Friday, October 28, 2011

Closing time.

As many of you may know by now, I've been officially invited to become a permanent fixture for It's a move I anticipated becoming a real possibility as Austin Film Festival went on, and now, it's really happening. I've been running this blog for nearly three years now, and It's been a great deal of fun, even when the going got tough. I'd be lying if I didn't say I wanted this, as it is a great opportunity to expand my readership and perhaps a crossroads of sorts to even bigger things. I don't know  what it all means for the future, but what I do know is I couldn't have run my little corner of the blogosphere without you guys, the readers. And I very much encourage you to follow me over to my new home, where I promise the updates won't be so few and far between sometimes! So thank you all for your support over the last few years. It's been a real pleasure, and I hope you continue to enjoy my own special brand of film writing for many more years to come!

Follow the new website at, and you can follow my specific reviews and articles at As always, you can find me at

Thank you and hope to hear from you all soon!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Review: Shame

Check out my review of Shame, which I believe to be an outright masterpiece, over at

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene

Check out my review of Martha Marcy May Marlene, which I call "impeccably crafted but emotionally chilly", only at!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Austin Film Festival 2011 Coverage!

Hey guys! It's that time of year again. For the time being, however, things will be a bit different. All my Austin Film fest coverage this year will be over at

I'll create a master list of all posts pertaining to the festival once it is over, but for now, here is the link to my post in which I preview the films I will be seeing, and look for my review of Martha Marcy May Marlene later this afternoon!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

"Not that I loved Caesar less, but I loved Rome more."

There are two key moments in George Clooney's latest as a director that I think many either will not notice or will ignore in favor of a quick dismissal of a film they believe to be attempting to pull back the curtain on political corruption as naiveté and old hat. It's in these two moments that Clooney plays his hand, almost too subtly, and reveals what the film is really about. It's not attempting to be revelatory about anything. Rather, it uses the harsh truths about politics as a springboard to explore more a interesting subject matter: corrosion. It is also, for my money, one of the most refined pieces of filmmaking this year.

On its surface, Clooney's film uses corruption as a framework for the narrative. We all know that politics are dirty business. Or at least, we used to be ignorant of it, until the last 20 or so years. Based on the play Farragut North, which was loosely inspired by the brief presidential campaign of Howard Dean, the film follows a second in command campaign manager (Gosling) for an idealistic presidential candidate (Clooney) in the last days of the democratic primaries. Through a chain of events, he becomes more and more entrenched in the dirty dealings of politics as the election is on the line.

But again, this is merely the narrative framing device. What Clooney is really interested in exploring here is not corruption, but rather, corrosion. He presents us with a character study of how the harsh realities of politics don't match up with good intentioned idealism, and how it eats away at us, turning those who were once passionate, loyal, and optimistic into bitter, cynical people. Like I said, there are two key moments towards the end that really reveal this, but I don't want to spoil anything here. But the way the film handles this idea was particularly fascinating to me, and again, I'm afraid many will miss it and instead assume the film is trying to treat corruption as something new. Rather, that sense of being beaten down by the harsh realities of corruption, and essentially having your optimism beaten out of you, is a complex, fascinating theme that really struck a chord with me. When do we throw our hands up and admit we can't do it the clean way? When do we accept that one person may not be able to change the world, because we can't get everyone to simply agree on things that seem like common logic, but are contended on principle, rather than it just being the right thing to do? It's a complicated issue, and Clooney handles it with grace and nuance by channeling these external and internal conflicts within his lead character.

In more technical terms, every actor here is firing on all cylinders. Gosling (who gave my favorite performance of the year so far in Drive) embodies a young idealistic man turned cynical by the overwhelming pressure around him perfectly, showing how just beaten down he feels at all the right moments.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is doing his usual thing here, and that shouldn't be taken at all as a criticism. The actor is so consummately great at what he does that it's easy to take him for granted. But his final scene with Gosling is what really sold me on the effortlessness he injects in every great turn. He's one of the greats, no question about it. Clooney himself really makes the absolute best of every scene he's in, bringing in shades of his performance in Michael Clayton (my favorite of his to this day) and something else, something entirely new. There's a fire in his eyes, and nothing will put it out. Evan Rachel Wood is a pure spitfire here, and Marisa Tomei left me wanting more and more of her craven vampire of a journalist.

 I sincerely hope The Ides of March isn't quickly dismissed as old hat naiveté, but if it is, I'm happy to be in the minority here. For my money, this is one of the absolute best films of the year. While not topping Clooney's masterpiece, Good Night and Good Luck, the film is tight, crisp as cold winter air, and immaculately executed.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Fantastic Fest 2011: Short Takes - Melancholia (B+) and A Boy and His Samurai (A-)

This may be the most mismatched double bill of all time, so it figures it was my final post for Fantastic Fest 2011. My first thought upon exiting Lars Von Trier's latest film, Melancholia, was that it was easily the most depressing and perhaps nihilistic film of the year. The first half of the film takes place during a wedding reception where Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexaner Skarsgard) are being thrown the most expensive, extravagant wedding party ever by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law (Keifer Sutherland). While the night begins happily, when Justine's divorced parents begin openly fighting during toasts, the night is effectively ruined, and Justine slips further and further into depression, testing everyone's patience and putting a strain on her new marriage. thigns continue to get worse, and the inevitable happens. Part 2, of course, deals with her debiliating depression (she can barely physically stand or eat) as seen through Claire's eyes, as well as the basic pitch of the story: a planet roughly ten times the size of earth, formerly hidden behind the sun, is on a collision course with our world. While Justine falls deeper into nihilistic depression, accepting a fate of certain doom, Claire becomes anxious and frightened.

I'll admit, I wasn't exactly sure how I felt about this one, and to some extent, I'm still not sure. I think in most ways, it's Lars Von Trier's most grounded, mature, moving film, and also his least flashy. It features some of the best performances of the year from Kirsten Dunst (who is a revelation here) and Charlotte Gainsbourg, and some truly stunning direction and cinematography, and a powerful, moving script. Unfortunately, the first half of the film is the strongest part, and features some of the most natural, nuanced, truthful work I've seen in a film all year. But the second half is quite bloated, and had it been trimmed down, would have been a stronger section. That said, the film ends on an incredibly haunting note and a final shot that will stick with me for a very, VERY long time. Lars Von Trier is doing some of his most truthful, mature work here, yet it's a flawed whole. I'm looking forward to revisiting it later this year to get a better grip on how I feel about it. For now, I like or love about 90% of the film and could do with 10% of fat that needed trimming.

On the other side of the spectrum is the wonderful Japanese film, A Boy and His Samurai, which may be the most optimistic, uncynical film I've seen in ages. On the surface, it's a remake of Kate and Leopold & The Iron Giant, only with a much more genuine, funny, & moving film underneath (said as someone who enjoys both of those films).

