Sunday, February 27, 2011

In Preparation for Oscar Night

Well!  The Oscars are officially here and my preparations are in order.  Oscar ballots?  Check.  Yummy snack recipes? Check.  Preparation by seeing all the Best Picture nominated films?  Check and check! 

And while I didn't quite finish up my own project (sadly, I just didn't have time for everything), I'm feeling pretty prepared for the Oscars.  Ten films in one month!  You must be proud.  I know I am.

Now, this doesn't mean I've seen every movie nominated for every category.  Far from it.  In fact for a ceremony that has nominated ten films for Best Picture, it hasn't always pulled from those films for the other major categories.  For example; Javier Bardem has been nominated in the Best Actor category, while Biutiful was not nominated for Best Picture.  Same for Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole.  But I digress...

I am so glad I've seen them all.  It's like actually doing my homework before class.  I feel prepared and excited for the show, and I can beat the pants off everyone else in my Oscar pool.  I hope.

Below, I have ranked the films in order of "winability," with the first being the one I think will win, and the last being the one I know won't win.  Read on.

The King's Speech
It was a close call for me between The Fighter and The King's SpeechThe King's Speech is a great movie (as I've already documented).  And for sheer light-heartedness there's nothing better.  You will absolutely leave this movie smiling and feeling better about life.  And you will like it, I promise. The acting is great, the costumes are beautiful, and you feel smarter for having learned something about history that you can bring up at the next cocktail party.  But there is a grittiness I missed with this movie.  A connection I had trouble making, no matter how likeable the cast.  This feels like a beautiful fairy tale.  But for Oscar gold I think this film will sneak in and win.  The Academy has been going for mass appeal lately.


The Fighter
This movie, on the other hand, is about as far from a fairy tale as you can get.  Unless we're talking wicked stepsisters.  The film is not perfect.  Christian Bale is so good in his role that he far outshines the other cast members, making you forget who the real protagonist is.  Everyone, in fact, seems to be out for what they can get, throwing their excellent acting chops around in order to eat up these gritty roles.  I feel bad for Mark Wahlberg, he has to play the straight man to the colorful crazies around him.  Although I must say Mark Wahlberg plays an excellent Mark Wahlberg.  Despite its imperfections, or perhaps because of them, this film gets to me in a way that The King's Speech doesn't.  I know these people, I feel for them, and I am riveted by them.  Every failure felt like a sucker punch, and I waited on the edge of my seat, desperate to know the ending.  They are both so different, and so good, it is hard to tell.  But while I think The King's Speech will win, The Fighter is the better movie.

The Social Network
I was surprised to hear that until recently, this film was the heavy favorite to win best picture.  Maybe I have an inherent dislike of David Fincher, brought on by my first film teacher.  He's got this kind of cheap thrills vibe that drives me nuts, and I feel that he relys more on camera and plot tricks than character development to get through his films.  Like a "look what I can do" attitude.  I thought the best thing about this movie was Jesse Eisenberg.  He is vulnerable, confused, socially inept, and trapped inside a cruel, sarcastic shell.  He made me love an essentially unlikeable character.  The rest of the film was entertaining, and it held my attention the entire time.  But Award worthy?  Like a friend recently said, "It was great and everything...but at the end of the day...it's about fucking facebook!"  Good point.  This movie can't win, because then I'm not sure I would trust the direction our society is heading in anymore.  What's next?  Twitter: the next revolution.

Black Swan
I was torn between this movie and 127 Hours, but I felt that if we were picking the Academy's favorite, this one seemed more their style.  Wow, this movie was hard to watch.  I don't think I can even look at my cuticles anymore without getting queasy.  This movie is trippy, confusing, and gratuitous--exactly what you would expect from the man who brought us Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky).  Manohla Dargis from the New York Times said it best when she called this film, "visceral and real even while it’s one delirious, phantasmagoric freakout." I felt like the scenes were leaping off the screen and ripping my own skin off.  Although, I have to wonder, Mr. Aronofsky, if you know women that well.  Because though I am dragged on a journey through one woman's increasingly twisted mind, she seems to me to be an incredibly two dimensional character.  She's a neurotic, insecure, workaholic virgin who looks so fragile you could snap her like a twig.  She's got a mother than reminds me of Mrs. Danvers and a psychosis that is never explained.  And really?  Gratuitous lesbian scene?  Is she so frigid because she only likes women or is this your way of being artsy?  Or perhaps I'm missing the point.  All I know is I spent the entire film in a state of acute discomfort, and unlike 127 Hours, it did not pay off in the end.  However Natalie Portman was brilliant in the role, and she's a lock to win for Best Actress.  She makes her character more than the cliche she was meant to be.  And she did all her own dancing.  Sorry, Black Swan fans.  I don't think I'm erudite enough for this.

