this category. (Partially because the great Looper was snubbed of a nomination.) But Amour could be lurking for an upset if too many Academy members are turned off by Zero Dark Thirty.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Argo – Chris Terrio
Beasts of the Southern Wild – Lucy Alibar & Benh
Life of Pi – David Magee
Lincoln – Tony Kushner
Silver Linings Playbook – David O. Russell

Prediction: While Magee, Russell, and Alibar/Zeitlin all did fine jobs, this is a two-man race between Kushner and Terrio. Having never written an adapted screenplay myself, I can’t tell you with certainty which author faced a greater challenge. Terrio took a magazine article and fleshed it out into a two-hour movie, while Kushner started with a 944-page book and had to whittle it down to 150 minutes of screen time. Even though the challenges are wildly different—one focused on addition while the other on subtraction—both authors created wonderful work out of unenviable starting points. But while Tony Kushner’s Lincoln dialogue was nothing short of stunning, the screenplay’s structure was a little suspect at times. Chris Terrio’s Argo script was perfect in both respects. Terrio beat out Kushner at the WGA Awards, and I expect the same here.

Best Animated Film
Brave – Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
Frankenweenie – Tim Burton
ParaNorman – Chris Butler and Sam Fell
The Pirates! Band of Misfits – Peter Lord and Jeff
Wreck-It Ralph – Rich Moore

Prediction: Usually when Pixar is in this race, the other nominees can just stay home. But Brave is atypical of Pixar (it feels more like a Disney animated princess movie, and isn’t especially original), and Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph conjures all of the creativity and magic we’re used to seeing from Pixar. Telling the story of an arcade game villain who desperately wants to be seen as the good guy, Wreck-It Ralph is the best animated film since 2010’s Toy Story 3.

Best Documentary Film
5 Broken Cameras – Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi
The Gatekeepers – Dror Moreh
How to Survive a Plague – David France
The Invisible War – Kirby Dick
Searching For Sugarman – Malik Bendjelloul

Prediction: Unfortunately I’ve only seen Searching For Sugarman, but that appears to be the front-runner, and deservedly so. The story of Rodriguez, a failed Detroit singer-songwriter from the early 1970’s who, thirty years later, discovered he has millions of fans in South Africa, Searching For Sugarman is a wonderful feel-good story that truly is stranger than fiction. But don’t count out The Gatekeepers, a film about Israeli secret service agents that won rave reviews on the festival circuit and should be opening domestically soon.

Best Foreign Language Film
Amour (Austria) – Michael Haneke
Kon-Tiki (Norway) – Joachim Ronning and Espen
No (Chile) – Pablo Larrain
A Royal Affair (Denmark) – Nikolaj Arcel
War Witch (Canada) – Kim Nguyen

Prediction: This category often has wonky results because it isn’t voted on by the Academy at large. Rather, it’s voted on by a small sub set of the Academy who attends special screenings of the nominated films. Because the voting body is much smaller, it’s much more prone to strange results that feel out of line with popular opinion. It also tends to be an incredibly old voting body, which is why a fantastical film like Pan’s Labyrinth was upset in this race six years ago. But Amour is probably so well regarded that it’s upset-proof, and its subject matter shouldn’t have problems appealing to older voters. But even though I know it has no chance, I’ll be rooting for Kon-Tiki, which I saw in Toronto last fall and is absolutely wonderful.

Best Cinematography
Anna Karenina – Seamus McGarvey
Django Unchained – Robert Richardson
Life of Pi – Claudio Miranda
Lincoln – Janusz Kaminski
Skyfall – Roger Deakins

Prediction: Tarantino films tend not to win any technical categories, Lincoln was likely too dark and enclosed, and Anna Karenina might not be widely enough seen among the voters. Some people are predicting Life of Pi here, but I have a hard time imagining a movie that relied so heavily on CGI being awarded for photography. Without a nomination for The Master (which really did have the year's best cinematography), that leaves Skyfall, which is not only the most visually resplendent Bond film ever created (seriously, watch that Shanghai sequence again), it’s also the sentimental favorite to win. Cinematographer Roger Deakins has been nominated nine previous times and never won (and sometimes, as with Fargo and No Country for Old Men, he lost despite being the alleged front-runner). Who knows how many voters actually consider this stuff, but anyone that does will also be aware that Kaminski has already won twice and Richardson has won three times. Here’s hoping the tenth time will be the charm for Roger Deakins.

