Month: February 2012

Some Thoughts on the 2012 Oscars

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Something that any movie buff will have to come to terms with eventually and probably never will is that the Oscars will never be able to satisfy everyone. Partly because it’s natural to be unable to please legions of cinephiles, and partly because we have old, white, not-even-Oscar winning voters making the decisions here. It’s like a more dramatic, though less important version of the electoral colleges.

Nevertheless, they are the night for me. I don’t watch sports, but this is essentially my Super Bowl or World Cup or whatever. Granted, though, after having watched and read so much Woody Allen, always a no-show at the Oscars, I’m starting to kind of hate them. Same reasons: “Why award one thing over the other and call it the ‘best’?” I think there should be some sort of large panel for each category, and each memeber of each panel lists off their favorites, and then they send out certificates for those of whom that were listed. Yay, win win for everyone!

I spent my pre-Oscar weeks prepping by finally watching The Tree of Life and then watching Midnight in Paris another dozen times. I had planned to watch Moneyball the a couple days before with my friend, who understands baseball jargon much better than I do, but we got caught up in watching Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and Drive, just before people arrived for my party. (And then we watched Pulp Fiction and it was the best day ever.) The following day, Oscar Night, I ended up going to a friend’s house to watch the ceremony. It has, I suppose, become somewhat of a tradition. Cory June Vigants, one of my best friends, has an Oscar party at her house every year (now), or at least her parents do. I met her in my freshman year of high school, and her parents are unbelievably kind to me and invited me last year as well.

By the time the red carpet was on, I had my laptop open, my iPod by my side, and I was ready to live blog the night away. Granted, though, I did not live blog anything about the Red Carpet. I’m a strictly ceremony guy. And come 8:30, I was as ready as I ever would be. So, here are my thoughts on Sunday’s Oscar telecast:

  • I’ve never actually been a huge fan of Billy Crystal. He was great in the TV sitcom Soap and I love Nora Ephron’s/Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally…, but I’ve never loved him that much. Therefore, I didn’t have high hopes for him anyways. Regardless if he’s hosted the telecast nine times, he just seemed too corny for my taste. Granted, I’m probably the only person who kind of enjoyed James Franco and Anne Hathaway floundering at last year’s ceremony, but so be it. It has nothing to do with me being younger; I just don’t care for Crystal’s brand of comedy.
  • The beginning montage. Didn’t see that one coming.
  • Billy Crystal singing. Didn’t see that one coming.
  • The only presenters I enjoyed were Emma Stone and Ben Stiller (for Emma Stone), Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow (for Robert Downey Jr.), Tina Fey and Bradley Cooper (for Tina Fey), Chris Rock, and Angelina Jolie and her leg (for her leg).
  • I’m glad Sasha Baron Cohen thinks he’s funny. It must be lonely at the top.
  • The Cirque du Soleil thing was cool. I guess.
  • I was most impressed with the way the Original Song nominees were presented. Nice animation.
  • My favorite part of the night: Scorsese shots!
  • The In Memoriam was very tasteful this year. That, like, never happens.

And now some bitter comments about the winners, things you’ve probably already heard and are already tired of:

  • So, The Tree of Life lost Cinematography. Everyone can go to hell now.
  • Hugo was basically this year’s Avatar.
  • And, boom, Drive loses its only nomination. Thinks to self, “Okay, why am I still watching?”
  • Christopher Plummer’s speech was cute.
  • When The Artist took Original Score, I thought I could hear Kim Novak screaming.
  • The highlight of my night was Woody Allen winning Original Screenplay for Midnight in Paris, basically the only think I was happy about.
  • Meryl Streep wins her third Oscar after three decades. As happy as I am for her, I’m just surprised that it was for this movie.
  • I guess I need to see The Artist now.
  • Honestly speaking, I wasn’t wowed by the Best Pic nominees this year in general. As much as I love Midnight in Paris, I don’t think it deserved Best Picture. Out of all nine, I would have said Tree of Life, The Artist, or (I guess) Hugo. Would have liked something like Drive, Melancholia, or Shame to be in there. They were very safe picks this year.

All said and done, I found the ceremony kind of boring, the winners pretty predictable. I managed to get 18 out of 24 correct. Hopefully next year’s ceremony will be a bit more interesting and especially funnier.

