Cinema News and Reviews for the Rest of Us

Archive for February, 2011

France goes for ‘The Social Network’

The Cesar Awards, France’s version of the Oscars, selected The Social Network as the Best Foreign Film, over contenders from everywhere outside France including England with The King’s Speech (only films from inside France can win Best Picture).  After picking up annual awards in France, Italy, Britain, and just about everywhere else, it seems that what some have limited as a uniquely modern American film full of unlikeable American kids is being seen the world over for the great work of art it is.  Unfortunately, the odds are high that tonight’s Academy Awards here in the states will not get it right.

Other notable winners include Roman Polanski as Best Director for The Ghost Writer, a Best Film pickup for the wonderful French picture Of Gods and Men, and an honorary award for Quentin Tarantino.

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‘The Great Gatsby’ will be in 3-D

In a development that sent pangs of dread through at least one cinephile, it’s been announced that Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming adaptation of The Great Gatsby will be rendered in 3-D.  What good this will serve the project is beyond my mental reach at this point, but even my cynicism wont allow to believe this was studio mandated.  I have to believe that Luhrmann himself made this call, which only feeds my fear that the man’s playful yet occasionally distracting stylistic aesthetics might not be best suited to adapting one of the most somber and lonely novels in American history.  He can be a wizard with a camera, but too often he just can’t help himself.

The presence of Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, though, keeps me optimistic.  There simply is no other A-Lister as consistent with his project choices, and he has shown a tendency toward singular filmmakers completely in charge of their material.  Hopefully he saw that in Luhrmann and in the script.  Otherwise, what many consider to be The Great American Novel might have its cinematic promise drowned in the visual quirks of the medium.


2011 Oscars: Will Win/Should Win

The 2011 Academy Awards are just four days away, so the time has come to put together my Will Win/Should Win piece for this year’s awards slate.  What looked to be a relatively easy ballot to predict has become considerably more muddled, and in the present state of the race, upsets are likely on Sunday night.  And with that in mind, I’ve tilted the “Will Wins” a little in favor of my heart…while trying to keep my brain working.  After all, the two really inhabit the same residence.

Best Picture:

127 Hours

Black Swan

The Fighter

Inception

The Kids Are All Right

The King’s Speech

The Social Network

Toy Story 3

True Grit

Winter’s Bone

Should Win:  The Social Network

Will Win: The King’s Speech

Best Director

Darren Aronofsky

Joel and Ethan Coen

David Fincher

Tom Hooper

David O. Russell

Should Win:  David Fincher

Will Win:  David Fincher

Best Actor

Javier Bardem (Biutiful)

Jeff Bridges (True Grit)

Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network)

Colin Firth (The King’s Speech)

James Franco (127 Hours)

Should Win: Jesse Eisenberg

Will Win: Colin Firth

Best Actress

Annette Benning (The Kids Are All Right)

Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole)

Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone)

Natalie Portman (Black Swan)

Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine)

Should Win:  Jennifer Lawrence

Will Win: Natalie Portman

Best Supporting Actor

Christian Bale (The Fighter)

John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone)

Jeremy Renner (The Town)

Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right)

Geoffrey Rush (The King’s Speech)

Should Win: Christian Bale

Will Win:  Christian Bale

Best Supporting Actress

Amy Adams (The Fighter)

Helena Bonham Carter (The King’s Speech)

Melissa Leo (The Fighter)

Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit)

Jackie Weaver (Animal Kingdom)

Should Win:  Hailee Steinfeld

Will Win:  Melissa Leo

Original Screenplay

Another Year

The Fighter

Inception

The Kids Are All Right

The King’s Speech

Should Win:  Inception

Will Win:  The King’s Speech

Best Adapted Screenplay

127 Hours

The Social Network

Toy Story 3

True Grit

Winter’s Bone

Should Win: The Social Network

Will Win:  The Social Network

Best Editing

127 Hours

Black Swan

The Fighter

The King’s Speech

The Social Network

Should Win:  Inception (NOT NOMINATED!)

