Sunday, January 31, 2010

Academy Awards 2010: Nomination Predictions

Tuesday is the day the nominations come out. As per last year, here are my predictions for this year's nominations. I don't think there are too many surprises, this year. Most of the winners will likely be as they should - except where the huge Avatar field distorts the selections.

Original Screenplay
James Cameron - Avatar
Pedro Almodovar - Broken Embraces
Nancy Myers - It's Complicated
Mark Boal - The Hurt Locker
Quentin Tarantino - Inglourious Basterds

will win: James Cameron, Avatar
should win: Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker

Adapted Screenplay
Nick Hornby - An Education
Wes Anderson - Fantastic Mr. Fox
Joe Penhall - The Road
Geoffrey Fletcher - Precious
Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner - Up in the Air

will win: Geoffrey Fletcher, Precious
should win: Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air

James Cameron - Avatar
Lone Scherfig - An Education
Wes Anderson - Fantastic Mr. Fox
Katheryn Bigelow - The Hurt Locker
The Cohen Brothers - A Serious Man

will win: James Cameron, Avatar
should win: Katheryn Begelow, The Hurt Locker

Supporting Actress
Zoey Saldana - Avatar
Melanie Laurent - Inglourious Basterds
Penelope Cruz - Nine
Mo'Nique - Precious
Anna Kendrick - Up in the Air

will win: Mo'Nique, Precious
should win: Mo'Nique, Precious

Supporting Actor
Peter Sarsgaard - An Education
Christoph Waltz - Inglourious Basterds
Anthony Mackie - The Hurt Locker
Stanley Tucci - Julie and Julia
Rupert Friend - The Young Victoria

will win: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
should win: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

Best Actress
Hillary Swank - Amelia
Penelope Cruz - Broken Embraces
Meryl Streep - Julie and Julia
Carie Mulligan - An Education
Emily Blunt - The Young Victoria

will win - Emily Blunt, The Young Victoria
should win - Carie Mulligan, An Education

Best Actor
Sam Rockwell - Moon
Viggo Mortensen - The Road
Colin Firth - A Single Man
Robert Downey Jr. - Sherlock Holmes
George Clooney - Up in the Air

will win - George Clooney, Up in the Air
should win - Colin Firth, A Single Man

Best Film

With ten pictures to choose from this year, this could be a wide-open, zany category. Here's my shot at the ten we're most likely to see.


An Education
A Serious Man
Broken Embraces
Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
The Road
The Young Victoria
Up In the Air

will win: Avatar
should win: Up in the Air

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Young Victoria: A Royal Love Story

With two Elizabeth movies, Helen Mirren's The Queen, and a successful Showtime series about The Tudors, it seems a mini-genre has been created about the English royals and their saucy comings and goings and political intrigue; and especially about the way that various men close to power manipulate their Queens, and vice versa.

The latest entry in this genre, The Young Victoria - staring a perfectly cast Emily Blunt as the teenage Victoria, and Rupert Friend as her German suitor, Prince Albert - turns out to be a surprisingly tender and moving rendition of the form.

In the Victorian age (1837 - 1901) we're placed somewhere between the bloody intrigue of Elizabeth/The Tudors and the modern polite protocols of today's British Queen, so don't expect any heads to roll or battles to be raged in this outing. In fact, the Victorian era was Britain's high point of peace and prosperity, and the filmmakers are actually quite sly to make a film about the young queen rather than the old, for this is a tale of young hearts and true desire, yet while using the name of a woman ultimately associated with an age of fastidious virtue.

The young Victoria - the little girl being raised as a princess and heir to the throne in the early 1800's - is actually a precocious, lively spirit who is trapped herself in a world of repression by an overprotective mother and her scheming minister, Sir John Conroy, who wishes Victoria to sign the order that would make him official regent upon the death of the King. Victoria stubbornly refuses, innately distrusting Conroy, and knowing that her future is at stake.

It's not too difficult to discern Conroy's character given the way he treats Victoria's dog: variously coddling or kicking depending upon his mood. The dog becomes a stand-in for Victoria herself (a nicely used form of metonymy), and it may be with you - as it was with me - that the affection for dogs in this movie eventually softens your heart, and draws you even closer in to the character's fears and desires.

