Concerning Oscar Predictions

The last paragraphs of my last three reviews were not predictions. They were what I felt the film actually deserved. I know that Jamie Foxx won’t get a nomination for Best Actor and that Silver Linings Playbook won’t get a nomination for Cinematography. However I honestly think they are deserved. I will do an actual oscar predictions post in a week or so which will have whether I feel certain nominations are deserved. So when reading those, remember these are what I feel are deserved, not what I feel will actually win.

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A Postmodern Comedy for a Postmodern Year of Film

Silver Linings Playbook – David O. Russell – 2012

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A Foreward: The critical mind of late (and by late I am only referring to film criticism, for this attitude has been a staple of modern thought for over a century) has been one which values originality over quality. Getting there first simply has more value than getting there with a better product. So Valentine’s Day (2010) will always be compared negatively to Love Actually (2003) and thus will be seen as a bad movie despite being a decent film in its own right. Infamous (2006) will never be given the credit its due because it was released the year after 2005’s, Oscar winning, Capote. With this review (and pioneered with my last for Django), I intend to put forward a different philosophy of film. Style is more important than originality. If you are be able to know or predict every aspect of a film’s plot before having seen it, if it is a great film; that should not matter. The greatest films are ones that can be seen again and again because the quality of the filmmaking evokes the same, or greater, emotional responses every time you see them.

Silver Lining’s Playbook is directed by David O. Russell (known for his idiosyncratic style in films like Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees, and The Fighter) and stars Bradley Cooper (from The Hangover) Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone, and The Hunger Games) and Robert De Niro. Cooper plays a man diagnosed with a bipolar spectrum disorder named Pat who has been let out of a Mental Hospital after an eight month period mandated by the courts. He had found his wife cheating on him with another man and nearly beat the man to death. When out of the hospital he tries to prove that he has reformed himself to win his wife back. He meets Lawrence’s character, Tiffany, who also suffers from a mental disorder and the two develop a friendship. The film deals with many aspects of Pat and Tiffany’s families and how they deal with mental illness. The film would appear to be a standard romantic comedy with Cooper obsessed with getting his wife back and eventually falling for Tiffany. However, the way the film is constructed makes you not care about knowing what’s coming. Russell’s style is fresh and gorgeous, and he gets three of the best performances out of any actors this year.

The key to this film is the Lawrence/Cooper relationship. In career high the two have a chemistry that is difficult to understand and yet effortless for the two actors. Cooper both reminds you of the people in your life that you just don’t understand, and brings you to understand the struggle that can be associated with having a mental illness. Lawrence  brings a both a more serious and strangely more humorous character to the mix, playing off of and relating to Cooper while not letting him get away with being a complete jerk and blaming it on his illness. The third performance of note is Robert De Niro. With all of the terrible films he has been in lately, this is a nice change of pace. He, Cooper, and Shea Whigham (who plays Cooper’s brother) work off each other to the point where you start believing that these people grew up together.

The only complaint from the performances was that I wanted to see more of two actors. Anupam Kher who plays Cooper’s therapist is brilliantly funny and relatable and steals most of the scenes he is in. There was also Julia Stiles who plays Lawrence’s sister. The dry wit she became famous for through films like 10 Things I Hate About You, is on great display here and at certain points you get the feeling she could have played Lawrence’s role. She’s a great talent that we really don’t see enough of.

The two most notable aspects besides the performances were easily the Cinematography and Soundtrack. The song choices are always perfectly suited to what’s going on on screen and really pull off the effect of adding an atmosphere to scenes that need them. The cinematography is understated but gives us a medium that allows for a real understanding of Cooper’s experience. Moments when he gets agitated are canted and random. But more effectively, when he starts to feel one of his manic spells coming on, an effect is added to the shot and the sound mix to put us right where Cooper is, in complete distress and claustrophobically searching for relief. We feel that with him, something that isn’t always easy to put on screen. Finally there are sequences involving dancing between Cooper and Lawrence that are shot to get the emotion on their faces rather than the style of their dancing. It shows a friendship building and turning into a romance, but again the way it is done trumps that the plot has been used before.

This is a postmodern comedy for a postmodern year in film. From the main characters all having mental illnesses to way those illnesses are displayed on screen, Russell takes what could have been another standard love story, and gives us classic characters in a style that allows us to relate to them, even if the viewer doesn’t have any experience with mental illness.