Best Costume Design
Anna Karenina
Les Miserables
Mirror Mirror
Snow White and the Huntsman

Prediction: It’s worth remembering in categories like this that even though the nominees are chosen solely by the costume designers and visual artists in the Academy, the winners are voted on by everyone. That means that most of the people voting won’t have seen Mirror Mirror or Snow White, so they’re out. And because most of the people voting do not, in fact, know a thing about costume design, the winner tends to just be the most opulent looking of the bunch. And that means that Anna Karenina should have the clear edge. I know I just said that a lot of voters might not have seen it, but as long as they at least caught the trailer, it should catch their vote.

Best Editing
Argo – William Goldenberg
Life of Pi – Tim Squyres
Lincoln – Michael Kahn
Silver Linings Playbook – Jay Cassidy and Crispin
Zero Dark Thirty – Dylan Tichenor and William

Prediction: Williams Goldenberg deserves some kind of Super Oscar for editing the two best films of the year, both of which are incredible achievements in pacing and suspense. Since that’s pretty unlikely (though not impossible; he could tie with himself!), I’ll just be happy if he wins. But for which film? Argo seems more likely, because Zero Dark Thirty is three hours long, and some people view that (unfairly, I might add) as weakness in editing.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Les Miserables

Prediction: I’m still trying to get over the fact that Cloud Atlas wasn’t nominated here, but whatever. As with Costume Design, it’s useful to remember that most of the people voting for this don’t know a thing about make-up, and therefore bigger equals better. That’s why I don’t think Les Miserables will win, because the actors mostly just look dirty. Two of the three Lord of the Rings films won this category, so The Hobbit is probably the front-runner. But I think the achievement of making Anthony Hopkins look like Hitchcock is the most impressive of the bunch, and Academy members love making nods to Hollywood with their votes.

Best Production Design
Anna Karenina
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Les Miserables
Life of Pi

Prediction: I’m ruling out Life of Pi for the same reason I ruled it out in cinematography—the CGI does too much of the work. And people probably disliked The Hobbit too much to vote for it. Anna Karenina, assuming enough people watched it, should have the edge for its intricate stage-like set maneuvering, easily the only most impressive part of the movie. But both Lincoln and Les Miserables have much more overall support, and either one could win here.

Best Visual Effects
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Life of Pi
Marvel’s The Avengers
Snow White and the Huntsman

Prediction: Say it with me kids: The whole Academy votes for this, and most of them don’t know a damn thing about visual effects. Good, now that we got that out of the way, we can scratch off every nominee that isn’t Life of Pi, because there’s no way anyone in the Academy over 55 (which is most of them) saw those other four movies.

Best Original Score
Anna Karenina – Dario Marianelli
Argo – Alexandre Desplat
Life of Pi – Mychael Danna
Lincoln – John Williams
Skyfall – Thomas Newman

Prediction: Voters are probably sick of Williams (he’s won five times), and Marianelli will likely fall prey to a film that’s just too low profile. Desplat (fifth nomination, no wins) and Newman (eleventh nomination, no wins) are both immensely talented, respected, and deserving, but I can’t help thinking Danna is the favorite. People often associate scores with how much a film emotionally resonates, and Life of Pi is probably the leader of the pack in that regard. I’d be thrilled if Desplat or Newman wins, but I don’t expect them to.

Best Original Song
“Before My Time” (Chasing Ice) – J. Ralph
“Everybody Needs a Best Friend” (Ted) – Walter
Murphy and Seth MacFarlane
“Pi’s Lullaby” (Life of Pi) – Mychael Danna and
Bombay Jayashri
“Skyfall” (Skyfall) – Adele and Paul Epworth
“Suddenly” (Les Miserables) – Claude-Michel
Schonberg, Herbert Kretzmer, and Alain Boublil

Prediction: Would you believe that a Bond movie has never won an Oscar for Best Original Song? Seems impossible, right? And of the 22 previous films, only three even received nominations in this category—“Live and Let Die” was first, followed by “Nobody Does It Better” and “For Your Eyes Only.” (How classics like “Goldfinger” and “You Only Live Twice” didn’t even get nominated should go a long way towards explaining how screwed up this category has always been.) Anyway, as much fun as it would be to see Seth MacFarlane win an Oscar while he’s hosting the show, it’s time for 007 to finally win this Oscar after fifty years in the film business. And Adele is the perfect winner, considering she’s the first British artist to record a Bond Theme since Duran Duran in 1985.

Best Sound Editing
Django Unchained
Life of Pi
Zero Dark Thirty

Prediction: What’s fun about the Sound categories is that no one knows a freaking thing about them, and they basically only exist to ruin your Oscar pool. I’m picking Skyfall here because everyone loves James Bond. Sadly, that’s as much logic as I can put into this one.

Best Sound Mixing
Les Miserables
Life of Pi

Prediction: Apparently people like Les Miserables for this category because the sound mixing involved combining the studio sung parts with the live acting sung parts. Sounds good to me!