Oscar Predictions 2012

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Will win: The Artist

Should win: The Tree of Life


Will win: Michel HazanaviciusThe Artist

Should win: Terrence Malick – The Tree of Life/ Martin Scorsese – Hugo


Will win: Jean Dujardin – The Artist

Should win:  Jean Dujardin – The Artist / Gary Oldman – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy


Will win:  Viola DavisThe Help (with the slight possibility of Meryl Streep – The Iron Lady)

Should win: Michelle Williams – My Week with Marilyn


Will win: Christopher Plummer – Beginners

Should win: Christopher Plummer – Beginners


Will win: Octavia Spencer – The Help

Should win: Jessica ChastainThe Help (maybe Melissa McCarthy – Bridesmaids)


Will win: Rango

Should win: Rango



Will win: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

Should win: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore



Will win: A Separation

Should win: A Separation


Will win: Pina

Should win: Pina


Will win: Midnight in Paris

Should win: Midnight in Paris


Will win: The Descendants

Should win: Hugo


Will win: Hugo

Should win: Midnight in Paris


Will win:  The Artist

Should win: The Artist


Will win: Emmanuel LubeczkiThe Tree of Life

Should win: Emmanuel LubeczkiThe Tree of Life


Will win: Ludovic BourceThe Artist

Should win: Ludovic BourceThe Artist


Will win:  The Artist

Should win: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo


Will win: Albert Nobbs

Should win: Albert Nobbs


Will win: Drive

Should win: Drive


Will win: Hugo

Should win: Hugo


Will win: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Should win: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2/Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Far, Far Away: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace in 3D

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For someone who was so incredibly, so vehemently, so passionately dead against 3D technology, it may come as a disappointment to some of you that I’m starting to see the validity in 3D technology in film. Yes, I am slowly becoming a convert, or a hypocrite. (Insert religious joke here.) As more serious directors and auteurs try to utilize the technology to really explore depth, detail, and environment with 3D, it is becoming more and more valid. I may not love this fact, but it looks like something we will all have to accept in time. With Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, Scorsese used 3D tech to walk the fine line of gimmick and actual storytelling, having certain things pop out (probably for the kids in the audience), but also having a fully realized depth to the train station his protagonist inhabits. In Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the German auteur used 3D to show the beauty and wonder of cave paintings in France, the 3D showing facets of the wall that are only comparable in person. With Wim Wenders’ new film Pina, the acclaimed director of Wings of Desire takes the choreography of avant-garde dance choreographer Pina Bausch and uses 3D to accentuate the sinewy details of each dancer’s body. And who could forget James Cameron’s Avatar, a film I’m sorry to say I missed in theaters. He is acknowledged to have jump started this trend, and those who saw the film in theaters know why. With all of these films, and even in the rerelease of Titanic, 3D was used to immerse and amaze, to suck you into the world of that film without strangling your vision to the point of nausea. George Lucas wants to join the likes of Cameron, Scorsese, Herzog, and Wenders, by rereleasing his iconic film saga, the Star Wars films, first off with Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

There’s plenty of reason to see why Lucas would do this, even without the “he’s a raging money sucker” argument so many fan boys have taken to. The Star Wars saga is amongst the most epic of all films, each film made with such a grand and extravagant scale. It’s films with these kinds of scales, that take you to other worlds and enthrall you with details and nuances, that should be, if at all, made in 3D or converted to 3D. And Lucas’ intentions are (somewhat) honorable. His intention is to, again, completely immerse you in the world of Jedi, sith, and everything in between. How does it pay off? Well.

Everyone says that The Phantom Menace is the weakest and the worst of the series, but I disagree. It has always been my personal favorite, and it was the first film I had ever seen in theaters. While its stodgy dialogue, its wooden acting, and its uneven pace are nothing to celebrate, I don’t think it’s really anything compared to the overly sappy, even more poorly acted Attack of the Clones. Anyways, the short version of the plot is that the sith reveal themselves and the Jedi (Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor) pick up a kid on the desert planet of Tatooine. That kid, Anakin Skywalker, will turn into, spoiler alert, Darth Vader by the end of the prequel trilogy. The film, again, is not perfect, but it’s a spectacle and something fun to see on the screen. It’s notably darker than anything in the original trilogy, with a tone of melancholy, as if anyone who sees it already knows that this chapter of the saga (chapter being prequel trilogy) will not end well. But, it’s so pretty to look at. Amongst the epic films that would call out for a 3D conversion (Lawrence of Arabia, Apocalypse Now, The Lord of the Rings) Star Wars is definitely one of them. It’s easy to see why. From Tatooine to the Romanesque Theed City of Naboo, to the metropolitan Coruscant and the marshy forests of Naboo, it’s splendid to see. The clothing, the costumes, the cinematography, the CGI; everything looks great. Jar Jar Binks, no matter how annoying, was always impressive for the sheer fact that he, not Gollum, was the first full CGI character. Oh, you think I’m talking about seeing this in 3D? No, this is all in two dimensions. Flat and wonderful.