Will Win:  The Social Network

Best Cinematography

Black Swan

Inception

The King’s Speech

The Social Network

True Grit

Should Win:  Inception/Social Network (Toss-UP)

Will Win:  True Grit

Best Original Score

127 Hours

How To Train Your Dragon

Inception

The King’s Speech

The Social Network

Should Win:  The Social Network

Will Win:  The Social Network (Trent Reznor gets an Oscar!!!)

 

 


Unsung Masterpeice: The New World

“Always the star was guiding us, leading, drawing me on to the fabled land.  There life shall begin.  A world we build to our hopes.   A land where one might wash his soul pure.  Rise to one’s true stature.  We shall make a new start.  A fresh beginning.  Here the blessings of the earth are bestowed upon all.  No need grow poor.  We shall build a true commonwealth, hard work and self reliance our virtue.”

John Smith’s words are delivered in voice-over early in the film’s run time, and they comprise an elemental doctrine of the American Creation Myth.  In Terrence Malick’s brilliant mosaic of the founding of what we call America, it is a dream hatched from hope and sincerity and drowned by human reality just as quickly as it is conceived, a scenario that has played out numerous times under different circumstances over the course of human history.  The director’s fourth feature observes the discovery and creation of new worlds, powerful in their beauty and possibility yet delicate and threatened by the collisions of people with people, people with nature, and individuals with themselves.  He chooses to look upon the Jamestown story without any explicit knowledge of what comes after, to furnish a poetic still frame of a hopeful and tragic moment in time, casting his lens on every instance of wonder, savagery, destruction, love, and beauty that he can in order to create one of the most stunning panoramas of humanity that cinema has seen.  It is focused and specific and at the same time staggering in its scope.  It is heartrendingly personal yet ultimately universal.

Never have the potentialities of human history been touched on so deftly and gracefully as they are here.  The film sees a flicker of light at the very center of the hourglass, a truly possible Eden existing at a precise moment of history.  We know ourselves that it was not to be, but the film doesn’t give into this inevitability right away.  Malick lets his camera drift over the possibility before he documents its demise, and as a result we get a powerful feeling that things did not have to go the way they did, that these chances at peace and a pure level of existence do come about in the onward progression of time.  We need only to let them happen.  As Malick shows us rivers and ancient trees weaving under and over the human beings trying to make their way in the world, we come to believe that it may be both more complex and more simple than that.  There are no pat answers to come, no concrete lesson on why this possible America was not allowed to happen.  But the important thing is that we get a sense of the possibility of this moment, in the hope that we may grab onto such potential more tightly when it next comes upon us.

If Malick’s upcoming Tree of Life does indeed plan on scouring the chaotic symbiosis of nature and grace, then he will be traveling in familiar territory.  As much as it seeks to understand mankind’s tendency to smother its Edens in their infancy, The New World uplifts with its exploration of just how stubborn love and grace prove to be in the face of Nature.  The cosmic insistence on collision may bring two communities together in a manner that inevitably begets conflict, but it also brings together John Smith and Pocahontas, two sensitive beings so complimentary that their love is almost lapsed into by way of natural occurrence.  Their mutual wonder in the face of each other is shown in such detail (childlike lessons in language and anatomy, watching lightning strikes from the riverbank together, lying just close enough to touch as they look into the same sky) that it does more to encapsulate the magnetic draw between all humankind than any number of socio-cultural academic lectures.  The very human urge toward discovery that brings these two together leads to the friction that will draw them apart, but that aspect of our nature goes hand in hand with our capacity to find beauty and salvation in other members of our species.  Much as they do in other Malick work like The Thin Red Line, the light and the dark, creation and destruction, all spring from the same well.  One needs the other in order to play its part.

