Thursday, August 27, 2015

I wish I knew how to quit you, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu.

I'm generally not big on the idea of "giving up" on filmmakers. For one thing, it seems like kind of an empty gesture, like when I was younger and I'd tell everyone I was "boycotting" certain movies that I didn't want to see instead of just keeping my mouth shut and seeing something else like a grown-up. For another, you never know when a director might surprise you. After all, if I gave up on every director who hit a cold spell, I would've missed out on great movies like Tetro, Goodbye to Language, and The Hurt Locker (Bigelow's Weight of Water/K-19: The Widowmaker seems like ancient history now, eh?).

That said, it's somewhat easier with directors I never cared for all that much in the first place. To cite two obvious examples, I haven't bothered with Marc Forster ever since he managed to make a dirt-boring Bond movie, and I'm not looking to partake of another Matthew Barney filmed thingamajig now that he's made a movie involving him and Bjork having sex, chopping off each other's limbs, and morphing into whales, only wayyyyyyyy less interesting than that synopsis would suggest.

Then there are the in-between cases. For instance, take the strange case of M. Night Shyamalan. Conventional wisdom states that he's been more or less in free-fall ever since Signs, but I can't quite cut the cord. Sixth Sense is pretty awesome, both Unbreakable and Signs are tense as hell, and his subsequent (original) works have had some great moments in between the goofball digressions and jarring tonal dissonances. Even The Happening had that great scene with the handgun.

That's also how I feel about Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu. I can't write off the guy, because he's clearly talented. That's been clear ever since he made Amores Perros, which shares some of the miserablistic tendencies of his later work but is so propulsive, so thrumming with energy, that it never comes across as a wallow. Sadly, the films that followed didn't really capitalize on that potential. 21 Grams is well-acted but suffers from a overly-deterministic plotting and a needlessly jumbled chronology. I sort of hated Babel, which in addition to coming across as a globalized version of Crash (which I also hated) but boasted one of the worst throw-my-drink-at-the-screen moments in recent memory- the scene involving the Moroccan boy spying on his sister, in case you're playing at home.

So after getting burned twice in a row, I felt pretty comfortable skipping Biutiful, especially when I heard it was the sort of wallow that Amores Perros somehow managed to avoid becoming. And I was ready to do the same for Birdman until the buzz began to generate. Had AGI turned over a new leaf? Well... yes and no. "Yes" in the sense that he was no longer engaging in grief porn in order to come across as a serious storyteller; "no" in the sense that his work was as wanky and show-offy as ever, with the jagged editing and shuffled chronologies traded in for a faux-single shot gambit that was as attention-grabbing as it was pointless (Scott Tobias did a great job explaining a lot of my issues with the movie in his review for the late, much-missed Dissolve). More and more, it seems like the guy is the sort of talented filmmaker whose talented is deployed in ways that rub me the wrong way, like a gifted impersonator who spends his entire routine doing pitch-perfect impressions of Jerry Lewis and Gilbert Gottfried. There's no denying the skill, but you can only watch for so long.

So I've decided to give Gonzalez Iñarritu one more shot with the upcoming The Revenant. Once again, he's doing the single-shot thing, but I hold out hope that maybe this time it'll serve a purpose- say, to allow the audience to experience the hero's ordeal through his eyes, or at least at his side. But if I don't like this one either, I don't know how many more chances I'll give him. But then, you never know with talented filmmakers. I mean, I stuck with Woody Allen through Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, AND Scoop, right? I can handle damn near anything at this point.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

White Elephant 2015: Did you know your last name is an adverb?

Here is my contribution to this year’s White Elephant Blogathon, hosted once again by Philip Tatler over at Diary of a Country Pickpocket. To the person to suggested this- if you love this movie, sorry I didn’t enjoy it more. And if you hate this movie, sorry I didn’t dislike it more. Anyway…

What can one say about a movie so resolutely mediocre as Amy Heckerling’s Johnny Dangerously? I realize this question may come off as a cutesy lead-in to a dismissive review, but I’m honestly at a loss for what to say about a movie this run-of-the-mill. That’s not to say it’s unpleasant, but it’s the sort of movie meant to stumbled upon on basic cable in the mid-afternoon, and which you’ll watch for a few minutes while you wait for a phone call you’re expecting or for guests to arrive. It’s not terrible by any means, but it practically evaporates on contact.

Johnny Dangerously was one of a rash of gag-based comedies cranked out by Hollywood in the wake of Airplane!, hoping to replicate that film’s success. Here, Heckerling and her team of writers (the movie credits four), took on gangster movies, particularly the classic Warner Bros. cops-and-robbers pictures of the 1930s. Granted, this wasn’t a particularly fresh genre to spoof, but the movie’s lack of timeliness isn’t the issue. The real issue is that it’s not particularly funny.

That’s not to say it isn’t at least fitfully amusing. One of the movie’s best-remembered gags involves gangster Roman Moronie (Richard Dimitri), who spouts off phony curse words in a cartoonish, foreign-sounding accent. When he starts fuming and calling his enemies a bunch of “farging iceholes” and the like, it’s genuinely funny, and it’s even funnier when he’s called upon to deliver a prepared deposition before the District Attorney, and while it’s still full of faux obscenities (“the mouth on that guy!” exclaims his chief rival), it’s delivered in a perfectly flat voice.

But for every joke that hits, there are roughly a half-dozen that don’t quite reach the mark. Part of the problem is that Heckerling and her writers mistake “zany” for funny, as in a scene where the titular gangster (Michael Keaton) shows his law-student kid brother Tommy (Griffin Dunne) an educational film called “Your Testicles and You” in an attempt to steer him towards clean living. The shots of men walking around with freakishly bulging crotches (due to misuse, of course) is sort of amusing, but the movie doesn’t really do anything with this. It’s a one-off gag, and the payoff- an aghast Tommy proclaiming “I’m going back to law school!”- is weak.

