Saturday, March 27, 2010

Sherwood Forest in Cannes

The news has broken that Ridley Scott's updated version of Robin Hood, starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, will open this year Cannes Film Festival on May 12. It's Mr. Scott's third appearance at the festival to date starting with The Duelists and Thelma and Louise. It will open out of competition and follows a long line of recent would-be Hollywood blockbusters that opened the prestigious film festival. Past big time Hollywood movies to open Cannes include Moulin Rouge!, Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones, The Da Vinci Code, to last years Up. I don't quite know how I feel about this trend personally-- I totally understand that as a business it's ideal to have a huge premiere for the worlds most famous film festival, but shouldn't Cannes be sacred at least a little bit. I've always been fascinated by Cannes far more than any other film festival because of the richness of film history and sort of grand semblance that it means for filmmaking. I understand my fascination is covered in filmic ideals that probably don't exist, but isn't that supposed to be the allure of film festivals-- the sense of discovering about the very best (and worst) the world has to offer. Robin Hood opens in the United States on May 15 to a million screens everywhere-- there's seems no need to hype something that will be readily available to everyone, right? Anyhow, I'll conclude this rant, I hope it sounds coherent. In other Cannes-related news, Tim Burton will be heading the jury this very vangaard!

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Runaways

"It's not about women's lib, it's about women's libido," bellows a blistering Michael Shannon (as eccentric music producer Kim Fowley) in The Runaways. The film, written and directed by Floria Sigismondi, tells the typical rise and fall story of the titular band, a trailblazor for rock girls. Set in 1975, where a group of proto-rock\punk girls including Joan Jett and Cherie Curie got their starts. As produced and manufactored by Fowley, the film understands that the success of "The Runaways" really never had anything to do with the music, it was the sale of sex, notably jailbait sex. Of course this is also the film being keenly marketed as the movie where Twilight co-stars Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning make out. Some things never change. However, there is an interesting anecdotal resonance with the story of "The Runaways," not just in the all-female rock star way, or even necessarily in the minors behaving sexually explicit way; in that the band, much like The Sex Pistols shortly before lived in that in-flux of music movements that tapped in to a sort of anarchic spirit. The move from rock (or even glam rock) into punk. The great irony is that both bands were developed and conceived and trained by alledgedly unethical ways by warped managers.

Happily, there are moments in The Runaways that make you forget the novelty of the Stewart and Fanning-ish, were the period feels geniune. The band proclaims early on, that they play slow songs, and the first hour or so, loudly rejoices in that. The defiant sexual lyrics of "Cherry Bomb," the bands biggest song, literally made up on the spot, as the film surposes-- all tease and mass sex appeal. The song still feels vulgar even in a decade post-Britany Spears. The seemingly unnatural sight of Dakota Fanning purring the ch-ch-ch actually feels right. These are young girls, probably more innocent than they pretend to be, twitching and posing, which it seems is what the band did. As time goes on, and they go on the road (even to Japan, where "The Runaways" were far more successful), and the cliches of band movies come in full throttle. Drugs, sex, in-fights, etc. It's all here sorted carefully, and yet the film is still a fairly lively, and utterly watchable affair. And of course, we do indeed get to see Stewart and Fanning make out, yet for the teasing and preening, the film version never comes across shocking.

Part of that reason has to be the performances. Stewart and Fanning admirably go the alternative route, but it never feels like either of them truly transcends it. Fleeting moments work, like when Stewart's Joan Jett pees on a guys guitar just for the hell of it, or when Fanning's Cherie Curie lipsynchs to David Bowie at a school talent contest, but for large stretches it feels like safe make believe. Especially in the final act of The Runaways where the music slows down-- the adrenaline rush breaks and the film feels the need to aim higher. We've seen collectively in movies so many times before the decline of a band, or anything of some kind of prominence, that it probably needs a far more deft, and subtle crew than this one to come down here. A bigger problem for the film is that the relationship between these gals isn't really developed to give a strong emotional response. We meet Joan first buying a men's leather jacket to sharp criticism, and I suppose we just assume here's our rebel, and that's about it. She's also got a thing for the ladies, but that's not really enough of an accord to Cherie.