Even though they are royals, the schemes by various Kings and Uncles to have their way with Victoria's royal powers are portrayed with the kind of boisterous of feuding families - replete with birthday-party embarrassments and nuptial snubs. Only one man, it seems, has Victoria's true interests in mind. That man is the young, handsome Prince Albert, who even as he wins Victoria's heart, still must convince her that he's also worthy of her trust.

It actually surprised me, in the end, how the movie takes a turn away from historical melodrama towards passionate love story. This Queen is perhaps more than those that have come before someone our modern selves can relate to: a younger sister, perhaps, who must learn how to take her place in a dangerous world amongst self-interested family, and decipher with whom she can fully open her heart. Blunt wins us over into the dilemma of the character (as does Rupert Friend as Prince Albert), and even if the movie doesn't quite follow the official history, the ending becomes surprisingly moving, as any story of young people finding true love, told with feeling and felicity, ultimately can be.

It's interesting, then, that a movie genre with such a background of intrigue, social station, and politics ultimately becomes about something else: about the dynamics of young love, and how new lovers, who may be, in fact, the most inspired people on earth, can support the best in each other. It's a bit of a turn from where we started, with plots and contrivances to control the heir and manipulate the throne. But then, perhaps this is like the drift of the Victorian age itself, becoming less about power than about symbolism: and in the case of Victoria and Albert, symbolism for finding the goodness in other people, and using our station to improve the world.

And yes, I admit, I did get weepy in the end. But to be honest, I couldn't tell whether it was the love story, or simply sadness at how our current political life, dull and ruthless as it is, so misses such inspiring figureheads: both their stubborn courage, and their bright idealism.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

It's Complicated: William Sonoma Goes Hollywood

The past few weeks, there's been a corporate fight between Cablevision (my local cable channel) and Scripts (the producers of Home and Garden TV and the Travel Channel) that has resulted in HGTV being off the air.

It's been going on long enough that apparently my inner home-show gene activated its survival mechanism and forced me out to see It's Complicated, a barely concocted comedy for women of a certain age, staring Meryl Streep (as Jane) and Alec Baldwin (as Jake) as a divorced couple in their late fifties who discover they still have the hots for each other.

The plot of this inoffensive enough affair is of little consequence, but I do must say that the designer Santa-Barbara style house is fabulous, the flowers perfectly arranged, and food photography worthy of a cover spot on Martha Stewart Living. If William Sonoma were launching a cable channel, this would be its flagship film.

Until I saw this movie, I'd forgotten about the word "yuppie," but there doesn't seem a better adjective that one can trot out from the dictionary of Eighties slang than this to describe this languid affair. It's not so much that the couple in the film both exude the self-absorbed happy-peppy self-indulgence and pre-washed wealth of that over-exposed generation (Alec Baldwin's constant boyish celebration of his naked, unhealthy girth, rubbed in our faces with deluded intimations of supposed sexiness, strikes me as the perfect Yuppie metaphor); it's that the entire production has the feeling of mid-Eighties soap opera of the Dallas/Dynasty variety.

In some cases, the jokes are better (there's a nice zany bit about Jane and Jake being surreptitiously observed by their son-in-law while meeting for a quick poke at a local hotel, as well as a humorously staged scene of pot-induced dating revelations when Jane and her latest boyfriend - Alex, played with sleepy understatement by Steve Martin - and Jake and his wife attend a graduation party for their son). These bits are funny (I laughed, despite myself) and there's no doubt that the intended audience, women in their fifties and sixties, were thoroughly enjoying themselves.

The story is humorous enough when it needs to be, it's just that the self-satisfied wealth (Jane, who lives in a seaside Santa Barbara paradise worth - at least - several million buckaroos, find hers kitchen "limiting" and spends most of the movie planning an addition) and the oblivious narcissism of the characters (she is so out of touch with the world around her that her children are mere happy props in her home style decorations, and she needs a psychiatrist to tell her what to feel) made me want to hate this film, most of the time. Jane and Jake are essentially spoiled well-off sixty-year-old teenagers (there's no way she should could afford that house selling five dollar croissants at her Whole-Foods-ish boutique store): clearly this movie was in the can well before the economy crashed, since it now seems to come from a completely alien world of fantasy upper-middle-class luxury, as if that's the most relevant thing on people's minds.

