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The Oscars are less than a week away and we’re taking a look at all the categories we care to. Today it’s Adapted Screenplay, whose nominees are all also Best Picture nominees.

  • 127 Hours: Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy
  • The Social Network: Aaron Sorkin
  • Toy Story 3: Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich
  • True Grit: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
  • Winter’s Bone: Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini

Adam:

He isn't coming for 30% of the Oscar

The Social Network. Fin.

Oh, I am assuming I will need to write more about this category. Ok. First, Aaron Sorkin writes dialogue better than anyone else out there – bar none. Let me qualify that, he writes dialogue for smart people better than anyone else out there. Sports Night and The West Wing are two of the best television programs ever made. The largest reason for this is Aaron Sorkin and his writing. The Social Network owes pretty much all of its appeal and positive criticism to Sorkin’s script – and it is well deserved. Sorkin’s trademark rapid-fire dialogue is present in all its glory, but is supported/ enhanced by his artful telling of this story. I liked the back-and-forth of depositions and actual story, mainly because Sorkin was able to do so smoothly and keep the story moving at the same time. The biggest compliment I can give Sorkin and his script  is that I really enjoyed the movie, and that is as someone who hates Facebook and is unimpressed by David Fincher (so that is pretty impressive).

As the only Grouch to really enjoy True Grit, I throw in a few words about the Cohen brothers’ script. A minor spoiler is that they modified the story slightly from the original. At first I was a little worried about it, but that quickly changed. I thought they did a great job with both the changes and the script as a whole. The story moved, the changes were largely relevant, and the dialogue was entertaining. The only thing they failed miserably on was the ending. I stated before that the glaring failure of the remake was the ending. While I liked the Coen brothers’ version a lot better, the ending was far inferior to the original’s. All in all, though, I definitely think they deserve to be nominated and their script ranks second in my mind.

I honestly don’t have a lot to say about the other movies nominated. I liked Winter’s Bone’s story (surprisingly enough some of the scenery/ characters reminded me of home). There were definitely better movies made in 2010 and better scripts, but I am not angry about its nomination. Toy Story 3 was fine. Not great, but fine. I laughed some, and didn’t hate that I watched it. 127 Hours is pretty much in the same boat. All in all, we have an extremely strong script, a strong one, a decent one, and two weak ones. Not the most impressive bunch I’ve seen, but, for the Academy, I’d say this is a pretty good showing.

Who Should Win: Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network (hands down)

Jared

I was pretty proud of myself for describing the dialogue in the Joel and Ethan Coen’s True Grit screenplay as “Runyonesque”, so I’ll stick with that.  Which makes it a little surprising, then, that I didn’t like the film more, given how much I like Damon Runyon.  Here’s the thing, though.  Runyon’s dialogue serves interesting characters doing interesting things.  The Coen’s dialogue serves kinda interesting characters doing terribly uninteresting things.  So while at times it was a welcome distraction, a Western can very rarely be entertaining because of the talking in it.  Brian makes an excellent point about Josh Brolin’s Tom Chaney (there’s a Washington Senators dying to be made here): That’s it?  The man was on screen for what, three minutes?  This film was a road trip movie, and not a particularly good one at that.

There were lots of good things about Winter’s Bone.  The cast were all pretty interesting.  The look of the film felt great.  And it was refreshing setting for a movie for a script.  And while the script was certainly the genesis of all that, I personally want to see a little bit more from my Oscar nominees.  I’m not sure I can point any one particularly weak part of the script, just not sure I could point to any one particularly strong one, either.  The plot seemed almost like a procedural in nature.  Jennifer Lawrence’s quest was, at times, very linear.  The sparseness of the script certainly matched the locale, but I tend to need more.

I’ve said it before and I’ll keep harping on it, I don’t understand all this love for Toy Story 3 and would be much happier if people replaced How to Train Your Dragon wherever I see the former.  OK, yes, the scene at the end got the room a little dusty.  But otherwise it is just the toys being placed in crappy situation after crappy situation.  I didn’t see the heart or wit that were the hallmarks of the first two films.  I’m not suggesting this film was bad, just that people are perhaps lauding it with praise left over from 1 and 2.

