Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What I Saw: Hugo

What I Saw:   Hugo

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo features beautiful cinematography, art direction and costumes. It stars one of my favorite actors (Sir Ben Kingsley) playing an iconic role. There are some wonderful vignettes throughout the film, beginning with Hugo peering out from behind a clock at the train station below, lovely romance scenes in front of a Parisian bakery, and a behind the scenes look at a movie set. It also revives classic tropes that we’ve all seen in the movies, from oncoming trains to hanging perilously from the hands of a clock. In each case, the settings, costumes and camera angles are prefect. It even boasts a plot that involves the early days of film and the struggle for film preservation, something that this blogger firmly supports.

But sometimes the whole is less than the sum of its parts. I could have easily sat through a whole film in the style of the first act, with the orphan son of a clockmaker seeking the lost secret of his automaton while hiding from the comically evil train station inspector. I could also imagine myself thoroughly enjoying an entire film built around the second act, a colorful biopic of the great filmmaker Georges Melies filled with extravagant costumes and basic film editing discoveries. But for me, the combination of the two stories somehow robbed each of their magic. Hugo’s adventure turns strangely cerebral and his great inheritance seems something of a let down, while modern audiences might wonder why they should bother checking out the old classics when they could simply get Scorsese to remake them with sound and visually stunning 3D.

Despite my problems with these tonal shifts, I do hope that the film will inspire people to learn more about Georges Melies, and I’m willing to do my part by providing some references from my fellow bloggers at The LAMB. I've done something similar in my reviews of My Week With Marilyn And The Artist.

Film: Ab Initio provides a wonderfully detailed introduction to the life and work of Melies as Film’s First Cinemagician.

Silent Volume has some excellent reviews of Melies’ works, including Jeanne d’Arc, and of course, A Trip To The Moon, and even includes information on how to find the films if you want to watch them.

Oscar Chances:

I predict that Hugo will do very well in the visual and audio categories. My previous predictions in the larger categories feel a bit low at the moment, but let’s wait to see how well it holds on at the box office before bumping it too high in the best picture, director or supporting actor races.

Original Score: Howard Shore (currently ranked 1, but might get overcome by War Horse)
Costume Design: Sandy Powell (currently ranked 2)
Film Editing: Thelma Schoonmaker (currently ranked 2)
Art Direction: Dante Feretti, Dorothee Baussan and Francesca Lo Schiavo (currently ranked 3)
Sound Mixing (currently ranked 4)
Visual Effects (currently ranked 5)
Sound Editing (currently ranked 5)
Makeup (currently ranked 5 in a field of 3 nominees)
Cinematography: Robert Richardson (currently ranked 6)
Best Director: Martin Scorsese (currently ranked 14, will move up in next predictions)
Adapted Screenplay: John Logan (currently ranked 15)
Best Picture (currently ranked 18, will move up in next predictions)
Supporting Actor: Ben Kingsley (currently ranked 17, will move up in next predictions)
Actor: Asa Butterfield (currently ranked 38 in the Lead category and 37 in supporting)
Supporting Actress: Chloe Moretz (currently ranked 43)
Supporting Actor: Sacha Baron Cohen and Jude Law (currently unranked)
Best Song: Howard Shore, Elizabeth Cotnoir and Isabelle Geffroy for “Coeur Volant” (currently unranked but will appear in next predictions)

As always, check the Tracker Pages in the upper right hand corner of this blog for the most updated predictions in all categories!

My Lamb Score: 3 ½ out of 5 Lambs
What is a lamb score? Click HERE to learn more.
Read more of my reviews HERE.

Monday, November 28, 2011

LAMBS In The Director’s Chair: Woody Allen

For those who don’t know, The LAMB has a series where bloggers get together each month to write reviews of a particular director’s work. Here at Never Too Early Movie Predictions, I look forward instead of backward, so I thought it might be fun to look ahead at what the director of the month has coming up on his calendar for the next several years.

This month’s director is Woody Allen, a man who is very consistent in making one film a year, but not always as consistent in terms of quality. He has been Oscar nominated 6 times for his directing, once for his acting, and 14 times for his screenplays, and he has won 3 times: for writing and directing Annie Hall, and for writing Hannah And Her Sisters.

