Andrew Alex Dowd on the Best Picture Nominees

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Postby Sabin » Sun Feb 27, 2011 7:19 pm

...and his final takes.

OSCARS 2011: TOY STORY 3

The final chapter of the Toy Story saga begins exactly where the first one did: playtime with Andy. "This is a stickup," shouts Mr. Potato Head, just as he did 15 years earlier, and we're back—in the toy-chest with all our old friends, in the hands of Hollywood's last standing dream factory, and, happily, right where we started. It's manufactured deja vu, but how can we complain? Toy Story 3 recasts Andy's (and Pixar's) first play session as a runaway-train action sequence; this time, we're not watching a boy with his toys, we're seeing what he sees, in his head. And we're seeing it from the toys' perspective, too—this is what they become when Andy plays with them. But what will they become when he stops? It's an impossibly shrewd, sneakily bittersweet prologue. It's also, given how exceeding familiar the proceedings will prove, an aptly derivative beginning to the end.

I've put off writing about Toy Story 3 since I first saw it last summer. Having grown up with Woody, Buzz and the gang—I cherish Toy Story and its superlative sequel as much as some folks do Star Wars—I had a hard time sorting out my feelings for this belated concluding chapter. To be honest, I'm not sure I have yet. It's the first Pixar movie that feels burdened by the weight of obligation. How do you wrap up one of the most beloved franchises of all time? How do you say goodbye to the characters on whose backs your artistic and commercial empire was built? Faced with that daunting task, Lasseter's army of wizards and geniuses have constructed a canny nostalgia trip. If it doesn't quite press my buttons the way it has some—if I remain curiously unmoved by it, really—maybe it's because the film's been front-to-back designed to do just that.

Andy's going off to college. The toys (or what's left of them, anyway) have been accidentally shipped off to a sparkly-clean local daycare called Sunnyside. Do they make their way back home, where they'll be indefinitely stuffed away in the attic? Or do they settle into a new life at Sunnyside, which may not be the plaything paradise it initially appears to be? Both choices seem like resignations. A sense of grief and uncertainty underlines much of Toy Story 3; when Woody quietly laments the slow but steady disappearance of his friends (including Little Bo Peep) we can feel his loss. The pervasive melancholia is richly drawn, but it gels uneasily with the film's other duties—namely, to provide the kind of big laughs and rollicking adventure expected of the Pixar hive mind. In that department, it delivers only intermittently.

So much of the film feels like retread; its conflicts and themes echo those of its immediate predecessor, the still-superb Toy Story 2. Lotso proves a surprisingly dark nemesis—"We're junk," he bellows in the fiery climax—but he also seems built from the scraps of characters we've met before. (Think: Prospector Pete with Jessie's backstory.) The big "prison break" scene pales in comparison to Woody's breathless escape from Sid's room in the original. Plenty of shiny new toys jostle for attention (and tie-in merchandise sales), but the film seems at a loss for what to do with its principles. Buzz, for pertinent and unfortunate example, spends the whole movie being rewired, rebooted and reprogrammed. His eventual transformation into a hot-blooded Latin lothario veers dangerously close to Shrek territory. Much worse still: the unseemly gay panic that greets Ken's comings and goings. Chalk up the general hit-or-miss joke count to Little Miss Sunshine's Michael Arndt, an inexplicable outside hire.

There are, of course, pleasures. As Cars handily demonstrated, Pixar movies will always look great, no matter how bumpy the roads they traverse. Big Baby and that screaming cymbal monkey seem plucked from some shared childhood nightmare, while the garbage-incenerator finale—surely the heaviest dose of life-or-death drama the Pixar team has ever cooked up—is a reminder of what a great debt this great series owes to The Brave Little Toaster. Meanwhile, there's the actual ending, which hits all its cues impeccably. I just wonder if any of it was necessary; Toy Story 3's entire emotional gamut can be compressed into the hanging implication of Toy Story 2. This uneven final chapter affords fan and creator alike one last chance to say their goodbyes. I for one said mine eleven years ago.


***

127 HOURS @TIFF
Review by A.A. Dowd:

In the summer of 2003, Aron Ralston, a young mountain-climber hiking alone through the deserts of Utah, fell feet-first into a narrow canyon. His arm pinned in place by an enormous boulder, Ralston spent several days alone in the darkness, fighting off dehydration and starvation, until... well, either you know how this incredible true story ends or you don't, and I'll be damned if I'm going to spoil it for you. It basically comes down to a dude, a rock and the barren, unforgiving desert—hell of an elemental yarn, but also not a particularly cinematic one. I can think of a select few filmmakers I'd entrust with adapting this trial of darkness to the screen; imagine the man vs. nature(/self) parable Werner Herzog could spin out of Ralston's headlining hardships, or the "Gerry"-esque existential nightmare Gus Van Sant might’ve cooked up. There's one name, though, that my mind would never leap to. One director whose modus operandi seems fundamentally at odds with the dreadful stasis of Ralston's ordeal. That would be Danny Boyle, everyone's favorite ADD-inflicted auteur, fresh off the endless round of high-fives he earned for his supremely overvalued (and Best Picture winning) "Slumdog Millionaire." Danny Boy, you see, he's a runner. The guy can't sit still. One of modern cinema's premiere speed freaks, Boyle gets off on bodies in motion, on foot races, on the fevered pursuits of junkies, hood rats, and murderously mad ghouls. He can't even tell a story at a normal clip; he's always skipping forward and backward in time, getting lost in daydreams and digressions. The mere notion of Boyle training his jittery, impatient gaze on someone literally stuck in place boggles the mind. But here it is, his "127 Hours." There's half a really good movie here. The other half's a Danny Boyle movie.