While not better than Django, Silver Linings Playbook also deserves a number of Oscar nominations and wins. At the moment I feel it deserves Best Actress (for Lawrence, although I still have to see Zero Dark Thirty, and I love Jessica Chastain), and Sound Mixing, with nominations for Picture, Director, Actor (for Cooper), supporting Actor (for De Niro), Cinematography and Adapted Screenplay. More so than I Heart Huckabees this films has a heart that can be understood by a mass audience. Russell may have toned down his idiosyncrasy for this one, but it worked to his benefit, showing that he is a remarkably and diversely talented filmmaker.

The Jontruism – The Jack Ryan I know is not an Action Hero

So today I was randomly stumbling around the internet and eventually came across an article on The Atlantic that listed 18 Films to look forward to this year. A few I knew were being released (A Good Day To Die Hard, The Great Gatsby, and Man of Steel). A few I was completely unaware of but am really looking forward to (42, Side Effects, and Much Ado About Nothing). One though, really took me by surprise, and I’m not sure if I’m happy about it. The film Jack Ryan is set to be released on December 25th 2013.

Jack Ryan is a character from a prolific series of novels from American Writer Tom Clancy. A CIA analyst and former marine whose military career was cut short due to a back injury in a helicopter crash, Ryan was the subject of eight novels, four of which have already been adapted into films. The first was 1990’s The Hunt for Red October, which starred Alec Baldwin as Jack Ryan. The following two installments, Patriot Games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994), starred Harrison Ford. And in 2002 Ben Affleck starred in an attempted series reboot, The Sum of All Fears.

As a kid, I always knew about Tom Clancy because my dad was (and still, is) a huge fan of the novels. When I was 14 I finally picked up Patriot Games and I still think of it as one of my favourite novels. Although I’ve only read three of Clancy’s books, I’ve seen all four movies, and what I feel is important to recognize, is that Jack Ryan is not an action hero. The only film to portray Ryan in a way that matches the books was The Hunt for Red October. The character was an intellectual, an academic who was thrust into tense situations.

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The pictures from the new film, the IMDB description, and the genre tag on Wikipedia all have me worried. It’s described as an “Action Thriller” and has the description of “Jack Ryan, as a young covert CIA analyst, uncovers a Russian plot to crash the U.S. economy with a terrorist attack.” So they have the analyst part, but the picture seems a bit less than covert. I feel like the people who saw Quantum of Solace and went on a rampage about how James Bond is not Jason Bourne. While I disagree with their view of that film, I totally understand the sentiment because I feel that way about Jack.

I do have some hope. The fact that Kenneth Branagh is directing, and starring as the villain, is a good sign. Another good sign is that Kevin Costner is attached with a two picture deal, the second of which is Without Remorse, the first novel (chronologically) in the Jack Ryan Universe which deals with Jack Ryan’s father and stars one of his colleagues, Jack Kelley. Costner signing on for two pictures (hell, Paramount working on two pictures simultaneously) is a good sign that, rather than just shooting in the dark with a franchise reboot, they want to build an interesting story around a good set of characters.

Nevertheless, I hold to my desire that eventually, HBO takes a crack at doing a comprehensive adaptation of the Jack Ryan novels. A full narrative series is better suited to this story than a film franchise. However, the fact that there is interest at all makes me happy. The Jack Ryan series is a story worth telling. I just hope they do it well.

Unchained Genius

#45 – Django Unchained – Quentin Tarantino – 2012

(this film ranks in the top 100, but I’m not giving its place until I get there in the list).

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This review is going to be structured in a rather odd way. Firstly I’m going to address some concerns and controversies that have been brought up surrounding race, what I can and can’t say about them, and what the greater impact those have on my opinion of the film. Secondly I will address the film itself in what I loved and the few things left to be desired.

Django Unchained is Quentin Tarantino’s latest feature and it stars Jamie Foxx in the titular role along with Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L Jackson, and Kerry Washington. The story begins with Waltz purchasing Django from some slave traders to help him collect the bounty on a trio with whom Django is familiar. This turns into a brotherly partnership and after months of collecting different bounties, the two go to find Django’s wife Broomhilda who is currently owned by DiCaprio.

Many concerns have been brought up, most famously by Spike Lee who claims that the film is “disrespectful to my Ancestors.” While I don’t usually give much credence to people blasting films without having seen them, I can understand Lee’s frustration.  On its most basic level, it is deeply problematic that Tarantino, a white director who almost seems to fetishize black culture, decided to make a movie about slavery. Secondly, the fact that the film seems to portray a white man “saving” the black man from slavery is so racist its cliché. The third concern which I’ve found in some reviews of the film is that its use of violence doesn’t portray the real brutality of slavery as well as that the ‘N’ word is used too frequently.

