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We continue our discussion casting our votes for the Independent Spirit Awards. Find part one here.

BEST DIRECTOR

  • Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
  • Danny Boyle, 127 Hours
  • Lisa Cholodenko, The Kids Are All Right
  • Debra Granik, Winter’s Bone
  • John Cameron Mitchell, Rabbit Hole

WINNER: Debra Granik (8 points – 3 from Adam, 2 from Brian, 2 from Jared, 1 from John)

Other votes: Darren Aronofsky (4 points – 3 from John, 1 from Brian)

John: Looks like we cared a ton on this one, eh?

Brian: Hahaha. Jared, no love for Aranofsky?

Jared: He crossed my mind, but I really didn’t think the film was anything special.

Adam: Good news! I just filed my taxes. I hated Daddy Longlegs so much I actually started doing my taxes

Brian: I’ll just say that I liked that Aronofsky went balls-out and the overall ridiculousness of the film is largely due to him.

John: To me, Black Swan‘s success, such that it is, hinges on how it displays the descent into insanity. This film could have been a ridiculous melodramatic mess, but it’s an effective as a psychological thriller through Aronofsky’s vision. It’s a good ridiculousness, not a messy roll your eyes ridiculousness

Jared: I guess, to me, the camp didn’t come through, and I didn’t think it was a strong psychological thriller

Brian: It’s not a good movie, but what makes it interesting is Aranofsky’s WTF ness. As for Winter’s Bone — we’ve covered this, I thought the directing was strong enough to compensate for a mediocre script

John: I didn’t care too much who won this one. I like Granik too. She does a good job with the cast and settings. A lot of the cast are non-professionals from the area. I also considered throwing some points to Boyle, but couldn’t justify giving three people votes

Brian: Boyle bleh. 127 Hours bleh

John: 127 Hours is just so bold. It’s almost as much the Danny Boyle Makes A Movie About a Stuck Dude story as much as the Aron Ralston story. But in the end the film just isn’t strong enough, especially compared to Winter’s Bone and Black Swan.

Jared: As a fan of closed room films, I found it distracting that Boyle did everything possible to prevent staying in that closed room.

Brian: I actually had the opposite problem. I thought the flashbacks were way too short. I wanted to know about the character stuck in the canyon and the brief cuts to him as a kid or pre-Kate Mara would have been interesting

John: A major problem I had is that I didn’t realize the visions were actual visions Ralston was seeing in the cave. I thought they were just general artsy fartsiness. That’s a directorial problem

BEST MALE LEAD

  • Ronald Bronstein, Daddy Longlegs
  • Aaron Eckhart, Rabbit Hole
  • James Franco, 127 Hours
  • John C. Reilly, Cyrus
  • Ben Stiller, Greenberg

WINNER: John C. Reilly (16 points – Adam)

Other votes: Ronald Bronstein (10 points – 6 from John, 4 from Brian)

Aaron Eckhart (9 points – 8 from Jared, 1 from Brian)

James Franco (2 points – John)

John: Yowza

Adam: Boooyah

Brian: WHAT? That’s ridiculous

John: Well, there goes my first line of discussion of “We can all agree that John C Reilly doesn’t belong here”

Adam: HAHAHAHA

Brian: Adam, please explain yourself.

Adam: Well, you can either believe that I just wanted to screw everyone over (definitely valid). Or that I actually really liked this movie.

John: Actually, I liked John C Reilly, but behind several of the others. He has a tough character to work with and does a fine job. Eckhart is the most unmemorable one here, I think

Adam: Stiller sucks. Franco was fine but not great. Eckhart was decent. Bronstein was horrible. Process of elimination.

John: But still… 16 points??

Adam: I know how to win.

Adam: I didn’t feel all that strongly about any of the categories so I went big in one. I liked Cyrus more than the rest of you.

Brian: I agree on Stiller, who is easily the worst of the bunch. The angry material is really a bad fit for Stiller.

John: I feel like if you pick a good actor doing great work in a tough role, Bronstein is the answer.

Brian: All I could see was “oh this is Ben Stiller being obnoxious.”

Adam: I actually liked Stiller better than Bronstein, which is saying a LOT.