Best Animated Short Film
Adam and Dog
Fresh Guacamole
Head Over Heels
Maggie Simpson in “The Longest Daycare”

Prediction: The short film categories are nice, because they’re voted on by a small group that attends the screenings, and because they’re almost all by first-time filmmakers the votes tend to be totally devoid of politics or agendas. Presumably, people vote purely on taste, because what else is there to go on? So let’s predict taste! I’m excited, I don’t think we’ve tried this yet. I’ve seen Adam and Dog on a few sets of predictions, but I found it boring. Fresh Guacamole was weird, brief, and slight, so no. The Simpsons are always fun, but they’re played out and this is a category about originality. Paperman was sweet, but not as sweet as Head over Heels, which was beautiful and incredibly creative.

Best Documentary Short Film
Kings Point
Mondays at Racine
Open Heart

Prediction: I could see this going any of three ways: Inocente is about a fifteen year-old homeless immigrant trying to become an artist, King’s Point is about a retirement community, and Mondays at Racine is about a salon that helps chemotherapy patients. All are worthy, but Mondays at Racine feels like the one with the broadest appeal.

Best Live Action Short Film
Buzkashi Boys
Death of a Shadow

Prediction: Henry and Buzkashi Boys were both on the overbearing and boring side (not good for a short film). Asad was quite good, but a little too underdeveloped and quaintly resolved. I was really impressed with the artistry and production design of Death of a Shadow, and I’ll bet we’ll hear from that filmmaker again. But I expect Curfew to win, and only partly because it has the best suicide bowling alley dance sequence of the year. I would absolutely go see a feature-length version of this film.

And that's it! I'll see you again next year when I guarantee that Daniel Day-Lewis will not win a fourth Oscar. 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

New in Theaters: Parker


Directed by Taylor Hackford

The Grade: F

I’ve always been a big proponent of the theory that faithful adaptation of source material isn’t necessary for a film to succeed on its own terms, but Parker might be the exception that proves the rule. The biggest reason Parker fails as a film is precisely because of how utterly it screws up the titular character.

Some background: Parker is the star character of two-dozen novels by Donald Westlake (usually written under the pen name of Richard stark), most of which were written in the 1960s and early 1970s. Although this is the first time the name Parker has ever been used in a film adaptation, the character has been featured in films several times before, most notably in 1967’s classic Point Blank (where he was called Walker) and its remake, 1999’s Payback (where Mel Gibson was named Porter).

Even though both of those films were adapted from the same novel, they still provide insight into what works for the character. To start with, he’s American, while Parker star Jason Statham is not only British, he clearly hasn’t yet graduated from the Daniel Day-Lewis School of Accent Mastery. Anyone that pays attention to pop culture is used to British actors taking over American roles (lead characters on Walking Dead and Homeland are currently being played by British actors, as well as America’s three most recognizable super-heroes—Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man), but at least these actors are playing American. Statham can’t hide his accent, so he plays Parker as a Brit in the film. For any unintentional comedy lovers, there’s an extended sequence where Parker is masquerading as a Texas oil man, and Statham’s accent is so laughably bad that it’s actually noticeable how many lines of his dialogue were cut just so people could avoid having to hear it.

The problems and inconsistencies don’t end there. In the novels, Parker is a principled, but relatively small stakes crook. He isn’t exactly Danny Ocean, fleecing a Vegas casino for a hundred million. Hell, the plot of the first Parker novel involves the main character taking on the mob for $70,000, an amount that isn’t considered worth risking your life for. Parker is meant to be gruff, not terribly good looking or charismatic, not exactly a master fighter, but relatively capable in a brawler sort of way. And he’s a classic noir character through and through.

By abandoning all of these characteristics in Parker, Jason Statham and the filmmakers haven’t merely created a poor adaptation; they’ve created a poor character that makes utterly no sense. He’s a British guy running petty crimes in America (why?), he’s good looking and charismatic enough to charm the pantsuit off of Jennifer Lopez, he’s built like a professional athlete and fights like an MMA champion… Exactly what kind of character is this and why/how is he interesting? Again, the problem isn’t simply that the film is an inaccurate adaptation, it’s that the specific inaccuracies create a terrible character.

And the worst is the translation of mood. Simply put, Parker doesn’t have one. Why would you take one of literature’s great noir characters and put him in Palm Beach, Florida, walking around in the sunshine, touring mansions wearing a cowboy hat? The funny thing here is that Parker was undoubtedly meant to be the start of a franchise, with Statham reprising the role in several spin-off movies. But you can’t build a franchise around a bad character.