As a white person, I can’t really criticize Lee’s reaction other than that I don’t believe you should criticize something you haven’t experienced. As for the overarching concern of Tarantino’s place in telling this story, I, again, cannot be the definitive voice, but due to his choice to have Waltz’s character be in the film, I don’t find it as problematic as if he had just made a movie telling the story of black people for them. He seems to have tried to make it a story about the antebellum south rather than a story about slavery, and in my eyes that is somewhat redeeming. Next is the “White Saviour” problem which to me isn’t actually a problem when you see the relationship arc. I saw a great parallel between their relationship and the transformation of the Anakin/Obi-Wan relationship in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Beginning as a paternalistic relationship (the kind of which many “compassionate” white folk may feel towards the “unfortunate downtrodden people of colour”) it transforms into this beautiful friendship and true partnership where both sides learn from the other and have a meaningful impact on the relationship. This is only my perception of the relationship, but you can understand why I feel the criticism is unjustified. Finally, I will go over why I disagree with the use of violence criticism in the second part of the review, but I do feel that the use of the ‘N’ word was overboard, in particular because it was the only word used when words such as ‘negro,’ ‘black(add suffix),’ ‘slave,’ and others could have been used while still keeping the accuracy of the racist language of the time. Lastly, these things don’t impact my opinion of the film. The way that the film comes together reflects a serious tone that I was amazed by, and I feel that just on a tonal level, it is a scary and deeply moving story that supersedes any of the potential racist clichés it is being accused of. And now, on to the film.

When I walked into the theatre to see Django, I was expecting another Tarantino film: witty dialogue, stylistic action, and some ironic humour thrown in for colour. I knew that Waltz and DiCaprio had been nominated for Golden Globes and that Foxx had not. As the film laid itself out however, I started seeing the fantastically portrayed character arc from Jamie Foxx. From a tired (physically and emotionally) man on the edge of desperation, to a hesitant hero learning from first a mentor, then a friend, and finally composing himself as the antithesis of all of the things that he hated so much about his experience up until that point. He is truly the star of the film and gives one of the best performances of the past 10 years.                

Another interesting performance in the film is that of Leonardo DiCaprio. There are villains that you love to hate, villains that you identify with, and then there are villains that are truly just the scum of the earth. In the first category you have the Joker from The Dark Knight, the second is Denzel Washington in Training Day, and representing the third we have Calvin Candie from Django Unchained. This man is the definition of evil and truly the scum of the earth. He gives the chilling performance of a slave owner that we all imagine: men who honestly saw these slaves as property worth nothing more than the dirt off their boots. While a good performance, it doesn’t match up to Christoph Waltz partner/mentor role. Waltz shows his diversity of skill by playing a calm controlled character that shows some subtle and honest emotions in his best scenes.

This brings me to the concern I mentioned earlier, as well as what makes this film the best Tarantino film since Pulp Fiction. There was a criticism that this film didn’t portray the brutality and emotional distress of slavery properly, especially in terms of the gratuitous violence. I honestly think that we couldn’t have been watching the same film. Tarantino uses the violent and abhorrent treatment of slaves, not as a stylistic joyride, but as a truly horrific viewing experience. While DiCaprio’s character may have been laughing and egging the behaviour on, there was always the counterpoint in the faces of Fox and Waltz. There is a scene when Django brutally whips one of his former owners, and while visually stunning, the brilliance comes from the pain on Django’s face that hints at a lifetime of suffering in which this outburst is based. These scenes alongside Django’s character arc create what is easily the most serious of Tarantino’s film. While there is some humour, it is only there to relieve the tension brought upon by these fantastic and horrific dramatic pieces.

The only criticism’s I have relate to the use of the ‘N’ word, which I have already touched on, and Kerry Washington’s role. If I could have asked for one change to the film, it would have been an extra fifteen minutes to really delve into the passion of the relationship between Broomhilda and Django. Washington only has maybe 5 lines in the whole film and is on screen little considering her importance to the plot.