Bits like this are typical of the movie’s approach to humor. Johnny Dangerously goes for obvious laughs, but doesn’t really go to the effort of making them really funny. Johnny’s chief rival Danny Vermin (Joe Piscopo, best remembered as the guy who “wasn’t that bad- really!” on early-1980s SNL) has an oft-repeated catchphrase in which he responds to a perceived slight by saying that one of his family members did it to him “… once.” And that’s it. It’s not a bad idea for a running joke, but it feels like the first draft of the joke, not the final version. A lot of the movie’s humor feels like that, like the writers should have worked on their ideas a little more in order to make them sharper and funnier.

There are a few things I enjoyed. First off, the cast is good. Peter Boyle is solid as Johnny’s mentor, the benevolent crime boss Jocko Dundee, and Maureen Stapleton gets some good bits as Johnny and Tommy’s beloved Ma. At the time Stapleton was only a few years removed from her Oscar-winning performance in Reds, but she was enough of a consummate professional that she gave just the right comedic spin to the character, even in wackier moments like when she blurts out that she “swings both ways.” Though not even Stapleton could pull off the moment in which she dismisses Tommy’s do-gooder impulses by telling him he “sounds like a fag choir boy.” Jokes at the expense of homosexuals were an unfortunate tendency of 1980s-era comedy, and Johnny Dangerously falls into that trap, most egregiously with a District Attorney played by Danny DeVito, who gets a little too hands-on with Tommy and coos with delight over the gift of a red smoking jacket. And speaking of dating poorly, Vermin’s line that his custom made .88 Magnum “shoots through schools” would cause audiences to wince nowadays.

However, if Johnny Dangerously works at all, it’s because of Michael Keaton. Three decades, two Batman movies, and one talking snowman later, it’s easy to forget a time when Keaton was best known for being Hollywood’s funniest smirking wiseass, but he’s sort of perfect here. The character of Johnny Dangerously was inspired primarily by James Cagney, and Keaton captures Cagney’s puckish energy and cocky strut without resorting to impersonation or parody. Birdman be damned- THIS is the Keaton I miss, and seeing him in Johnny Dangerously, I despaired that he wasn’t given better material by the filmmakers. It’s an inspired performance, and if only the filmmakers had been working on that level of inspiration, this could’ve been a comedy classic instead of the largely forgettable time-waster it ended up being.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

New WHO Essentials, Part 1: The Russell T. Davies Years

Not long ago, I posted a short remark on Facebook referencing a (then purely hypothetical) list of favorite Doctor Who episodes. But as tends to happen with me, the goal of the list changed while I was making it. Eventually I decided that rather than rattle of a list of my favorites, I’d try to include lots of different kinds of episodes on this list, in the interest of picking titles that represent as many of the different stripes of modern-day Who episodes as I thought worthy of inclusion. In the process, I decided the only way to really do this would be to split the list in two, with the first devoted to the four seasons executive produced by Russell T Davies, and second (which is still in the conception stage) to focus on the Stephen Moffat years.

This list is presented in chronological order of air date. Additionally, I've decided to count two-parters as a single episode for the purposes of this list. As always, feel free to disagree in the comments.

“The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances” (season 1) – written by Stephen Moffat As tends to be the case with many TV shows, reboot or not, series 1 of Doctor Who got off to something of a rough start, with some questionable effects and an overreliance on the flatulent but not particularly frightening enemies the Slitheen. However, Christopher Eccleston’s sole season in the TARDIS did produce one stone-cold classic, this two-parter set during the London Blitz. Fans of the series and its spinoffs remember this episode fondly as our introduction to the dashing omnisexual con man Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), to say nothing of the comedy inherent in Billie Piper’s Rose hanging from a barrage balloon in the middle of an air raid, sporting a Union Jack t-shirt. But it also produced one of the Davies years’ most lingering images, that of a little boy wearing a gas mask and asking, “are you my mummy?” The solution to the mystery of the little boy is first haunting, then poignant. The first sign that the new Who was set for the long haul.

“New Earth” (season 2) – written by Davies With the first season of Doctor Who behind him, Davies set forth in season 2 to expand the possibilities of the show’s universe, and this began with its premiere episode, in which the Doctor takes Rose further into the future than she’s ever traveled, to the city of New New York on the titular planet after the original Earth has been destroyed. After arriving, they encounter a number of characters they met during the first season, namely the ancient Face of Boe and the last “pure” human, Cassandra, who is little more than a face in the middle of a sheet of tightly-stretched skin. However, she doesn’t stay that way, having formulated a system for transplanting her consciousness into others- in this case, Rose. Davies resolved in season 2 to write Billie Piper an episode that would allow her to be funny, and she’s a hoot here, with her lower-class wardrobe contrasting nicely with the snobbish, bitchy lines coming from Cassandra’s brain (it’s particularly funny listening to her attempt Cockney rhyming slang). The Doctor would return to New New York the following season with Martha in the similarly good episode “Gridlock,” but if I’m forced to choose only one New Earth episode, this is it.

“The Girl in the Fireplace” (season 2) – written by Moffat One of the original edicts mandated by the BBC during the first years of the original series was that Doctor Who should serve as an educational show, with storylines set against the backdrop of history alternating with the monster storylines. This mandate eventually fell by the wayside when audiences responded more to the creepy-crawlies than to the educational episodes, but even in its new incarnation the producers include the occasional historical adventure, and this one may be the best. Taking a page from the best-selling The Time-Traveler’s Wife, the storyline finds the Tenth Doctor popping in and out of the life of Reinette Poisson (the fragrant Sophia Myles), later to become Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Henry V. The primary threat comes from some nifty-looking clockwork maintenance droids, who are stalking Reinette through time for their own (icky) purposes, but the real highlight is the chemistry between Myles and David Tennant, who demonstrates enough wit, charm, and dashing romantic spirit to cement himself as one of the great “boyfriend doctors.”