127 Hours is perfectly adequate.  The script is generally taut and engaging, though it may rely a little too heavily on the dream sequences.  Especially considering it really is a one trick pony: a hiker gets stuck and (SPOILER ALERT!) cuts off his arm, the end.  It is hard to envision how that simple story could make for a compelling story, so kudos to Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy for turning in a relatively interesting screenplay.

He's coming for...

Clearly though, Aaron Sorkin’s script for the The Social Network is tops here and it isn’t particularly close.  Thank goodness it qualifies as an adapted screenplay so there’s no chance of it losing to the juggernaut that is The King’s Speech.  From the opening seconds of the film, you know you are in for something uniquely Aaron Sorkin.  And something amazing.  I undoubtedly felt, while the movie was still going on, that I was watching something epic.  I think it is mistake to take the film for something grandiose, like generation-defining.  But that doesn’t make the movie any less enthralling, filled with clever lines and fascinating scenes.  Sorkin’s screenplay is the best one of the year, and maybe the best we’ve seen in awhile.

John

Another decent slate, though marked with films whose strongest elements were outside the script, in my estimation. 127 Hours is all fast cuts, splashy camerawork, and terrific acting. The story is fine, but it achieves what it does through the ways Danny Boyle chooses to visualize it. Toy Story 3 works quite well. I can only say it didn’t build up to something as delightful and emotional as most Pixar movies for me. It is still quite humorous and clever with Mr. Tortilla Head one of my favorite gags of the year.

ALL OF IT


I think True Grit is full of great language, strong characters, and a decent story, but the performances and technical work stand out more to me. Winter’s Bone is a strong second place, particularly in its characters. But it succeeds on atmosphere, which is a lot more than what’s on the written page.

I follow my colleagues with a resounding decision for The Social Network. When people think screenplays they think dialogue and Sorkin has a great way with words. But let me also draw attention to the film’s flashback structure, which really allows its themes to unfold. Or the drama and humor in the plot. This is more than just Sorkin walk-and-talk pizazz.

Snub: I think Fair Game would have found a good home here.

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We’re going to go ahead and knock out all the sonic categories today. They happen to be some of the favorite niche categories of several Grouches.

Best Original Song

Your nominees:

  • “Coming Home” from Country Strong
  • “I See the Light” from Tangled
  • “If I Rise” from 127 Hours
  • “We Belong Together” from Toy Story 3

John bemoans the state of the category:

This is such a bland group of nominees. It was a bland slate of eligible titles this year, so much so that I didn’t even bother with my annual look at this category. Usually there are a couple big names eligible in the category and a few songs I really like that come out of nowhere. And then the Academy will nominate a bunch of songs I’m mostly ambivalent about. This year didn’t have many I actively disliked, but also few really stood out. I don’t anticipate any getting listens after this Oscar season.

And yet this set of nominees still puzzles me. Only four songs got the nod, meaning only those four received scores high enough to be deemed worthy of nomination. It’s no big tragedy that any particular song didn’t get in and it wouldn’t bother me if these four had just happened to rise to the top. But it amazes me that the music branch decided it would rather forgo a fifth nominee than nominate one of the other choices. This crop gets nominations but nothing from Burlesque is even good enough to qualify for a nod??

The only one I dislike is “If I Rise,” which is almost not even a song. It’s about as low-key as music can be, with just enough lyrics to constitute a song and not a chant. I concede it works well over end credits and it’s an effective counterbalance to AR Rahman’s pulsating score through much of the film. The Dido parts aren’t bad, particularly in the beginning, but they feel out of place with the bizarre elements of the rest of the song.

The rest are all generic genre tunes to my ear. “Coming Home” is a bland pop country song that’s devoid of good hooks and is too reptitive. The bizarre thing is that there is a good song from Country Strong. It’s even called “Country Strong.” But it’s not original to the movie! Go figure.