Overall, this film is a masterpiece. It deserves a slew of Oscar nods, and unless Lincoln, Life of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook, or Zero Dark Thirty wow me more than this did, it deserves a lot of statues as well. Nominations for Supporting Actor (for Waltz), Cinematography, Editing, Costume Design, Art Direction, and Sound Mixing should complement wins for Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, and Actor (for Foxx). This is (at the moment) my favourite film of 2012, not only because of all I mentioned above, but because Tarantino shows that he does care about more than just the style of his films. He has a heart for substance, story, and character development that bleed into the very fabric of this brilliant film.

There Can Be Only One

#100 – Highlander – 1986 – dir. Russell Mulcahy

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Usually, you can count on Fantasy Action films to be good popcorn flicks: light viewing with corny acting, bad (in a so bad its good kind of way) writing, and awesome action sequences. These are not the kind of films that stand up to critical analysis for quality. And yet here I am, writing a review placing Highlander, an 80’s Fantasy Action film, in my top 100 films of all time. While re-watching the film for this review, I wanted to be really objective. I loved this movie as a kid and still do today, but the same can be said of National Treasure and it doesn’t even place in the top 400. So what makes Highlander a cut above the usual fantasy action fare?

Highlander was released in 1986 and was directed by Australian director Russell Mulcahy who had made a name for himself directing music videos for The Buggles, Duran Duran, Elton John, and Billy Joel. He had also directed Razorback (1984) and Arena (1985) before he was put at the helm for Highlander. The story follows a man by the name of Russell Nash (Christopher Lambert) who lives in New York in 1986. In the parking garage of Madison Square Garden, Nash engages in an epic sword fight with a man and decapitates him, leading to massive surge of energy that damages every car there. Through flashbacks we learn many things about Nash including an encounter with Sean Connery’s Spanish swordsman in the Scottish highlands. The movie leads toward an epic conclusion, a battle between Lamber’s Nash, and the Kurgan, a villain played excellently by Clancy Brown (who would go on to play the sadistic guard in The Shawshank Redemption a few years later).

When analyzing any movie there are some standard categories used for critical rating and analysis. Acting, editing, direction, writing, music (score and/or songs), cinematography, and visual effects are at the top of the list, but together only make up seven (or eight) categories (which is not terribly conducive to a 100 point grading system, is it?). So aside from those, I add in at least two other categories for rating notable aspects of certain films as well as a subjective category to add to the point total when I feel it fits.

In Highlanders case I added the categories of Mood and Action Sequences to the mix along with the Subjective Category. I’ll start with the acting category simply because it is the one that truly leaves something to be desired. While it is fun seeing Sean Connery (a Scotsman) play a Spaniard and Christopher Lambert (a Frenchman) play a Scotsman, the performances are not the best. While Lambert plays a reluctant hero and fairly unbelievable romantic, Connery is flamboyant and funny in his role as father figure and mentor to Lambert. Their chemistry is the only part of their performances that really holds up to snuff. The star performance of the film has to go to Clancy Brown as the villain. Truly devilish, you can tell he is having fun playing this brutish figure and he steals every scene he is in.

An argument can be made that the screenplay is weak, however the beauty of this film is that that potential weakness is used as a strength thanks to the mood made through the cinematography and editing. The film is dark, and the setting could be mistaken for that of Blade Runner in certain frames. Mulcahy uses beautiful cinematography with brilliant and controlled lighting to give some of the best fight sequences ever put to screen. Even the visual effects added to the awesomely dark and mysterious atmosphere.

An element of this film that can’t go without note is the Soundtrack provided by Queen. Hammer to Fall, Princes of the Universe, and Who Wants to Live Forever, are used to excellent effect through the film and perfectly compliment the score provided by Michael Kamen. While only a small part in the overall tone of the film, it doesn’t go unnoticed and definitely adds to the magic of Highlander.

Together all of these elements create a great cinematic experience and a very watchable film. Its tone of mystery keeps you engaged and the mood on the screen is as visually exciting as many of the sci-fi films lauded as classics.

Holy Anne Hathaway Batman!

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★ ★ ★ ★

In the very clichéd way I am titling this review of Les Misérables I am want to give a sense of how this film can be easily compared to The Dark Knight from a few years ago. From a young director with a number of critically acclaimed titles under his belt comes a movie with a central supporting (I love when I get to use oxymorons) character being portrayed by someone seen as totally wrong for the role who after one trailer became the main reason everyone wanted to see the damn movie and then goes on to win the Best Supporting Osc…. Well I’m getting a head of myself with the last part but I hope the imperative tone of that run on sentence gives some indication as to the love I have for Anne Hathaway’s Fantine.