“Rise of the Cybermen” / “The Age of Steel” (season 2) – written by Tom MacRae One of the biggest differences I’ve noticed between the Davies years and the seasons exec-produced by Stephen Moffat is that the Davies years seemed to place a stronger emphasis on character. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the frequency we see the families of the Doctor’s companions and other associates. Whereas in the Moffat seasons family members would occasionally turn up then disappear with scarcely a thought given to their whereabouts, Davies and his writers would often give his characters complicated family dynamics off which they could bounce the main storylines involving the Doctor. This was done to particularly good effect in this two-part episode, which presents an alternate-universe version of Rose’s family, in which Rose’s father is not only still alive but a successful business man, her blue-collar mum is a nouveau-riche snob, and Rose has been replaced by a dog (also named Rose). Meanwhile, the alternate version of Rose’s off-and-on boyfriend Mickey (Noel Clarke, who was never better than he was here) is a revolutionary, and the Cybermen, one of the Doctor’s oldest adversaries, are the brainchild of a dying inventor. MacRae brings these plot strands together capably, but what makes the episode really effective is how it illustrates the idea that, even in a universe full of unlimited possibilities, you still have to choose what’s most important.

“Human Nature” / “The Family of Blood” (season 3) – written by Paul Cornell In most of his adventures, the Doctor comes off as an intergalactic superhero, landing in a perilous situation and clearing it up through cleverness, an encyclopedic knowledge of the universe, and technological savvy. But in this two-part episode he’s far more human, literally- in response to a threat, he actually becomes human, in the process losing his memories and his identity. Here we see him as a teacher in a boys’ boarding school, even embarking on a sweet romance with the school’s nurse. Eventually, a group of sinister aliens sniff him out and launches an attack on the school. But most of the story’s drama has less to do with the alien threat than with companion Martha’s (Freema Agyeman, in perhaps her finest performance on the series) perspective on the event, as the Doctor to whom she’s sworn loyalty not only can’t remember who he really is- or who she is, for that matter- but also is powerless to stop the threat. In the end, the Doctor we all know returns, but not without some sacrifice.

“Blink” (season 3) – written by Moffat With a series called Doctor Who, you would think that the producers would put the Doctor front and center, and in most cases you’d be right. But on a number of occasions, producer Russell T Davies shook up the formula in order to serve up a story in which the Doctor’s involvement was more tangential. Season 2’s “Love & Monsters” told the story of a group of Doctor fanboys and –girls, while Season 4’s “Turn Left” imagined an alternate reality in which then-companion Donna (Catherine Tate) had never met the Doctor. But best of all- and one of the overall highlights of latter-day Who- is this episode, which introduced audiences to perhaps the eeriest of modern-day Who baddies, the Weeping Angels. The focus of the story is Sally Sparrow (future Oscar nominee Carrie Mulligan), who happens upon the Angels and soon finds herself having to contend with repeated threats from them, with little more than oblique hints from the Doctor (a message written on a wall, a one-sided conversation included as a DVD Easter Egg) to get her out of the jam. Clever, impeccably performed, and above all, seriously spooky.

“Voyage of the Damned” (special episode) – written by Moffat One of the hallmarks of the Davies years is that, unlike the more neurotic incarnations that followed, Davies’ Doctors genuinely liked people as a whole. This was most apparent in the episodes when the Doctor was without his usual companions and had to enlist people on the fly to help him save the day. Given the frequent turnover of the Tenth Doctor’s companions, this happened quite a bit, and one of the temporary companions (Donna) ended up a full-season companion later on. “Planet of the Dead,” in which Doctor #10 teams up with rich-girl-turned-jewel-thief Lady Christina De Souza, is a lot of fun, I’m giving the edge to “Voyage of the Damned” for three reasons: (1) the fact that the story is set on a space-edge version of the Titanic, which at one point ends up in free-fall and headed right for Buckingham Palace, (2) the introduction of Donna’s ornery old grandpa, Wilf, and especially (3) because the episode’s single-serving companion is played by Kylie Minogue, who would have been an awesome companion if somehow Catherine Tate hadn’t been available.

“The Fires of Pompeii” (season 4) – written by James Moran and Davies Of all the Tenth Doctor’s companions, Catherine Tate’s Donna was the most three-dimensional, mostly because she wasn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with her centuries-old Time Lord traveling partner, which made her a welcome change from Rose and Martha, both of whom nursed crushes on the Doctor. But with so many classic Donna moments, which am I to choose? I’m tempted to pick “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” which provided the funniest Doctor/Donna scene of the series. But instead, I’ll give the edge to “The Fires of Pompeii,” in which she gets plenty of comedic moments while also displaying her other great strength, which was to provide an empathetic sounding board for the Doctor, encouraging him to follow his better (non-Weeping) angel. Throw in appearances not only by a future companion (Karen Gillen) but also a future Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and you’ve got yourself a damn fine hour of Doctor Who.

“Silence in the Library” / “Forest of the Dead” (season 4) – written by Moffat For sheer horror, it’s hard to top the Weeping Angels, but the Vashta Nerada come close. In this episode, the Doctor and Donna land in a planet-sized library that contains copies of all the books in the universe, but which is totally uninhabited except for the Vashta Nerada, a race of microscopic and highly carnivorous creatures referred to as “the piranhas of the air.” Or is it all the dream of a troubled little girl? Doesn’t matter- this two-parter is full of unnerving moments, not least during the “ghosting” scenes, in which the consciousness of a recently-deceased person continues to converse with those around him. In terms of pure inventiveness, this storyline is hard to top. All that plus the introduction of River Song, of whom we’d be seeing much more during the Moffat years.