Midnight In Paris will most certainly add another Original Screenplay nomination (and possible win) to Allen’s list, and both Best Picture and Best Director nominations are distinct possibilities, especially if films with late releases begin to fall. However, it is also important to note some drawbacks. Both of the films that have garnered him wins and best picture nominations in the past (Annie Hall and Hannah And Her Sisters) also received multiple nominations for other categories (5 and 7, respectively). While it is certainly possible that Midnight In Paris will surprise with some costume, art direction or supporting acting nods, or that the new 5% rule changes the dynamics of the race, it is also possible that the combined impact of the other guild’s accolades will leave the film overshadowed for all but a screenplay nomination. Still, it is the most financially successful of all Allen’s films, so perhaps the past statistics won’t apply.

Paris Manhattan will continue the French theme, with Allen in front of the camera instead of behind it. Directed by first time French director Sophie Lellouche, the film is a romantic comedy starring Alice Taglioni as a pharmacist who is obsessed with Woody Allen. Her family is concerned about her obsession, and attempts to cure her by setting her up with French hunk Patrick Bruel. The film promises to be great fun for anyone familiar with Allen’s work, and is said to use many quotes from Allen’s previous films as part of the dialogue.

Nero Fiddled is Allen’s next directorial project. Formerly known as The Wrong Picture and Bop Decameron, the film will feature four vignettes set in Rome. I’m often wary of these vignette films when it comes to Oscar predictions, but I must admit that Allen has assembled an impressive cast that includes Oscar winners Penelope Cruz and Roberto Benigni, as well as Oscar nominees Judi Davis, Ellen Page, Jesse Eisenberg and Alec Baldwin. The film will also feature Greta Gerwig, Alison Pill and a host of Italian actors. He’s also re-teaming with Oscar nominated cinematographer Darius Khondji and costume designer Sonia Grande (both of whom worked on Midnight In Paris), as well as production designer Anne Seibel and set decorator Raffaella Giovannetti.

Plot details are still scare, but Allen has said that it will be a broad comedy, and includes a number of travel stories, which could make for an interesting perspective on this tourist city. In one vignette, Allen will be married to co-star Penelope Cruz (who won her Oscar in Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona), as they go to Rome to meet their future son in law and his family. Another vignette will reportedly feature Alec Baldwin as a California architect who comes to visit friends (and I have to wonder, will he also check out the architecture of this famous city?). I suspect that we’ll also see some of Allen’s trademark disorientation as another segment features Italian stars Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra Mastronardi as newlyweds who get lost in the city, while Roberto Benigni will play a man who gets mistaken for a movie star. There’s even rumored to be an homage to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita at Via Veneto.

Allen will also be featured in three documentaries. The first, American Masters--Woody Allen: A Documentary, has already premiered on PBS, and features a plethora of stars talking about their experiences working with the director, as well as original footage from his film sets and his childhood home. A second documentary, Casting By (directed by Tom Donahue) is an inside look at the role of the casting director, which is certainly one of the most important yet little understood jobs in Hollywood, and will include interviews with a large number of famous actors and directors, including Allen. And finally, Masha Vasyukova is directing a documentary short entitled Woody Before Allen, which centers around an attempt to place a statue in Allen's honor in the Russian city of Kaliningrad. You can learn more at the film’s website:

So readers, what do you think of Midnight In Paris’ Oscar chances? Does Nero Fiddled feel like a successful follow up, or does the vignette format leave you as worried as I am? Could Paris Manhattan break into the foreign language race, or Casting By or Woody Before Allen be a surprise documentary winner? Let me know in the comments!

You can keep track of Woody Allen’s Oscar chances for each of these projects on my Director And Screenplay page.
Read what my fellow LAMBS have written about Woody Allen HERE.
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Thursday, November 24, 2011

What I Saw: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part One

What I Saw:   The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part One

I must begin my review with three admissions: First, seeing a Twilight movie has become something of a Thanksgiving tradition for me, and I’m always struck by the colonial implications of the pale white bloodsuckers encroaching upon Quileute land. Second, I am an unapologetic member of Team Jacob, and since statistically fifty percent of marriages end in divorce, I think that Bella would have been smarter to marry the hottie with the great abs first, and save the guy who doesn’t age for her second time around. And third, I love watching the guys get all upset as the women break their monopoly on this genre.

Let’s be honest: The makeup and visual effects in this film aren’t really any worse than we see in any number of male-centered vampire and werewolf films. The dialogue isn’t any more ridiculous than what we see in a typical action movie. And even Taylor Lautner’s much ballyhooed shirtlessness can’t begin to compare to the skimpy outfits and topless nudity we’ve seen on women over the years. So why is it so threatening to have one franchise where testosterone isn’t the solution to every problem?