Such a cinematic treatise could easily seem trite or New Age-y, but Malick’s visual and poetic precision builds such a distinct picture that his observations are hard-earned.  His name might not come up when thinking about great editing, but Malick is one of the medium’s premier frame cutters, always fascinated by how shots can be strung together in inventive ways in order to arrive at his own truth.  If two shots go together best chronologically, then so be it, but if he needs to splice together shots of lovers on the grass, an insect walking on a tree branch, and a bird diving into the water in order to get at that truth, then he will do that as well, and it never feels overwrought or gimmicky.  Famous for his use of voice-overs – that strange taboo among many film purists – Malick never shies away from having his characters vocalize exactly how they feel, letting them speak words that sometimes connect to frames many minutes later rather than those in the present.  He captures action and dramatic instance as vividly as anyone, but he spreads his pieces out on the table and arranges them so as to find the greatest degree of artistic honesty, not just what looks nice or what keeps momentum going.  Such a style may frustrate many casual film viewers, but no one can fault the man for insincerity.

Though the themes, when written, may seem so grand that they lose personal connection – the vision of the natural ideal too naïve and pastoral – The New World skirts the lazy white-man-fantasy that colors lesser works like Dances with Wolves, and it refuses to cast any group as angels or demons.  Though John Smith certainly observes the native tribe with an awed sense of the ideal, it is worth noting that the first evidence of their village that we come across is a series of severed heads posted on stakes and hanging from tree branches.  The natives do not attack the English for incursions into their land nor even for the killing of some of their people, but more because they represent a new and unpredictable competition, because they will not leave when they are told to.  The natives live in a more communal relationship with nature, but they are not immune to the same protective fears and insecurities that plague their new English neighbors.  And the English, though brutish and culturally insensitive, act more out of desperation and confusion than any particular malice or hostility. Both sides are the “other” from a certain point of view, thrown together by the migrations inherent to our species, and only Pocahontas possesses the nearly supernatural ability to work within this paradigm with a clairvoyance and genuine affection that never feels false or overly idealized.  She is that special wild card in the meeting of two worlds, the kind of person that can keep the embers of hope burning while the universe does its best to snuff out possibility.

Which brings us to a focus on that character, and the performance that helps ground her in the chaos while allowing her to drift through and above it with such honesty and grace.  You won’t see it referenced on many lists or even mentioned much just five years later, but the performance of Q’uorina Kilcher as Pocahontas is one of the finest of its generation.  It is a portrayal so naturalistic, so instinctive and without strain or conceit that is almost transcends the medium, becoming that rare combination of sharply defined character and profound cinematic thesis.  Kilcher’s every movement is the embodiment of, not something so trite as innocence or good-heartedness, though they are there, but of the natural state of humanity that gets pummeled out of most everyone before they reach maturity, if it ever exists in them at all.  It is a greater thing than innocence, because it carries with it a fully realized strength.  It doesn’t render her inhuman; she is fully capable of pain and of falling prey to ignorance.  But it allows her to fulfill the nearly impossible demands that Malick is placing on her in the context of his film.  She must personify his Edenic world, brief in its existence just as she was in hers, in all its beauty and complexity.  And she must do it without ever letting us forget that she is a real human being.  Once Smith has left her under false pretenses to take on new expeditions, the first thing she says to new suitor John Rolfe (Christian Bale) is a single sentence:

“Are you kind?”

After what has come before, it is entirely possible to collapse at the power of those words.  And they are very, elementally human.

Indeed, Pocahontas herself helps Malick to find a place for a clear-eyed emotional pragmatism within his work of art.  She is a creature of love, general love for people but also very specific romantic love for another.  When John Smith leaves her, she allows herself to drift into the embrace of Rolfe, an Englishman of pure intent who truly does love her for who she is.  She accompanies him to England, where she encounters her own new world, every bit as strange and wondrous as Virginia first appeared to those sailors as they drifted into the Chesapeake.  There John Smith returns to her, and because of our exposure to more traditional Hollywood romantic fare, we almost expect her to fall back into the arms of her original, “true” love.  But she does not.  She looks upon him, all the joy they shared welling up momentarily in her eyes, and then she moves on, choosing a more pragmatic love that cared for her when no one else would.  She does not strike back against Smith for his betrayal of her.  She simply lets him leave her world.  And in this moment, one of the most devastatingly beautiful stretches of cinema I can remember, we see how the scales tip in Malick’s eyes.  John Smith’s yearning for discovery is a powerful one.  It is the same human desire for wonder and expansion that drove the English to Virginia, that has driven countless people to new places for the entire span of human history.