127 Hours
Speaking of visceral.  I saved this movie for last, because, let's face it, I really did not want to see a man saw off his own arm with a blunt knife.  This was the best movie that I never want to see again.  I spent 1/3 of this film with my sweater over my face.  But once you get over the physical shock of seeing this film, you realize it's once of the best movies you'll ever hope to see.  James Franco managed to make being trapped alone under a rock the most intense, riveting experience I can remember having with a film.  This film is about watching a man who knows he is going to die alone in a matter of days.  James Franco crumbles, he fights, he finally carves his own tombstone into the wall of rock besides him.  Though you know the ending, watching someone who knows he's about to die is a wrenching experience.  Though I think Firth will win for Best Actor, Franco gives him a run for his money in this film.  Although the director had a little too much fun with his hallucination special effects.  Just chill and let Franco do his thing, okay?  You're distracting me!  Note: do not see this movie if you are claustrophic, hemaphobic, acrophobic, have high blood pressure, are pregnant or do not possess a sweater to cover your eyes at pertinent times.

True Grit
I happen to like Westerns, so I had fun with this film, which is actually a remake of an old Clint Eastwood movie.  Something about the spurs, the horses, the rugged...countryside?  Maybe I just have a thing for manly men toting guns.  It's possible.  Not that either Jeff Bridges or Matt Damon are particularly attractive in this film.  Jeff Bridges is a curmudgeonly old drunk with a secret heart of gold and a quick trigger finger.  Matt Damon is bearded in a way I never though to see, playing a Texas Marshall with high morals but questionable follow through.  Also, did anyone else notice he came off vaguely as a child predator?  Not enough to condemn him, but just enough to creep me out.  And then of course there is Hailee Steinfeld, who plays the precocious 14-year-old bent on revenging her father's death.  She's the best part of the movie.  She's funny, sharp, and just when she starts to get annoying, vulnerable enough that you forgive her.  The scenery is beautiful, the plot is fun, but the ending fell a little flat for me.  Not enough to secure Oscar gold in my opinion, but with enough tender, funny, unexpected moments that it deserves to be up there.  Though Westerns don't have the best track record for actually taking home the statuette.

Winter's Bone
This movie dragged.  It could be because, unfortunately, I'm not that interested in the Ozarks.  Or perhaps it's because the entire 100 minute movie can be sumed up in one sentence.  17-year-old Ree must find her meth-dealing father because he put up his house and land for bail and if he doesn't appear, Ree, her two younger siblings, and their catatonic mother will be homeless.  That's it.  Ree spends the entire movie stomping around wildernesses trailer parks trying to find him, dead or alive.  I did enjoy the chillingly beautiful scenery, and the way everything seemed to take on a grey, somber cast.  The performances were fantastic as well, and this movie has some great characters.  John Hawkes gives his breakout performance as Ree's uncle, and actress Dale Dicky does a wonderful job as the haggard wife of one of Ree's relatives.  Jennifer Lawrence's performance as Ree is perhaps the best in the film.  She is a true hero, fighting to save her family without a lot of options.  Unfortunately for her, I couldn't really get over how pretty she was.  It's not her fault, but everyone else in this movie looks so beat, her classically beautiful features stand out far too much, even in men's flannel.  It was long, cold, and depressing, but certainly this is what Oscar films are made of.