There's no point summarizing the plot: it goes where you expect. Jane and Jake threaten to get back together, although there's the complicating inconveniences of a new boyfriend for Jane and an existing young wife and kid for Jake, until Jane wises up and realizes...I don't know, that that getting back with Jake wouldn't be complicated enough? That the movie needs a third act? It doesn't much matter.

Part of the problem may be Streep, who is a brilliant dramatic actress but imbues Jane with so much complex interiority that we take her predicament too seriously. Someone like Diane Keaton (who basically performed the same role in Nancy Meyer's earlier version of this story, Something's Gotta Give) would have been more over-the-top, with a heightened comedic reality that might have softened the yuppie ostentation a bit. Watching Streep pick perfect ripe tomatoes in her overstuffed, manicured garden while analyzing her affair with ex-husband Jake is a cliche almost to the point of creepiness: the scene had me ready to find a Saturday-Night-Live actor burst into the frame at any moment to make some self-aware postmodern remark about Jakob Krutzfeld disease or Haitian refugees or something else equally deflating. But unfortunately, that didn't happen.

I may be being too hard on this film. It's not like any animals were killed (though a few more cute dogs might have heightened my enjoyment), it's competently directed (even if Jane and Jake's three kids bounce and hug like Tellitubies every time they enter a scene), and it's certainly passable enough - and probably enjoyable, if you're the target demographic for stuff like this. If you're not, however, don't say I didn't warn you.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Broken Embraces: Almodóvar Matures

For the first hour of Broken Embraces, the latest soap opera from the flamboyant and prolific Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, you feel you are watching the director’s best film yet. At turns intriguing, surprising, mysterious, and human, the movie opens with an insight into character, memory, and personal history that’s keenly observant to the point of elevating this material above anything that has come from Almodóvar before.

Mateo Blanca (who has, for some mysterious reason, assumed an alias of “Harry Caine”) is a blind screenplay writer, who busies himself picking up sympathetic women on the streets to pass the time when he’s not being consumed by his latest inspiration. (Come to think of it, that could well be a straight version of our director, Almodóvar.) He’s being assisted in his writing life through the attentive care of a woman and younger man (Judit and Diego) – as we later find out, the woman is his former production manager, the young man her son. One fateful morning, a young man named Ray X shows up at Harry’s door, demanding to be seen. Ray X apparently knows much more about Harry’s life than a person should, and is threatening to write some kind of film, vaguely related to Harry’s past.

But of course, the star name in this movie is Penelope Cruz: who plays the character of Lena. Cruz doesn’t show up in the film until this moment, when Harry pulls out a photograph of her from his drawer to show it to his spooky, inquisitive visitor. But she is, indeed, the subject of the movie: Harry’s lost love, the tale of which we find out through an extensive flashback as Harry relates the story to the young Diego while he’s in the hospital, recovering from an unintentional overdose of GMBH.

The story that Harry relates about Lena – including her possessive boyfriend, the head of a powerful bank, as well as Ray X, the spooky young hopeful writer – eventually intersects with Judit and Diego, Harry’s devoted friends (one of whom has a fateful confession to make), and all the threads of the tale eventually come together as superb melodrama.

As my companion in the theater noted, Almodóvar is a kind of Spanish version of Woody Allen – providing knowing set pieces of lives of artistic import and modern relationships. Almodóvar just provides a few twists on the typical Woody Allen approach: more gay, more Spanish, more melodramatic, and more modern. That makes him more interesting – willing to fly a bit higher, and take a few more dramatic risks – and yet, like Woody, Almodóvar insists on bringing his films, at the end, back down to a simple tale of “slice of life” and the quiet desperations of his middle class characters.

We can see the tightly controlled tone of the first half of the movie loosening up as Almodóvar navigates his way to the end – jumping between heightened pathos and incidental slice-of-life. This modulation of high/low is a signature Almodóvar style that, at first, he seemed to be growing out of here. Though that’s a bit disappointing, the ending makes sense of what’s come before in a satisfying enough way: Ray X eventually provides the missing part of the story that Harry has been searching for: what actually happened that night that Harry (then Mateo) went blind, and lost Lena forever.

