Friday, February 24, 2012

And the Winners Are...

The 84th Annual Academy Awards will air this Sunday. Some things I can predict for sure about the telecast are this: Billy Crystal will be funny and bring some much needed class to the show, there will be a lot of hyping up how movies aren't just video games anymore and, no matter what is going on outside, the Academy still values the movies that keep the magic and wonder of film alive. This despite how, outside of those nominated, and even some of those too, hardly anything released in 2012 will become a timeless classic.

Still, the Oscars continue to exist in all their prestige and glory and no matter how much we would like to believe otherwise, are a yearly staple for film lovers, especially those bloggers who feel compelled to write daily posts and predictions and updates leading up to the show. So, here is what I predict the show will look like in the major categories:

Best Foreign Language Film:

What Will Win: A Separation
What Should Win: A Separation

There's no real logic to this category for me. Every year I pick the film I feel the most people are talking about. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.

Best Animated Feature:

What Will Win: Rango
What Should Win: Rango

This is a hard one. Most years it's Pixar vs the world. Not only did they not make the cut this year but there's also two films nominated that not many people in North America will have heard of. Last year, despite it truly being the best animated film, The Illusionist lost, so I'm discrediting those. Dreamworks has two spots but both of them were entertaining but thin, while Rango was the true surprise in that it appealed, not just to kids and not just to adults, but to the entire family without being winky or self referential. I hope it wins.

Best Adapted Screenplay:

What Will Win: The Descendants
What Should Win: The Descendants

In a lesser year Alexandr Payne's The Descendants would have been a front runner to sweep all the major awards. Seeing as this is a writer's movie and the Academy hasn't been afraid to honour Payne's writing in the past, this should be an easy call.

Best Original Screenplay:

What Will Win: Midnight in Paris
What Should Win: Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris is not only also a writers movie but it is a love letter to writing as a whole. That factored in with the fact that this has been Woody Allen's most successful movie and how Oscar loves a comeback should seal the deal over The Artist.

Best Director:

Who Will Win: Michel Hazanavicius

Who Should Win: Terrance Malick

The DGA has spoken and Oscar rarely ever disagrees. The director of the Artist will beat out the old masters, despite him having his name on the least interesting film of the batch. Will Oscar throw a curve ball and give it to Scorsese? I have my doubts.

Best Supporting Actress:

Who Will Win: Octavia Spencer
Who Should Win: Melissa McCarthy

The Oscars don't often honour character acting, especially in comedy. They much prefer "Hollywood acting" which is exactly the card that McCarthy doesn't hold. I'm often curious if the voters also take into mind what would make for good TV and after her teary standing ovation at the Golden Globes, who could deny Octavia Spencer the win?

Best Supporting Actor:

Who Will Win: Christopher Plummer
Who Should Win: Christopher Plummer

Plummer is a legend. Not only is his time due but look at his competition. This one is a no brainer.

Best Actress:

Who Will Win: Viola Davis
Who Should Win: Michelle Williams

This is going to be the year Oscar isn't going to be racist with the big acting awards. But Oscar also loves it when Actors play real people (especially one of Hollywood's own), so could Michelle Williams possibly sneak in with an unexpected win?

Best Actor:

Who Will Win: Jean Dujardin
Who Should Win: George Clooney

The Academy will honour the star of The Artist for no better reason than that we can't believe anyone anymore who could A) act in a silent movie while B) looking just like a silent movie star. Much more compelling, subtle and complex was Clooney who managed to shed his movie star hunk image to play a wounded everyman just trying to do what he thinks is best for himself and his family.