On the front of Kristen Stewart, a lightening rod of an actress, that sparks vehement debate-- the question wages on. She has the look for sure to pull this off, but that eternal Twilight glare still seems to haunt her acting. She has a sort of twitchy, almost interesting internal performance going on here for most of the film, but we really all to see Joan Jett scream, and hold forth that sort of dominance. Stewart, to her credit, pulls it off a few times, and that's sort of my frustration with her-- I think I see a shred, or possibly a real gift in her, but it never seems to completely satisfy.

The real power, and what I wished was the focal point was Fowley. As played by the incredible Michael Shannon, he brings that anarachistic transitional phase in music to blistering life. He may well be deplorable, and certainly exploitative, but he understood far more than anyone else the appeal of "The Runaways" in late 70s America, or Japan. Have them scream and be loud, wear skimmpy clothes, and do exactly what he tells them to do. B-

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

No doubt everyone has heard and likely already seen Tim Burton's remake\revisit\sequel whatchamacallit based on Lewis Carroll's beloved druggie absurdest tale Alice in Wonderland. Only this time, right on the throes of Avatar it's presented as a 3-D extravaganza. And in the fashion of a big-time Disney film meeting the creative mind of Mr. Burton and his collective muses Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, this Alice has the sort of magic of corporate branding, rather than movie joy. Which is odd because it's that movie joy that always Burton's gift to cinema. Only now, in a film that really seems like a great fit, that gift is reduced to a dithering, meandering, particularly dull affair. That gothic sense of humor, along with that innocence that permeated Burton's best work (Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice) feels so stifled. Even the production values, which are always top of the line in a Burton film, kind of look a bit shoddy here, or at least derivative. That sense of awe in a late 80s\early 90s Burton film seems to be slowly filtering away to allure of conglomerative dollar signs.

In this incarnation, written by Linda Woolverton (Beauty & the Beast) and loosely based on Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass and Jabberwocky, Alice is 19 and returning to Wonderland from a long absence since childhood. The concept is that she believed it was all a dream in the first place. She's living in a very Victorian London, dreading a future as a wife to dull duke, and hopelessly in search of a very independent, if anachronistic, life of her own. The brightest spot, and indeed really the only silver lining, is the beguiling young actress playing Alice. Mia Wasikowska is charming and completely enjoyable, gently giving a fresh spin and lovely sense of humor to the precedings. She's definitely one to watch for.

As she falls down the rabbit, she meets the Wonderland usuals-- Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter (decorated to max for Johnny Depp), the evil Queen of Hearts (for Ms. Carter), and the etereral White Queen (Anne Hatheway.) The story, which oddly seems to channel everything from The Chronicles of Narnia to The Matrix-- Alice's return is seen as prophetic, as she is the only one who can save Wonderland (or Underland, as it called) from the ruins caused by the Queen of Hearts. The only way to do that is to slay the nefarious Jabberwocky. The suffering element of this very oddly paced film is that there's so much overstuffed plotting in the way, that a cohesive story really doesn't exist. Not that that really is supposed to matter; this is Tim Burton's Wonderland, it's supposed to reveal in that magical production design and Danny Elfman scored oddness. And it's in 3-D! Except that for it's colorful moments, the film seems to sputter and dull out on us very early on in the film. As for the 3-D-- well it's no Pandora.

For a perplexing film, I was left ruminating on the very talented and wasted potential of Depp and Carter. The Mad Hatter and the Queen of Hearts play right up to their specialities, but this time it left rather a bad taste in my mouth. I long to see these two playing actual characters; they're both very good at that, and here playing cartoons for the seemingly umpteenth time, only raised the already derivative quotient. Depp, for his measure, did give us a slight respite last summer tackling John Dillinger in Public Enemies, but that doesn't feel quite enough. Is he forever tapped to play cartoony characters in theme park movies. As grand as his Jack Sparrow role was, has it ruined the very potential of one of cinema's most sparkling actors. And Carter, always pleasing as a manical drama queen possibly needs a break from Burton; I almost miss her humble beginnings in Merchant Ivory films. C-