Inception
One thing that hurts this movie is that it was so popular...six months ago.  Unless fantastic, the farther a movie is from the ceremony, the less likely it is to win for Best Picture.  I enjoyed this film.  It's well crafted, intelligent, and full of incredible special effects.  The downside?  The movie is more about the intricate plot than the actors.  It's probably why none of them were nominated.  At the end of the day, this film is about director Christopher Nolan.  And I'm okay with that.  I'm also okay with Leo DiCaprio just phoning in his performance.  Come on, they're inside multiple subconsciouses!  The streets move vertically!  Will a sci-fi thriller from Comic Con win for Best Picture?  Nope.  Is it awesome? Absolutely.  Reference the latest line from Alec Baldwin on 30 Rock: "I never sleep on planes; I don't want to get incepted."

Toy Story 3
We all know this movie is only on here so that the Academy can show how in touch they are with popular films.  Also, lest we forget, this movie made over a billion dollars world-wide.  One of my friends, when hearing the nominees, said, "Is this their new thing?  Nine regular movies and then whatever Pixar made that year?"  Yup.  Don't get me wrong, I loved this movie.  And I will also admit that I sobbed through the last 5 minutes of the film when I watched it over Christmas, which earned me a disgusted look from my younger brother as he walked past.  This film is the perfect blend of sweet and humorous, with enough intelligence to keep an audience of any age interested.  But at the end of the day, this is an animated film for children.  I just can't put it in the same category of the other films.  This is why the animated movie category is there.  Which this movie is also nominated for.  So what's the point of this nomination again?

The Kids Are Alright
The kids may be alright but I'm not sure this nomination is.  It's not a bad movie but it definitely has its problems.  I'm told its a spot on representation of L.A. yuppies.  I'm not told why I'm supposed to care about L.A. yuppies.  And the only thing that makes this movie hip is the fact that the main couple is a lesbian couple.  Think about it--if Annette Bening were a man we would have another middle of the road family drama.  But because it is "exploring" a new family dynamic, suddenly this film is artsy and cool.  Bening just comes off as an unlikeable tight-ass whose character doesn't really mature.  Julianne Moore is a floozy who can't quite get her life together or take responsibility for her actions.  And Mark Ruffalo...well I love him in anything so I'll lay off him.  The kids are much more interesting than the adults in this film, but unfortunately we don't get to see all that much of them.  The ending is inconclusive, without any of the characters really growing at all.  I thought it pretentious and confused, with a few minutes of witty and unique levity that kept me from hating it completely.  This movie made me feel lukewarm.  Warning: don't see this film with anyone whom you would be uncomfortable watching graphic sex with.

So there it is!  My take on the nominated films this year.  I think The King's Speech will win the day, although The Social Network or The Fighter may sneak up from behind and snatch the award instead.  As far as the other categories, Natalie Portman will win for Best Actress, hands down.  And if Christian Bale doesn't win for Best Supporting Actor, there is no justice in this world.  I would have pegged Colin Firth as the Best Actor winner, but I thought James Franco pretty incredible, and Jesse Eisenberg might just surprise you.  Supporting Actress is a three way split between Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, and Helena Bohnam Carter, although I think Leo will squeak through.  And Best Director is any man's game, although I think the Academy may give it to Fincher (shudder).  Here's a link to the academy's own ballot: print and play with friends!

My theory in this blog so far has been that the movies nominated for Best Picture say something about the time in history that those movies were made.  Casablanca (1942) is all about finding the inner hero within oneself and never giving up the fight--all during World War II.  Rebecca (1940) on the other hand, is all about being trapped in a slowly declining hell of one's own making, right when America was beginning to be drawn into the war.  Every year, too, someone tries to come up with the theme of the Oscars.  Last year, it was "the military."  A few years before that, it was all about the foreigners.  So this year I spent some time coming up with a theme of my own for the films nominated, and how that applied to the current mood of America today.

I think this year's theme is a journey.  Each of the main characters above are on some kind of mission, or hero's journey, to get something they desperately need.  The King needs to loose his stutter; the fighter needs to win a match.  The geek needs to be socially accepted (and create facebook) while the ballerina needs to dance her part and the hiker needs to get out from under that rock alive.  One young girl needs to avenge her father's death, while another needs to find her father.  The dreamer needs to get home to his children and the toys needs to escape daycare.  And finally, the children need to find their father while their parents need to find themselves.