But it pales in the face of this one young woman’s desire to love and to be loved by another.

“Did you find your Indies, John?” she asks him.

He looks down before he answers.  “I think I sailed right past them.”


The editors go for ‘Social Network’

The Association of Cinema Editors has bestowed their annual award for great achievement in editing to The Social Network‘s Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter, providing a nice bit of momentum for the film heading the Oscars but, just as importantly, putting another dent in the King’s Speech juggernaut.   This is first major guild win for The Social Network, and it has historically been a pretty good indicator for the Best Picture category, though no better than the other guild wins that King’s Speech racked up at the beginning of the month.

Though I still believe that Inception had the best editing of 2010, this award is well deserved for Social Network.  The film dashes forward at break-neck speed while never sacrificing clarity.  The crisp juxtaposition of the Phoenix Club’s party with the dorm room creation of FaceMash is in and of itself worthy of an editing award.  The work of Wall and Baxter really is remarkable all the way through.

Now, after Fincher’s upset at the BAFTAs and an absence of tech support for the Brit contender, it seems a swing may have occurred during the Academy voting period.  It’s probably not enough to nudge Social Network to the win, but it does make this a contest again, and it will be well worth tuning in Sunday night.   Recent developments suggest that voters may have been rethinking their choices over the last few weeks, and hopefully that means they’ve decided to vote the great film over the good one.  We can always hope.


All Over But The Shoutin’ Part Deux – The Great Disconnect

After The Social Network walked off with the Golden Globes, I wrote a piece more or less stating that that film would waltz all the way to the Oscars, that the race was essentially over.  My, how things can change.  Over the course of a few weeks, the momentum shifted completely to The King Speech.  The major Hollywood guilds all went for it.  The PGA, the DGA, the SAG, everyone except the WGA who made the inspired choice of awarding Christopher Nolan for his Inception script.   I should have seen this coming.  I fooled myself into thinking a film as daring and undeniably great as The Social Network could upend the traditional “Oscar Movie” for Best Picture.  A spat of recent winners (No Country For Old Men, The Departed, even The Hurt Locker) clouded my judgment and led me to think those 5,800 voting members might actually be voting for the great films these days and not just the films that made them the happiest.  Again, I like The King Speech.  It’s a nice, solid film with a couple fine performances.  But great it is not, and we saw some great films get released this year.  It’s a shame.  Not over yet, of course, but the guilds, with their mammoth voting populations and populist bent, are your biggest indicators.  As of right now, it would be a huge upset if The King’s Speech did not win the big one next Sunday night.

All of this amounts to what could very well be greatest disconnect between film critics and the film industry in the modern era.  The Social Network won all the critics awards.  And by all, I really do mean just about every single damn one of the them.  For instance, if it were to lose the Oscar to The King’s Speech, it would be first time a film has won the Los Angeles Film Critics, The Chicago Film Critics, The National Board of Review, and the New York Film Critics Circle and NOT won Best Picture at the Academy Awards…ever.  It has never happened before.    To which you might say, “who cares what critics think anyway?”  Alright, fine.  But critics, like in all areas of the arts, often hold the keys to the canon, for better or worse.  They dwell in the influential areas of journalism and academia and their opinions contribute greatly as to whether films survive or fade away.  And despite what you might think, they don’t contradict popular taste all that often.  The highest grossing films of the past decade, Titanic, The Dark Knight, and Avatar, all did extremely well with the critics.  This year’s most critically lauded film on Rotten Tomatoes, Toy Story 3, also made somewhere in the ballpark of $800 million.  Good films have a habit of being liked by critics and filmgoers alike.  The only thing sometimes separating them is breadth of distribution.

The critics community and audiences certainly have more in comment with each other than with the Academy.  Until the recent run of darker, more challenging winners, your typical Best Picture flick follows a predictable formula, which more or less goes as follows:

-It has to popular, but not too popular.  The Academy likes to see itself as a voice of the People, but not a voice of the Masses.  Best to make $100 million, but if you make over $200 million?  You’re likely out of luck, unless you’re period flick like Titanic and you make SO much money that you can’t possibly be denied.