There are a few things I think Almodóvar might have done that might have tied up his themes a bit more neatly: for instance, why does Diego not hide from Harry, as has been hidden from him, the reality of that fateful moment, which has been captured, in delicious irony, on film? It seems an obvious opportunity to plumb Diego’s character, and its relationship to Mateo, that Almodóvar has missed. After all, in a story about history, memory, and innocence, the next generation is what an audience comes to care most about - and indeed, represents the concerns of a mature story-teller. Instead, Almodóvar seems to have become enamored of his recreation of his earlier movie – the film-within-a-film that’s his re-telling of Women of the Verge – which is a neat trick...but the kind of thing we might expect from a younger director, and not nearly as important to the story as the boy and his future has become.

Which is why Almodóvar’s focus in the last half hour of the film (after the momentous confessions begin) seems to be off – broader, scattered, with the humorous irony of his early films but lacking the confidence and subtly we’ve been treated to until this point. In the end, Broken Embraces is about how a movie director chooses to perceive – and edit – the painful and pleasurable moments of the past, as well as how we relive our histories through the lives around us. Almodóvar manages to keep that delicate tone in balance for most of the movie, and just a few more delicate scenes at the end to tie it all together would have made this a mature masterpiece, indeed.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Sherlock Holmes: Studio Sturm und Drang

Someone at Warner Brothers gave director Guy Ritchie a multi-million dollar budget and the script to Sherlock Holmes to create a holiday super-movie, and Ritchie did what one would expect: he created a Guy Ritchie movie, only with bigger stars and badder special effects. For some people, I suppose, that isn't such a bad thing, though the result bears little resemblance to a story by Arthur Conan Doyle.

To be fair, the plot to the movie was conceived before Ritchie came on board, so one can little blame him for the uninspiring story line of a British lord (played with all the expected deadpan seriousness by Mark Strong) who dabbles in the dark arts and escapes hangman's row to apparently come back from the dead in order to unleash the usual bits of death and destruction, in the process bedeviling the fact-obsessed Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and his intrepid sidekick, doctor Watson (Jude Law). There's little original here in the storyline of mystical occultism being faced down by twentieth century rational deduction, though the studio would apparently wish it so.

Which isn't to say that there isn't some outstanding talent behind the film. Ritchie, of course, brings his rough-and-tumble British low-life sensibility to the movie, imagining Holmes as a kind of roguish, professional boxing, deductive savant (effectively turning him into the kind of super-hero he probably wishes he had helming his earlier, lower budget outings, which were so much more effective for their simple roguishness and lack of high-tech pomposity). Holmes is effectively able to deduce within milliseconds on the fly and in stop-time slow motion (much as, I suppose, Stephen Hawkings is capable of imagining the entire mathematics of the birth of the universe in his head), though he lacks the basic social skills necessary to conduct a simple dinner conversation with Watson's new fiance. That's not to mention his uncanny James-Bond-like ability to disable even the most imposing of combatants (or five) with a few critically placed karate chops. That any of this is potentially possible is entirely besides the point: the point is whether Robert Downey Junior can turn the character into an entertaining spectacle of twitches, ticks, and nervous recitations for an hour and a half, which he effective does, earning, once again, my admiration for his most recent abilities (see Iron Man and Tropic Thunder).

Jude Law also handles his own as Downey's counterpart, keeping the toy of Holmes wound up as necessary and battling his own twin demons of gambling and an entirely uninteresting courtship with a superfluous lady friend (whose only purpose in the movie seems to be to keep us from fully realizing the entirely homo-attractive underpinnings of the Holmes/Watson relationship).

One sometimes gets lucky when one has a studio tent-pole movie budget to work with, and Ritchie basically does: his sound crew does an amazing job with the sound editing (expect the movie to be nominated here), and the art and set design is right-on, and no more clearly expressed than in the end credits, which are certainly the most beautiful part of the movie and the best credits seen in film since Lemony Snicket (if they nominated credits for Oscars, this movie would be a shoe in this year).