“We Belong Together” is a nice enough ditty, but I defy you to tell it apart from any other Randy Newman contribution to a Pixar film. That leaves “I See the Light,” which is my winner by default. Again, fine enough musical number but I can’t say it had much impact. Disney purposefully only submitted this song to increase its chances at a nomination/win. I’d say there are songs that I like better from Tangled, but at least this one is thematically resonant.

Snubs: Of the weak eligible slate, the Burlesque songs really do stand out. I would have nominated them all and given “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me” and given it the win, albeit without a ton of enthusiasm. I also have a small soft spot for Avril Lavigne’s “Alice” from Alice in Wonderland. She really shows off her pipes.

Jared sees things similarly

“If I Rise” is the kind of breathy atmospheric song that is instantly forgettable.  Rahman is clearly better served going big and bold.  And I’ve always viewed Dido’s successes as more plaintive numbers.  It is going to be interesting to see Florence – The Machine tackle the song on Oscar night, even if I’m not yet convinced she can salvage it.

“Coming Home” probably isn’t as good as “Country Strong”.  Either way, the titles hint at the largely generic tunes populating this movie.  “Coming Home” is the type of soaring, chorus-less song that does not exist outside of movies.  And I’m not entirely certain why the Academy insists on continuing to recognize its ilk.

Randy Newman can crank out movie songs in his sleep at this point.  I won’t go for the obvious joke there because I don’t think “We Belong Together” is that bad.  Even if the title conjures superior Mariah Carey and Pat Benatar songs.  This one, however, is pretty decent montage-y type of song.  It doesn’t have a strong presence, and tends to fade into the background at bits, but it has some decent parts to remind you it is still there.

But “I See the Light” is the only legitimate song of the bunch.  Now, OK, perhaps I was always going to liked a song sung by Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi.  I think Moore is an underrated singer.  I probably listened to “I Could Break Your Heart Every Day of the Week” daily for about a month at one point.  And most of you probably know that I have a weak spot for celebrities who dabble in singing.  So when I heard Chuck was singing on an Oscar-contending song, I mean, I was sold.  The song has its own merits.  I found myself humming the song a few times after listening to it, including a couple of times while writing this post.  I mean, yeah, it feels like a traditional Disney song in a lot of ways.  But groundbreaking songs aren’t really the Academy’s thing.  The song is pleasantly uplifting, and that’s going to be enough to take the category for me.

Best Original Score

The nominees:

  • John Powell, How to Train Your Dragon
  • Hans Zimmer, Inception
  • Alexadre Desplat, The King’s Speech
  • A.R. Rahman, 127 Hours
  • Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, The Social Network

John takes this one:

Score is one of those categories where I’m never sure what I’m going to like. Some music transports me back to a film I enjoyed. Some work great in the context of the movie. Some are wonderful on their own. I’m not sure any characteristic stands out for me. Atonement had wonderful music that stood on its own; Up was less of a good stand alone listen but terrific as a transport back to the film’s rich emotion. This year it’s a bit of all of the above.

When I think of the 127 Hours music, I think of a throbbing score. But most of the pieces are much more subdued. The slower stuff clearly didn’t make much of an impact, while I’m not sure I ever really got into the more up tempo music. It is a compelling artistic choice for a film about a guy stuck in a canyon.

I don’t have anything to say about How to Train Your Dragon except that if I heard it without context, I would suspect its a film score. The potential of a sweep for The King’s Speech has fans particularly annoyed in this category, but Desplat delivers a score I quite enjoy. It works very well in the film and it’s good even on its own. The repeated piano motif is nice.

I love the score from The Social Network and it complements the film beautifully. The electronic music and repeated six distinct notes reinforce the film’s themes. But it’s less fun listening to it on its own so I’m going for the bombast and BRAAAAAAAAAH! Inception‘s score just heightens its already considerable bad assery. It’s big and dramatic, fun and brash.