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Please Give

Please Give
is the latest film from Nicole Holofcener, the talky, female-driven auteur behind Walking and Talking, Friends With Money, and the lovely and amazing Lovely & Amazing. I always look forward to her films, because I strongly believe the dialogue in her films is among and smartest and funniest in current cinema, and because she always gives the wonderful Catherine Keener a plum role. We shall soon see if her latest gifts to up-and-coming actressses like Amanda Peet and Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) are treated as such. The film already successfully played the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals, and arrives in April.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Best Actress Quandary

Just a quickly as Sandra Bullock won the best actress Oscar for The Blind Side, I began to struggle to hold it together. How could I find logic with a major award going to a performance that I didn't quite admire in a film I out and out didn't like. And then it dawned on me-- the Academy has been doing this sort of thing with this sort of category since it's history. It's hard, really really hard to find the last time that the Academy and myself have agreed on best actress. The oddity, of course, it that it's probably my favorite category. There always seems to be more drama involved, so more investment for me. The last time Oscar and me agreed was likely in 1996 when Frances McDormand won for Fargo, a win that still shocks me to this day. She was the best that year, and think it's hard to disagree with that. That past decade in best actress land was:

2000: Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich
2001: Halle Berry, Monster's Ball
2002: Nicole Kidman, The Hours
2003: Charlize Theron, Monster
2004: Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby
2005: Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line
2006: Helen Mirren, The Queen
2007: Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose
2008: Kate Winslet, The Reader
2009: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side

The most satisfying win on my part was likely Roberts in Erin Brockovich. Not that I would've voted for her necessarily-- my vote would have been for Ellen Burstyn for Requiem for a Dream, or on another given day perhaps Laura Linney for You Can Count on Me, but Roberts was sublime in the Soderbergh docudrama, in a nicely crafted pure movie star performance, which done right (like Nicole Kidman did in Moulin Rouge! and the un-nominated The Others) is a thing of gold, and Oscars. And while I don't intend to be distasteful because none of those ten women were detestable, or even embarrassing choices on the Academy standpoint, they just weren't the pantheon of riches it could and should be. For example, on the flipside, the Oscar choices for best actor and my personal taste often overlap; I'm never really disappointed or nearly as passionate up in arms about it-- Sean Penn winning for Milk or Daniel Day-Lewis winning for There Will Be Blood-- how can I argue with that kind of unparralled greatness.

Another thing that kind of does sicken me about some of these choices (especially the winners of 2001-2004) was that pretty ladies Berry, Kidman, Theron and Swank were deemed Oscar-able for "de-glamming" a part of which I never liked. One could judge these four performances till the end of time (I don't think any of them are bad, nor great), but it was distasteful from my perspective that an actress had to "ugly" themselves up to be taken seriously for their craft. Fortunately, the winners after that, to varying degress, were allowed to pretty on screen, even sexualized in the case of Kate Winslet in The Reader.

But I do find it dismaying that in practically ever other award the Academy provides there's a greater meeting of their eyes and mine, except this one. I do realize that my taste differ slightly (and sometimes largely) from the Academy. I tend to champion smaller, little seen fare a bit more. I tend to like films that may be a bit too challenging for the Academy's taste. I heartily agree. But I also think that the girls are given more a chance to showcase themselves in smaller films, and foreign films for that, than in big Hollywood. This is hardly a new arguement, there's always been rampart sexism in the industry, and pretty much everything on the subject has already been said. But I want to know why the best actress divide is so dominant when I fully admire, or at least appreciate the other acting winners: Jeff Bridges, Christoph Waltz, and Mo'Nique were all exquiste choices, if predicatable, no complaints. That's my point!

My choices for best actress this decade:

2000: Ellen Burstyn, Requiem for a Dream (nominated\lost)
2001: Naomi Watts, Mulholland Drive (not nominated)
2002: Julianne Moore, Far From Heaven (nominated\lost)
2003: Evan Rachel Wood, Thirteen (not nominated)
2004: Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (nominated\lost)
2005: Joan Allen, The Upside of Anger (not nominated)
2006: Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal (nominated\lost)
2007: Laura Linney, The Savages (nominated\lst)
2008: Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky (not nominated)
2009: Tilda Swinton, Julia (not nominated)