And yes, celebrating Downey's performance and the sound editing and ending credits of the film does mean that the rest of this baggy bundle has little to recommend it, but I do think that talent, even if found stuffed around the edges of a bloated studio popcorn flick, deserves its due. The dedication from the talented below-the-line crafts people - who create the rickety sets and the slow-motion explosions - is what basically keeps this movie afloat, delivering its ten dollars worth of holiday distraction.

Clearly, this is a movie conceived by studio producers (if one credits the Wikipedia article), and this is made no more clear than in the decision to hide the film's potentially most interesting villian - Moriarty, Holme's nemesis - entirely from view, as a set up for potential sequels. An outing between Downey's fidgety Holmes and the cool, chalky calculations of a Professor Moriarty might, indeed, be interesting. The only problem is that by the time we've gotten through this initial incarnation of the Holmes character, it's hard to know whether or not to care. A Holmes conceived as a socially inept detective-savant is an interesting idea, but without the incisive humor of, say, Jim Parson's Sheldon on CBS's "Big Bang Theory", such a character can get tiring, fast. If Warner Brothers does decide to take this property out for another outing, we'll need both a more original villain from the supposedly cleverer-than-Holmes Moriarty, as well as a little more well-placed humor.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Nine: A Play on Italian Cinema

What can I say about Rob Marshall's film version of the Broadway musical Nine other than, I wish he had pulled it off...and I wish I had seen the original play.

Nine, the play, is loosely based on the life of Federico Felllini - the cinematic auteur most associated with Italian neo-realism and, apparently, a womanizer who also suffered from depression, he was the director of the scandalous (for its time) La Dolce Vita. He also wrote the Oscar-nominated 8 1/2, a semi-autobiographical tour-de-force about a director named Guido with writer's block, which also happens to be the story underlying Nine.

In the movie Nine, the Italian director of note is Guido Contini, played with introspective intensity by Daniel Day-Lewis. Surrounding Guido is a bevvy of his women - I suppose you might call it the classical constellation of genius womanizing director's women, including Mother, Madonna (in the form of his set director), wife, mistress, celebrity, fan, and whore - played by a top-name cast, including, respectively, Sophia Lauren, Judy Dench, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, and singing sensation, Fergie. This is the same constellation we saw in Bob Fosse's All That Jazz, and really is a staple of both French new-wave and Italian neo-realist cinema.

Unfortunately, not all these actors are suited to bring this Broadway performance to the screen. And while Marshall's technique of interspersing filmic reality with a dream "Broadway" world worked so well to make the movie Chicago a success, it undermines the effect of Nine, dragging it down from what might otherwise have been a great and memorable production.

Because this movie really had more potential to be great than I think a lot of critics are giving it credit for (my favorite quip is MaryAnn Johanson saying that "Nine is to Italian cinema what Olive Garden is to Italian food"), let's address those two problems one at a time.

First, the casting. As in Chicago, Marshall has culled together a cast of some actors who can sing and dance (Hudson, Cruz), and some who really can't (Day-Lewis, Cotillard...and, my God, Lauren). Unfortunately, the songs in Nine aren't as brilliant as Fosse's Chicago - much more classical Broadway, and with a few clunky expository numbers - and therefore, really require talent to pull off. The movie skates along, starting with a clunker opening number from Day-Lewis and a few other big clunkers along the way, occasionally hitting patches of great performances (I finally woke up when Cruz sings "A Call from the Vatican", Fergie's "Be Italian" has the benefit of at least being a good song, and Hudson's "Cinema Italiano" is the highlight of the movie).