That said, two of my favorite scores were ineligible this year due to their reliance on preexisting work: Clint Mansell for Black Swan and Carter Burwell for True Grit, which probably would have received my vote if it were nominated.

Snubs: I really enjoyed director Sylvain Chomet’s score to The Illusionist and Rachel Portman’s orchestral accompaniment to Never Let Me Go.

Sound

There are two sound categories. Sound Editing is sound effects. Sound Mixing is the mix of all sonic elements: dialogue, music, ADR, and effects.

The nominees for Sound Editing are Inception, Toy Story 3, Tron: Legacy, True Grit, and Unstoppable.

For Sound Mixing: Inception, The King’s Speech, Salt, The Social Network, and True Grit.

Jared talks Editing:

I’m nowhere near observant or knowledgeable enough about sound editing and mixing, so I’ll abstain, even though I’ve seen eight of the ten nominees (and Salt is waiting for me at home).  But I wanted to take a minute to highlight the most unlikely Oscar nominee, Unstoppable.  I saw the film on the plane to Vegas on this trip out, so it is fresh in my mind.  I’ll save my thoughts on the film for elsewhere.  But it was generally exciting.  And considering the dialogue and characters were uniformly useless and the visuals fairly rote, I’m going to go ahead and say that by process of elimination, the sound must have played a key role in my appreciation of the film.

John talks Mixing:

I just happen to have seen all the nominees here. I can’t say I can really judge a mix that well, but I’ll point out that The King’s Speech seems like an odd choice for a sound category. What kind of audio landscape is this? Most of the scenes have two characters talking in a room with whimsical music playing in the background.

The Social Network probably has the most noticeably-mixed scene of the year with its nightclub scene. Cranking up the techno music to nearly drown out the conversation is an interesting choice. And maybe I’m falling into the more = better trap, but I’ll choose Inception for the same reason I’ll choose it in a lot of categories: there’s so much going on that the technicians who make it coherent deserve some recognition.

The nominees:

  • Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
  • Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit
  • David Fincher, The Social Network
  • Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech
  • David O. Russell, The Fighter

Adam

Film Director: a person who directs the actors and crew in the making of a film. They control a film’s artistic and dramatic aspects, while guiding the technical crew and actors. They often develop the vision for a film and carry the vision out, deciding how the film should look.

This is the definition of what a film director’s job is from the source of all knowledge – Wikipedia. I see a director as the story teller. Screen writers write the story, but they are brought to life by the director’s vision. The better the story, the easier it is for the story teller to make the story real/interesting/good. Ultimately, it is the director’s decision how the shots are setup, how the actors act (through endless takes if necessary), and how the final version of the movie works.

I have come to the conclusion, after years of experience, that less than 5% of the Academy has any idea of what a director does or what a good one looks like. One has only to look at the movies nominated this year to see the truth in this. The Academy also has a strong case of envy when it comes to Christopher Nolan. Regardless of how original you think the script is, Inception was easily the best directed movie of the year. Of course, that makes no difference to the Academy as it doesn’t even make the top 5 in their eyes. Let’s take a look at who they thought did better.

Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan

Let me first say that I really liked The Wrestler. I thought Aronofsky did a terrific job of creating a compelling character study of a washed up pro wrestler. Black Swan was less impressive. Part of this was due to a weak script, but it wasn’t that bad. The acting is really what saved this movie from failure. Natalie Portman did an amazing job and absolutely deserves an Oscar. Mila Kunis and Vincent Cassel (as usual) both put on very strong performances – I actually like Mila more than many of the Supporting Actress nominees. That being said, this isn’t a very good movie and most of it is due to Aronofsky’s directing. Portman’s decent into madness seems almost sloppy. There were definitely compelling scenes (e.g. the finger/toe nail and dressing room scenes), however in an effort to raise audience tension/ anxiety, Aronofsky resorts to directing and camera techniques that lead more to motion sickness than to tension.