It starts like some kind of 'Slumdog' victory lap, in song and dance and color and commotion. Boyle got the whole gang back together—this new paean to perseverance shares a screenwriter, a composer, a cinematographer and lord knows who else with its celebrated predecessor. Ralston, played by a never-better James Franco, enters the film like he's training for the X Games. Boyle, meanwhile, seems to be auditioning to direct Mountain Dew commercials. So obnoxiously boisterous is the film's protracted prologue that when Ralston finally takes his fated plunge, and then is greeted at the dusty bottom by the delayed arrival of a title card, the sudden stillness is genuinely jarring. (We're as shocked as he is.) It's enough to instill hope that this might morph into the meditative one-man-show it begs to be. In fits and starts, it seems to almost get there. Stuck, to paraphrase the nonfiction novel in which the film is based, between a rock and a hard place, Ralston goes into problem-solving mode. But the more he tries to think his way out of the situation, the more it dawns on him what dire straits he's in. There's a breathless fascination to these scenes, one owed almost exclusively to the fortitude of Franco's performance. He plays Ralston as a kind of cocksure broheim—amiable and resourceful, but also so invested in his loner-chic self-image that his wilderness adventures read as a handy way to keep a safe distance between himself and those around him. Simon Beaufoy's screenplay underlines this subtext with a bit too much clarity; like outdoorsy half-cousin "Into the Wild," "127 Hours" defaults to no-man-is-an-island truisms in its heart-tugging homestretch.

Franco, striking an impressive (and precarious) balance between good-natured goofiness and suppressed panic, anchors the film's pretensions. "Sweet!" he declares to himself after retrieving, via inventive quick thinking, a dropped instrument. Our sentiments exactly. The chief problem here is that Boyle can't not be Boyle, and his usual tics and tricks, trotted out for no good measure, register as pure distraction. We should be stranded down there in the dark with Ralston. We should feel the minutes, the hours, the lonely days spent in that private prison, that pit of despair. Boyle instead slices and dices the action into fevered montage. He offers us constant, bet-hedging reprieves: a fantasy sequence here, a flashback there, any and every opportunity taken to skitter out of that cramped space. The director's incessant need to turn every stand-alone moment into a toe-tapping music video undercuts the suffocating intensity of Franco's tour de force. It's auteuristic self-sabotage at its most egregious. If there's one single moment where the separate aims of performer and director seem to converge, it's the visceral climax. Boyle slyly foreshadows this last act of desperation, and he pulls no punches when it comes to executing the deed, in all of its peer-through-closed-fingers graphicness. It's beastly catharsis—in no small part because Boyle lets us feel Franco's pain, and his steely conviction. I wish that he didn't slumdog all the rest; somewhere out there, in the ragged raw footage of Franco at the bottom, is 127 hours of the movie that could have been. But we will have to make do with this curiosity: an unapologetic crowd-pleaser about a guy who gets trapped under a boulder and, in a mad grasp for survival, resorts to... well, either you know or you don't.


***

WINTER'S BONE @ BEST OF THE YEAR CAPSULE

06. Winter’s Bone / Debra Granik. The best American indie of the year was also the one that evoked a mythic notion of America, one colored both in regional specificity and a noirish breed of Southern Gothic fantasy. An internet critic recently complained about praising Debra Granik's crackling genre piece, about a wise-beyond-her-years teen (breakout star Jennifer Lawrence) searching for her on-the-lam father, solely through the prism of its distinctively desolate locales. Really, though, come on: it's impossible to extol the virtues of "Winter's Bone" without getting lost in the film's sprawling, decaying backwoods oasis. The era is vaguely undefined, but that's because this corner of the U.S. of A—an isolated, half-imagined stretch of the Ozarks, all meth labs and dilapidated houses—is a proverbial Land That Time Forgot. It's also a closed society as richly drawn and hermetically sealed as a Jane Austen novel. And as Lawrence's stubborn heroine ventures deeper into it, her every inquiry violating its unspoken, rigidly-upheld code of conduct, Granik extends her impeccable eye and ear for local culture to the stylized pitter patter of the native populace. There's more life in the margins of this picture—in the faces and voices of its actors, principles and bit players alike—than most movies manage at their energized peaks. I'll call that an extension of its "sense of place," and weather whatever charges of auto-criticism that come my way.
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Postby Sabin » Sun Feb 27, 2011 3:07 pm

Andrew Alex Dowd races against the clock to bust out another Best Picture nominee.