The film is essentially a romantic comedy about a time-lost samurai who is found by a boy and his single mother, and taken under their wing. While not a particularly deep film, it is hilarious and heartbreaking all at once. The relationship between the boy and the samurai is one of the most endearing, genuine friendships I've seen all year, and I have to assume you don't have a soul if you don't get choked up at some point near the end of the film. It's such a shame the film likely won't receive US distribution for some time, so I am very glad I was given the opportunity to see such a wonderful piece of cinema this year. If you ever get a chance to see it, please, please do. You will like it, I promise.

And with that, Fantastic Fest comes to a close for this year. It's been one hell of a great time, and I can't wait to come back next September, as always. Till then, look for more reviews of theatrical releases between now and late October when I head to Austin Film Festival. Sound off in the comments section, as always!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"Stay on the road. Keep clear of the moors."

One thing Fantastic Fest is known for is not only screening new films, but just films that the programmers and audience love, no matter how old they may be. This year in particular was special, as it marked the 30th anniversary of John Landis' landmark film, An American Werewolf in London. Mondo Tees, a local cinema art boutique partnered with the Alamo Drafthouse, wanted to do something special for the occasion, so founder Justin Ishamel contacted one of his star artists, Olly Moss, and asked him to create a brand new poster for the film. In addition, the screening was bookended by a Q&A session with none other than legendary makeup effects maestro, Rick Baker.

The film itself holds up as well as ever, being a definitive film of the 80s and also a classic of the genre. And it's heritage lives on. The film started the horror-comedy movement, and the ripples of that are still felt today in with films like Shaun of the Dead, Attack the Block, and others. The audience was treated to a gorgeous 35mm print of the film, and played like gangbusters for the crowd. To me, it remains Landis' most tightly directed and edited film, walking the tightrope of balancing the terror and comedy perfectly (I still laugh hysterically every time I see David run through the zoo naked, and get shivers down my spine during the werewolf attacks). But everyone knows the real star of the film is the groundbreaking makeup effects by Rick Baker, and the now iconic transformation scene.

If there were ever anyone with stories to tell, it's Rick Baker. He's worked with so many influential figures in the industry, won 7 Oscars and been nominated 12 times, and yet remains one of the most humble people you'll ever meet. He refuses to take credit for his work being the reason the Academy created the Best Makeup category, and still gets nervous every time he attends the Oscars.

During the Q&A, Baker talked extensively about what attracted him to the project, how he looks at the film and even cringes at how crude the work he did in it looks compared to the things he can do now, 30 years later. He told funny stories about how when he was doing the gory makeup for Griffin Dunne, Griffin got really depressed when looking at himself in the mirror, so Baker let him control the corpse puppet at the end of the film and speak the dialogue on set; how he once had to dress up his then two year old daughter as Eddie Munster because there weren't three girls in the Munster family to fit the Halloween theme. He later migrated over the to Mondo shop inside the Drafthouse, with a herd of fans following him like a shepherd leading sheep, where he proceeded to autograph the exclusive poster audience members were given and take photos. I only wish I had the chance to sit down with him, however briefly, and do a real one-on-one interview.

The screening was a great success, and one can only hope Fantastic Fest programmers do something like this every year. And now, for your viewing pleasure, a high-res picture of the poster, courtesy of Mondo Tees, Fantastic Fest, and artist Olly Moss.

Fantastic Fest 2011: Apocalypse, Animation, and Horror, oh my!

I haven't had a free moment to sit down and write up the more minor things I've seen and done here at Fantastic Fest, but I figured I better do so before the festival ends this weekend. It's been a busy, hot week here in Austin, and I'm loving it. I figured I would do a short piece on the more minor events and films that I've seen and done here. (I'll do a more in-depth review of We Need to Talk About Kevin, Melancholia, A Boy and His Samurai, and the American Werewolf in London screening later).

First off, my day on Saturday started with the Animated Shorts. It was a great way to start the morning off. None of them truly jumped out at me as truly phenomenal at first, and there were a few stinkers. But a few did stick with me. First, there's Path of Blood: Demon at the Crossroads of Destiny, a 3 minute short about a ronin who cuts down every enemy in his path mercilessly as he walks down the Path of Blood. Endearingly animated with colored construction paper, it's funny and charming. Also, there was a CGI short called The Lady Paranorma, about a woman who could hear the dead but not see them, so she felt very alone. Beautifully rendered and told like a Grimm's fairy tale, it was magical. In the humor department, there is a short called Lazarov, about Russian scientists trying to resurrect a dead rooster by Frankenstein means, only to have the rooster go nuts and attack the hapless assistant, before being killed once again. It's probably the funniest thing I've seen in a long time, and had the entire audience in stitches and sustained laughter long after the short had ended. Lastly, a claymation short called The Last Norwegian Troll played, and it is a real stunner. Beautifully animated, funny, sweet, and heart-warming, I seriously hope it is submitted for Oscar  consideration in the Best Animated Short Film category. A perfect little tale of feeling unwanted.

Afterwards, I also got to see the new blu-ray print of Lucio Fulci's camp cult classic; Zombie. The film is as hilariously trashy-B-movie as ever, and it was great seeing it with an audience. If you've never seen it, check it out. There is a scene where a zombie battles a shark underwater. What are you waiting for?

In addition I saw a new film called The Day, a post-apocalyptic action thriller (with Dominic Monaghan, Shannyn Sossamon, and Shawn Ashmore) that plays like every home invasion film ever, and is pretty by the numbers. It's not very good, but also not bad. Mostly serviceable. The actors all give strong efforts, and I admit I was engaged for a couple of hours. But it's not something I would have sought out outside of this festival. Admittedly, I was mostly taken with how much better the world it builds could be translated into a TV series, rather than a brief film. Hey, it can't be any worse than The Walking Dead right? Though I must say, the Q&A with the film's writer, producer, and Dominic Monaghan afterwards was far more entertaining than the film itself. At the end of the day, a harmless venture into a tried and true genre formula, that will inevitably just be a direct-to-video release relegated to Saturday afternoon cable.

Later on, I caught an in-fucking-tense Colombian horror film by the name of The Squad. Ultimately a flawed but effective work, the film builds an incredibly suffocating atmosphere of dread and tension from the start and only in the last 20 minutes did I exhale. A bit light on character development across the ensemble cast, but I was scared out of my wits for 2 hours, and the film appealed to my sensibilities of what truly frightens me: my own terrified imagination. Taking cues from horror classics like Alien and The Blair Witch Project, the film plays on the audience's fear of what's out there, and shows the characters slowly going insane with fear. Weak character development hurts it a bit, but it's incredibly well directed and acted, and managed to freak me out for the run time. The final shot still gives me chills.