David O. Russel, The Fighter

This is possibly the worst directed film of the year. There are really only two options when considering how this film was nominated: a.) Academy members thought they were voting for the Razzies, b.) the Academy is populated by a bunch of morons. The script for this film was atrocious, but that only excuses you so far. The fight scenes in this movie (barring the final one) are utter garbage. It’s like Russel has never seen a well done fight scene…ever. I can only assume this was nominate to piss off Christopher Nolan that much more.

Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech

The King’s Speech was one of my favorite movies of the year. An extremely entertaining movie that succeeded despite the fact that the premise is overcoming a speech impediment (not exactly gripping material). However, as much as I liked the film, its real strengths are in the script and the acting. I am thrilled it was nominated, but one of the most impressive things about the direction of this film is that Hooper managed to not ruin the movie. That may be a disservice to Hooper, though. He did a tremendous job of pulling this movie together and making it the entertaining production that it turned out to be.

David Fincher, The Social Network

What can I say about David Fincher? In the 1990’s, he made three movies I really enjoyed (Seven, The Game, and Fight Club). In the 2000’s, he made two movies I was not impressed at all with (Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and one I didn’t see (Panic Room). After going back and thinking about these movies as a whole, I came to one conclusion: David Fincher is completely dependent upon the script he has been chosen to bring to life. Now, some may argue that that is the fate of any director. My rebuttal is that Fincher doesn’t seem to bring much else to the table, and, in fact, may even negatively impact any production he is associated with. After watching his movies, I would pay good money to see what a more talented director could do with Seven and Fight Club. The Social Network falls into that same category. I really liked this movie despite hating Facebook and rarely being impressed with Fincher. This is due solely to Aaron Sorkin’s script. We’ll talk more about that in a later post, but it is important to note that any success that The Social Network has is entirely the result of a fantastic script. This year, Fincher is once again saved by (and lauded for) being associated with an award winning script. Great job, David, not completely ruining this movie. (That’s about the biggest complement I can give him as the directing in this movie was uninspiring to say the least, and, in my opinion, negatively impacted the movie.)

Joel & Ethan Coen, True Grit

I appreciate the Coen brothers. I may not always LOVE their movies, but I can almost always appreciate what they were trying to accomplish. The way in which they approach and execute their movies is very impressive. True Grit is no exception. It is rare that a remake is better than the original, but the Coen brothers were able to accomplish this feat handily. Their re-envisioning of the beloved John Wayne movie is impressive – I enjoyed their version a lot better than the original. Joel and Ethan excel at giving their movies scope and depth using the locations and sets of their movies. Shots are meticulously planned and executed to get the most of both the action and the backdrop. This movie was no exception. The biggest flaw was the ending. The last 5-10 minutes of the movie were horrible. This is the only aspect of the movie that was far inferior to the original.

Who Should Win: Christopher Nolan

However, since he can’t win: Toss-up between the Coens and Hooper, but I probably give it to the Coens. Either would be fine with me, though.

Jared

The Fighter is one of the worst-directed films of the year, and I’m stunned so few people seem to be on the same page as me here.  Sure, David O. Russell was working with a crappy script.  But take any boxing scene from the film, other than the final fight.  Take it and burn it because it is nothing less than an insult.  At best, they are cut scenes from a low-grade boxing video game.  They alone should have prevented Russell from getting a nomination.  While it is hard to blame Russell too much for the rest of the movie’s failures, I do think he heavily contributed to the repeated references, to the point of being really obnoxious, that the family was lower class.

I’m clearly just not on the same page as the Coen brothers.  If one of the major roles of a director is establishing a compelling tone, then the Coens have missed the mark on that front.  With True Grit, as perhaps other of their films of late, I never really felt drawn into the story.  And while a lot of that is on the script, I think some of it has to be thrown at the feet of the brothers’ directing efforts.  Similarly, Aronofsky’s directing in Black Swan was fine, but not awards-worthy.  He had a difficult task, at there was a lot of incomplete thoughts going on, to be sure.  But I think the film would have had a significantly stronger impact if, for example, it had been directed by someone with more of a feel for horror films.