OSCARS 2011: THE SOCIAL NETWORK

"The Citizen Kane of John Hughes movies." That's how David Fincher jokingly described The Social Network in a New York Magazine article called "Inventing Facebook." This was back in September, a couple of short weeks before the movie crashed multiplexes everywhere and a few months before it crawled its way to the top of just about every year-end list and critic poll on the planet. The lengthy, terrific piece was just one of many multi-media stops on the film's PR-fueled collision course with our collective pop-culture consciousness. But it stuck with me, especially that John Hughes line. Because whatever else The Social Network is—and, like most good-to-great art, no one can seem to agree definitively on the matter—it works best for me as a whip-smart battle royale of young egos, and a collegiate comedy of manners. I'm not sure I'd quite compare it to a John Hughes picture, but it's certainly more Hughes than Kane. Don't tell Scott Foundas.

Of all the things it is, what The Social Network is not, by this critic's singular estimation anyway, is any kind of profound statement about The Way We Live. Maybe that's because Aaron Sorkin, the film's screenwriter, isn't after capturing the zeitgeist in a bottle. (Not to make too fine of a point of it, but remarks like “fundamentally, you could tell the same story about the invention of a really good toaster" don't paint him as someone particularly interested in exploring the ramifications of Mark Zuckerberg's invention.) There are, of course, plenty of Big Statements uttered in the film; "We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we're going to live on the internet!" bellows J.T.'s Sean Parker, in one of several on-the-nose, Sorkian declarations. Thankfully, that thriving for significance doesn't characterize the movie on a whole, but it does provide ample fodder for those looking to enshrine it an era-defining manifesto.

There's more meaningful commentary on the impact of Facebook in a scrappy little potential-hoax like Catfish than there is in this slick Hollywood entertainment. But Catfish didn't have in its corner the persuasive pervasiveness of studio promotional geniuses. A triumph of branding, The Social Network arrived like a pre-packaged masterpiece—its pedigree, its oh-so-relevant subject matter and its absolutely brilliant marketing campaign drilled the film's "importance" into all of our minds long before we sat down to actually watch the thing. Reading some of the raves, I'm not entirely convinced that some critics weren't really just reviewing that haunting, "Creep"-covering short film of a trailer—or, rather, the imaginary movie it conquered in their brains.

A few key moments notwithstanding, The Social Network rarely seems to strive for the kind of Message Movie import that its biggest fans ascribe to it. It's a winningly schizophrenic collision of minds. When Fincher fanatics talked about the "fascinating friction" of Benjamin Button, I rolled my eyes. It was a curious case of misused talent—Fincher didn't enrich that film's insufferable Gumpisms, he just showboated around the corners of them. Here, though, the infamous perfectionist has met his perfect (mis)match in the messier, warmer genius of a TV scribe. Sorkin wants to crack open the heads of these young entrepreneurs, to see what makes them tick, to watch them spar with themselves and each other. Fincher's after something more intangible. An android archangel of our chilly post-digital age, he invests the Harvard campus—its dorms and deposition rooms—with the same low undercurrent of throbbing modern dread that Mitsuo Yanagimachi brought to the collegiate haunts of his great, under-seen Who's Camus Anyway? Like There Will Be Blood, another recent picture that earned (perhaps more deserving) Kane comparisons, this is a collaborative success—and one that earns much of its interest from conflicting artistic sensibilities.

Even as mere entertainment, The Social Network is naggingly imperfect. The third act feels lacking somehow, maybe because Sorkin forgets, in his time-jumping, locomotive forward plunge, to properly dramatize the personal betrayal at its center. And Fincher doesn't quite resist the urge to indulge in some needless stylistic distraction, some of it minute (those puffs of phony CGI cold-breathe), some of it not (that impressive but tonally jarring rowing sequence.) And yet given the dozen or so (mostly) positive ways I've described the film, it's not without reason to think that, in ten years, maybe it will look to me like a zeitgeist-defining masterwork. From where I'm standing now, it simply looks like an admirably idiosyncratic comedy, one about a maladjusted braniac whose solution to the problem of popularity is to fundamentally rewire its functionality, turning the pursuit of friends into a numbers game. Come to think of it, that does sound awfully relevant to our here and now, doesn't it?
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Postby Sabin » Sun Feb 27, 2011 6:11 am

(Big Magilla @ Feb. 26 2011,5:22)
I concur , but I still have to shake my head at all the bloggers and commentators giving up before the winner is announced. No doubt the same people will be saying the Academy came to its senses at the last minute if The Social Network actually wins, when it may be that none of the voters actually changed their minds at all, that they were never behind the King to begin with.

On the other hand, if The King's Speech does win, what will they have left to talk about post-Oscars, having already wrung their hands over and over?

I mean, it doesn't look good. Either way, it's going to be an interesting evening. The Story of the '11 Oscars is going to be one of rabid blogger prognostication, The Social Network camp telling The King's Speech camp to give it up, and vice-versa. Both teams were 100% right in their respective moments and now comes the time for the votes to be tallied. I think it's kind of amazing...especially considering that neither film is great. You can't blindly root for one film as though it were the second coming, but if one ever needs to "read" an Oscar season as evidence of what the current climate dictates, it's this one.