In the end, each person finds what they are looking for, but with an unexpected cost.  They find the end of their journey, only to find that the journey, or the ending, is not quite what they expected.  Last year, I think the films were a confused mixture of fantasy and despair, in the wake of crippling financial crisis.  We were either trying to escape the world we lived in or give in to the feeling that it was never going to get better, all the while wallowing in nostalgia.  This year, the characters are moving forward.  The endings may not be happy, but the goals are achievable.  We are getting there, and there is hope now, where there wasn't a year ago.

The king may be finally able to speak clearly, but only after going on an emotional journey with a strange speech therapist, something he wasn't expecting.  And the ballerina finally dances perfectly, but only after losing her mind and stabbing herself.  Goals are attainable, just maybe not in the way we once thought.  People are beginning to take changes again, to hope, and to realize that their goals are possible if they broaden their expectations of where they want to go.  In this way, I've decided the nominees represent a journey, a goal achieved, and most of all, hope in the face of the impossible.  It's not necessarily positive, but it is heading in the right direction.

That's enough for now!  Enjoy the show and I'll be back again later with my thoughts and highlights.  And the winner is...

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Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Year in Review

The Oscars are two weeks away, and it is pretty clear that I'm not going to watch all the films by then.  But I have to say I loved this past year.  My life has changed so much since I first started this blog.  And yet being able to stick with something that I love for this long has meant so much to me.  It has been the constant in a year filled with change.  I've learned so much, and each movie has been to me a window into the past.  Each film has brought great food, discussion and connection with friends and family.  Movies mean so much to people, and it is interesting how many people a film can touch.  Thanks to all my readers so far, and keep reading as I continue to plow through!  I'm going to stick with it, and see how much I can finish for next year...

However, with the Awards coming up so soon, I have decided that I should, at least, finish a few tasks.  I'm going to finish the 1940s, which is just two more films (I'm in the process of reviewing The Best Years of Our Lives).  I would also like to be able to go into the Awards having watched every movie nominated for best picture.  See below for what is up for an award this year:

  • “The Fighter” David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman and Mark Wahlberg, Producers
  • “Inception” Emma Thomas and Christopher Nolan, Producers
  • “The Kids Are All Right” Gary Gilbert, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte and Celine Rattray, Producers
  • “The King's Speech” Iain Canning, Emile Sherman and Gareth Unwin, Producers
  • “The Social Network” Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti, Michael De Luca and Ce├ín Chaffin, Producers
  • “Toy Story 3” Darla K. Anderson, Producer
  • “Black Swan” Mike Medavoy, Brian Oliver and Scott Franklin, Producers
  • “127 Hours” Christian Colson, Danny Boyle and John Smithson, Producers
  • “True Grit” Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, Producers
  • “Winter's Bone" Anne Rosellini and Alix Madigan-Yorkin, Producers 
So far I have seen the first six, but have yet to view the last four.  Here's hoping I make it through before February 27th!  I'm actually terrified to see 127 Hours.  I know it is supposed to be great, and I love James Franco, but I don't want to see anyone sawing his own arm off.

I won't review the rest of the films, like I did for The King's Speech, but I will provide my brief thoughts on each, along with my very own Oscar pool.  And probably a great Oscar party.  We'll see, it's all still in the works.  But thanks everyone for sticking around for so long and please, continue to comment and read!

My obsession with Colin Firth...

Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy
The first time I ever saw Colin Firth was when I watched the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice back in the '90s.  My best friend's mom saw how much I loved the book, and offered her collection of the six or so VHS tapes that make up the mini-series.  I loved it (obviously, it is the best film version of the book in existence) and Mr. Darcy's delicious swimming scene.  Colin Firth had my love from that point on, even with the sideburns.
Poster for The King's Speech

So when I saw the previews for Firth's newest film, The King's Speech, I knew once again that I was about to see a great movie.  And I wouldn't be disappointed.  This film combines some of my favorite things, so I probably would have enjoyed it had it just been mediocre.  My love of British history, royalty, Colin Firth, and stories with an uplifting ending all predisposed me to love this film. But the performances are superior, the sets and costumes pitch perfect, and the story one of warmth and humor that definitely drew me in.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth

The King's Speech is about the man now known as King George VI, born Prince Albert Frederick Arthur George, Duke of York (Bertie to his family.)  The film starts with Prince Albert, played by Colin Firth, attempting to give a speech at the end of the 1925 Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium.  His severe stammer makes it impossible to give the speech, and after seeing several speech therapists at the behest of his wife, Elizabeth, played by Helena Bonham Carter, he gives up in disgust.  But she gets him to try one last time, with an unconventional Australian speech therapist and failed actor named Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush.  Logue's insistence on casually calling the Prince by his first name and radical methods unnerve the Prince, but Logue finally convinces him to return and attempt speech therapy.

Duke and Duchess of York with Lionel Logue
At the same time, Prince Albert is facing a country in turmoil.  England is on the brink of World War II, and his father, King George V, has become seriously ill.  His older brother, Edward, played by Guy Pearce, is proving to be immature and wild and has struck up an inappropriate relationship with American divorcee Wallis Simpson.  Prince Albert's close relationship to his loving wife and two daughters help him remain strong, but it is Logue's continued effort as a therapist that helps him both emotionally and physically.

Guy Pearce as King Edward VIII
Eventually, the Prince's father dies, and he must try to make his brother into the King England needs.  But finally King Edward VIII declares that he will abdicate the throne in order to marry his divorcee (which he could not do as King) and Prince Albert must face his impending coronation and future.  Despite a serious fight with Logue, the two eventually reconcile and it is with Logue's help that the Duke of York manages to work through his stammer and realize just how worthy he is to become King.  After the coronation, Logue helps him make a speech over the radio to the country, announcing that England has gone to war with Germany in 1939.  Though said slowly, the speech is said clearly, and King George VI joins his family afterward to wave calmly at his people from the balcony, as Logue looks on from behind.

Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter

I think the most surprising performance was that of Helena Bonham Carter.  I'd seen her in A Room with a View, so I knew she could act like a somewhat normal person, but it's been so long that I've seen her in anything that didn't constitute a Tim Burton fantasy that I was a little shocked to see her portraying the Queen Mum so sedately.   She is the rock of this movie, determinedly and oh-so-politely doing everything she can to help her husband, whom it is clear she loves so much.  Even so, Bonham manages to let a little of her own wicked sparkle show through.  She's the Queen Mum, but as a young woman in love with a family.  Bonham does more than play the Queen; she makes you realize why the prince loves her so much.

Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue
Geoffrey Rush is another great actor moving about this film.  He is Firth's antithesis, glibly running around and poking him when he sits too stiffly.  But there is a vulnerability apparent as well.  When with his famous patient, he pretends to know everything, with all the confidence of a doctor.  But alone, and with his family, Rush makes Logue's insecurity show though.  What if he can't cure the future King?  What will his family think?  Is he, a failed actor, really worth the trust that such a man is reluctantly giving him.  Rush could have played Logue as an eccentric Henry Higgins--instead he allows the character to emerge as a much more complicated and vulnerable man.

King George VI with his wife.


Colin Firth as King George VI
Which brings me to Colin Firth.  I recently saw an interview where he mentioned that he had played two other stammerers in his life.  And they had felt very different from this character, and from each other.  The stammer, he says, is not from technique or physical issues, but from an emotional problem.  He felt that this character was frustrated by a life of wanting to say something, and being unable to.  And the stutter in this film is really part of a the Prince's bigger emotional issues.  Firth brings his eternal likability to this film, but also a deep emotional trauma that he is fighting to work through.  It all comes naturally, never once do you feel something forced.

Queen Elizabeth and King George VI
I believe Colin Firth should get the Oscar, but that is something I will address in my next post.  However, I would like to encourage everyone to see this heartwarming historical film.  It is definitely more of a book club, Sunday-afternoon-with-mom kind of film, but I loved it nonetheless.

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