With all those reasons of depth and detail for a 3D conversion, you would think that the film would look mind blowing when actually seen on the big screen and in 3D. You would be, well, wrong. Not completely wrong, but not correct enough to warrant $10. There is so much that could have gone better here that it is a huge disappointment that I have to write what I am writing. The 3D, which looked meticulously done, was subtle. It was so subtle, it was barely even noticeable. Not to the extent where Alice in Wonderland was literally not noticeable, but it barely made a difference. Certain scenes did seem more interesting in 3D, but these were medium shots of characters, their fabric having more depth and their face with more detail. The landscape scenes, such as the overhead shots of Theed City, should have looked incredible. It’s one of the settings that should have been taken full advantage of. Instead, it looked fairly flat. No sense of place or depth anywhere discernible. Not even in the fun and exciting podrace scene was there enough 3D to make it interesting. Even though it is, arguably, one of the most fun race scenes ever caught on film, it didn’t look any better in 3D.

It feels strange to say this, but the lack of any discernible depth was a distraction in another way. Plot holes and poor acting seemed more apparent. This is perhaps because since the 3D was not distracting enough, one’s mind had to wander somewhere else. One’s mind would end up focusing on minute details that, essentially, did not matter.

I was hesitant on seeing the film when the plan to rerelease the saga in 3D was announced, because, at the time, I was a vehement anti-3D person. But, I can understand the reasons for its use, and this is from no help of having seen Star Wars. Since I am a little bit of a fan boy at heart, I was going to see it anyways. And it was a fun experience, seeing a Star Wars film on the big screen. But the 3D didn’t matter enough and was not present enough to make any sort of good impression. It was not done lazily, by any means, but it just was not done enough. Hopefully, if Lucas still plans on releasing the rest of the films, he will have enough time to tinker with them to get the 3D right. Until then, I’m sorry to say that, regardless of the 3D, I was not anymore sucked into that galaxy far, far away than I would have been just watching it on DVD.

Film: B-

3D: C

Back in Black: The Woman in Black

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In an era where the torture porn flick and the erstwhile remake rule the horror genre, it’s kind of nice when someone decides to go back and “honor” the beginnings of horror with some classic, traditional gothic ghost storytelling. The last time this was done in such a specific fashion was in Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others starring Nicole Kidman. Traditional, scary, and fascinating. It was done again, without the Gothic English setting to an extent in Insidious, the one where its first half was one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen and the second was the campiest. Insidious is a good example of “Not every character in a horror movie has to be a dumbass”. Patrick Wilson’s character didn’t always feel the need to chase after ghosts and he actually turned on the lights when investigating something. Sadly, its second half seemed like it was from a completely different film. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good either.

And now we have The Woman in Black, the latest ghost story that was based on the novel by Susan Hill. It has also found itself as a stage play. It’s been adapted into a television film. And now it’s come to the big screen with Harry Potter himself. Set in a creepy village that holds a creepy house to its name, Radcliffe plays the naïve widower and single-father of one, on a mission from his law firm to go through all of the documents in the creepy house so it can be sold and, ultimately, erased from the memories of the townspeople. The owner of the house has recently died, of course, under mysterious circumstances. And the eponymous ghost haunts the village and lures the village people’s children to their death.

Daniel Radcliffe is fine in this film. He is not great, nor is he terrible. I admire his eclectic choice in work, from coming of age dramas (December Boys) to nudity on stage (Equus) to a full-fledged Broadway musical (How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying) and now this. I admire the fact that he’s trying to prove himself as a good actor, that he isn’t just Harry Potter. And in this, The Woman in Black, he is beginning to shed his image as Harry and really hone into being Daniel. However, he doesn’t actually shine in the film. The script, written by X-Men: First Class scribe Jane Goldman, calls for Radcliffe to look over papers very contemplatively and to look very dramatic about children. And, at this, he does a fair job. But, who could ever really do a great job with that kind of material. The material isn’t bad, it just limits the actor. It would limit anyone in any horror movie. Let’s face it, horror movies are rarely when you find great performances. (Exception to the rule: Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, but that’s more of a psychological thriller, isn’t it?) Here, as a young lawyer on his last chance under the name of Arthur Kips, he strains somewhat, but never reaches the overacting many fear of in horror movies.