Oscars 2011: INCEPTION

Was there a more annoying final shot in cinema this past year than that damn spinning totem? It's one of those movie moments that was conceived for the single, express purpose of inspiring endless debate among rabid fans. Does it just keep going? Does it start to topple? Is the whole movie a dream within a dream (within a dream within a dream and so forth and so forth)? Does any of that even begin to matter? Champions of this byzantine sci-fi exercise greeted its arrival as the second coming of, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's more like The Matrix—a high-tech action fantasy with pretensions of cerebral depth, constructed with enough built-in rabbit holes and easter eggs to keep obsessives pawing at its silken surfaces for years to come. But cracking the film's code won't fill its empty center with feeling. And putting together all the pieces won't reveal anything more profound than the half-way clever heist movie it ultimately amounts to.

As someone who likes The Dark Knight just about as much as its legion of fanboys do, as someone who thinks Memento is nothing less than a profound dissertation on the relationship between memory, grief and self-deception, it gives me no pleasure to bag on Inception. I wanted to love this $200 million passion project as much as the next Christopher Nolan enthusiast, but its problems are a little too numerous to shrug off. There's the endless exposition, characters explaining and re-explaining the rules of the film's titular technique, while poor miscast Ellen Page nods along like a perfunctory audience surrogate. There's the general dearth of genuine emotion; every last one of these con men is a personality-free cipher, and the doomed romance between Leonardo DiCaprio and phantom fatale Marion Cotillard never generates any fire or friction. Most irksomely, there's Nolan's depressingly linear and literal conception of dream logic. The human unconscious is a tangled mess of memories and ideas, echoes and desires. Here, it looks like a series of hotel lobbies and office buildings—this is your brain on Ikea. Imagine the kind of mind-bending fantastic voyage Nolan could have staged had he not limited his dream architects to the constraints of, you know, actual architecture. And imagine, too, that DiCaprio seemed fully invested in his frazzled sleep bandit, or that he saved even a smidgeon of the nauseous intensity he brought to Shutter Island for this like-minded project.

Inception is certainly not without it eye and ear candy—its sound and fury is impressive, but guess what it signifies? If I appreciate Nolan's mega-hit for anything more than the ingenuity of its multi-layered second act or the sheer virtuoso pleasures of its zero gravity fight scene, the appreciation is one of pure principle. The enormous success of the film could speak volumes about the potential future of summer movies. If audiences will flock to a talky, labyrinthine sci-fi caper like this one, what other kinds of exotic attractions can be smuggled into our "popcorn entertainments"? And what will Nolan, still a fiendishly clever blockbuster craftsman, do with the keys to the castle? There has to be more than bats left in his belfry, right?
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Postby Sabin » Sun Feb 27, 2011 6:07 am

Oscars 2011: TRUE GRIT

It's always a bit disarming when the Coen Brothers play it straight. More often than not, they approach genre as something to be subverted—with a healthy dash of absurdism, a parodic shift in setting or a cruelly ironic strain of black humor. These boys never met a potboiler premise they couldn't paint a crooked smile on, which makes their snark-free efforts (like down-and-dirty debut Blood Simple or towering noir-western No Country for Old Men) feel all the more substantial. True Grit, though, is a different animal altogether. It almost plays it too straight—so consistently amiable, so bloodless and incident-starved is the poky narrative that one wonders if these master pranksters are putting you on. (A friend recently suggested that the movie is a bitterly ironic satire of classic oaters. I think he's reaching.)

Much has been made of Steven Spielberg being the executive producer on this thing, as though the Coens were just cashing a work-for-hire paycheck while Stevie ghost directed the set, Poltergeist-style. Make no mistake, this is a Coen Brothers film, just tuned to a slightly gentler key. In no short supply is Joel and Ethan's specific brand of (this time quite literal) gallows humor, not to mention the deadpan deliveries ("I do not know this man") they coax out of their game cast. Sticking remarkably close to the specifics of both Charles Portis' novel and the 1969 John Wayne vehicle it inspired, the Coens waste no time introducing prepubescent Mattie Ross (a terrific Hailee Steinfeld), whose father was murdered in cold blood by an outlaw named Tom Chaney. The girl's quest for vengeance brings her to notorious, drunken bounty hunter Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, not exactly straining himself); it also dovetails with the mission of a wayward Texas ranger (Matt Damon, clearly having a ball) who's after the same dangerous quarry.

True Grit puts these three eccentrics on the trail together, and gets them squabbling like a makeshift family unit. You keep waiting for the movie to shift out of second gear, but it never quite does. Despite a tense showdown in a cabin and a couple of nifty action scenes that play with long-distance POV, the level of urgency and menace stays at a pretty low register. This becomes something of a liability in the climax, where Chaney is revealed to be little more than a hapless fool (played, in a hilariously put-upon turn, by Josh Brolin). One can't help but long for a little of the grave fatalism of No Country for Old Men, though that surely would have conflicted with the film's deliberate and old-fashioned breeziness. Best to focus on the fringe pleasures of this throwback genre exercise: Steinfeld's spirited and star-making performance; the iconic compositions of frequent Coen-collaborator Roger Deakins; and a script that boasts more razor-sharp bon mots than even The Social Network.
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Postby Sabin » Sun Feb 27, 2011 6:06 am