I’m not going to try to argue that the Twilight series is somehow a paragon of feminism. My point is simply that the film looks at issues of romance, marriage, pregnancy and abortion as common experiences and trusts its audience to fill in the gaps with their own emotions and projections, just as the guys’ films do for the oh-so-important values of sports, cars and war. Indeed, this context even extends to the battle scenes, where the struggles are for protection, rather than the ego-driven masculine fantasy of saving the whole world.

Breaking Dawn Part One lives up to expectations. I have to admire a franchise where the marriage comes in the middle, rather than the end of the series. In addition to providing an opportunity for cameo appearances from the lesser known characters in Bella’s life, the wedding scene features beautiful dresses and an art design sequence that perfectly mirrors the mix of emotions. The exotic honeymoon plays nicely as well, revealing the nervousness and anticipation of one’s first time that contrasts quite sharply with the immature conquest mentality presented in boy’s movies. But the heart of the film is during the pregnancy, as Bella, Edward, Jacob and their families negotiate the changing loyalties and affections that come with new life. And while the division of the final installment into two parts is clearly a money grab (just as it is for Harry Potter, The Hobbit, The Matrix and any number of superhero sequels), the execution of the final scene makes it feel like a natural break in the story by harkening back to the horror genre that inspired the characters and building suspense for the final episode.

Oscar Chances:

Best Song: Bruno Mars for “It Will Rain” (currently ranked 20)
Best Song: Christina Perri for “A Thousand Years” (currently unranked, but at the suggestion of a reader it may appear in my next rankings)
Makeup (currently ranked 33 for the multiple transformations of Bella Swan)

My Lamb Score: 3 out of 5 Lambs
What is a lamb score? Click HERE to learn more.
Read more of my reviews HERE.
As always, check the Tracker Pages in the upper right hand corner of this blog for the most updated predictions in all categories!

Monday, November 21, 2011

What I Saw: The Descendants

What I Saw:   The Descendants

The Hawaiian setting plays an interesting role in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. On the surface, George Clooney’s character warns us that we should not confuse the scenic views and visitor attractions for some sort of paradise where real people don’t face real problems. Yet oddly the film relies upon these very influences as both an enticement and a diversion to its dramatic storyline.

Clooney’s character faces a mountain of challenges as he tries to deal with his wife’s hospitalization and likely death. In addition to navigating strained relationships with his daughters, father-in-law and a truckload of cousins, he is also negotiating the sale of his family’s inherited and politically-charged land and dealing with the aftermath of his wife’s affair. Given the sheer scope of challenges and characters, anyone looking for plot holes or dropped storylines will certainly find them, but if you are willing to look past the contrivances you will also find an emotional truth. When someone you love is dying it does indeed feel like the whole world is crushing in on you, as old feuds rise up again and a range of emotions compete for your attention.

The acting is superb, not only from Clooney but also from his eldest daughter (Shailene Woodley) and father-in-law (Robert Forster). The cinematography takes full advantage of the beautiful Hawaiian setting, and the script skillfully injects humor in a way that allows the emotional impact to build all the way through to the end. But the film also walks a very thin line between well-crafted tearjerker and emotionally manipulative trickery. For maximum enjoyment, I recommend coming to the theater with your kleenex in hand and your puppet strings ready to be pulled.

Oscar Chances:

Adapted Screenplay: Alexander Payne, Nat Fixon and Jim Rash (Predicted Winner, locked for a nomination)
Lead Actor: George Clooney (currently ranked 2, locked for a nomination, and could easily win given Hollywood’s love for him)
Best Picture (currently ranked 2, locked for a nomination, could easily win)
Best Director: Alexander Payne (currently ranked 2, locked for a nomination, and definite contender for the win)
Supporting Actress: Shailene Woodley (currently ranked 3, good bet for the nomination both on her own merits and as part of a multi-category sweep)
Film Editing: Kevin Trent (currently ranked 19)
Supporting Actor: Robert Forster (currently ranked 28, will move up in my next set of predictions, particularly given the possibility of a multi-category sweep)
Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael (currently ranked 28)
Original Score (currently ranked 33--The movie features a wonderful collection of Hawaiian music, but most of it is not original to the film.)
Art Direction: Jane Anne Stewart and Matt Callahan (currently ranked 34)

My Lamb Score: 4 out of 5 Lambs
What is a lamb score? Click HERE to learn more.
Read more of my reviews HERE.
As always, check the Tracker Pages in the upper right hand corner of this blog for the most updated predictions in all categories!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

What I Saw: J. Edgar

What I Saw:   J. Edgar

American audiences have become accustomed to movie tropes where freedom inevitably bursts through any attempt to control it, where repression is simply a prelude to liberation, and where hiding one’s sexuality is merely a temporary phase preceding a glorious coming out scene. The brilliance of Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar is that it will have none of that. Power, control and repression are examined in full force, with the lessons taking a contemplative, rather than celebratory, tone.