So we’re down to the big question, Hooper or Fincher? The two films are pretty different and demanded quite different styles.  Sure, The King’s Speech is a lot less showy than The Social Network.  But I think it is a testament to Hooper that he didn’t get in the way of the story.  Starting with that cast is a big leg up.  Hooper’s straightforward style runs with that advantage, creating a crisp, efficient feel that is quite effective for the film.

But I’ll join in with the chorus who say that it was Fincher‘s directing that made Sorkin’s script something truly special.  I wasn’t in Fincher’s camp at first, when I mainly though of the regatta scene, and how odd it was.  Instead, take the scene in the bar with Justin Timberlake.  Other directors may have turned that into artsy, clubby nonsense.  Instead, Fincher rather effectively creates an atmosphere that furthers the story.  Really, the shifts in tone from location to location are pretty remarkable, and I think a good chunk of the credit there goes to Fincher for effortlessly weaving together the different parts of the story while maintaining a consistent overall tone.

John

I’ll leave the vitriol and verbosity to my colleagues. I quite liked all the nominees. When talking directing, there’s no better indicator of greatness than simply making a great movie, but I also look for things like vision, style, tone, and pacing.

A few of these nominees stand out from the others. The Coens create what I would call a well-crafted movie. It’s one of those films where all the technical elements come together so well: camerawork, acting, sets, costumes, music. I wish it added up to a bit more. Aronofsky produces the flashiest work of the group. Black Swan is intense and frenetic and his capable hands. I’ve loved all of his films I’ve seen so I’m glad to see him finally get some Oscar love.

My winner, fairly handily, is Fincher. Adam is too uncharitable here. The script simply establishes the dialogue and structures the story. The shot composition that follows a complex narrative and rapid fire dialogue, the film’s cool aesthetic, the varying but always spot-on tone, the breathless pacing: these have Fincher’s fingerprints all over them. There are an unlimited number of directions the exact same Sorkin script could have gone in someone else’s hands. It’s great with Fincher at the helm.

Snub: The best directed film of the year is Inception. What creativity! What vision! What style! What does Christopher Nolan have to do to get a directing Oscar nomination??

The Oscar ceremony is just a few days away. With dozens of films under our belts it’s time for us to weigh in on this year’s nominees. We’ll be doing our usual in depth analysis for the major categories, but we’ll give some of the ol’ Grouch treatment to the smaller and technical categories as well.

Today, I (John), tackle Visual Effects and Film Editing. Feel free to make your preferences known in the comments, especially if you happen to know more about these subjects!

Visual Effects

The nominees:

  • Alice in Wonderland
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 1
  • Hereafter
  • Inception
  • Iron Man 2

By seeing Hereafter on a whim months ago and Tron: Legacy getting a surprise snub here, I happen to have seen all the nominees. Hereafter is the one that strikes me as behind the others. It’s nominated based on an opening sequence where a character is caught in the Boxer Day tsunami. It’s a terrifying sequence and very effective from a film making standpoint. You really feel in the middle of the swell and experience its power. I know the sequence is well-respected in the field and I know water is particularly hard to work with in effects, but I must admit it set off my realism sensors. It’s hard to explain, but little things let me know it wasn’t real, like little errors in physics or the interaction between the animated water and filmed background. Also, it’s a support sequence up against four films reliant on visual effects.

I don’t have much to say about Iron Man 2, Alice in Wonderland, or Harry Potter except that they have good and frequent visual effects in films that are bad, very bad, and mediocre, respectively.

I choose Inception as my winner. It uses its effects mostly cleverly (though as a very clever film one would hope the visuals would also be clever). I also like that it’s a mix of computer generated and more traditional special effects. There’s a city that folds onto itself, but they also built an actual spinning hallway and blew up a model winter fortress.