I get that the Oscars are really a popularity contest, and perhaps I'll close with that. The aggraviting thing about Sandra Bullock's win is really that I want to be outraged and disillusioned by it, but her speech was so clever and wonderful. The damn warmth of that woman making me come across evil while she wittily begrudges George Clooney for throwing her in a pool, and calling Meryl Streep her lover. The speech was more Oscarable in my book than the corny performance, but I can't hate on her too much more now can I. I am, like a trained seal, required to watch in horror whoever wins my favorite award next year.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Academy Award Winners

PICTURE: The Hurt Locker
DIRECTOR: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
ACTOR: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
ACTRESS: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: The Hurt Locker- Mark Boal
ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Precious- Geoffrey Fletcher
FOREIGN FILM: El Secreto de sus Ojos
ART DIRECTION: Avatar- Rick Carter, Robert Stromberg & Kim Sinclair
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Avatar- Mauro Fiore
COSTUME DESIGN: The Young Victoria- Sandy Powell
FILM EDITING: The Hurt Locker- Bob Murawski & Chris Innis
ORIGINAL SCORE: Up- Michael Giacchino
ORIGINAL SONG: "The Weary Kind," Crazy Heart; by T-Bone Burnett & Ryan Bingham
MAKE-UP: Star Trek
SOUND MIXING: The Hurt Locker
SOUND EDITING: The Hurt Locker

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Final Oscar Predictions

PICTURE: The Hurt Locker
Even with the latest controversies- the rogue producer Nicholas Cartier's fall from grace. For the uninitiated, he is a producer of The Hurt Locker, who sent e-mails, allegedly to Academy members saying to vote for his movie, and not the $500 million blockbuster. This is a no-no for the Academy, as an out and out smear campaign is against the rules, and his ticket was taken away from him...he will still win an Oscar even if he's not allowed in the building. Also screenwriter Mark Boal was recently sued claiming the main character was based on a particular soldier. For all these recent struggles, I'm still going with it, because well it's the best. Not that matters with Oscars often, but it's still the likely frontrunner, with Avatar a close second.

DIRECTOR: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Because it's history, and because it's time...I think everyone know that, and plus even if Avatar sneaks in for the top award, no one is blaming Bigelow for The Hurt Locker's recent nastiness.

ACTOR: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Because again it's time, however I concede a possible spoiler for Jeremy Renner-- if it happens, I called it.

ACTRESS: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
One of the only times I've ever really wanted to be wrong, but alas, I confess, that it's looking harder and harder to argue against her....please let me be ego will not be hurt.

SUPPORTING ACTOR: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
No contest, as it should be...he'll be the third straight villain to win supporting actor-- Javier Bardem (for No Country For Old Men) and Heath Ledger (for The Dark Knight.)

She dominated the everything for her bravura performance, but supporting actress sometimes offers surprises against frontrunners: Juliette Binoche for The English Patient a prime example.

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Inglourious Basterds
The hardest major category to predict-- I think it's Basterds vs. The Hurt Locker, with a potential Up spoiler. If the recent controversies hurt Locker in any way I think it will happen here instead, plus Tarantino's been everywhere this season, and he's been popular.

The only award Up in the Air has a shot at, and it's the clear leader, but I'd love an In the Loop shocker-- probably only in my dreams.

It's the clear favorite with a best picture nomination, but I still think Fantastic Mr. Fox might be a possible spoiler.

FOREIGN FILM: El Secreto de sus Ojos
COSTUME DESIGN: The Young Victoria
FILM EDITING: The Hurt Locker
SONG: "The Weary Kind," Crazy Heart
SOUND: Avatar
SOUND EDITING: The Hurt Locker
MAKE-UP: Star Trek

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Independent Spirit Awards

FEATURE: Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire
JOHN CASSAVETTES AWARD (film with a budget of $500,000 or less): Humpday
DIRECTOR: Lee Danels, Precious
ACTOR: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
ACTRESS: Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
SCREENPLAY: (500) Days of Summer- Scott Neustradter & Michael H. Weber
FIRST SCREENPLAY: Precious- Geoffrey Fletcher
DOCUMENTARY: Anvil! The Story of Anvil
FOREIGN FILM: An Education
CINEMATOGRAPHY: A Serious Man- Roger Deakins
SOMEONE TO WATCH AWARD: Kyle Patrick Alvarez, Easier With Practice (director)
ROBERT ALTMAN AWARD (given to ensemble and casting director): A Serious Man
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