“The Stolen Earth” / “Journey’s End” (season 4) – written by Davies Whether this is best Tennant/Davies episode is a debate for another time. But in many ways this is the ultimate Tennant/Davies episode, to which the entire series up to that point had been building. The baddies are the Daleks, naturally, unleashing perhaps their boldest scheme yet, pulling the Earth (and 26 other planets) out of their normal places in the universe into a formation in order to create a “reality bomb.” But never mind the details. This episode has everything one would want from a Tennant episode – Daleks a-plenty (including their creator Davros and the crazed Dalek Caan), multiple Tennants, and Donna finally fulfilling her destiny as a companion. Plus there are guest appearances galore, including a scene in which the Tenth Doctor’s companions past and present all fly the TARDIS together. Tennant would continue as the Doctor in a handful of subsequent specials, but this feels like the climax to which the Davies years had been building all along.

“The Next Doctor” (special episode) – written by Davies The Christmas episode was a new Doctor Who tradition that began with Tennant’s first full episode. These episodes, which have rarely involved the current companions, are generally stand-alone stories meant to tide viewers over until the beginning of the next season. A number of these episodes have been noteworthy (including the aforementioned “Voyage of the Damned”), and I have a soft spot for the Matt Smith-starring “A Christmas Carol,” in which the Eleventh Doctor softens the heart of grinchy industrialist Michael Gambon. But I’m going with “The Next Doctor” here, largely for the ingenious touch of bringing the Doctor face to face with himself (in a manner of speaking) by placing him in the path of another man who claims to be the Doctor and does the Doctor’s work, after his own fashion. Part of the novelty of this episode was that Davies paired Tennant with David Morrissey, who at the time was rumored to be the frontrunner to succeed Tennant at the TARDIS controls. Alas, it wasn’t to be- which is kind of too bad, because Morrissey’s “Doctor” cuts a similar sort of courtly swashbuckling figure to Doctor #3. But what I enjoy most about this is that it gives Tennant the chance to do a victory lap, the first in a series of them culminating with…

“The End of Time” (Parts One and Two) (special episode) – written by Davies The Doctor’s most famous adversaries are The Daleks, but no enemy has made the fight more personal than The Master. After turning up periodically on the show’s original incarnation, The Master (played here by John Simm) first appeared on the new version during season 3, making life hellish for the Doctor in particular and the world in general. After being vanquished during season 3’s finale, the Master (a Time Lord himself) was resurrected again for Tennant’s final two-part episode. The Master’s plan is an especially crafty one, in which he invades the body of nearly every person on Earth, from the President of the United States to the head of NATO command- and the only thing standing between him and total world domination is that pesky Doctor, with the occasional clumsy but always loyal assistance of good ol’ Wilf. Does the Master prevail? You can probably guess. But what really puts this episode over the edge into classic status is the denouement, in which the Doctor (who to be fair takes FOREVER to regenerate) pays one last visit to his old friends before stumbling into the TARDIS and proclaiming, with a tear in his voice, “I don’t want to go.” We know the feeling, Doctor #10. We hated to see you go, but we loved to watch you leave.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

The Forgotten One-Season Wonder

One of the best ways to achieve a cult status among TV aficionados is to be an awesome show that gets canceled after one season or less. After all, if a show doesn't last very long, it doesn't get a chance to jump the shark (or whatever we're calling it these days). Rather than bemoaning how it lost its luster over time, we get to sit around and talk about how it never got the chance to reach its full potential.

Yet among devotees of "brilliant but canceled" television, there's one classic show that rarely gets mentioned- ProStars, which debuted in September 1991 and was yanked unceremonious after one 13-episode season. Maybe it's just snobbery that causes them to overlook a show that was originally broadcast as Saturday-morning animated fare, but that shortchanges one of the greatest shows of its day. Therefore, in an effort to rehabilitate the show's critical rep and rescue it from the dustbin of pop-culture history, I hereby present...


1. Because, well, it's about Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson, and Wayne Gretzky solving international crimes. It's like James Bond meets CAPTAIN PLANET, only with world-famous professional athletes, which makes at least 20% more awesome right there.

2. That theme song. It's "We Will Rock You," but with new lyrics - "We are / We are / PROSTARS!" Of course, it seems like the lyricist ran out of inspiration about Michael - "Jordan jams, in your face / gonna put them in their place" - but why nitpick? This was actually the first exposure I ever had to "We Will Rock You," and I remember one time when I was at a baseball game with a friend and they started playing the original version over the PA system. I turned to my friend's dad and asked him why they were playing the ProStars theme song, and he told me to shut and drink my beer so he could get back to watching the game. Ah, memories.

3. Because this was 1991, they made an effort to work a "Bo Knows" joke into every episode. That's what you call topical humor, folks.

4. One of the show's recurring villains was named Clockwork Delorange. For those of you playing at home, that's a Kubrick reference. JUST LIKE ON "THE SIMPSONS."

5. More topical humor: in one episode, the ProStars take on a gang of basketball-playing goons called the Pontiac Hoods. Anyone who remembers the Bad Boy Pistons of the era should appreciate that reference, I'd think.

6. The ProStars team was made up of three members, which is a dramatically clean number. Think of most good jokes you've heard involving a group of people- more often than not, there are three people in that group. One person to introduce the idea, one person to cause the rising action or complicate things, and the third to lead to a resolution. I'm pretty sure Aristotle came up with that. Anyway, there were three ProStars, but they represented all four of the "major" sports. Michael played basketball, Bo played both baseball and football, and Wayne represented hockey, which after Gretzky got traded to the L.A. Kings in the late 80s was a sport Americans were forced to acknowledge was played more than every four years at the Winter Olympics. Today, in our more inclusive times, the ProStars would have to welcome all kinds of other members just so there could be a hero for everyone in the audience. There would be at least one female ProStar (maybe one or both of the Williams sisters, I dunno). There would no doubt be a futbol-playing ProStar for the Latin audience. Who knows, they might even find a way to squeeze in an Asian-American. Meanwhile, ProStars' idea of diversity was that THEY INCLUDED A WHITE GUY.