Oscars 2011: THE FIGHTER

Of all the "narratives" being tossed around this Oscar season, my favorite—by which I mean the one I find the most chortle-worthy—is the suggestion that this was the year that America's renegade autuers came of age and stormed Hollywood's gates. "Indie upstarts like Nolan, Darren Aronofsky, and David O. Russell were flipping the bird to the establishment," writes Chris Nashawaty in his recent "Entertainment Weekly" review of the Memento BluRay. "10 years later, all three are up for Best Picture. They are the establishment." What this kind of congratulatory back-patting fails to account for is how all these one-time troublemakers got invited to the party. Christopher Nolan made a couple of mega-grossing blockbusters. Lisa Cholodenko made the straightest movie of her career. David Fincher remade Forrest Gump. Danny Boyle kicked the drug habit, courted your parents and made poverty porn you could dance to. (Aronofsky, as I've already mentioned, met AMPAS half-way; his is trashy genre fare with the veneer of importance.) To celebrate the mainstream crossover of these filmmakers is akin to applauding John McCain for earning the GOP's nomination—these days, they're no more "maverick" than he was in the spring of '08.

If compromise is the theme of Oscar's blow-out bash this year, than The Fighter should really be crowned belle of the ball. A work-for-hire effort if I ever saw one, this dog-earred underdog saga—based on a pretty unremarkable true story—models its moves after just about every down-on-his-luck sports movie you've ever seen. For David O. Russell, it feels like an atonement; his last film, the madcap existentialist farce that was 2004's I ♥ Huckabees, flopped at the box office. When his name's come up in conversation (or Google search) since, it's mainly been in reference to those leaked on-set outbursts. How difficult not to draw parallels between Russell himself and his subject, perennial loser Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg); both of them are fishing for a comeback. And this is how you do it in Tinseltown: a redemption story by way of family drama, with a couple of showboating performances on the peripheral and a long lead-up to The Big Fight. Rocky transported from Philly to Lowell, MA. Oscar 101. Career: rehabilitated.

Here's the funny thing, though: if staunchly conventional pap like The Fighter is more or less beneath the talents of Russell, the film works to the extent that it does almost entirely because of him. This is not an anonymous picture; there's life in its margins. Russell has an eye for authentically run-down exteriors, an ear for the naturalistic ping and pang of regional slang, and a way with the unruly mob of bit actors and background players that populate the edges of every frame. He's always been a director of moments—even his best film, Three Kings, works less as a cohesive whole than as a bunch of nifty, funny-visceral parts. Here he finds isolated pockets of truth in the predictable slog of biopic filmmaking: the punchy flirtation between Wahlberg and "MTV girl" Amy Adams, who gives her best, liveliest performance since Junebug; the moment where Christian Bale's Dicky, watching a documentary about himself in a packed jailhouse, slips from braggadocio pride into junkie shame; and the scraggily lucid fight scenes, filtered through the video-haze of an HBO live televised event.

The less said about Melissa Leo's barking Mama Ward or her small army of shit-talking daughters, the better. Bale, too, feels cartoonishly outsize, though to be fair, he is playing a crackhead. Surprisingly enough, Wahlberg's the real revelation. As a leading man, I normally find him to be either powerfully dull or preposterously over-the-top. Russell locates in him a capacity for measured pathos; he seems to carry, in this understated performance, the burden of a lifetime of disappointments. Between this, Huckabees and Kings, no director has gotten more out of the actor's meathead melancholy. I look forward to their next collaboration—here's hoping, additionally, that it's better than the dressed-down Ron Howard picture they're marginally improving here.
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Postby Big Magilla » Sat Feb 26, 2011 6:22 pm

I concur , but I still have to shake my head at all the bloggers and commentators giving up before the winner is announced. No doubt the same people will be saying the Academy came to its senses at the last minute if The Social Network actually wins, when it may be that none of the voters actually changed their minds at all, that they were never behind the King to begin with.

On the other hand, if The King's Speech does win, what will they have left to talk about post-Oscars, having already wrung their hands over and over?

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Postby Sabin » Sat Feb 26, 2011 6:00 pm

This is a very strong piece on how ridiculous a destined horse-race between The Social Network and The King's Speech must be.


Little Victories: Thoughts and Digressions on Oscars 2011

John Lennon is asking how it feels to be one of the beautiful people. Mark Zuckerberg is hitting refresh, over and over and over again. And I'm wondering what, exactly, all the fuss is about. It's October of last year, and I'm finally getting around to David Fincher's The Social Network. The film's been out for a few weeks; every Tom, Dick, Harry and Karina has, by now, weighed in. In retrospect, this is far from the ideal circumstances in which to approach a movie. (I am not impervious to hype, though it tends to do an opposite number on me—here was a work that had some impossibly high expectations to live up to.) This, I ask myself as the credits roll, is the second coming of Kane? This smart, slick, occasionally heavy-handed entertainment is what we've all been waiting for? I feel like A.O. Scott in the winter of 2004—"quaffable but not transcendent" he slyly wrote of that year's unanimously lauded critic pick. I am puzzled. I am vexed. And then, as the film begins to win every conceivable award on the planet, I am resolute in my opposition. Will no one see that the emperor is naked? Can nothing topple this mighty white elephant?