Film Editing

The nominees:

  • Black Swan
  • The Fighter
  • The King’s Speech
  • 127 Hours
  • The Social Network

I won’t pretend to be an expert in editing. It’s one of those things you don’t usually notice unless it bothers you or if it’s flashy. The Oscars often reward Best Picture contenders or films that have the most editing, like the Bourne Ultimatum debacle.

The editing in 127 Hours provides some necessary pizazz. The guy’s stuck under a rock. You gotta get some energy from somewhere. Black Swan ratchets up the intensity. But I’ll go with The Social Network for maintaining clarity during fast-moving scenes with rat-a-tat dialogue and nailing all its dramatic and comedic beats.

Snubs: Forget a nomination snub, the winner here should be Lee Smith for Inception. The film is an editing marvel, weaving together multiple dream narratives moving at different speeds and keeping it all coherent, especially at the end.

Huh.  Looks like we don’t have a proper post on The King’s Speech.  Guess I should rectify that before we start up our pre-Oscarpalooza.

The reason we never got one up, perhaps, is that the film gives you exactly what you see.  There’s nothing (I’d argue) deep or extraordinary or even special, really, about it.  The story is fairly simple: a prince turned king with a stutter learns, after peaks and valleys, to overcome his weakness, thanks to a supportive wife and determined therapist.  There’s no sex, no violence, and no catchphrases. And yet it is going to end up one of the Grouches favorite films of the year.

The best picture nominees this year were, generally speaking, very successful at the box office.  Inception, True Grit, and Toy Story 3 all sailed past $100 million domestic. Black Swan will do so tomorrow, The King’s Speech will by next weekend, The Fighter could sneak past and The Social Network seems like it will fall just short.  So suggesting that The King’s Speech has broad appeal doesn’t exactly make unique among the best picture nominees. That said, where specific audiences may have difficulty getting into any of the other contenders, it is very hard to dislike The King’s Speech.  Its feel-good story is accessible, smartly paced and never sappy.  If the lines aren’t especially memorable, they almost never fall flat.  And, of course, the actors absolutely sell the film.

I won’t waste anyone’s time rehashing the merits of Geoffrey Rush or Colin Firth.  But I think it is fairly easy to imagine how much of a prick the therapist could have been in lesser hands.  Or how unwatchable the king’s stutter could have been, with a different approach. I think everyone knows Helena Bonham Carter is riding on the coattails of the film this awards season, I’m just confused why everyone continues to play along.  No fault of her own, of course, just isn’t a meaty role.  And hey, I’ve seen the BBC’s version of Pride and Prejudice twice, I like me some Jennifer Ehle, but she’s hardly in the film.  I did, though, kinda like Guy Pearce.  Who hasn’t had nearly the career he should have.  Even if he’s somehow been in three Oscar-nominated films over the past two years.

In the past few weeks the film has emerged as a front-runnner for a whole heap of awards, including Best Picture, thanks to the guilds’ unanimity in rewarding the movie.  Which has led to some rather unseemly sniping by the supporters of The Social Network, the erstwhile presumptive favorite after its near sweep of the critic’s awards.  Now, if you want to argue that The King’s Speech was not the best film of the year, fine, I can’t argue with that.  But we aren’t talking about a Crash situation here.  Hooper, Seidler, et al have created a damn fine movie.  Does it break boundaries?  No, probably not.  Will it inspire any new trends in cinema?  Doubtful.  But I’m not sure why either would be a prerequisite to being a great movie.

Some awards season movies just aren’t meant to be Best Picture contenders. You can pick out films that seem like prestige flicks, but as they roll out a common refrain is that the film is just not good enough… but so and so sure is great! These are the performance showcases, a film whose only nomination hopes hinge on an actor or two.

I took a look at some of this year’s performance showcases, most of which totally fizzled down the stretch. But they’re all actually quite good and worth a watch (with one very notable exception).