7. And yet... if there was a third wheel on ProStars (and considering how many members were on the team there would kind of have to be) it was Gretzky. Which is sort of mind-boggling when you consider that America was still struggling with the idea of political correctness and racial sensitivity, and some major-media commenters were still questioning, for example, how successful a black quarterback could be in the NFL (overlooking the fact that Doug Williams had recently led the Redskins to the Super Bowl and Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham were also doing just fine, thank you very much). But on ProStars, the team's most vital members- Michael and Bo- were the African-American ones. Michael was the leader and the brains of the outfit, and Bo was super-strong. Wayne was just kind of there to help out when needed, like if something required skating and/or smacking an object with a stick. A pretty limited skill set compared with the other two. Wayne wasn't just the white guy on the team - he was the TOKEN white guy.

8. So the writers, in an attempt to justify the Wayne character's presence on the show, turned him into the primary source of comic relief. Considering we were just coming out of the 1980s, a golden age for the cliché of the wacky black sidekick, that was a risky enough move. But look at how much of Wayne's comic relief stems from his appetite (seriously, the dude talks about food, like, all the time) and the show becomes downright subversive. That's right, kids - at the height of the War on Drugs and the era of Just Say No, the creators of ProStars were selling kids on the idea that one of the world's most celebrated athletes was HIGH AS A KITE. Suck it, Nancy Reagan!

9. This being the early 90s, they couldn't have a show aimed at kids without including a lesson at the end. But there's something about having the lesson delivered by Wayne Gretzky and Bo Jackson (and less frequently, Michael Jordan) goofing around on soundstages while pretending to talk to each other that makes it go down somewhat easier. Plus there's one episode that doesn't really have a moral, so Wayne just ends up talking about the history of the Stanley Cup. Because he could do that, y'know. His name was engraved on it four times (at the time, anyway).

10. And finally... because after one season, the producers of ProStars already felt like they had enough awesome material for a clip show. That takes some serious cast-iron balls, folks.

So anyway, where's our deluxe-edition ProStars Blu-Ray, Criterion? I hereby volunteer to write the essay.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

White Elephant 2014: A Perfect Getaway (2009, David Twohy)

What's a nice little thriller like you doing in a place like this? I ask this because although participants in the White Elephant Blogathon are free to submit any movie they choose, there seems to be some disagreement on what sorts of movies are best to submit. Like any white elephant gift exchange, there will always be those who bring in junk just to watch other people squirm (I pity the fool who got stuck with my submission, Menno Meyjes' Max), while others are more charitable. Like the person who brings a secondhand trinket and leaves with a bottle of wine, I somehow drew David Twohy's legitimately good 2009 movie A Perfect Getaway.

While I was pretty happy with the movie, it left me in a somewhat precarious position as a writer. After all, this is a movie that depends a great deal on its plot twists and turns. Since some of you may not have seen it, I'll tread lightly.

Twohy centers his story on a pair of couples vacationing in Hawaii. The first, played by Milla Jovovich and Steve Zahn, are honeymooning there. Zahn plays the part of an up-and-coming screenwriter (not "screenplay writer," he insists), and Jovovich plays his stay-at-home wife, who is still getting used to the new last name. Despite a recent news scare involving a newlywed couple killed on the big island, Zahn and Jovovich proceed with their original plan to hike to a legendary remote beach.

It's along the way that they meet the second couple, played by Kiele Sanchez (the little-loved Nikki from Lost) and Timothy Olyphant. They're the kind of couple one sometimes meets while traveling- almost oppressively friendly, somewhat clingy, full of tales and prone to showing off. Olyphant in particular is sort of alarming, with his war stories and arsenal of weapons he's packed away in his bags. When he kills a goat for dinner, Sanchez promptly sets about to field-dressing it. Given the outrageousness of their stories and familiarity with weapons, could they be the killers?

I enjoyed A Perfect Getaway quite a bit on a moment-to-moment basis, particularly in its first half when Twohy sets up the dynamic between the two couples. It helps that he gets solid performances from his principal cast, especially Olyphant, who projects both gregariousness and laser-focused intensity even in his quieter moments. But while the film's second half is also well-done, the construction is such that the film comes off less as a story to be enjoyed unto itself than a screenwriter's (not "screenplay writer's") exercise designed to snatch the run out from under the audience. Granted, Twohy plays fair according to his rules, so it's hard to begrudge him the manipulations. Yet I ended up feeling a little disappointed in the direction the film ended up taking, since it was going so well that it didn't really need the extra trickery.

Yet despite this disappointment, I still feel like I lucked out with A Perfect Getaway. It's not the kind of movie I would normally think of when coming up with titles to force others to watch, but it's also not a movie I would have watched without some motivation to do so. In that respect, it ws a nice surprise, even if it was somehow difficult to revise in a satisfactory manner (did I succeed? Best not to answer that). In light of my receiving A Perfect Getaway this year, I'm seriously considering submitting a good movie next year. Hell, I might even do something like Citizen Kane. Now THAT oughta make someone squirm...

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

"Hang on. This isn't going to be subtle."

Here lieth my review of The Core, written for this year's edition of the White Elephant Blogathon. And my God have mercy on my soul.

What can one write about a movie as aggressively mediocre as The Core? As those of you who follow me on Facebook can attest, I’m rarely at a loss for words. But when trying to write something readable about this movie, I find myself drawing a blank. I’m not kidding about that- this is already my third attempt at a review, and I don’t know if I’m any closer to finding a way in now than I was the first time I tried. It’s not that it’s a difficult movie by any means- it’s just that it’s so forgettable that it’s already evaporating from my memory after less than 24 hours.

Still, I must forge ahead. I said I’d review something for the White Elephant Blogathon, so here I am. (Why couldn’t I have gotten the chimp secret agent movie? Rian Johnson’s a fan!)

 The premise, such as it is: something has caused the molten core of the Earth to stop rotating, leading to disastrous results with our planet’s electromagnetic field. Eventually, the field would break down, leaving us completely exposed to the sun’s radiation. Hunky Dr. Josh Keyes (Aaron Eckhart) demonstrates this by incinerating a peach with a Zippo and a can of air freshener, proving that college professors do the best Science Fair projects.