While many biopic films use a memoir format that contains a twist at the end, J. Edgar tells us early on that he is dictating for political reasons, and that “facts” will be presented as he wants them to be. In this way, the audience is invited, from the beginning, to look upon Hoover as an unreliable narrator, set on controlling our perceptions.

But even though we have been warned against it, we are used to being controlled, and obediently fall victim to his narrative prowess. We are quick to accept his definition of communism and organized crime as dangers, as well as his rendition of the valiant fight against them. We hardly bat an eye as the government extends its power over us in the form of fingerprinting, because we have become so accustomed to being tracked. Even when the film reveals that the Lindbergh baby was used as an excuse for expanding the FBI’s scope, we somehow go along with it under the pretext of protecting the children.

The breaking point comes with the Civil Rights movement and the wiretapping of Martin Luther King. And it is here that the film’s reflections upon power, control and repression come into full flower. It is no accident that Hoover’s closest companions suddenly begin challenging his renditions at the precise moment that the audience does, subtly revealing that even our beliefs about freedom and liberation can be controlled through narrative and visual power.

Eventually Hoover’s own words are turned against him, as the moralistic speech that we know from the trailer is contrasted with historical clips, allowing the audience to decide whether such a man is the solution to our problems or the very thing we must be vigilant against. The majority of viewers will likely make excuses, saying that Hoover’s earlier actions were justified but that he went too far toward the end of his career. A minority, perhaps, will look back and question the earlier actions, as well as their continued impact on our lives. And a very few will wonder: If Hoover had lived longer, or his replacement been more successful in continuing his vision, might we be living in a world where civil rights are as vilified as communism? Or one where our loyalties are torn as they are when we cheer for both mobsters and G-Men in the movies?

Special attention must also be paid to this moving story of gay life in America. Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay powerfully reveals a side of the gay experience that too often gets hidden. It is natural that we in the gay community want to see films like Milk which tell of our successes, or coming out stories where we can relive the moment that we gave up the burdens of the closet. But it is perhaps even more important that we not forget how most of us have had to lead our lives, whether for a day or for a lifetime.

J. Edgar is the opposite of escapist cinema, precisely because it offers no escape. There is no sudden redemption for its characters, no guarantee of political release, and no absolution for straight audiences who perpetuate the closet. It makes you feel trapped, policed, surveilled--and by doing so strikes the perfect emotional tone to show us what the FBI is really about.

Oscar Chances:

Despite my love for this film, other critics have been rather harsh on it. The lessons of the film may be too deep for it to break into the Best Picture and Director races by the end of the year, but I doubt this will hurt its chances in the other categories.

Lead Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio (current Predicted Winner, almost certain to receive a nomination)
Makeup (currently ranked 2)
Supporting Actor: Armie Hammer (currently ranked 2)
Original Screenplay: Dustin Lance Black (currently ranked 2, will likely drop in my next predictions, but still has a chance at the nomination)
Best Picture (currently ranked 5, but will drop in my next predictions unless the critics begin to come to their senses)
Art Direction: James J. Murakami and Gary Fettis (currently ranked 5)
Best Director: Clint Eastwood (currently ranked 6)
Costume Design: Deborah Hopper (currently ranked 6)
Supporting Actress: Judi Dench (currently ranked 9)
Supporting Actress: Naomi Watts (currently ranked 14)
Film Editing: Joel Cox and Gary Roach (currently ranked 12)
Cinematography: Tom Stern (currently ranked 15)
Sound Editing (currently ranked 36)
Sound Mixing (currently ranked 46)
Original Score: Clint Eastwood (currently ranked 10, but will drop dramatically in my next predictions. Honestly, Clint, you should look into hiring an actual composer for your next film.)

My Lamb Score: 4 ½ out of 5 Lambs
What is a lamb score? Click HERE to learn more.
Read more of my reviews HERE.
As always, check the Tracker Pages in the upper right hand corner of this blog for the most updated predictions in all categories!