And here’s where it comes to a screeching, screaming halt. The film, which seems to be lovingly seeped in Edwardian mystery, is traditional. Really traditional, almost to a fault. It’s so well acquainted with the tropes of haunted house movies and Gothic literature that you end up seeing every jump and jolt a mile away. Every little sub-plot you can predict. It’s still fun, but it’s not surprising in the least. It got to a point where even the cinematography was getting cliché, and I would keep groaning, mentally predicting what was to happen. Every aspect of the story was so traditionalist it was cliché. The man who goes to the house and doesn’t listen to the village people who tell him not to go. And then the village people suffer and basically say “told you so”. The skeptic who doesn’t believe there’s a ghost in the house. The ghost wants some revenge of some sort and will not rest until she gets it. Et cetera, et cetera. There was nothing original about it, and it’s hard to say whether this was the fault of the film itself or the source novel.

This isn’t to say that it’s a bad movie; it’s just not very good. And it is effective to a degree. Several times, the suspense is effective enough that I could feel the dread eating away at my mind, my flesh crawl, and I would indeed jump. But the burdened by its predictability, it was hardly scary enough to leave a lasting impression.  The sound design, though, was top notch. Sound design tends to be fairly important in horror movies. Whenever a character turns around to encounter either a) the ghost or b) the ally, there’s always that increase in volume. The old house is effectively decorated and old and scary looking. Huzzah.

I find it quite interesting and funny that Hammer Film Productions produced this film. The company responsible for making Christopher Lee a star and that made such great B-horror movies is back, apparently, once again settling into the area of B-horror movies. And, I guess, that’s what you could call the Woman in Black. It isn’t terrible, but it’s not very good. It can be a lot of fun. But it never really scares you or is able to manifest true fear in any of its visual design or story. Despite its plot being interestingly told (almost in an epistolary way), it’s so traditional that it fails to keep your interest for the entire time. While it’s not to see a traditional ghost story on the screen again, one would hope for something scarier, something darker, and something less predictable. But, at least the Gothic horror story is back; back in Black.

Grade: B-


Fasten Your Seatbelt: Drive

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I do not drive, personally, so generally speaking I can’t speak from experience about the thrill of driving a car in any situation whatsoever. But if driving is anything like the thrill of Nicolas Winding Refn’s newest film, maybe I should stop procrastinating on getting my license. Winding Refn’s near masterpiece of a film, Drive, is a sucker punch to the gut, something that can be as subtle as, to use driving analogies, strolling down a street at midnight and something as thrilling as getting into a car chase.

Winding Refn hones in his mastery of the medium in this film, which was pretty up to scratch anyways, as evidenced in his previous works like Valhalla Rising and Bronson. Here, the director and the star become one, in a way. Ryan Gosling’s stunt driver/getaway driver is a silent enigma, his introversion and solitude reminiscent of Camus’ Meursault and Melville’s Le Samourai. The director’s piece is just as silent as his driver, using long tracking shots, slow pans, and very little dialogue. The script, by Oscar-nominated screenwriter, Hossein Amini (The Wings of the Dove) changes the original novel’s format, written by James Sallis, making it into a more linear story line with a more coherent plot. As opposed to a standard and conventional driving thriller, it becomes a character study, almost a silent psychoanalysis of its protagonist. Heady though it sounds, that fact does not affect the thrill of watching the film.

What is it about this film that makes it so spellbinding? I am honestly not quite sure. The mood of the film is spelled out in its music, much of the time, using neo-1980’s sounding tracks that are, in a way, characters themselves. The music, though, helps underline the character of the Driver, someone so contemplative and one whose expressions  could be used to fill a book that the character remains complex and not completely readable. A film that transcends every genre you could try to pigeonhole it in (neo-noir, crime, action, thriller, etc.); the music acts somewhat as a narrator. Illustrating the complexity of Gosling’s Driver with No Name, the music’s tone shifts appropriately to whatever the mood is in the current scene, reflecting the feeling of Gosling’s emotions. It makes complete sense that the music would play an integral part into the construction of Winding Refn’s film. What else do you do when you’re in the car, especially as a passenger? You stare out the window, contemplating the meaning of life and you listen to music. The music shifts from diegetic to non-diegetic, where sometimes the Driver is aware of the music and others when only we, the audience can hear it. It may be only conjecture, but if the music can be accepted as both an underlining of who the Driver is as a character as well as a narrator, the music can not only be seen as soundtrack to the film but also to the Driver’s life. It is almost as if the Driver is perfectly conscious of the music playing in his head, the mental playlist he has created that describes who he is. Regardless of what it is, the use of songs like “Nightcall” and “A Real Hero” accentuate the gritty mood for this masterpiece.