But before the Earth turns into a pêche flambée, we get the obligatory, seemingly-random-but-not-really disasters that inevitably take place in a handful of cities throughout the world. The one that opens the movie is pretty good, as the electromagnetic disturbance causes a bunch of people’s pacemakers to stop working. The others, alas, aren’t as good. A scene in which pigeons suddenly attack people in London ’s Trafalgar Square feels like a half-assed Hitchcock ripoff. Even more disappointing is the destruction of Rome by a killer lightning storm. It’s not so much that I was taken out of the movie by some shabby model work (that’s par for the course in disaster movies, after all), but it seems like a missed opportunity that the filmmakers didn’t set the scene in Paris . After all, what’s the Eiffel Tower if not a massive lightning rod?

 It was during this scene in particular that I questioned whether The Core really wanted to be disaster movie at all. Most movies in the genre linger on the destruction with a kind of lip-smacking glee, but The Core seems almost ashamed of the carnage and chaos. Nowhere is this more apparent than when the sun first breaks through the electromagnetic field. Oh sure, we get expected destruction of a landmark (The Golden Gate Bridge, in this case) and the resulting fires and deaths, but director Jon Amiel and his screenwriters don’t seem to have any interest in showing the incident in detail. There are some dead fish, a random guy in a car suddenly gets burned, and the bridge gives way, but the aftermath is kept to a minimum, shown entirely on a TV news report. There’s no public panic or anything, not even an explosion. Where’s the showmanship?

Alas, The Core isn’t as interested in the apocalypse as it is in the mission to stop it. It’s less Irwin Allen than Jules Verne. Unfortunately, the filmmakers can’t find a way to make scenes of a half-dozen people in a ship particularly exciting. As the $50 billion metallic phallus burrows its way through the Earth, it hits one obstacle after another, and the team has to improvise solutions that more often than not involve (a) jettisoning a portion of the ship, and (b) one of the team members dying. While this gets repetitive, it’s also a handy gauge to how much of the movie has elapsed. By the time the only crew members left are the ones you’re confident will survive to the end, you’ll know it’s pretty much over.

(Seriously, I could have watched The Stuff! O cursed fates…)

 At least the cast is good. In addition to Eckhart, there’s also Delroy Lindo, Stanley Tucci, Tcheky Karyo, Richard Jenkins, Bruce Greenwood, and Alfre Woodard, who are all professionals and do a professional job. Eckhart and Tucci seem to be having the most fun here. Eckhart shakes off the mantle of being Neil LaBute’s go-to guy by making his character something of a goof and a showboat (e.g. the flaming-peach thing), while Tucci does his thing as a pompous fellow scientist whose involvement in the project conceals a big secret (one that feels completely gratuitous in the story). And Lindo, despite playing a thinly-written eccentric-inventor role, actually musters up some real gravitas in a number of scenes, even getting the movie’s most heroic death (SPOILER!).

With all that talent onscreen, it’s sort of jaw-dropping that Hilary Swank has two more Oscars than anyone else in the cast, considering she’s easily the weak link in the ensemble. Is there a “name” actor nowadays who’s less fun to watch onscreen than Swank? Her characterizations are invariably thin and one-dimensional, and she projects none of the joy of performance that characterizes most really talented actors. In the midst of superior talents, all she’s capable of mustering is steely resolve, which is pretty much all she has going for her as an actress. While everyone else seems to be enjoying themselves, she seems to be convinced that she’s chasing down another Oscar, which makes her feel distractingly out of place.

And speaking of things that don’t belong, what the hell was going on with the computer hacker played by DJ Qualls? The government ostensibly drafts him to assist with the mission by “hacking the Internet” in an attempt to keep the mission a secret. But honestly, we mostly see him sitting behind a desk at Mission Control typing away and downing Hot Pockets while General Richard Jenkins looks over at him every once in a while. He doesn’t seem to do anything specific until the secret “Plan B” mission comes to light, at which point he runs interference while the heroes carry out their heroic mission before Plan B ends up causing more disastrous problems than it solves. Perhaps it’s just my distaste for the movie’s need to introduce a Plan B at all as a method of generating additional suspense (because the uncertainty of whether our heroes will manage to jump-start the core isn’t suspense enough, right). But introducing a character who serves almost no discernible purpose in the story then having him wait until a situation arises where he’ll actually come in handy feels like lazy screenwriting to me.

Ten years ago I was single, which gave me time to see all the movies I wanted to see. Nonetheless, I took a pass on The Core, probably because I was kind of a snob and hadn’t yet developed my palate for genre-based trash. Now that I have less time to watch movies, I’d skip it for another reason- because it’s more or less a waste of time. Movies like The Core serve no purpose other than occupy two-odd hours of people’s time and leave them mildly entertained (possible pull-quote for the poster: “I totally saw it! And so can you!”). I’m generally averse to dismissing a movie by saying, “well, there’s two hours of my life I’ll never get back,” but I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t my first reaction after I watched The Core.

Worse yet, I didn’t even get a good review out of the deal. Just consider that I could’ve watched Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, and even recorded an audio review in character as Werner Herzog, and shed a tear for humanity.

Monday, April 01, 2013

White Elephant 2013: This year's victims (updated 3/5)

So, great timing for the White Elephant, eh? Nothing else going on this past weekend, am I right?

OK, so maybe some of us had other plans these past few days. And in the interest of including those who might have been busy over Easter Weekend, I'll be posting White Elephant contributions throughout the week. Still, tradition dictates that this shindig take place on April Fool's Day, so to honor that I'll post what I've got so far.

Many thanks to everyone who contributed, and check back throughout the week to see what else we've got in store for you!

Added 3/7: Patrick Williamson monkeys around with Spymate!

Victor Morton dials up 976-EVIL!

Philip Tatler draws The Paper Man!

Dennis Cozzalio meets a Red Angel!