Brian: I couldn’t see anyone else doing that role besides Bronstein. Easily the most memorable and irreplaceable character of the group of 5 with Eckhart a close 2nd.

Jared: Eckhart’s role is the most subtle of the group, by far. He’s in this fragile situation, dealing with a tragic death, a wife that’s falling apart and trying to maintain some sort of normalcy. And this is exactly what Eckhart does so well, inhabit characters to make them feel so real

Brian: not that it would have made a difference, but I now wish I had given Eckhart more. In terms of snubs, where is Ryan Gosling on this list. I liked Blue Valentine a lot more than the rest of you but I thought Gosling’s performance was great.

John: Yep. He’s good. Not sure how he’s not here. Not sure how Blue Valentine isn’t on this nomination list more, to be honest. I wasn’t thrilled with it, but I thought it would be clean up here. Naturally to me the big snub is Robert Duvall for Get Low.

Jared: I can’t explain the relative lack of love for Blue Valentine either.

John: Also, James Franco is just naturally perfect for his role.

Brian: Yeah, that’s why I didn’t want to give him any credit.

John: If he wasn’t an actor, he may well be Aron Ralston.

Brian: Then why did you vote for him? That’s not acting!

John: I mean, it’s still acting. He also has the charisma needed to lead this movie.

Brian: I’d disagree, but that’s probably because we disagree on the merits of 127 Hours itself. John, why didn’t you like Eckhart? Jared and John, why didn’t you like Reilly?

John: I didn’t dislike him. It’s just solid. He wasn’t a standout for me. But nothing from that film is a standout. I thought Reilly was a case of a name actor getting a nominee for being a name actor, especially since Cryus didn’t get anything else, suggesting no great love for the film.

Jared: I’m a big John C. Reilly fan, to be honest, and I’m not really sad that he’s our pick or anything…this is going to sound weird, but I actually much prefer dramatic John C. Reilly to comedic one.

Brian: I found Reilly all right, but playing a version of the sad sack he plays in every movie and Cyrus was barely even a comedy.

Jared: It wanted to be, I think.

John: I didn’t find him convincing, but maybe that was the writing. He’s like a schmuck in Dinner for Schmucks. They made nearly everything possible wrong with him, but not really a realistic loser. It’s not like he does a bad job or anything. I just think there are better choices. And Bronstein nails the majorly flawed character better.

Jared: I hate to go against you, Adam, but I’d probably have to agree with John here.

Brian: That makes three of us.

BEST FEMALE LEAD

  • Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
  • Greta Gerwig, Greenberg
  • Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
  • Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone
  • Natalie Portman, Black Swan
  • Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

WINNER: Natalie Portman (9 points – 5 from Jared, 3 from Brian, 1 from Adam)

Other votes: Jennifer Lawrence (9 points- 6 from John, 3 from Brian)

Annette Bening (3 points – Brian)

Michelle Williams (1 point – Brian)

By receiving votes from more Grouches, Portman wins the tiebreaker.

Jared: Brian, I’m fascinated to learn why you voted for four actresses, and gave three points to three of them

John: Please explain!

Jared: Maybe he just really hates Nicole Kidman.

Brian: Because I liked all four of them

John: But if you liked them all equally, why 3? Couldn’t use those points elsewhere?

Brian: I really liked Benning, but knew I couldn’t win, so I wanted to show her the respect with 3 pts.

Jared: if you had given all those points to her, you would have.

Brian: I guess. But I also liked Portman, and liked Lawrence, and Williams. So I was torn. I guess I could used the points more judiciously, but I didn’t want to not give points to any of them.

Jared: I’m sure they appreciate the sentimentality

John: I like Portman too. Initially I split my points between Lawrence and Portman. But I was worried 1 or 2 points for Portman would overtake Lawrence. And there it is.

Jared: Honestly, yeah, I’m not entirely certain there’s a wrong answer here. Other than Greta Gerwig, of course.

Jared: I thought Bening was better in Mother and Child. And I dunno, I think Lawrence did a fine job, but I just sort of wonder if the love is for her character or her.