This would all be fine, if the serious actors who were unable to sing were at least giving the correct performances. Unfortunately, the actors treat the material as if it were serious drama - with both Day-Lewis and Cotillard giving small, intimate portrayals of lives being shattered - when what we need to have are big, outrageous performances that support the movie music. One might forgive Marshall for thinking that Day-Lewis was his man to provide an out sized performance of a rapacious, Italian womanizer (after all, his performances in both Gangs of New York and There will be Blood were huge). I don't know if the fault lies in the performer of the director, here, but Day-Lewis interprets this character via the intimate mumblings of a depressed director suffering a mental collapse, all curled in on himself and shrinking away from his own universe. That's exactly the wrong interpretation for this movie: what we need is a huge appetite (as we have from Roy Scheider in All That Jazz, or say, Peter O'Toole in The Stunt Man), a man whose actions are larger than life, who's charisma makes us understand why women flock to him, and who can carry the fantasy and justify the elaborate numbers. There's even a number - "Take It All," sung by Cotillard as Luisa Contini, Guido's wife - that's supposed to be the emotional apex of the movie, where Luisa laments how her husband is all appetite, and has completely consumed her, as she strips off her clothes in a fantasized strip-tease in front of him and a crowd of lusting men. Given the performances from Day-Lewis and Cotillard, however, the number makes no sense, since Guido hasn't been consuming life but shrinking away from it. It's a good number, and had the movie set it up correctly, could have been a powerful climax to the film, as Luisa strips herself naked in her attempt to break through the bubble of attention surrounding the self-absorbed director. But as performed, with Guido self-destructing and Luisa more angry than desirous, the number lacks resonance.

Throughout the movie, Day-Lewis's performance leaves a black whole at the center of the film, which becomes very hard for the other actors to fill, and like harsh lighting, is completely unflattering - almost to the point of embarrassment - on the weaker song-and-dance performers (Sophia Lauren and Nicole Kidman, in particular); while natural stars like Cruz and Hudson are able to pull off fabulous numbers in their own right. That's a harsh criticism to make of a brilliant actor like Day-Lewis, but the problem isn't the acting so much as the interpretation. Which brings us to the other big problem with the film.

Which is that this is a movie of a play about cinema, but unfortunately, Marshall missed, here, the critical metaphor of the play. Instead, he seems to have concluded that the formula for Chicago would work just fine here: treat the drama as reality, and the musical numbers as a fantasy inside the main character's head (in this case, the fantasy of the movie he's trying to make in his head). This approach leads Marshall to apply some very fine, neo-realistic techniques to the "reality" portions (one thinks of the direction of the boys on the beach in the "Be Italian" number, which is done with outstanding neo-realistic cinematography). In fact, the "realistic" portions of the film become a kind of hodge-podge tribute to Italian neo-realistic film techniques. Where this works best is in the fantasy numbers - like Hudson's "Cinema Italiano," where technique and performance come together brilliantly. However, in the rest of the movie, the reality of the technique undermines the high irony that gives the musical numbers their pleasure.

In other words, the animating idea behind the play, which makes the play interesting (I would think), is the fun ways that one can interpret the form of Italian neo-realism for the stage. Such interpretation involves taking the neo-realistic cinematic techniques out of the story and highlighting them as techniques for the stage audience, thus letting the audience enjoy the sensation of being so aware of film style (as aware as the director must be... and possibly why he has writer's block).

Marshall has taken those techniques and simply put them back into the form of his cinema. Which is to say that he simply re-creates the neo-realist style, leaving us without the heightened irony we would get from seeing it created in the stage play (the only place we get that irony is in the Hudson number).

This is unfortunate, since the style is copied by the unit directors in the film so assiduously. But it's copied too well - there's too little ironic highlighting of the style against the story for the audience to enjoy. It might have been better to inverse the formula: to film the story as a stage play, and make the cinematic moments be the moments of flights of fancy inside the director's head. That at least would have highlighted the cinematic techniques, and possibly led Marshall to find a central metaphor for his film.

Which, ultimately, is what's missing here, and why the movie doesn't seem to hang together. It's unfortunate that the movie opens with Guido lamenting how difficult it is to make a movie - how it's sometimes impossible for all the pieces to come together, suffused with the essential magic that makes them a whole - since this is the same problem this movie suffers from (which is why self-reference is always such a dangerous game).

What ultimately needs to make Guido's movie hang together, of course, is the force of his imagination. That force needs to be illustrated well for a movie like this to succeed - both for the characters who've fallen for him in the story - and those of us watching in the audience. The pieces are all here, but unfortunately, this time, the illustration is all wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed the premise of the story, and the idea of celebrating the high art of Italian neo-realism as a kind of low-brow Broadway kitch, and the idea of seeing a constellation of beautiful actresses perform the numbers with ironic style and bravura. Marshall just didn't make that movie, no matter how much I wish he had.