Steve Carlson says, "Don't Play Us Cheap"!

Kent Beeson sees the world through the Eyes of the Mothman!

Paul Clark gets shaken to The Core!

Jason Alley goes on a Turkey Shoot!

Josh Bell tracks down The Beast of Yucca Flats!

Andrew Bemis throws out The Evictors!

Christianne Benedict faces off against The Ice Pirates!

Kenji Fujishima finds some Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death!

Jaime Grijalba gets a taste of The Stuff!

Peter Labuza heads south with Promedio Rojo!

Ivan Lerner takes a loooooooooooooong journey with The NeverEnding Story!

Matt Lynch gets Objectivist with Atlas Shrugged, Part I!

Don Marks gets drafted for Blood Games!

Michael May stops for Thunderbirds Are GO!

Patrick Miller says Goodbye, Uncle Tom!

Kevin J. Olson hitches a ride with Space Truckers!

Stacia hopes to see us Same Time, Next Year!

Bryce Wilson signs up for The Girlfriend Experience!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

2012 Oscar predictions

Best Picture
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Life of Pi
Les Miserables
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty
Will win: ARGO is the sort of movie most people seem to like but few seem to love, which is par for the course for the Oscars lately. Plus it's a hooray-for-Hollywood story, so the Tinseltown types should eat it up.
Should win: AMOUR's the best movie of the bunch, and it would have had my vote if I'd had one. But let's not kid ourselves that it has a chance at winning. Of the movies with a genuine shot, LINCOLN is the one that feels the most like a "Best" Picture- handsomely made, with seriousness of purpose but some comedic elements as well, driven by strong performances. And, oh yeah- really frickin' good.
Should have been nominated: Never in a million years would the Academy have gone for THE LONELIEST PLANET, an artsy, observational film that balances 2 hours of behavior (flirting, walking, dancing, walking, drinking, walking some more) with about five seconds of actual plot. But if you're on its wavelength, it's pretty spellbinding stuff.

Best Lead Actress
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Naomi Watts, The Impossible
Will win: Lawrence is a talent who will deserve an Oscar someday, but she'll probably edge out Riva and Chastain this year. As much as I hate to say it, the hotness factor will probably have something to do with this. After all, Oscar voters have historically tended to go for actresses who get their start in "looker" roles only to show off their acting chops later. Chastain is incredibly attractive as well, but by the time anybody knew who she was, she was already a Serious Actress, whereas Lawrence was glorified T&A on a basic-cable sitcom. And it's easier to imagine Riva taking this if she was more of an icon a la Catherine Deneuve, but seeing as how her most iconic role came more than half a century ago, I don't know if Sony Pictures Classics can successfully play the "legend" card...
Should win: ...which is really a shame, since she's easily the best of the bunch, beautifully embodying the physical pain and emotional torment central to AMOUR with a minimum of fussiness. Her performance is less about (over-)playing than it is about gradually dimming the light behind her eyes until we can practically see it flicker out. Devastating stuff. Plus her (86th) birthday is the same day as the ceremony. Who doesn't want to make this happen?
Should have been nominated: Rachel Weisz won an Oscar for THE CONSTANT GARDENER, but she deserved at least a shot at a second for THE DEEP BLUE SEA, as an adulterous wife consumed with love for a hotshot airman (Tom Hiddleston) who is first drawn to, then repulsed by, the depths of her obsession.

Best Lead Actor
Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Denzel Washington, Flight
Will win: In spite of the fact that he already has two Oscars, Day-Lewis remains the safest bet of the night. I mean, Daniel Day-Lewis as Abe Lincoln. Whaddya need, a road map? The only possible spoiler I see is Hugh Jackman, if for some reason a LES MIS groundswell happens. But I doubt it.
Should win: Day-Lewis warranted the hype, but Joaquin Phoenix's deeply committed and borderline grotesque performance felt like an exposed nerve onscreen. Nice to have him back.
Should have been nominated: AMOUR is a two-hander that succeeds primarily on the strength of its performances, yet they nominate one and not the other? A shame too, since Trintignant is arguably even better than Riva, albeit in a part that (on the surface anyway) is more reactive. But delve more deeply into his performance and you'll find the film's true painful center, as he plays a man who can't bear the thought of the love of his life slipping away and will do anything within his power to stop it from happening.

Best Director
Michael Haneke, Amour
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Will win: Spielberg's the one to beat here, since SILVER LININGS and LIFE OF PI never quite got the across-the-board groundswells they needed to overcome LINCOLN. Plus if ARGO wins Best Picture the voters may want to recognize LINCOLN as well.
Should win: Haneke- not just because AMOUR's the best of the five films nominated here, but also because wouldn't it be awesome to see him win a whole slew of Oscars?
Should have been nominated: In a year full of small-minded cinema, both Leos Carax and the newly-minted filmmaking team of the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer thought big, bold, and ambitious. Whether or not you're into HOLY MOTORS or CLOUD ATLAS, it's undeniable that their makers swung for the fences.

Best Supporting Actor
Alan Arkin, Argo
Robert DeNiro, Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained
Will win: When is it possible for such a wide-open race to be boring? When all five of the winners is already an Oscar-winner, that's when. To that end, I suspect the gold-watch Oscar will end up going to DeNiro, an acting legend who's gotten a little lazy onscreen in recent years, and who will probably net himself a third Oscar simply for waking up and coming to play for a change.
Should win: Most of the nominees in this category seem to have been nominated because the voters like them in general and want to recognize for doing their thing yet again. The exception is Hoffman, who shows a delicacy and precision that's unlike anything I've seen from him before.
Should have been nominated: I'd seen Scott McNairy in a handful of films prior to last year, but KILLING THEM SOFTLY announced in no uncertain terms that he had arrived as a character actor worth watching. As a low-level crook who plans a blindingly stupid heist, McNairy practically sweats desperation as he tries to navigate his way through a criminal underworld that's designed to chew up and spit out guys like him.