Les Misérables is a film adapted from a stage musical which was in turn adapted from the classic novel by French author, Victor Hugo. Directed by Tom Hooper, fresh off his Best Picture/Best Director Oscar wins for The King’s Speech, the film takes place in 19th century France after Napoleon was deposed and a king once again sat on the throne of France. Following the story of a released convict, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who has broken his parole and is running from a police inspector by the name of Javert (Russell Crowe). Through his journey, Valjean meets various men and women who are affected by the unforgiving society of France, such as a young mother who turned to prostitution after losing her job in his factory (Hathaway), that woman’s daughter (Amanda Seyfried), a pair of dubious inn keepers (Sacha Baren Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), and a group of republican revolutionaries (led by Seyfried’s love interest, Eddie Redmayne).

Key to this film is Jackman’s performance which leaves nothing to the imagination. Every emotion, every conflict, every desire he feels we see in startling detail in one of the most incredible performances of Jackman’s career. His voice is bombastic and perfectly suited to the live performance style in which Les Mis was filmed. Hathaway’s appearance, as I stated above, is remarkable and since she only appears early in the story, her vibrant emotional acting leaves you wishing she’d come back through much of the rest of the film. Seyfried and Redmayne give the film an excellent love arc but the most notable performance in that subplot comes from Samantha Barks character who loves Redmayne though he does not return the sentiment. Baren Cohen and Bonham Carter give much needed comedic relief in a movie that is otherwise very sad and depressing. Many reviewers have complained about Russell Crowe’s singing voice and though he cannot compete with Jackman, his vocals are by no means bad and his performance as Javert is beautifully subtle when he begins to see a moral conflict in his hunt of Valjean.

The only criticism I have is in the cinematography. While sweeping and beautiful in some scenes, in some sequences the shot placements seem off and during solos the camera remains largely stagnant in a close up of the singer’s face. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that around a quarter of the film is shot from close up and unfortunately that can be very distracting either because of the length of the take, or the disruption in sound. In particular, there is one song where there are four actors singing from three different set locations, and although they are all caught on film, when they change which shot is being shown in the edit, the voices don’t mix consistently to the point where you lose one voice altogether at some points.

All things being equal, this film deserves Oscar nominations for Picture, Actor (for Jackman), Costume Design, and Art Direction, with a win for Supporting Actress for Hathaway. I’m sure it will also garner nods for Direction, Sound Mixing, Editing, and Cinematography although I don’t think them deserved. It is a spectacular film that all lovers of the musical and anyone searching for an engaging film experience should go see. I for certain will be buying it when it comes out on Bluray.

Top Five Christmas Films

Hello folks, this will be a shorter post since it is Christmas after all. However I felt that I needed to post something Christmas-y. So here are my top five Christmas Films.

First, to define Christmas films; it has to be either a film that takes place at Christmas (with at least one holiday joke) or a truly Christmas themed movie that has a lot of holiday clout. So, while Die Hard qualifies for this, Lethal Weapon does not. Anyway, onto the list.

#5 – Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer

The old Claymation film filled with corny dialogue and a willfully ignorant dictatorial Santa. Watching it as a kid, I loved it because it’s a kid’s movie. Now, I love it because of all the terrible things it says about the world while also doing some awesome stereotype breaking action. When Rudolph’s dad goes off to find Rudolph and his mother wants to come and search as well, Donner is all, “No, this is man’s work” (a direct quote) but Rudolph’s mom and girlfriend say F*** that and go out searching anyway. Yes they end up getting captured and need Rudolph to save them, but still. I watch this every year, and I love it in all of its terrible claymated glory.

#4 – Home Alone

This is a film that really should be watched as a child first so that you can get past the ridiculousness of the plot. If you can get past how unbelievable the plot is, this is a fun time for the holidays. That’s all.

#3 – The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (animated)

I grew up reading this book and watching this movie and the Who’s song is one that I just hum to myself randomly. It’s so catchy and so true to Dr. Seuss’s book that you can’t help but feel it tug at your heart strings.

#2 – Die Hard

This is a Christmas movie. I don’t care what my dad says or what any of you haters think. It is a Christmas movie and I love it. The holiday jokes are great and the rest of the movie…. Well its just too good for words (and I have to get going).

#1 – The Santa Clause

Tim Allen as Santa Claus is one of his best roles (just below Buzz Lightyear). All of the prosthetics and make up he had to wear for this movie is reason enough to give him props, but this film gets the holiday spirit perfectly. It’s all about love and trust and responsibility to your community. It’s beautiful.