John: That’s a possibility, Jared. But she plays that character well! I think Lawrence stands out, but Portman isn’t far behind. But I still liked Bening and Kidman plenty too. Plenty of strong nominees in this category

Jared: Yeah, it was a very strong year for actresses. Staving off, for at least a year, the seemingly annual column about how there’s not any good roles for women in Hollywood.

John: It was almost so strong I considered not bothering with too many points. But it turns out I would have just wasted them on Bornstein for Actor. I also have a snub for you. Are you ready to boo? Hillary Swank in Conviction.

Jared: I would boo if I saw the film, John.

John: A Swank nomination would have been kind of boringly straightforward, but she really is good

Brian: and here comes the requisite snub mention of Please Give

John: Keener? Her best work of 2010 was in Cyrus. Though I haven’t seen Percy Jackson and the Olympians.

Adam: I have. She’s better in Cyrus.

John: Though, again, in Please Give part of my problem may be the writing

BEST PICTURE

  • 127 Hours
  • Black Swan
  • Greenberg
  • The Kids Are All Right
  • Winter’s Bone

WINNER: 127 Hours (6 points – Jared)

Other votes: Black Swan (5 points – 3 from John, 2 from Brian)

Winter’s Bone (3 points – 2 from John, 1 from Brian)

The Kids Are All Right (3 points – 2 from Brian, 1 from Adam)

Brian: No way! That’s awful.

John: Hahaha unexpected!

Jared: i’m stunned.

John: On the one hand, not what I chose. On the other hand, I clearly didn’t care that much. One awful movie, plus the two worst Oscar nominees in this category. And two fine ones.

Jared: Honestly, I originally had it at about 3 points, but had 3 points left over and figured, eh, it was best picture, I should give it a little more weigh. To me, 127 was the best of a pretty boring set of five. I honestly didn’t really connect with any of them, but Boyle’s film was at least generally entertaining

John: Generally Entertaining is your winner, ladies and gentlemen!

Brian: Ha, for me I also didn’t really care.

John: If Get Low had been nominated I would have pulled an Adam

Brian: had either Please Give or Blue Valentine been in there, I probably would have put down enough points for them to win. At least Greenberg got nothing.

Jared: I’m sad Rabbit Hole didn’t make it over Greenberg, I would have been much happier voting for that.

John: Someone should have sacrificed a point just so Greenberg could be shut out and finish a definitive last.

Adam: Agreed.

Brian: What do you all think will win on Saturday?

John: Kids.

Brian: I think Kids or Swan

John: or Winter’s Bone

Brian: but I lean toward Kids

John: Kids just screams Independent Film

Jared: I’ll go with Swan, I guess…it is such a success story

John: couldn’t that hurt at the Spirits?

Brian: I don’t think so. There have been so many of these lighthearted comedies that have been the sole successes commercially. (Juno, Little Miss Sunshine.) I’d think they would relish a darker film

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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 Actress.

  • Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
  • Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
  • Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone
  • Natalie Portman, Black Swan
  • Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

John:

This is the most unflattering image I could find. I hate you, Natalie Portman.

Two ladies compete for my pick here, but truthfully none of them blow me away. Williams and Kidman are both good, though undermined by some weak material. It’s hard for me to tell what doesn’t push me over the top for Williams. I think the film isn’t successful enough to make her performance connect with me. And Kidman has to deal with a bunch of phony scenes so it kind of feels like she’s Acting Very Hard.

Bening is terrific in a role that takes some range: caring wife/mom, icy household leader, betrayed spouse. But Lawrence and Portman lead for me. I’m glad Lawrence got in; it seemed like her star was falling by nomination time. She’s delightful with her tough, stubborn façade that only occasionally cracks to reveal the unsure teenager she actually is. And at this moment I’ll choose Portman, though maybe I’ll go back and forth a few times. What can I say, she’s fierce! And I think the over-the-top scenery chewing is kept at the right level.

Snubs: My dream ballot would include Hilary Swank for Conviction and Sally Hawkins for Made In Dagenham, both discussed here.

Jared:

I’ll echo the sentiments of every other Oscar-watcher out there and say this year was and extremely strong one for leading ladies.  Honestly, the next five actresses on the list would likely stack up favorably to most other years.