Best Picture:

What Will Win: The Artist
What Should Win: Tree of Life

My problem with The Artist, although not as deep, is the same as my problem with Drive: they confidently show that they are able to create homage to bygone days but, really, so what? The Artist is an entertaining but thin yarn about silent movies and the effect the emergence of sound had on the stars. And since this is the year Hollywood decided to go retro The Academy will award the film that went the most retro and picked up the most awards along the way. If Hugo had performed better at the box office and with the year end criticis' awards it would have been the undeniable front runner. Tree of Life, on the other hand was the most beautiful, personal, poetic and profound statement any film made this year. If it had come out 40 years ago it would be a timeless classic, but it also required the audience to work to find meaning in it and that's not okay anymore. Therefore the grand poet of the cinema and America's greatest living director will be put behind the film that knew how to rehash the old conventions in the most obvious and simplistic way. Sigh.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

One Minute Review: The Beaver

The Beaver is one of the strangest movies I have ever seen. It's problem is that it's too sophisticated in it's drama, which also means it's not funny enough in it's comedy. It's two different movies melded together with neither part understanding why they are in the same room together.

The idea behind The Beaver, about a man suffering from severe depression helps to find himself again by taking on the persona of a talking beaver hand puppet, is kind of a great one. There would be several ways to take the material: a dark comedy about a man who rebuilds himself from rock bottom to great success through the help of a hand puppet, or an offbeat but endearing indie comedy in the same vein as Lars and the Real Girl or Little Miss Sunshine. But cast Mel Gibson and Jody Foster (who also directs), and all of a sudden the movie is too classy and too sophisticated. It becomes a real family drama which only underlines the inherent strangeness of the beaver puppet in the first place.

But the film, as a serious family drama, although slight, is well shot and acted (it's hard to remember the last modern movie to feature shots that last long enough to comprehend what they are comprised of) and completly checks out, except for the strange concept of this beaver puppet. We just don't buy it from Mel Gibson who has grown through the movies as a persona which is boyish and likable, not unhinged and diluted. And Jody Foster, smart, classy, can't be expected, as this man's wife, to be the type to put up with this quirky nonsense.

So what we're left with are a couple of confused paths this narrative could have followed and the odd curiosity of just who someone thought this movie was going to appeal to? It's too classy to be hip and funny, too earnest to be edgy and alternative and yet too quirky to be taken seriously as drama. If it had just picked a major, it could have been brillant.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Filmic Measures: The Dinner Table Rule

The Dinner Table Rule came about many long years ago when I was writing a review for the forgettable Owen Wilson/Matt Dillon/Kate Hudson comedy You, Me & Dupree. In the closing paragraph of said review I noted that I thought in order for mainstream comedies to work they have to feature characters who you'd feel comfortable enough inviting into your home to sit at your dinner table. "I wouldn't invite Dupree to my table," I wrote. "I don't know if he'd make it or burn it down."

Then, yesterday, when writing about Bad Teacher, I remembered the dinner table rule again. I wouldn't invite Cameron Diaz's Elizabeth to my table either. She's too selfish and self centered. She'd simply take advantage. Now think of the comparison I made for that movie with Bad Santa. I'd be more than happy to have Billy Bob Thorton's Willy over for dinner. There's a lot of things I'd like to ask him about. There is, after all, something kind of morbidly sweet in the affection he feels for the kid who presents him with a wooden pickle covered in his own blood for Christmas.

You see the Dinner Table Rule doesn't necessarily mean that you like the person you'd invite over (although it helps). It means that there has to be enough human depth presented in a character to intrigue you to want to learn more. Thorton isn't a nice guy in Bad Santa, but he's not a bad guy either. He's just a bum who's never had an outlet to give a damn about anything before. He is, in his own special way, still capable of good. I'd like to talk to him about that.

But Dupree was a lose cannon and Matt Dillon's affection for him was inexplicable. He screwed up everything he touched. Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher simply exploited every situation she was faced with for her own personal gain. And if any of those old hags from Sex and the City ever come around my neighbourhood I'm putting the whole house on lock down.

But how fun would it be to sit down with Emma Stone in Easy A or just about every movie she's been in, or Ryan Gosling from Crazy Stupid Love, Steve Carell from Dan in Real Life or even Jason Biggs from American Pie? Would anyone reject the opportunity to sit down for a meal with any character from John Hughes' classic 80s teen comedies? And let me tell you, if Loyld Dobler from Say Anything ever swung by I'm not sure I'd ever let him leave.