Every emotion is discernible on Ryan Gosling’s face and, while that may be true, it doesn’t make him easier to read. It does, however, make his performance that much more interesting and powerful. He is a mystery, one whose past is unknown to anyone in the film, even to the two closest people to him in the film, Bryan Cranston as Shannon, the boss of an auto-repair shop, and Carey Mulligan, the woman whom he falls for and whose husband he attempts to help so that she and her family are safe from the men after her husband, Standard Gabriel (Oscar Isaac). Perhaps this is a defense mechanism, but nevertheless, the Enigmatic Driver never really reveals himself to anyone. Gosling’s portrayal of such a stunning character, a silent one who is mostly influenced and moved by the sheer atmosphere, is incredible. Well known for his romantic leading roles in stuff like The Notebook and Crazy, Stupid Love, Gosling feels much more at home here in a hybrid crime drama-neo noir. He is able to delve into character and become the Driver, an important aspect of the film. Without him, the film would probably fall to pieces. Because the film is so contemplative and devoid of dialogue, it would take complete dedication for an actor to really jump into the role. What Gosling does with the character is make it his own, creating a perfect amalgam of the existential hero from so many great films. It is not a derivative character, but one molded and shaped at Gosling’s (and Refn’s) will. He is one of the most elusive and intriguing characters in recent memory.

The supporting cast is great, filled with interesting and colorful characters. Mulligan plays Irene with a sensitive fragility, just as quiet as the protagonist, and just as tender. This mutual tenderness may be why the two characters work so well and fall in love with one another so easily. Even though it’s a quiet portrayal, it is not so understated that it is not noticeable; it is a perfectly noticeable role. The silence between the two, especially when in the car, is their own form of communication. They are, to some extent, kindred souls. They are able to create intimacy without anything physical. Just a look and just the music on the radio; that’s all they need. It reminds me of the line from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in which Uma Thurman’s Mia says, “That’s when you know you’ve found somebody special. Where you can just shut the f*** up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.”

Albert Brooks plays against type in a stunning turn as a mobster who, originally, planned on investing in this Driver to race cars for him. Shame that didn’t go so well. This Brooks, who is certainly not the same guy we love and kind of loathe in Broadcast News or even Finding Nemo, is violent, unpredictable, and smarmy. He takes pleasure in getting as much as he can and at any cost. It is honestly a little shocking to see Brooks in such a violent role, verbally and physically, but it is thrilling nonetheless. Ron Perlman (Sons of Anarchy, Hellboy, Cronos) also shows his villainous side as a foul mouthed, ruthless Jewish mobster who owns, of all things, a pizzeria. With a slight Stallone-esque mumble, Perlman remains just as fearful as normal.

Ryan Gosling may be the star of the show, but an element of the film that accentuates the existential tone of the film is Drive’s superb cinematography. Newton Thomas Sigel, who worked with Bryan Singer on The Usual Suspects, creates a perfectly constructed symphony of slowly moving images. Slow and swift, the tracking shots throughout the film again accentuate the tone of the film. The film is so beautiful looking that you could blindly pick a random still from the film and it would be a work of art. The lighting is extraordinary, the tones shifting from scene to scene to reflect the mood of the Driver. Looking at this film wowed me and intoxicated me, for it is a stunning film to see.

Cut to the chase (scenes)? Yes, it can be a rather violent film. But the violence comes out of nowhere, which shook me to my core. The shocking inclusion and unexpectedness of the violence is perfect. Refn has said that the film is a bit of a tribute to Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Taxi Driver, and like that film, its violence quakes on the screen. Drive, with its somewhat glacial pacing and quiet and serene mood, lulls you into a false sense of security and then, to put it bluntly, blows your mind. The car chases are just as exciting. Resembling the car chases more like Bullitt and The French Connection, in that the cinematography and look is cohesive and discernible (as opposed to chaotic, ahem Fast and the Furious), the chases pumped adrenaline into my veins. Tense and taut, the chase scenes were memorable and exciting.

Drive is a memorable exercise in subtlety as well as showmanship. It is at once complex and simple. Its protagonist embodies the existential hero, so well portrayed by Gosling. It is fair to say that the film was robbed of several Academy Award nominations this year: Director (Refn, who luckily won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival), Cinematography, Actor (Gosling), Supporting Actress (Mulligan), Editing, and Supporting Actor (Brooks). It managed to nab one nomination and an important one for the film, Sound Editing. Sound plays a huge role in the tone, making one feel there with the characters. It is not complete silence, as the whirring of cars pass by. Paying homage to the great car chase films and even Scorsese and Paul Schrader’s “Lonely Man”, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is a carefully executed thrill, and one of the best films from 2011. Fasten your seatbelts; it’s gonna be an exhilarating ride.

Grade: A