Jennifer Lawrence would probably be the first out of my top five, though I’m certainly not upset she’s here.  I guess I think people are confusing their admiration for her character with their admiration for her a little.  A young, attractive woman struggling to take care of her family against all manners of hardships?  Yeah, that’s a trope the Academy eats up.  That said, she did a very fine job, and I look forward to seeing what she takes on in the future.

Annette Bening is being pipped by some as an upset pick to take home the trophy Sunday night.  In my mind that would be a (deserved) career achievement win.  Something the Academy has <sarcasm> never ever been known to do </saracasm>.  She’s clearly very good in this role, but I’d look to her turn in Mother and Child as the performance that should have been nominated.  To be sure, at times it is hard to separate the character as written from the actor’s performance, but I just didn’t get enough there.  Maybe I needed to see an Oscar Scene (TM).

In Rabbit Hole, Nicole Kidman broke her nearly decade long streak of appearing in forgettable movies.  The tough thing about her character, I think, is that she had to tiptoe such a fine line to retain some of the audience’s sympathy, but almost as little as possible, since her character was so frequently lashing out in an effort to bring some sense of normalcy back into her world.  While she obviously benefited from being a big name (since really, how many people actually saw this film?), Kidman’s nomination was certainly a valid choice.

After The Baxter (and OK, sure, The Station Agent), I’m wholeheartedly in the tank for Michelle Williams.  A sentiment not shared by all of my fellow Grouches.  I didn’t love Blue Valentine because I think the script failed to make me care about the couple.  But I almost shudder to think what the film would have been like in lesser hands.  Perhaps the thing I most like about Williams is that her characters never feel like caricatures.  It is really difficult to describe any of the in a word or two, because they feel like such normal people.

And the second most unfortunate. Damn, she's pretty.

Natalie Portman is dead to me.  Maybe I shouldn’t be so harsh.  I guess I could have been a little more aggressive in pursuing her.  It was actually a little surprising how much of the internet blew up when the news was announced.  She could have had her pick of any nerd out there and she goes with a ballerina?  Anyway, if she weren’t dead to me, I’d probably say that in a year of strong performances, I’m not sure it is particularly close among these nominees.  The role required such range and such ability.  And she pulled it off magnificently.  Black Swan really wasn’t all that special, in my opinion, but a good chunk of the reason it is doing so well is squarely on the shoulders of Portman, who has carried the film on the back of her memorable performance.

Adam:

Is completely unoriginal and also picked Natalie Portman.

Oscar nominees are announced on the 25th.  Yay!  So let’s summarize what we (the royal we, at least) know.  Keeping in mind, of course, that when it comes to the Academy, no one knows anything.  Especially me.  This time: Best Actress.

VIRTUAL LOCKS

  • Natalie Portman, Black Swan
  • Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
  • Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone

I remember the good ol’ days when I could talk about Portman‘s riveting  and undeniably Oscar-worthyperformance of a ballerina in a yin-yang struggle for perfection.  Too bad she’s dead to me now.  I’ll be honest, I don’t quite see why Bening should be nominated for her portrayal of a lesbian Mama Bear protecting her cubs, but she appears to be in a two horse race for the statue.  Don’t get me wrong, that’s not a slight on the actress (I would probably give a nomination this year for Mother and Child), probably more a reflection that everyone else in the world seems to see something in the film that I don’t.  I’m also maybe a little bit lower on Lawrence than others, but that may be more due to my issues with the script and my belief that people have just zeroed in on the concept of a backwoods girl struggling to keep her family afloat than looking at the actual movie itself.

LIKELY IN

  • Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole

I haven’t seen any prognosticators leave Kidman out of the final five, but her place just feels a little shakier to me than the others.  Maybe it is because I’m not really sure Rabbit Hole has registered with voters. Or me, I guess, because I haven’t felt like being mortally depressed for two hours yet.

LAST ONE IN

  • Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right

The last spot in this category is huge crapshoot.  I changed my pick a few times before settling on four-time Oscar nominee Moore, who I think gave a more memorable performance than Bening.  John bemoaned the traditional Oscar wave of films the Academy loves racking up nomination after nomination, but it does seem like it will happen again and seems as good a reason as any to pick someone for this slot.