-The film has to be good, but not too good.  It has to be very well executed but not too challenging in its thematics or its moral compass (case in point: traditional period hero flicks like Braveheart, Gladiator, Ben Hur, etc.)

-Related to this, it has be universally agreeable enough so as to not create serious audience divide, as the truly great films are likely to do.  It has to be a film not everyone loves but NO ONE can hate.  I really liked Slumdog Millionaire, but who could hate it?  It’s Charles Dickens with pretty Indian people.  Nobody I have ever talked to loved Shakespeare in Love, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone that hated it.  Great films are hated by quite a few people when they first come out, until times passes and you get responses like “I didn’t like it, but I can appreciate how good it is.”

-It has to make your average viewer cry at least once.  The Social Network isn’t likely to send you into tears.  Its grip is more nuanced and intellectually charged than that.  But The King’s Speech sure as hell will.

-They empty their treasures in the first viewing.  This is perhaps the most important, since Academy voters are busy people.  They mostly watch the one screener copy they get or head to the theater to see a film once.  Great films, like great novels, unveil their greatness over longer exposure and repeat viewings.  They are wonderful the first go around, but every watch peels back new layers that eventually, over time and contemplation, solidify its place as a great work of art.  A Best Picture winner cannot do this.  It has to overwhelm you emotionally the very first time you see it, and the odds are very, very good that repeat viewings will not add anything substantive to your understanding of it.  You may enjoy the film again and again, but it wont present deeper layers of itself.  It is what it is.  Not everyone is a nerd like me who will watch his Social Network and Inception blurays numerous times and see a beautifully different film with every new exposure.  I love Forrest Gump (1994 Best Pic winner), and will watch it every time I see it on TV.  But it’s the same film every time, without fail. Pulp Fiction, also released in 1994, shows something new every time.

These rules all apply to a King’s Speech over Social Network scenario.  One makes you feel good, gets you up and cheering and that is a wonderful, beautiful thing for a film to do.  But it doesn’t comprise a great work of art.  A great work of art has to go deeper.  It has to probe the depths of what makes us human, how we live, why we do the things that we do, what motivates us to claw our way through existence.  It has to force us to look our ourselves and our world and think about where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going.

The great film could still win out over the good one next Sunday night.  A couple recent developments (Fincher’s BAFTA win, Inception‘s WGA upset) suggest that voters might be rethinking their choice.  Because for better or for worse, the Oscars do matter.  They secure a film’s place in history at least to some extent, and in bestowing them the Academy shows a bit of itself in the run of history.  Will they get swept up in the happy movie that made them feel good right now, or will they recognize the achievement that will likely survive after most of them are dead?

Of course, my loyalties are right there on my sleeve, and my opinion is only my opinion.  I’ll have my Best Picture of 2010 no matter what statues come its way.

 


Cinematographers go for ‘Inception’

The American Society of Cinematographers have given their annual award to Wally Pfister for his stunning work in Inception.  The film has been getting a lot of awards support in the technical areas heading into the Oscars, and it feels unlikely that a King’s Speech surge will cascade into the tech categories, as is sometimes the case if a film builds up too much steam.  My money’s still on Roger Deakins to get his “at long last” Oscar for True Grit, but it’s wonderful to see Pfister get recognized by his fellow directors of photography.  His work in the film is not just stunning, its often wholly original and even revolutionary.  Dense, precise, beautiful, and sometimes staggering in its implied infinity, Inception‘s cinematography is a wondrous achievement that will be lauded for a long time to come.

A shout-out also goes out to The Pacific’s ASC win in the television section, bringing yet another award to HBO’s somewhat underappreciated masterpiece.  The award specifies the episode featuring the Battle of Okinawa, and I couldn’t think of a better episode to zero in on.  The episode’s photography is some of the best ever achieved in the medium of television, painting of nightmare vision of war as somewhere down around Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell.  It’s enthralling and haunting visual work (sample below)