I'll have a more detailed write-up later today on the 30th Anniversary screening of An American Werewolf in London that included a Q&A with legendary Makeup effects maestro Rick Baker and an exclusive poster from Mondo Tees, as well as my reviews for three more films by Saturday. For now, back into the fold!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Fantastic Fest: Snowtown (A-)

Once in a while a film you never saw coming sneaks up on you and blows you away. For me at Fantastic Fest, the first film to do so is Justin Kurzel's Snowtown, and Australian thriller based on the infamous John Bunting murders. An IFC acquisition out of Cannes, the film is a deeply disturbing, realistic, harrowing  of the worst serial killer in Australian history, and how he brainwashed a young 16 year old man into helping him. It is also an incredible directorial debut for Kurzel, who paints a grisly portrait of misguided anger and hatred turned to psychotic bigotry.

After being sexually assaulted by his mother's boyfriend, and later on, raped by his older brother, Jamie is a seriously damaged young man. Enter John Bunting, who cleverly inserts himself into the house as a charismatic father figure who promises to take care of him after learning of what has transpired. But of course, Bunting is not the caring man he appears to be. Beneath the surface is a homophobe who begins to slowly come unraveled, feeding fear and paranoia into Jamie and the neighborhood, convincing them that all homosexuals are child molesters (during the 90s, this was still a widespread misconception, as illustrated by the Boy Scouts of America controversy about whether or not homosexual adult leaders or boys would be allowed to be members). What follows are a series of grisly murders, on and off screen, of people Bunting suspected of being homosexuals, and even those known full well not to be.

The film is a bit on the slow side, with a few long takes of silent reaction shots that probably could have been cut down a bit, or at least inserted a few more cross-cutting edits. But the film builds such incredible tension with stunning direction and acting that I wouldn't have it any other way. Kurzel knows how to use  sound to his advantage, and the film is more stylishly directed that one would think. But the film really belongs to the two lead actors, Daniel Henshall (as John Bunting), and Lucas Pittaway (as Jamie Vlassakis). Daniel Henshall must have won a few poker championships in his life, because his face is the most unflinching thing on earth. One minute he goes from charismatic father figure to a man who very well may rip your throat out with his bare hands. The psychotic killer underneath the surface is only revealed when he wants it to be. Clearly a sociopath, he shows no feeling towards any killing. It becomes routine to him, and one gets the sense he might be getting some sick satisfaction out of it, if anything. But as the murders continue, he keeps killing people who are only suspected homosexuals, and even some known not to be. It's a riveting, lived-in portrayal of a killer slowly becoming more and more paranoid, and thus, more dangerous and unhinged.

On the other side, you have Lucas Pittaway, whose performance as Jamie is just as riveting and electric, but more clenched and emotionally open. He is a damaged young man, forever changed by what was done to him and what he went on to do. You see the rage and hatred boiling under the surface in him, but only when dealing with the two men who wronged him. Otherwise, you get the sense he's being slowly brainwashed, but fights constantly to retain his humanity.

Haunting, bleak, grisly, and deeply disturbing, I count Snowtown as one of the very best films of the year.  Controlled, nuanced direction and incredible acting make this one of the most fully realized directorial debuts in recent memory, and an altogether great piece of filmmaking. It's a hard film to watch, but what is there is a rewarding, harrowing experience.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Review: Contagion

Steven Soderbergh is an enigma of a director. One minute he's making an experimental arthouse film (The Girlfriend Experience) or a independent, controversial historical biopic (Che), the next he's making a three-quel to his commercial Ocean's franchise. He's a director I can be in awe of his sheer raw talent with one film, then totally appalled at when he makes a total trainwreck. His latest film, Contagion, is definitely a success, and finds him at the marriage between his two aesthetics. A viral outbreak thriller, the film is flawless on a technical level, showcasing Soderbergh's directorial prowess, while also being a film that can and will make some big bucks at the box office. Stuffed to the brim with a huge ensemble cast full of Oscar nominees and winners, the film is a tight as a drum thriller that never misses a beat, except maybe in its last moments.

The film follows a large cast of characters as they are faced with a viral epidemic of which there is no treatment, cure, or vaccine, and it is killing people and adapting to whatever cells the scientists attempt to put it into to create a vaccine. If the summer's surprise hit, Rise of the Planet of the Apes made the audience cheer for our own extinction, Contagion shows that imminent demise as a very real and very scary possibility. To echo Kris Tapley's thoughts over at, the film keeps the viewer at arm's length, and by design. Soderbergh isn't interested in making a film that tugs at the heartstrings, he's interested in freaking you out, and he and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns succeed in spades. You'll never look at public restrooms, transportation, restaurants, or travel the same way again.

Speaking of Scott Z. Burns, one of the film's better assets is how the script never once panders to the audience. It assumes they are smart enough to connect the dots, fill in the blanks, and keep up with all the smart talk. Aside from an ending (which I won't spoil here) that feels like a way too literal and hand-holding bit of visual exposition, especially compared to the smart script that comes before it, the film never once treats the audience like anything other than intelligent adults. It's an unusual take on the bio-thriller to not focus on one or two characters, but rather utilize an ensemble cast of great actors to gel together and create a real sense of global panic. The film is out to say something about the chaos caused by fear and misinformation, and it does so very well.

On a technical level, the film is refined, pristine, and elegant. Soderbergh's direction and cinematography is sharp, making excellent use of the depth of field the RED camera is capable of. The film pulses along with what I would consider the best film editing of the year, and a wonky electronic score by Cliff Martinez.

Contagion doesn't reinvent the viral outbreak genre, but it's a well-made, elegantly executed, thrilling entry, much like WB's heist hit last year, The Town. It's definitely not an awards play outside of some tech aspects,  but it's one of the best mainstream films you'll see this year.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

On the Oscar hopes of Drive and The Tree of Life

Normally I don't start doing this kind of thing until October, after the fall film festival dust has settled, but I've received a lot of questions about the two biggest films released so far this year regarding Oscars, I figured I'd address it. First off, I'm not sure either The Tree of Life or Drive will be major Oscar players, the latter even less so than the former. Here's why.

  The Tree of  Life is with Fox Searchlight, which means they fully intend on launching a full-blown awards campaign for the film. The studio came to the rescue of Terrence Malick's 5th feature when no other studio would touch it with a ten foot pole, and have taken great care of it since. It premiered at Cannes, and Searchlight has been good about keeping the film in theatres all summer long, despite being the antithesis of summer film fare. The question is, will it be a hit with the Academy? My instincts tell me no, since really, the only Malick film that has been a hit at Oscar was his magnum opus, The Thin Red Line, back in 1997. Nominated for 7 oscars, including Picture, Director, Screenplay, and a bevy of craft awards, it took home none, competing with much more mainstream heavy hitters Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare in Love. Days of Heaven won Best Cinematography, and was nominated for Costume Design, Sound, and Original Score. The New World was nominated for Best Cinematography, but losing to Memoirs of a Geisha.