FIRST ALTERNATES

  • Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine
  • Lesley Manville, Another Year
  • Hilary Swank, Conviction
  • Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit

Yeah, there’s a lot of them, but I don’t think anyone would really be surprised should any of these four women pull down the last nomination.  Michelle Williams stole my heart in The Baxter, so I’m probably rooting for her here.  Mike Leigh has a well-established history of getting his actresses Oscar noms, so Manville has a great shot even if she may be the least recognizable name on the list.  I’m really hoping I don’t have to see Conviction, which probably means that Swank should be the leading contender here.  We’ve discussed Steinfeld‘s category fraud, we’ll just have to wait and see if she ends up the category she should be in, the category she’ll win, or if the confusion made her miss in both.

DARK HORSES

  • Noomi Rapace, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  • Tilda Swinton, I Am Love

Rapace has been mentioned on enough lists that maybe she’s a bit more than a dark horse, in a weaker year she might have been able to break through.  A bunch of people are obsessed with I Am Love, the film clearly isn’t my cup of tea, but Swinton turns in her usual solid performance.

SHOULDA BEEN A CONTENDER

Emma Stone, Easy A (duh)
Naomi Watts, Mother and Child
Patricia Clarkson, Cairo Time

Going into this year’s Oscar season, if I had to pick one contender I least wanted to see, I’d imagine it would have been Frost/Nixon in a runaway.  Because going into the movie, I’d probably have called screenwriter Peter Morgan a hack.  I felt like I’d given the man a fair deal, having seen The Last King of Scotland, The Queen, and The Other Boleyn Girl (Morgan co-wrote the first and has sole credit on the latter two).  The Last King of Scotland was a somewhat tolerable movie.  I know some people liked or even loved The Queen, but they happen to be exceedingly wrong.  And as I may have mentioned before, I think Morgan must possess some sort of unholy power if he can turn a movie starring Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson into a clunker of a snoozefest.

With that on the table, I found I actually kinda sorta liked Frost/Nixon.  Not in the top of the charts sense, more in that it is probably in the top quarter or so of movies I’ve watched this year.  Maybe it was because Morgan first wrote it as a play, but I think what worked was the dynamic between interviewer Frost (Michael Sheen) and Nixon (Frank Langella).  Everything else, perhaps, falls fairly flat, so it is fortunate the movie spends a good chunk of time (though not nearly enough) on the battle between the two men.

Nixon certainly views it as a competition.  He looks forward to engaging Frost in a duel of wits.  And as the interview progresses, he gloats over how he is ahead on points.  Indeed, it may have been Brian who called it one of the best sports movies of the year.  And it certainly has most of the trappings of a sports movie.  Scrappy underdog with his small band of supporters who no one believes in up against an overconfident, yet intelligent foe with a sniveling henchman  in a title bout that looks all but lost until the very end.  Sure, the hero gets the hot chick a little early and we may have been lacking a montage, but otherwise we are pretty much there.

To Morgan’s credit, he clearly tries to add texture and depth to characters and situations, where subtlety is not necessarily a desired trait in a sports flick.  Nixon, for example, is not the typical villain.  I’d argue he’s portrayed in a rather sympathetic light.  Sure, he may get a little cocky at times, and he makes the inevitable fatal slip-up, but as a sharp-witted old man, he never comes across as malicious.  The only two characters to actively loathe him are awed when they meet the former President in person.  But again, most interesting is how Frost views him.  For most of the movie, Frost doesn’t view Nixon as an antagonist, really.  Frost seems to think Nixon is a curosity, but he’s only ever gets even slightly intimidated by Nixon on the eve of their final interview.

Frost is the weaker of the two main characters.  I think it is because for the first chunk of the movie Nixon isn’t his opponent.  Instead, he’s fighting the more vague battle to first get the interview, and then get financing and a network to air the show.  Which isn’t terribly interesting, because it isn’t detailed very well and we aren’t given very much of a chance to see its impact on Frost.  It is only when he finally turns to focus on Nixon that the potential of the movie starts to shine through.

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