Be careful what you wish for. If it's peculiar practice to spend months decrying a film you basically like—as I did, in private conversation and public preamble—what could be stranger than unexpectedly finding yourself in the position of rooting for that very same movie? Once the prospective frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar, The Social Network has become, with surprising swiftness, a beleaguered underdog. Its chief competition? An unremarkable bit of pomp and circumstance called The King's Speech; it's the kind of politely prosaic movie that Miramax would have launched a big (and likely successful) campaign for back in the 90s. (No small wonder that the Weinsteins, former Miramax moguls, are behind this one, too.) The film's major surge happened at the end of January, when it not only secured the highest number of Academy Award nominations (a whopping and inexplicable 12) but also scored surprise victories at the SAG, PGA and DGA awards. Much as I'd like to suggest that Oscar pundits were premature in so quickly abandoning the trajectories they laid out for this award season, history is very much on the side of The King's Speech. Its victory feels foregone.

"I take it all back," I recently said to a friend, half-jokingly, when he asked me about my tentative flip-flop on Fincher's film. "Better that one than the alternative." He replied, with a shrug: "Is there really any difference between them?" I was dumbfounded. It was as though someone had suggested to me, for the very first time, that there was no real difference between the Democratic and the Republican parties. (Picture that decade-old Rage Against the Machine video, but with its alien "facemash" now merging Jessie Eisenberg's nebbish features with Colin Firth's more classically-handsome ones.) There are, of course, some very significant differences between The Social Network and The King's Speech—matters of tone, texture, performance, thematic agenda, and, most prominently, aesthetic function. And yet, to a certain and quite persuasive extent, I can see his point. Both films are seriocomic biopics that filter (relatively recent) history through a social malcontent's crisis of ego. Both are set upon the precipice of a communication revolution, a point that their respective champions can't seem to stress enough. And both are, by my estimation anyway, vastly overvalued middlebrow entertainments.

The race between these contenders—each groomed for success by monied industry figures, each bankrolled as the kind of "prestige pictures" that win awards—operates as a microcosm of everything that's wrong with Oscar season. Just one year I'd like to see entertainment journalists and award pundits declare radio silence. The relationship between the AMPAS voting bloc and the various media outlets that anticipate it has become parasitic—the tail wags the dog, predictions become prophecies and the field gets narrower with every "sure thing" announced by the press months in advance. (Even the snarky commentators at, say, Slant are helping secure nominations for the "mortal locks" they're bemoaning.) What would happen if every film writer risked their predictive credibility on rouge contenders? What if everyone just clammed up and left AMPAS to its own devices?

Far from widening the field, the doubling of the Best Picture slate has really done the opposite. Is it an accident that the same ten pictures cited by Peter Travers in his early-bird year-in-review ended up filling out Oscar's ten-spot? The architecture of the season was already in place by then. The Chosen Ones were already well on their way. Take a look at the acting categories; 15 of the 20 nominated performances hail from Best Picture contenders. Over in the screenplay races, nine of the ten scripts belong to the same crop. (Mike Leigh is the Odd Man In; he hasn't a snowball's chance.) Critics and award groups are now in a kind of perfect, unholy sync, with their respective year-end extracurricular activities—namely: list-making and accolade dispensing—telling the same lie: that these are the only ten movies that mattered in 2010.

What really scares me, though, is that my friend's offhand suggestion gets at a more cutting truth still, one that speaks to my very own overeager investment in this annual dog and pony show. I may have retired from the Oscar prognostication game a couple years ago, but my own tendency to rank, rate and relentlessly compare movies like a kid with a stack of baseball cards has not been as easy to shake. Films are not contenders in a horse-race, nor are they political candidates. I need not "root" for any of them—what I think of The Social Network should ultimately have nothing to do with its chances of winning awards. It may be an "underdog" now and it may well be a much better movie than its "opponent," but it remains the same imperfect, ambitious entertainment that I grappled with back in October. I fear that my perspective on it may be intrinsically tied to dubious notions of relative "value"—it is "overrated" by critics, "underrated" at the Academy Awards, and judged only in terms of how it's been perceived by others. This is one of the dangers of living in an age where opinions fly as fast as internet servers.

Ironically, the most positive spin I can put on the award season depends on the same kind of questionably comparative criticism. This year's Best Picture lineup may be impossibly obvious—and, given the mostly-lousy state of American film last year, irksomely homegrown—but it's also a relatively watchable list of movies, each flawed but not without charm or virtue. Certainly it's a much stronger batch than last year's. I'll take the shrieking hysterics of Black Swan over the shrill histrionics of Precious any day. The Fighter is better inspirational, sports-movie pap than The Blind Side. And for all my misgivings with Inception, I'd much rather linger on in its sci-fi trappings than sit through a white guilt double-bill of Avatar and District 9. Hell, even The King's Speech, my least favorite of the nominees, packs more punch than its immediate British predecessor, last year's An Education. Faint praise, I suppose, but when it comes to the Academy Awards—which serve, like it or not, as a fairly accurate barometer of where mainstream film culture is at—little victories are about the best you can hope for.