The Tree of Life will have a tough time for a number of reasons. First, it's Malick's most artsy, experimental film. Second, it's extremely divisive. While the overall reaction within the film community has been positive, it's very much a love it or hate it film. Many academy members respect and admire Malick, which many others refuse to take his work seriously. No doubt the film will land a nomination for Best Cinematography, but what else? My instincts tell me visual effects legend Douglas Trumbull will be nominated for his first work in 30 years for the incredible creation sequence, as it will likely appeal to voters' admiration for using all practical effects, and next to no CGI (sans the dinosaurs). I know for a fact Fox Searchlight intends to campaign Brad Pitt heavily for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but the veteran actor has a much better shot with Moneyball, and while double nominees often don't go home empty handed (Jamie Foxx in 2007), I have a feeling the actor's branch will want to spread the love and will go for the more mainstream pick, despite which film he may or may not be better in. As far as Picture, Director, and Screenplay go, I'm betting on Picture, simply due to the passion votes it will receive. Detractors can put it at the bottom of their ballots as much as they want, but it's only the number one votes that matter, and Malick's film is sure to get plenty. I'd say Malick right now is sitting in 6th place for Best Director. Again, with more mainstream choices, the academy is likely to be satisfied with a couple of craft nominations and Best Picture. But if other, more likely candidates fall by the wayside, Malick could get in. Just don't expect him to show up at any event. Screenplay is a non-starter, since the film has so very little dialogue. But stranger things have happened, and writers might respect the way Malick writes through the silence. But that's a long shot.

Drive, likewise, doesn't feel at all like something in the Oscar wheelhouse. It's an ultra-violent, slow burner character study in neo-noir trappings. None of Michael Mann's films that inspired Refn's masterwork were ever nominated for any Oscars, and I don't imagine this will be a hit with them either. And that's really because it doesn't fit into any neat category that the AMPAS loves to marginalize films into. It's not a commercial action thriller, but it's also not a pure-arthouse granola piece either. I sense a vibe like I got with The American last year. Refn's film isn't an awards film, and it was never meant to be. It's too violent, too sparse, too restrained, too artsy, too subtle. The only player with any real hope is Albert Brooks, who I will in fact go on record to predict a Supporting Actor nomination for, since he's the most obvious choice, given the eccentric nature of the character. While I think Ryan Gosling yet again gives my favorite performance of the year (so far anyways), he's way too subtle and restrained to get attention. The Academy loves histrionics. Lately they've been getting it right, especially in the Supporting Actor category (since Javier Bardem 4 years ago), but Gosling has way better chances for his turn in The Ides of March. I could maybe see an Editing or Adapted Screenplay nomination happening, but that's it. The film just isn't in the Academy's wheelhouse, plain and simple.

I'd be surprised if either film gained any more traction than that, but stranger things have happened. For now, I'm going to stick with the safe bets until proven otherwise. Questions? Comments? Have at it in the comments section below.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Drive: To live and die in L.A.

Drive isn't a high octane action thriller, as its marketing team would have you believe. But I'm not here to talk about what it isn't, but rather, what it really is; a stylish, tension filled character study. It's a love letter to the 80s and 90s neon-noir films of Michael Mann, William Friedkin, and films like Bullit. It's an art-house take on a B-movie genre. Above all else, Drive is a near masterpiece of filmmaking.

The phrase I keep coming back to is "a breath of fresh air". The plot itself, which is nothing new, is adapted from the 2005 novel of the same name, and follows a stunt driver/car mechanic who moonlights as a getaway driver for heists in Los Angeles. A loner, he's a a mix of The Man with No Name (he literally is never given a name in the film, just referred to as "kid" or "driver") and Steve McQueen, with all of the badass that comes with that. As he explains to each of his contracts with recited precision, he gives the people he drives a five minute window to get in, get out, and get in the car. One second more, and you're on your own. He doesn't sit in on the job, he doesn't carry a gun, he drives. Nothing less, nothing more. And he's the best at what he does. He lives alone, but his life begins to intersect with his neighbor and her son as she has car trouble & needs his assistance. His mentor introduces him to local mob boss, who is investing in him for a race, and things kick off from there.

What follows is nothing particularly new, but you've never seen it executed with such finesse, style, and elegance since the 80s and 90s heyday that director Nicolas Winding Refn is so clearly in love with. The soundtrack, filled with electronic songs and a throbbing synth score by Cliff Martinez, really drive that feeling home. The film even has hot pink opening titles and credits! Refn is partying like it's 1989 and he's not ashamed. Clearly inspired by the likes of Thief, Heat, Bullit, and To Live and Die in L.A., the Refn films L.A. with an almost fetishistic love for the city. No director has ever equaled Michael Mann in the capturing the city, but Refn certainly comes close.

One might make the mistake of expecting tons of heists, car chases, and burly brawls from the film. But this is a character piece, first and foremost. And it takes an actor on the caliber of Ryan Gosling to pull it off. Having made the film his pet project, Gosling made sure Refn would be brought on as director, and had extensive discussions with him about the character, making conscientious choices, like limiting his spoken dialogue. What emerges is one of Gosling's most mature, nuanced performances to date, and certainly his most badass role yet. It's not his all time greatest performance, but there's a level of subtlety and restraint here that is most impressive, especially when his cool demeanor gives way to intense, terrifying bursts of violence. It's easily the most layered and fascinating character to grace the screen so far this year. He's a hard-boiled anti-hero, and Gosling is the perfect actor to breathe new life into the archetype and make him a real human being, instead of the caricature that kind of role has become.

The magic doesn't stop there. Drive features probably the best ensemble cast of the year so far. No one misses a beat, from Carey Mulligan's vulnerable Irene, to Byran Cranston's craggy old garage owner, to Ron Perlman's slimy gangster, to Oscar Isaac's convict looking for a second chance. Even Christina Hendricks makes use of her limited screentime. In a bit of meta casting, Refn and Cranston seem to be portraying his character as a future vision of his character in Breaking Bad, perhaps after having lost everything and being forced to start over from scratch as a car mechanic. But it's Albert Brooks who completely steals the show as mob boss Bernie Rose.

Playing completely against type in a performance that should net the veteran actor and Oscar nomination for Supporting Actor (think William Hurt in A History of Violence, but more screentime), Brooks injects a smarmy sense of "Great, ANOTHER mess I have to clean up." into the role, and is a riot throughout. If there were ever a foil for Gosling's cool, hard boiled anti-hero, Brooks plays it deliciously as he constantly makes wisecracks and snarky remarks.

The true triumph of the film, however, is that as perfect the cast is, no one is ever trying to make the film about them. This is a brilliant directorial achievement, and Refn has certainly won a skeptic like me over. Having never seen his Pusher Trilogy, I had to go by Bronson (which I'm a big fan of) and Valhalla Rising (not so much) as a frame of reference. But what Refn does here is in a class of its own. The way he films the proceedings with long takes, never once giving in to the temptation of modern MTV Michael Bay editing with its 8 million cuts, is nothing short of genius. Especially when the audience is treated to short, visceral, intense bursts of disturbing violence. In a perfectly blocked and executed sequence, soon to be known as "the elevator scene", Refn shows the driver's two worlds smashing together like two cars colliding as he gruesomely dispatches a hired gun, and how Irene is both horrified and aroused while witnessing it.