The point is that a dinner is personal. It's to be shared with people we known and who interest us. We don't let any random stranger off the street into our house. We invite the people over who we want to share an intimate setting with where we can engage in fun banter as well as get to know each other better. The characters thus, that we would invite over, are the ones who have connected with something in us on the human level. We see some of ourselves in them and they've shared something personal with us through their respective films. We want to know more, maybe even be friends.

That's what mainstream comedy needs. It needs to feel like we are being invited into a world and sharing a comedic situation with someone we could see ourselves liking in real life. We want to see good things happening to good people because we're good people as well. We wouldn't invite over the hopeless cynics, the selfish morons or the guys just trying to get laid. Sure, Billy Bob might eat all the chocolate from the advent calender, try to find the hidden safe and take advantage of my kindness, but he would also not fail to get me the Christmas present that I want, even if it is covered in his own blood.

Monday, February 13, 2012

One Minute Review - Bad Teacher

Bad Teacher is yet another example of Hollywood's fear of making adult movies for adult audiences. So what we have here is a sitcom, laced with f-bombs and other naughty expletives, cast with stars instead of actors to appeal to the widest market, which ultimately means the lowest common denominator. But the film doesn't work. It takes what should have been a very direct subject and tries to make it acceptable to as large an audience as possible, which also means, unfortunately, it isn't very funny.

The biggest fault is that, it's main character played by Cameron Diaz, isn't a good teacher to be sure, but she also isn't really all that bad either. But of course she isn't or Cameron Diaz wouldn't have been cast. Movies about unlikable people generally don't work as mainstream comedy. Look at Bad Santa, a film both as quirky as it is brutally and apologetically pitch black. That film revolved around a performance by an actor who wasn't afraid to play one mean SOB and it didn't try to appeal to anyone else. And so there's the problem: Bad Teacher is so focused on the "concept" that Diaz is playing a bad person that it fails to get personal with her badness and really expand it into a real character. As an idea, Bad Teacher potentially works. As a finished film it never seems to have gotten beyond the idea stage.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Top Ten Films of 2011

Back when I started writing about movies, making these lists was my favorite part of the job. Now, all these years and so so many films later, they’re a pain. What do they prove? And, with so many people writing them all at the same time of the year, which ones do we read and which ones do we ignore? This thus, isn’t a list of the 10 best movies of the year but a list of the 10 movies I enjoyed most in 2011. That’s what every list is despite what the author would lilke to believe. No one knows the 10 best movies in a year because no one has seen every movie made in a given year. Anyone who tells you otherwise probably wrote a list for the ignore pile.

So what stands out about 2011? It’s a year in which Hollywood went a little old school. They started reaching back into the past and pulling out old trends: action movies gave us character over explosions; romance gave us love over gimmickry; sci-fi gave us ideas over spectacle and homage became the new reboot. It’s just the start. There’s still a lot of work to do (Hollywood still doesn’t fully trust movies based on original ideas or that are aimed strictly at an adult audience), but we’re getting there and at the end of the day, my ten favourite films this year are more memorable, have more longevity and will probably be more likely to be rediscovered in the years to come than in the past several years.

Without any further adieu, the Honourable Mentions in no particular order:
Public Speaking, Winnebago Man, The Adjustment Bureau, My Dog Tulip, Source Code, Water for Elephants, Fast Five, Best Worst Movie, Buried, The Switch, Bridesmaids, Nowhere Boy, Flipped, Mesrine (both parts), Monsters, Catfish, Jack Goes Boating, Book of Eli, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Date Night, Made in Dagenham, Tangled, Fair Game, Looking for Eric, Biutiful, 50/50, Tron: Legacy, Essential Killing, The Rite, Disgrace, The Artist, Carlos, Hanna, Cyrus, Fish Tank, Horrible Bosses, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Pina

10. The Muppets – Both a tribute to the classic format of the Muppets variety show and a new entry into the Muppet movie series, The Muppets, for the first time in a long time, gets exactly right what made Jim Henson’s creations so special in the first place: personality. The Muppets rose above being simply felt and plastic because they possess qualities that the audience could see in themselves. Not much for plot (the Muppet movies never were) the movie is uproariously funny, exciting and is the rare family movie that will appeal as much to the kids discovering these characters for the first time as the parents who grew up with them the first time around.