Fair Game

This is the one whose lack of success puzzles me the most because it’s a darn good film that seems up the Academy’s aisle. A telling of the Valeria Plame affair with Naomi Watts as Plame and Sean Penn as her husband, Joe Wilson, Fair Game does a wonderful job of navigating a complex narrative while demonstrating the absurdities and injustices of the whole ordeal.

It’s also a terrific domestic drama. Plame just wants to be a good CIA officer and stay out of the limelight while Wilson wants to fight back in the media and take on the Bush administration. The result is a strained marriage, portrayed effectively without dialing up the melodrama.

Penn is such a blowhard in real life that I’d never expect him to have a role that allows him to bloviate about the Bush administration without coming off like a blowhard. And yet, he’s great: stubborn but loving, hurt and lashing out but intelligent and calculating. I guess I should stop being surprised by him. I walk into a film thinking about how obnoxious I find the guy and yet he always makes me forget that I’m watching Sean Penn. Watts got more awards attention, though I found her less memorable but still very good.

Fair Game is a great mix of entertainment and message without overdoing the latter. It’s a great example of how to pull off an effective political drama. I’m afraid its lack of awards season traction will consign it to anonymity.

I'm gonna work wicked hahd to get you out of jail

Conviction

If any film had “Oscar bait” written all over it, it’s this one. If it wasn’t based on a true story you might think it was a parody of Oscar films. Hillary Swank plays a single mother who puts herself through law school in order to clear her brother (Sam Rockwell) of a murder he did not commit. This should really be an unbearable cliche of a film but it’s actually pretty good. I don’t think it does anything groundbreaking, but it tells the story coherently and hits the right notes without overdoing the schmaltz.

And here’s the surprising thing: Swank is really good. If I had a ballot, she would have been on it. She’s earnest and sports a Massachusetts accent but doesn’t overdo it. She picked up a SAG nomination and seemed like a decent shot for an Oscar nod up until the end. I would have been quite okay with that. Rockwell is also good, as always. I wouldn’t recommend Conviction over Fair Game or Made in Dagenham, but I think those who rent it during the dreary spring months would be pleasantly surprised.

Made in Dagenham

Sally Hawkins is the star of this one. Literally, sure, she leads the film, but she’s so good. She plays the leader of a group of female Ford sewing machinists who go on strike in 1960s England. It’s one of those films about fighting for what you believe in and daring to dream. And it’s pretty darn good. Once again, not groundbreaking, but very entertaining and effective. It’s the kind of film that leaves you smiling as you leave the theater.

Hawkins steers the film wonderfully. She’s appropriately inspiring when necessary and nails all the rousing lines. This is usually when my eyes start rolling, but her performance and some good writing combine to hit the right, sincere notes. But Hawkins is also great because of her range. She’s not just very good as an inspiring leader, but also as a mother, a friend, and even a jokester.

It’s too bad Hawkins’s campaign never picked up much traction. Miranda Richardson seemed like a better shot for Supporting Actress, at least earlier in the season. She’s also good, but I think her success as Secretary of Employment Barbara Castle has more to do with a forcefully written role that allows her to unleash some zingers on her bumbling male staff.

I would have thought Dagenham could have made some waves in some technical categories as a period piece: Makeup or Art Direction, perhaps. A small plot point revolves around an outfit, so Costume was a definite possibility to the point that I predicted its nomination. Alas, this nice film will be totally missing from Oscar night.

This scene is especially bad

Casino Jack

Kevin Spacey landed a Golden Globe nod for his role as Jack Abramoff. But boy is this an awful movie. It goes for a zany tone like Oceans Eleven or The Informant! but it’s all wrong. Turning the story into a humorous romp undermines the political points it tries to make, not that those points are made subtly or effectively. Furthermore, the plot has trouble unfolding coherently. I didn’t like Spacey at all in this role and Barry Pepper is terrible as his business partner.

I left Fair Game intrigued and spent an hour reading up on the whole affair online once I got home. It felt like I left Casino Jack knowing even less about Abramoff than I did going in and what’s worse is I didn’t care.

Skip it!

Hooray, the movie's over!

February 2011
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