I mentioned in the opening of my review that Drive felt like a breath of fresh air, and I stand by that. That's because the film feels so adult, so mature, so subversive. This is a film for grown-ups, not for teens, not for kids, but adults. And it's so refreshing to see a film that not only refuses to pander to the audience, but constantly subverts their expectations. The plot itself may appear to be nothing new at first, but you've never seen it done like this. A staggering achievement on all fronts, Drive is a brilliantly directed and acted film. See it if you like the films it is influenced by. See it if you like hard-boiled neo-noir. See if you like great films.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger

In an age of so many comic book films being churned out like clockwork, it’s hard not to feel like they all start looking and feeling the same, especially with Marvel Studios’ grand ambitions for and Avengers crossover film, which forced all their in-house films that came before it to be tied into it in the big mashup. 
Enter Joe Johnston and his team of craftspeople. Captain America: The First Avenger is a serious breath of fresh air. Yes, it’s still a comic book film. But by keeping to it’s WWII period setting and injecting a completely different sensibility into the characters, story, and humor, it does what only Iron Man did before it: it focuses on character and story over Avengers-tie ins and really soars because of it. And it really is something special.
I’ll be honest and say that in a lot of ways, I’m almost more in love with the look and feel of this film than the film itself. Master craftsman Rick Heinrich’s production design is nothing short of stunning. Just as well, Anna B. Shephard’s costumes and Shelly Johnson’s amber-drenched cinematography palette are gorgeous and capture the period perfectly. Major kudos to the makeup artistis for their work on Red Skull. Alan Silvestri’s score knocks it out of the park, and Alan Menken’s “Star Spangled Man” American Propaganda song is wonderful. I also really appreciated just how much practical visual effects work was done, as opposed to being a bland CGI-fest like Green Lantern or even Thor (though it works more in the latter, as that movie was actually a lot of fun). 
Still, all of these fantastic below the line elements would just sit there on screen without good story and characters. Luckily, story and characters are something Johnston’s film delivers in spades. The actors all really stepped up their games here, creating fully realized, lived in portrayals that really sell the genuine nature of the characters. Chris Evans nails humility, which is no small feat. He was born to play Steve Rogers.
His female counterpart, Peggy Carter, played to pitch perfection by the beautiful and talented Hayley Atwell, is so crucial to making the film work that it’s hard to imagine it without her. She represents the strongest female character in a comic book film in years. She can go toe to toe with the boys in the action as a soldier and remains distinctly feminine all at once. Their love story is probably the best ever put in a recent superhero film. Only Superman/Lois Lane in the first two Superman films really compares. It works largely due to the script, but much of the responsibility rests on Evans’ and Atwell’s natural chemistry and authentic courtship. By the time they finally kiss, you can’t help but have a big smile on your face and cheer for them. 
Hugo Weaving is deliciously menacing as Red Skull. Likewise, Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones (the latter in particular) are clearly having a blast and steal the show in every scene they are in. If only every cast in a film like this were as game and having as much fun with the material as these actors. Casting is everything. 
What really makes Captain America work is simply the fact that it tells a good story and develops its characters. In a lot of ways, it is the antithesis of Iron Man, but but succeed by focusing on the titular character, rather than trying to force them to be tied into The Avengers. Both are superlative within the genre, but have complete opposite sensibilities. While Iron Man features a good deal of political commentary, irony, and satirical humor, Captain America thrives on its old school adventure yarn trappings. It’s a bit of Indiana Jones crossed with The Rocketeer. By embracing that style, it really captures the Americana essence of the character and mythos. It’s just a shame we won’t get to see more Captain America films set in WWII. For now, this one really, truly soars. If this sounds like an outright rave, that’s probably on purpose. Aside from a few moments of iffy CGI and one too many action montages, there’s nothing to complain about. The film is really something else. 

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick's latest film posed something of a conundrum for me. Where to begin on a film like this? I decided to see the film twice, each viewing a week apart, before even attempting to dig into it with my own hack analysis. There's so much to digest, discover, and understand.

Yet there is something to be said about the cinema of Terrence Malick that keeps it from being seen in a completely objective light. A known recluse, Malick is, in many ways, the J.D. Salinger of film. Having made two of the definitive films of the 1970s (Badlands and Days of Heaven), he suddenly vanished for 20 years before releasing this third film, The Thin Red Line, in 1998. Seven years later, his fourth film, The New World, was released, and now 6 years removed from that film we arrive at his fifth film in nearly 40 years, The Tree of Life.

That air of mystique that surrounds Malick in some ways blesses his films with a virginal dressing, and has gained him something of a cult following. When the filmmaker is nowhere to be found to explain the films to anyone, it's up to us, the viewer, to interpret what we see for ourselves. Yet at the same time it casts the films in an inorganic view of expectation. Needless to say, that's not an ideal way to view or review any film. In any case, I'm here to do my best to just talk about the film itself. In a work this dense, that's about all you can do.

As I said before, I decided to hold off on my review of the film not only until I'd seen the film a second time, but just over a week later. I'm not sure seeing the film two days in a row would've been ideal. This is a film that was worth letting settle in my mind for some time before diving back in. Giving it that room to breathe proved worthwhile, and many of my own conflicted feelings were smoothed out on a second look yesterday. While I find that the film is completely un-spoilable in any way, due to the lack of a traditional narrative, I will get into specifics here, so those who want stay pure are hereby forewarned to proceed with caution.

The film opens with a quote from the Book of Job, as God demeaningly responds to Job's questioning of his trials, saying "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth... while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" This is followed by a moment of narration on the film's thesis that there are two ways through life, the way of nature, and the way of grace, and that you have to choose which to follow. We then are brought to Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain), who is delivered a telegram that, as we gather, contains terrible news. She informs Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt), via telephone, while he is away on a business trip in an airfield. We come to understand that this terrible news is the death of their son, the middle child of three, at the age of 19.

The visceral, reactionary performances out of both actors as they hear this news is gut-wrenching. We follow them for a short time as they wander their yard and neighborhood, consumed with grief, consoled by friends and neighbors briefly. Mr. O'Brien relates a story about how he hit his son once when he turned the pages of his piano sheet music incorrectly. The pain and regret in his face is almost too much to bear.

Flash forward some 40-odd years and to the eldest son, Jack (Sean Penn). Jack wanders through the day, disillusioned and day-dreaming. It's the anniversary of his brother's death, and 40 years later, it still haunts him. An architect in the modern world, he is surrounded by cathedrals of stone and glass. "The world's gone to the dogs" as he says. After a brief stay with Jack, we flash back; ALL the way back, to the much-discussed creation of the universe sequence.