And it’s unfortunate, because Parker (the literary version) is a great character and Jason Statham is one of Hollywood’s most reliable movie stars. They’re just a terrible match for one another. Statham’s particular strengths as a movie star work wonderfully in things like The Transporter series, where his charm and physicality can carry the show. But Parker just isn’t that kind of character, and by trying to meet in the middle, neither Parker nor Statham can channel their qualities.

If these problems of character were the only issues, Parker might still be enjoyable, but alas, it’s the tip of the iceberg. To be blunt, Parker is a movie that manages to fail in every way possible. It’s probably the most boring action movie I’ve ever seen, which is usually the one complaint that shouldn’t exist of an action movie. It’s paced terribly, to the extent that even the climax doesn’t create any excitement. The violence somehow manages to be simultaneously non-existent and overly brutal, which is actually kind of impressive, albeit in a pathetic sort of way. The main antagonists, Michael Chiklis and Wendell Pierce (stars of The Shield and The Wire, respectively, and good actors both), come off like they had an ongoing side bet to see who could deliver the worse performance. And on and on.

Director Taylor Hackford (Helen Mirren’s husband, and responsible for Ray, An Officer and a Gentleman, and The Devil’s Advocate, among others) usually tackles second-rate material, but manages to churn out compelling and entertaining films. Here, he for some reason takes third-rate material and uses it to create a fourth-rate movie. The only thing worth discussing when walking out of the theater is what the hell Hackford and Statham were thinking with Parker, and to hope they learned their lesson. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

New in Theaters: The Last Stand

The Last Stand

Directed by Jee-Woon Kim

The Grade: A-

When The Expendables came out in 2010, I wrote at the time how sad it was that something “that was meant to remind us of how great action movies were in the 1980’s instead just ends up reminding us how those days are long gone.” Imagine my surprise then a few days ago when I saw The Last Stand, and saw how it succeeded in every way that The Expendables (and its even more embarrassing sequel) failed. The Last Stand manages to be a great action movie because the only thing it’s trying to be is a great action movie, instead of a VH1-like pastiche of every nostalgic trope it thinks its audience is looking for.

The Last Stand stars Arnold Schwarzenegger (in his first lead role since 2003, before he became Governor of California) as the Sheriff of a small Arizona border town, Sommerton Junction. When an international drug kingpin escapes FBI custody and plans to use Sommerton to cross the border, it’s up to the Sheriff and his small band of deputies to stop him. Of course it is. What ensues is predictable yet wildly fun, and along the way is everything someone could reasonably want out of an old school action movie. The car chases are fast and intense, the set pieces are elaborate and creative, the shoot-outs are reminiscent of spaghetti westerns (but with much bigger guns), the testosterone is rampant and absurd, and the one-liners are corny and delicious. Stir two minutes, bake until golden brown.

But even amidst all of that dependable predictability, some things surprised me. For one, Arnold never took his shirt off. At first this might seem inconsequential, but as I’m seeing the ads for the upcoming Stallone vehicle Bullet to the Head all over TV, and his chiseled 66-year old shirtless physique prominently displayed, I realized a subtle difference between the two: For Sly, it’s all about still proving to himself that he’s got it; that he can still be Rocky, still be Rambo, still be the toughest guy in the room. And to convey that, he thinks it has to be a “Who has the biggest pecs?” contest. But to Arnold, it’s not about that anymore. He spent decades having the biggest pecs, but he spent the last eight years wearing a suit and tie every day. And you get the sense watching The Last Stand that Arnold isn’t here to prove he can still do it, he’s here because he missed it. I think Arnold just loves making action movies, he has fun with them, and this represents his first time experiencing that fun in a long while. It’s contagious on the screen.

The director, Jee-Woon Kim, is a veteran of South Korean horror films, but he proves here that he’s more than capable of tackling other genres. His sense of momentum is fantastic, and he brings a violent grittiness that feels fresh amidst all of the PG-13 franchise movies that action cinema has slowly become. The entertaining and game supporting cast features Forest Whitaker, Peter Stormare, Luis Guzman, and Johnny Knoxville, whose stunts are just insane enough that he probably did them himself. But even with talented people surrounding him, this is Arnold’s show all the way.

The Last Stand defiantly is what it is, but it’s damn good at it. Even people with the best taste sometimes get a craving for a giant plate of sloppy nachos, and this is the best order of nachos I’ve had in a damn long while. I struggle to imagine anyone wanting to see The Last Stand and being disappointed by it. How could you be? It delivers everything an action junkie could want. And even though Arnold has never been a good actor, this serves as a reminder that he’s still a great movie star. Sometimes that’s all you need.