As for The Social Network and The King's Speech: I may never be able to completely divorce my feelings about these hugely successful works from the hype that's surrounded them since their release. But there is a difference between them, one that extends far beyond how much more "overrated" one is than the other. On Oscar night, I know which one I'll be pulling for.
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Postby Sabin » Sat Feb 26, 2011 5:59 pm

Oscars 2011: THE KING'S SPEECH

"Harmless" is how a great number of serious film critics have described The King's Speech. Is there a fainter bit of praise one could damn a film with? Is there a compliment more blithely backhanded? "Harmless" is a long sigh of relief. It's an acknowledgement that, after choking down the thinly-disguised conservative bile of your average awards hopeful, this kind of tidy trifle goes down smooth as cognac. Simply put, one would have to try very hard to be offended by this film, a politely unremarkable account of how King George VI vanquished his life-long, debilitating stammer. Compared to the usual colonialist fantasies cooked up by Harvey Weinstein and his ilk, the triumphs and failures of a marble-mouthed monarch register as... well, yes, rather harmless.

Except, of course, to those of us who value the basic grammar of competent filmmaking. For though it never once poked or prodded my gag reflex, The King's Speech did bring on one hell of a splitting headache. Who shot this thing, Woody Allen's blind director from Hollywood Ending? Hype Williams' honky butler? The culprit is Tom Hooper, maybe the most improbable DGA recipient of all time. I never thought I'd clamor for the anonymous craftsmanship of John "Shakespeare In Love" Madden, but this is the kind of material—concerned as it is, almost exclusively, with long conversations—that begs for a sturdy, shot/reverse shot vocabulary. Hooper instead gussies up every moment with unmotivated stylistic flourishes. He busts out the fishbowl lens early on, transforming a seriocomic speech exercise into a Terry Gilliam funhouse attraction. In a later scene, the first between Geoffrey Rush's failed-actor-turned-therapist and Colin Firth's titular king, Hooper crams the latter into the corner of the frame, filling the rest with a sprawling, pointless expanse of negative space. I can only imagine how difficult these shots must have been to cut together; of all the technical awards the film is inexplicably nominated for, Best Editing is the one I'm least inclined to begrudge it.

Even if you're able to ignore such garish showboating, this is strictly for the Peter Morgan set—fast and loose history, bent to accommodate the demands of a tidy character study. The film's problems extend beyond the realm of aesthetic execution. Firth's fudged speeches occur almost entirely off-camera, as though Hooper were terrified of subjecting us to more than a fleeting moment of actual discomfort. What's more, the movie ends just as it's introduced its one genuinely interesting political parallel. (Peter Morgan, to be fair, would have at least had the sense to build his film around the oratorical showdown between tongue-tied Bertie and the big, bad Führer.) Firth and Rush build an agreeable rapport, though they're stuck in a Good Will Hunting therapy drama, minus the blustery, male weepie emotional payoff. Yet it's Helena Bonham Carter who draws the shortest straw here. How sad to see her nominated for a thankless supportive wife role when she brought diabolically human menace to not one but two of 2010's biggest fantasy blockbusters. Just one of many royal blunders AMPAS made this year. Off with their heads.
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Postby Sabin » Sat Feb 26, 2011 5:58 pm

More from A.A. Dowd, this time on The Kids Are All Right.

Oscars 2011: THE KIDS ARE AL RIGHT

SPOILERS HEREIN

I can pretty much pinpoint the exact moment that this loses me. Nic (Annette Bening) has just discovered that her wife Jules (Julianne Moore) has been cheating on her—and with their childrens' biological father (Mark Ruffalo) no less. Cornered and confronted, Jules grasps for some kind of explanation, settling finally on her desperate need, largely neglected by Nic, to feel appreciated. As stated character motives go, this one feels credible but somehow insufficiently argued; though the film has cleanly laid the groundwork for it—Jules' first flicker of infidelity occurs, sequentially, one scene after an aborted night of romance with Nic—it's also hinted at larger questions of malleable sexual desire, questions it seems ill-prepared to actually address. "Are you straight now?" Nic tearfully asks. Neither Jules nor the movie itself know how to answer that. Nor do they seem to want to.

The Kids Are All Right is, if nothing else, impeccably acted. Bening and Moore don't just read as an entirely believable married couple, they paint in our minds a vision of their whole rocky romantic history. In a great comedic performance, Ruffalo does an older, doofier variation on his You Can Count on Me drifter. And the kids, Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson, crystallize a very precise moment of adolescent development: a last push-pull identity struggle with the rents before the plunge into training-wheels adulthood. At its best, the film approximates the sparkling, loose chatter of an Éric Rohmer comedy—long and loaded conversations over dinner, dialogue that seems to flow as freely as wine. But this isn't a Rohmer film. It's too tidy in its narrative architecture, ultimately far too pat in its psychological readings of these flawed folks. It's a sitcom in designer-imposter Euro-cinema treads.