A cosmic ballet of epic proportions, this sequence is one of the most extraordinary things I've seen in a film. And with it comes the most important aspect of Malick's film. It makes us feel small. As if to answer the question from the Book of Job at the beginning of the film, we see just how insignificant this death in the O'Brien family really is compared to the formation of the universe and life itself.

This beautifully choreographed sequence will be completely lost and wasted on many. If you're not willing to engage the film's visual metaphysical storytelling by now, this is where it will truly lose you. However, those who are willing to look at it with open minds to discover what Malick is going for here will find it rewarding, and at its most basic level, visually stunning.

Which brings us to the now legendary dinosaur scene(s). A small herbivorous dinosaur is seen wounded or incapacitated in some way, when a larger predatory beast approaches it. Instead of turning the smaller one into its lunch, it merely observes the little one, pressing its foot on the creature's head a couple of times before running off, leaving the injured dinosaur to live on.

If anything, the dinosaur is an illustration of what could be the first act of humanity, compassion, or mercy. Contrasted by the shot of the Plesiosaur mending the wounds implied to have been inflicted by the school of sharks, we see that not all of nature is fierce will and self-serving. As life evolves, so does it’s capacity for humanity, though the urges towards selfish acts of nature, as Mr. O’Brien points out when lecturing the boys on how those who get ahead in life are the ones who cut down anyone in their path.

But we see visually that he cannot bring himself to full ascribe to his own philosophy, that even within a man who preaches this life driven by fierce will, he himself is inclined towards goodness and grace, being a good person (as illustrated by his devotion to his Catholic faith and affection for his family, and other people). So one could infer that this struggle within of nature and grace is not exclusive to Jack, but exists in his father as well. But that’s why his father preaches one way, because he feels frustrated with the fact that he can’t be a good person and be successful at the same time.

At the sequence's conclusion, we are treated to a beautiful shot of an asteroid tumbling towards earth, causing the mass extinction of the dinosaurs. Instead of filming the event in a cataclysmic way, we see the impact from a distance in space, making it all look rather small an insignificant again. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. If the mass extinction of life on a planet is this unimportant in the bigger picture, what then is the significance of one son's death? We soon find out. 

After all this existential weirdness we finally focus on the O'Brien family as they raise their children in a small neighborhood in Waco, TX. It is in these two hours that Malick delivers some of his most truthful and beautiful work as a filmmaker. I could watch this story on loop. The emotional and psychological journey Jack takes through his childhood is so deeply affecting and personal that one can't help but be struck by how semi-autobiographical this film must have been for Malick. After all, Waco was where he was born and raised, and like Jack, he had a younger brother who played guitar but committed suicide at a young age. This section of the film is unquestionably when the film is at its strongest, and it resonates with me deeply. 
Throughout this passage, Jack goes through his coming of age as he struggles with the conflict of nature and grace that dwells within him, and exists in the dichotomy of his parents. Which, I think, is the point of the film. It's not necessarily about nature vs. grace, so much as how the two coexist within each of us. As I pointed out before, it clearly isn't restricted to Jack, as his father struggles with the same conflict in many ways. We see Jack struggle with how much he resents his father for the harsh way he raises him, yet we come to learn that it's not necessarily that he hates him because of who he is, but because he finds himself later on becoming more and more like his father. This story would be wholly ineffective were it not for two miracle performances from Hunter McCracken and Brad Pitt. Jessica Chastain is angelic and pure as the mother, her ethereal beauty shining through in every frame. You get the sense Malick loves photographic her because, quite frankly, her face is one of the seven wonders of the world. She just looks like this angel descended from heaven and put on earth to teach her sons the way of grace. She is largely a symbolic character though. The meat of the story is within the conflict between McCracken and Pitt. 

There is a fire in the eyes of this young actor, one that is impossible to replicate. His natural portrayal of a conflicted boy who struggles with his own inner workings is nothing short of perfect. And the way Malick captures this mostly through physical and observational direction is stunning. Less is more has never seemed so perfect a description.  He has his first first-hand experience with death as a boy drowns in a pool (Barton Springs in Zilker Park, Austin, TX, for the observant among us). He struggles with his own sexual awakening. When his father leaves for a long business trip, he begins to emulate the harsh way of nature more than he'd like to, tormenting the younger, docile brother he once protected, and ignoring and verbally abusing his mother. The conflict rages within him and he doesn't understand it, questioning his faith in a God who would allow for such turmoil, internal and external. McCracken captures it effortlessly and without missing a beat.

Then there's Brad Pitt, who channels his primal nature into a powerhouse supporting turn as the family patriarch. Taking cues from his finest performance to date in The Assassination of Jesse James, he emerges as the embodiment of the nature and fierce will yet preaches to his sons, yet is conflicted within. In many scenes, he's shown as a very stern, strict father to his sons, yet there are moments when a gentler, compassionate side shines through. He's frustrated with his life. He has the potential to be successful, but isn't willing to betray his own goodness to get there. And because he struggles with it constantly, he never becomes a rich or powerful man. Instead, he has to settle for being the head of this household, and to raise his family the only way he knows how. He loves his sons so much but doesn't know how to really show it outside of physical affection though hugs and kisses on the cheek. He's terrified that his sons will repeat his mistakes and not get ahead in life, so he's hard on them and pushes them to be hardened. But because he spends so much time being frustrated with how he sees his own life as having stalled out, he misses the beauty of just living. In his final scene, Pitt channels all of Mr. O'Brien's pent up emotions and lets them flow out, resulting in a cathartic moment between Jack and his father that left me in tears. It is here the film reaches an emotional climax like no other, when much of the scars of the story are reconciled, but not forgotten. It's really something to behold. 

If I'm being truthful, the film is weakest in its final moments. Admittedly, it must be truly difficult to wrap  up such ambition, the final scene has us return to the adult Jack, who wanders through a not entirely compelling vision of the afterlife and his own visualization of his coming to terms with his faith and his brother's death. If anything, while it is an immaculately crafted and beautifully shot scene, it is a tad too literal compared to everything that has come before it. Most of my conflicted feelings about the coda were smoothed out on a second viewing, but it still feels like a strange bookend to place at the end of the larger narrative. Though I must admit that on a revisit, it doesn't seem as entirely unnecessary as it once did, and I wouldn't remove the scene at all, perhaps just shorten it and leave it a bit less obvious. I'm curious as to how it will play on further viewings, and how it will ultimately work with the larger whole. Frankly, I welcome the opportunity to look further into it. The film ends on a shot of a bridge over water, then returning to the mysterious flame we see several times throughout the film. Why? What does the bridge represent? The connection between nature and grace, rather than conflict? One of the pleasures of the film is these very questions that we ask ourselves about Malick's ideas. 