9. Blue Valentine – An honest and unflinching look at a couple who got together young, didn’t know what to do for one another because they never matured into knowing what to do for themselves and now are married, unhappily, and going through the motions one day at a time. A film that is unstylzed and uncluttered, it’s success hinges on the performances of its two leads and in Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling finds actors who are willing to put their scars on full display.

8. Take Shelter - We live in fear every day. That’s just the way life goes whether you realize it or not. We live in fear of disease, plagues, crimes, war, death, God, the realization that one day nature will probably destroy us all, that is, of course, if the earth doesn’t crash into the sun or another planet first. That’s how Curtis (Michael Shannon) lives his life in Jeff Nichols’ eerie and affecting drama Take Shelter. This is a film for our current times and yet is also quite, reflective and, in it’s own special way, biblical, leading up to a challenging conclusion that isn’t afraid to leave audiences with something to ponder on their way out.

7. Beginners – Not quite a drama and not quite a comedy, Mike Mills’ Beginners shies away from every opportunity to become no more than simply a quirky indie dramadey by alternating evenly between two time periods: one of joy and discovery and one of death and self-analysis. The movie encompasses a lot of what one could consider “themes” and yet never burdens itself with becoming about one of them. It’s the story of its characters, living their lives, on their own terms, the best way they can. Christopher Plummer, will win an Oscar for his performance here.

6. Midnight in Paris – Here is a film that proves it is okay to make something for a select audience and let it find them over time. Woody Allen writes and directs three separate love letters here: one to Paris, one to writing and one to the 1920s. It’s a smart and literate film for smart and literate people. It doesn’t belittle it’s subjects in order to appeal to a mass audience but respects them and pays tribute to them, all the while wrapping this up in a story that is warm and funny and, like Paris itself, eternal.

5. The Descendants – Alexander Payne has made a career out of making small movies on large canvasses. The Descendants is a quite and reflective film, so much so that it will take a while to sneak up on you and reveal its true impact. It’s a film about family and history and persevering that in the best way we know how. And Payne, known often as a satirist from his early work, has matured into one of America’s most generous humanists, allowing all of his character the depth and understanding they deserve while never passing judgement. Hawaii has never, in turns, looked so beautiful and yet so common on film.

4. Shame – A brutal film on a brutal subject. Michael Fassbender is fearless in his performance as an upper class New York sex addict. Director Steve McQueen is merciless in his unblinking honesty, never turning the camera away from the truth of the subject, following this character, not to his demise, but to his rock bottom, making the film even more intense and powerful in return.

3. Le Havre – Finnish master Aki Kaurismaki is at his warmest and most deadpan in Le Havre, a quite, offbeat and strangely funny look at two people who come into each other's lives and help each other for the better. Simple descriptions do nothing to speak to the brilliance and uniqueness of Kaurismaki and his artistic voice. You haven’t seen another movie like this unless, of course, you’ve seen another Aki Kaurismaki movie, to take a line from Roger Ebert.

2. Hugo – Martin Scorsese makes what could very well be his most personal film. It is a grand family adventure unlike any Scorsese has made before that slowly and poignantly morphs into a love letter to the cinema and touches on the value of preserving its past without any of the heavy-handedness that such a description could imply. No single film made me happier this year with its boundless wonder and joy than this one. A testament to the power that movies once held and the power of what they can still be.

1. Tree of Life – Some filmmakers used to set out to make masterpieces. Not anymore. Tree of Life is a rare jewel to be savoured and treasured as we explore it’s every nook and cranny and revel in the unravelling of its deepest mysteries. A film epic in scope and yet intimate in execution, it aims to do no less than tell the story of the creation of the universe revolving around the trials and tribulations of one southern family. But this is not just a film, it is a poem, a prayer, a spiritual experience that reaches for profound highs and touches them all. A film to be ranked, in ambition and scope, among America’s greatest epic masterpieces: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Mulholland Drive, Magnolia and so many more. There may never be another movie like this. Cherish it while it is here.