Many critics have seen something sneakily conservative in the picture's big conflict—lesbian mom momentarily bails on her sexless marriage to get some deep dicking from a shaggy stud. Me, I see the opposite problem: nervous that her bed-hopping comedy might be read exactly that way, writer-director Lisa Cholodenko bends over backwards to avoid the thorny implications of Jules' affair. (They might conflict, after all, with her earnest desire to make some progressive manifesto on The New American Family.) The film's funniest scene finds the Moms trying to explain to their son why they use male-on-male gay pornography as an aphrodisiac. Moore's flustered but candid response speaks to the complicated nature of her sexual desire, but also to the film's skittish approach to it. Jules may sleep with Paul because she needs validation, but that's not at all how Moore plays the hungry, sweaty, funny sex scene between them. To see Cholodenko rationalize—nay, explain away—Jules' libidinous confusion is to face a serious disconnect between performer and material. Pretty sure I like the movie Moore thinks she's in better than the one Cholodenko insists she's made.
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Postby Sabin » Sat Feb 26, 2011 5:57 pm

My old college buddy Andrew Alex (A.A.) Dowd just interviewed for the position of lead film critic for Time Out Chicago and here he reviews the Ten Best Picture Nominees which I will post here. He's really coming along.


Oscars 2011: BLACK SWAN

Too bird-brained to register as high art, too self-possessed to work as entertaining trash, Black Swan occupies a middling genre dead zone. It's the same stretch of land that Darren Aronofsky staked as his own with his last movie, 2008's The Wrestler. Essentially Rocky Balboa with Dardenne Brothers camera moves, that requiem for a (fighter's) dream was heralded as a creative "reinvention," with the one-time NYC hot shot purifying himself in the fires of true indie grit, emerging as a poet of handheld humanism. (Never mind that, even stripped down to its bones, even free of the fancy footwork of Aronofsky's wild child pictorial past, its heart beat nothing but the corn-syrup blood of Hollywood melodrama.) The Wrestler was Darren's plea to be taken seriously, and I'll be damned if it didn't work. He's really "matured" as a filmmaker—i.e. learned to deftly steal from his influences, and to dress up his most juvenile preoccupations with the visual hallmarks of "important art."

You do have to admire the guy's chutzpah. Unlike Danny Boyle or David Fincher—two fellow MTV-era guttersnipes who went "respectable" around the same time—Aronofsky earned Oscar's attention without going all Hallmark on us. Black Swan is a shrieking hissy fit of a psychodrama; the last time something this hysterically trashy was nominated for Best Picture was probably 1988, when Fatal Attraction sliced, diced, fucked and boiled its way into the race. There are traces of that film's glossy-slick paranoia in Aronofsky's festering petri dish of influences; in addition to swiping from Polanski, Cronenberg, DePalma, Miike and Michael Powell's The Red Shoes, this BrundleFly of a genre film owes a clear debt to the Adrian Lyne school of high-end, early 90's erotic thrillers. Its pretensions of seriousness, though, kill the buzz—save for one hilarious masturbation scene, Black Swan never affords us the giddy thrills of delirious high camp.

High-strung as a piano wire, Natalie Portman commits to this nonsense with utter conviction. It is, admittedly, a hell of a performance—trembly, queasy, self-effacing, brittle, teetering for ever so long on the precipice of total meltdown. Portman plays an NYC ballerina cast as the lead in a prestigious production of Swan Lake. That plot affords Aronofsky another fascinating milieu to train his jittery lens upon; like The Wrestler, Black Swan is at its absolute best when it's getting down into the nitty-gritty of its featured profession, stressing the physical discipline and burden put on these performers. (A kind of backstage pass, it's as fleetingly probing as a Wiseman documentary.)

I wish that attention to detail extended to its particular breed of body horror, linked as it is to Portman's deteriorating mental state. A smarter movie would have paralleled her psychological slow burn with an equally measured increase in physical symptoms. What we get instead are grotesque set pieces—Natalie tears a hangnail all the way up her arm, sprouts wings, finds her legs bending backwards like a Rick Baker creation. Blurring the line between "reality" and "fantasy" with signpost parlor tricks and nail-on-chalkboard audio cues, Black Swan doesn't so much resemble Repulsion (which it's been understandably but dubiously compared to) as it does a fun-house attraction like Drag Me to Hell. It's a psychological breakdown as succession of hoary hallucinations and cheap jump-scares.

I think back to what Nathan Lee wrote about The Wrestler in 2008. "God help us, Aronofsky is now making movies in the style of the Dardenne Brothers," he snorted, with characteristic chagrin. "Better than making them in the style of Aronofsky." See, I'm not so sure I agree with him. I miss that Brooklyn film brat. The Fountain was profoundly silly, but also bursting at the seams with emotion, ideas, and nifty visual conceits; it was an endearingly ambitious bit of baloney. Requiem For a Dream remains the most harrowing After School Special I've ever seen. And π? Scrappy thing was shot on a bolex. Say what you want about any of these pictures, but they are unmistakably Aronofsky's. If "maturity" ultimately amounts to this kind of industry-approved plagiarism, let's pray Darren renacts the penultimate scene of π and rejoins the ranks of the distinctively disreputable.
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