Truthfully, I haven't had a film resonate with me this profoundly since I saw There Will Be Blood four years ago. The Tree of Life is such a dense, though-provoking, imperfect, beautiful, personal, rich, rewarding, transcendent, real experience. There's really never been a film like it before and there likely won't ever be. So much of this film cut deep into my very being. There are passages in the story of the O'Brien family that were like watching my own childhood come to life through the eyes of Terrence Malick. Rarely do I ever want to see a film again as soon as I leave the theatre, but that's exactly how I felt both times I've seen this film. Paradoxically Malick's most grandiosely conceived yet most intimate study, it is the kind of film worth discovering over and over again. Sam Shepard once said that "Many people have tried for years to intellectualize Terry's films. But I think to do so is to miss the point. His films aren't intellectual, they're visceral. It's not about what they make you think, but how they make you feel." That there's a filmmaker out there striving for this very thing is what convinces me that Malick is possibly the finest American filmmaker working today. He asks big questions through evocation of human feeling. The Tree of Life is proof positive of that, and it is no less than a masterpiece. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

Super 8

How rare is it these days when the credits roll in a theatre and you think to yourself/say "Now THAT'S a movie!"? Quite rare, in my opinion. When a film feels so complete an experience, so satisfying a conclusion, that's rare. Especially in today's summer blockbuster climate. In a sea of belaboured comic book adaptations, sequels, and pandering pop culture referencing family comedies, J.J. Abrams' third feature film stands out as something special. Having directed the fun action romp Mission: Impossible: III and the brilliant Star Trek reboot, Abrams is finally tackling his own original material. The results are stunning, if imperfect. But Super 8 comes as close to perfection as any great summer blockbuster in recent memory.

While much of the plot has been kept a mystery, I would posit that the alien creature feature mystery at the center of the plot is secondary to the real story, an emotionally rich and compelling tale of coming to terms with trauma and family tragedy.

We begin with a group of kids. The central one of the story, Joe has just lost his mother in an industrial accident at a factory. Four months later, it's summer, and school is out. Joe seems to be coping well with his loss by helping his best friend Charles make a Super 8 Camera movie for a student film festival. Things take a turn when Charles tells Joe that Alice, the prettiest girl in school, will be playing the wife in their film. The band of kids; Joe, Charles, Preston, Martin, and a pyro named Cary, sneak out in the dead of night to film at the local train station. Suddenly, a train approaches. "Production value!", Charles shouts with glee. The group hurries to film the scene as the train passes, giving an air of credibility to their film. However, as they are filming, a truck drives onto the tracks and heads right for the train, colliding head on in a crash that can only be described as Train-pocalypse. A brilliantly filmed action sequence that is one of the most thrilling and intense in recent memory, it ends with what we presume to be something escaping the cargo containers, and the beginnings of the mystery.

During everything leading up to and including this sequence, the film is practically flawless. Once the mystery begins the film gets a little ahead of itself, and the inherent imperfection of the film begins to show a bit. While the whole certainly outweighs the parts, the second act of the film has the alien mystery and the story of the kids slipping past each other a bit, never fully converging until the third act. But this is small potatoes compared to a largely brilliant film otherwise.

Many have taken issue with the way the film is stylistically similar to classic Spielberg films from the late 70s and 80s, but few have engaged in why the film is told this way in the first place. The reason those films work, and why Super 8 works, is because the themes and ideas in place are timeless and universal. Naturally, a film that tells a story like this will feel antiquated in today's glut of modern summer blockbusters. But what Super 8 has that those other films lack is real feeling. The characters are so well fleshed out that one actually cares about their story on a level much more intimate than just wanting to see the next cool CGI-laden set piece. The interaction between the kids is just so genuine and downright moving in the end. In that sense, of course the film is similar to those films Spielberg made, because they covered similar ground. But to me, the similarities are only skin deep. Aesthetically, the film is very reminiscent of Spielberg's sci-fi masterpiece, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. If that film and the recent Korean monster movie gem, The Host, had a baby, it would be Super 8. But this is a J.J. Abrams film to the core, very much in line with his coined "mystery box" sensibilities and lens flare (a visual trademark of his, that, once again, was inspired by Close Encounters).

But as I said before, all is not perfect. If anything, I wish the alien mystery had been more fleshed out and converged with the kids' story more often. Instead, while it offers genuines thrills and a layer of mystique, it feels somewhat slighted, and during parts of the second act, a bit like an afterthought. Just as well, while the relationships between the kids are beautifully drawn and fully realized, the relationships between the Joe and Alice with their fathers aren't aren't given quite the same time and dedication. But as a film about friendship, compassion, and coming to terms with tragedy, the film truly and brilliantly soars. Few blockbusters evoke this kind of genuine emotion anymore. Only Christopher Nolan is making large scale films with that kind of truthful emotional core anymore. But he and Abrams are most definitely making two different kinds of films. While Nolan is looking at the darker side of the frailty of the human condition, Abrams strives for the light. Different styles but equally moving results.

Super 8 is a superlative achievement. It isn't perfect, but it is most definitely leaps and bounds beyond any blockbuster since last year's Inception, and likely to remain so until Abrams or Nolan make another film. From the brilliant and moving emotional center of the film, to the superb technical craft, to Michael Giacchino's INCREDIBLE score, Super 8 is the summer blockbuster event of the year for me. Undeniably cinematic, with heart to spare, it's the kind of film had I seen at a young age, I would be obsessed with. I can't wait to see it again.

Friday, June 3, 2011

X-Men: First Class

It's been more than a decade since Bryan Singer introduced the X-Men to movie-goers the world over. The first film in the longest running superhero franchise other than Batman, it was single-handedly responsible for creating the comic-book film renaissance. In 2003, the sequel, X2: X-Men United, reached a cinematic height for the genre that would only be matched and outdone by Christopher Nolan's Batman films. But the higher they reach, the harder they fall. The highly anticipated third film in the X-Men trilogy could only be described as a crushing disappointment. The spinoff, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, was even worse, joining the ranks of worst films ever made quite handily.

Two years later, director Matthew Vaughn, fresh off nerd cred from making the adaptation of Mark Millar's Kick-Ass comic book, is tackling a reboot of the X-Men franchise that throws out the continuity of the other films in the hopes of starting a new trilogy during the origins of the X-Men. Taking place in the 1960s, the film traces the origins of Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Erik Leshnerr (Magneto) when they were actually allies, not enemies, as they form the original X-Men. The result is a staggering breath of fresh air, the likes of which haven't been seen since Batman Begins.

I'm on the record of being a fan of Vaughn's crime thriller Layer Cake, but really loathed Kick-Ass. But X-Men: First Class is such an intelligent, taught, slick return to form that I am completely ready to forgive him for his previous film. His direction here is incredibly assured and stylish, pumping new blood into a franchise all but headed for the morgue. Like Nolan did for Batman, Vaughn does the impossible and makes X-Men feel fresh, relevant, and exciting again.

Perhaps the film's biggest triumph is the casting of James McAvoy as Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Erik Leshnerr, and how it handles the Martin Luther King Jr/Malcom X relationship between the two. The two actors have such great chemistry and play off one another so well that their friendship never rings false for even a moment. The best scenes in the film are without question the ones between them. In particular, there is a moment during the time when the mutants are all training where Xavier helps Erik unlock power he didn't know he was capable of, but through compassion, not pain and anger. Rage has driven Erik all these years and helped him harness his abilities to an extent, but only through calming his mind and focusing on that center between rage and serenity is he able to acheive what he is capable of. It's a beautiful moment that is elevated due to a powerhouse performance from Michael Fassbender. Fassbender really emerges as the true star of the film and as its emotional center. There is something to be said about a film and a performance that makes you truly feel something and empathize with a character who later in life becomes something of a genocidal madman.

The rest of the cast is no slouch either. If there's one thing the film gets absolutely right, it's casting. X-Men films, by nature, are large, ensemble driven films, and this is a great ensemble. By that same token, not every single character will get equal time for character development, but those who do really shine. Jennifer Lawrence is sexy and vulnerable as Mystique, Nicolas Hoult is perfectly nerdy and angsty as Hank McCoy aka Beast. Kevin Bacon is something of a mini-revelation as Sebastian Shaw. Shaw is a character not many unfamiliar with the X-Men mythos will have heard of, but he's such a fascinating and compelling villain that one can't help but love just how evil he really is. Kevin Bacon plays up the villainy and coolness of the character with such ease that it's mesmerizing.

On the spectacle side of things, the film is so beautifully choreographed and directed that one can't help but be in awe of just how well the action scenes play out. The final battle is epic and directed nearly to perfection, never outstaying it's welcome or becoming numbing, with plenty of moments that will leave you wow'ed. But this is because we actually care about the fate of the characters. Like the best of the franchise before it, X-Men: First Class succeeds because it focuses on character over spectacle, but never forgets to have great spectacle as the icing on top. But were it not for the fantastic emotional center of the film, it would just be empty and dull. Who knew Magneto lifting a submarine out of the ocean could have such heartfelt emotional impact? You've seen the money shot I'm talking about in the trailers, but nothing can prepare you for just how epic and beautiful it is on screen and in context.

The X-Men are finally astonishing again. Between Matthew Vaughn's slick direction, the strong script & emotionally invested story, fantastic action, and a perfect cast led by a star-making turn from Michael Fassbender, X-Men: First Class joins the ranks of Batman Begins as a reboot that returns a franchise to it's roots, while establishing new and exciting ground. I haven't been this excited for a sequel since the end of Batman Begins 6 years ago. Long live the X-Men. 

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Final Oscar Predictions and thoughts

Best Picture
Will win  - The King’s Speech
Could Win – The Social Network
Should Win  - Inception
Should’ve been nominated – Shutter Island

Best Director
Will Win – David Fincher
Could Win – Tom Hooper
Should Win – Darren Aronofsky
Should’ve been nominated – Christopher Nolan

Best Actor
Will Win – Colin Firth
Could Win – Jesse Eisenberg
Should Win – Colin Firth
Should’ve been nominated - Ryan Gosling

Best Actress
Will Win – Natalie Portman
Could Win – Annette Bening
Should Win – Natalie Portman
Should’ve been nominated – Lesley Manville

Best Supporting Actor
Will Win – Christian Bale
Could Win – Geoffrey Rush
Should Win – Christian Bale
Should’ve been nominated – Matt Damon

Best Supporting Actress
Will Win – Helena Bonham Carter
Could Win – Melissa Leo
Should Win – Hailee Steinfeld
Should’ve been nominated – Marion Cotillard

Best Adapted Screenplay
Will Win – The Social Network
Could Win – True Grit
Should Win – The Social Network
Should’ve been nominated – How to Train Your Dragon

Best Original Screenplay
Will Win – The King’s Speech
Could Win – Inception
Should Win – Inception
Should’ve been nominated – Blue Valentine

Best Art Direction
Will Win – Inception
Could Win – The King’s Speech
Should Win – Inception
Should’ve been nominated – Shutter Island

Best Cinematography
Will Win – True Grit
Could Win - Inception
Should Win – Inception
Should’ve been nominated – Shutter Island

Best Costume Design
Will Win – The King’s Speech
Could Win – Alice in Wonderland
Should Win – True Grit
Should’ve been nominated – Shutter Island

Best Editing
Will Win – The Social Network
Could Win – The King’s Speech
Should Win – The Social Network
Should’ve been nominated – Inception

Best Makeup
Will Win – The Wolfman
Could Win – The Way Back
Should Win – The Wolfman
Should’ve been nominated – Shutter Island

Best Original Score
Will Win – Inception
Could Win – The King’s Speech
Should Win – How to Train Your Dragon
Should’ve been nominated – True Grit

Best Original Song
Will Win – Toy Story 3
Could Win – 127 Hours
Should Win – 127 Hours
Should’ve been nominated – How to Train Your Dragon

Best Sound Editing
Will Win – Inception
Could Win – True Grit
Should Win – Inception
Should’ve been nominated – How to Train Your Dragon

Best Sound Mixing
Will Win – Inception
Could Win – True Grit
Should Win – Inception
Should’ve been nominated – How to Train Your Dragon

Best Visual Effects
Will Win – Inception
Could Win – Alice In Wonderland
Should Win – Inception
Should’ve been nominated – TRON: Legacy

Best Animated Feature
Will Win – Toy Story 3
Could Win – How to Train Your Dragon
Should Win – How to Train Your Dragon
Should’ve been nominated – None.

Best Foreign Language Film
Will Win – In A Better World
Could Win – Biutiful
Should Win – Biutiful
Should’ve been nominated – White Material

Best Documentary Feature Film
Will Win – Inside Job
Could Win – Exit Through the Gift Shop
Should Win – Restrepo
Should’ve been nominated – None

Best Animated Short
Will Win - Day & Night
Could Win - The Gruffalo
Should Win - Day & Night

Best Documentary Short
Will Win - The Warriors of Quigang
Could Win - Poster Girl
Should Win - The Warriors of Quigang

Best Live Action Short
Will Win - God of Love
Could Win - Na Wewe
Should Win - Na Wewe

There you have it. No matter what happens tomorrow night, just remember that it's all in the name of fun. What 6,000 industry insiders decide represents the best of film in the past year doesn't always and shouldn't necessarily reflect your own choices. Don't look to Oscars for validation. They never will be. Get in on the joke and enjoy the ride. There is such a thing (as I've learned) as being too passionate. That sounds like a horrible thing to say regarding this wonderful art form. But think about it. At the end of the day, it's a golden statue. It doesn't change anything. I'm passionate about a lot of things. Awards prognosticating is one of them. What actually wins is not. Just try to enjoy the show.