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, The Master
Sally Field, Lincoln
Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook
Will win: Hathaway's had this in the bag ever since she was the centerpiece of the first teaser. The Academy doesn't really-really-like Sally Field enough for her to overcome the Hathaway juggernaut.
Should win: Honestly, none of these performances really blows my hair back, but I wouldn't be unhappy to see Hathaway win. Of course, she was better as Catwoman in my opinion, but oh well.
Should have been nominated: It certainly wasn't as respectable as any of the ladies nominated here, but I'm hard-pressed to think of a performance as gleeful as Eva Green's priceless vamping in DARK SHADOWS. I wasn't keen on the movie itself, but Green cartoony femme fatale was compulsively watchable- not to mention a hoot.

Best Original Screenplay
Django Unchained
Moonrise Kingdom
Zero Dark Thirty
Will win: ZERO DARK THIRTY boasted a strong and well-researched screenplay by former journalist Mark Boal, but considering the recent controversies surrounding the film- as well as the fact that many see ZDT as being slightly inferior to Bigelow and Boal's 2009 Oscar winner THE HURT LOCKER- I'm giving the edge to AMOUR here. Although I wouldn't rule out a DJANGO upset either.
Should win: This is MOONRISE KINGDOM's only shot at an Oscar (seriously? No production design nomination?), so it would be nice to see Wes Anderson's film win something.
Should have been nominated: LOOPER combined a clever premise with bold storytelling and some heady ideas, all packed into an exciting and well-executed thriller. So why would the writers' branch even think of nominating a relatively unremarkable rehabilitation drama in its place?

Best Adapted Screenplay
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Life of Pi
Silver Linings Playbook
Will win: ARGO might net Best Picture, but Tony Kushner's mammoth LINCOLN screenplay is still the one to beat.
Should win: It shouldn't come as a surprise that LINCOLN was well-researched and -constructed. But few historical dramas boast so many well-drawn supporting characters- or so many great lines of dialogue.
Should have been nominated: BERNIE is the kind of low-key charmer that gets perennially overlooked by the writers' branch. And that's a shame, since the film deftly plays a dark true-crime premise as comedy while injecting observations about Texan identity into the story for anyone who cares to look for them.

Best Animated Feature
The Pirates! Band of Misfits
Wreck-It Ralph
Will win: No obvious front-runner, but I'd say that WRECK-IT RALPH's cleverness edges out FRANKENWEENIE, since the Academy seems to be in no hurry to honor Tim Burton.
Should win: Kind of a weak year, but I'd give the edge to PARANORMAN, not least for the unexpected (and totally offhanded) coming-out bit. Didn't expect to see that in a family movie, not that I'm complaining.
Should have been nominated: Once again, the Academy seems to totally overlook the fact that animated features aren't just made for family audiences. I'm not saying the animation branch should've recognized IT'S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY- although yeah, they totally should have- but it would've been nice to see something geared toward adults and not just a bunch of greasy kids' stuff.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Hindsight Oscars: 2007

Best Picture
Michael Clayton
No Country for Old Men (winner)
There Will Be Blood
Should have won: THERE WILL BE BLOOD edges out NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, though I love them both.
Should have been nominated: 2007 is known by many cinephiles as one of the greatest years in recent memory, and two of the reasons why (COUNTRY and BLOOD) were recognized by the Academy. But the third of the year's trifecta of instant classics- David Fincher's ZODIAC- went sadly overlooked, and that's a pity, since while it's surgically precise and filled to the gills with information, it also stands as perhaps the defining film about the unwieldly, lumbering nature of our law-and-order system in practice. It may very well stand the test of time better than any other film of 2007.

Best Lead Actress
Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Julie Christie, Away From Her
Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose (winner)
Laura Linney, The Savages
Ellen Page, Juno
Should have won: In a fairly lean year, Page runs away with this, giving a deft, star-making performance that finds her successfully navigating some ornate and overly-precious Diablo Cody dialogue without losing the character's heart.
Should have been nominated: Carice Van Houten gave the year's female lead performance in BLACK BOOK, but for a great overlooked performance from someone we know the Academy likes, why not Nicole Kidman in MARGOT AT THE WEDDING? In a role that takes advantage of her stylized and almost brittle screen presence, Kidman is pathetic and caustically funny.

Best Lead Actor
George Clooney, Michael Clayton
Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood (winner)
Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah
Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises
Should have won: Day-Lewis. There's a reason this character became so iconic so quickly. It's impossible to imagine anybody else in the part.
Should have been nominated: Sam Rockwell is one of the great sadsack character actors of modern cinema, and he often utilizes his motormouth persona as a rebuke to a world that seems to be bypassing him (or at least his characters). What makes his performance in JOSHUA so effective is that he can no longer hide behind the buffer of comedy. As a dad struggling with a son who clearly has it in for him, Rockwell seems to represent every happless dad dealing with the idea that his little boy isn't the chip off the old block he'd always hoped for, only taken to horrifying extremes.

Best Director
Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood
Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men (winner)
Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton
Jason Reitman, Juno
Julian Schnabel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Should have won: The Coens did a masterful job and Schnabel worked wonders with tricky material, but THERE WILL BE BLOOD is much more of a director's showcase, and Anderson made it sing.
Should have been nominated: Bong Joon-ho turned his Korean blockbuster THE HOST into perhaps the greatest Spielberg movie not actually directed by Spielberg. And five years before ARGO, Ben Affleck used GONE BABY GONE to prove to anyone who was actually paying attention that he was already more talented as a director than he was as an actor.

Best Supporting Actor
Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men (winner)
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson's War
Hal Holbrook, Into the Wild
Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton
Should have won: Bardem took a potentially ridiculous character- that murder weapon! That hairdo!- and made him singularly unnerving. Though Affleck would've been a worthy choice as well.
Should have been nominated: Kurt Russell's been one of Hollywood's most reliable man's men for so long that it came as a surprise to see him take his persona in an altogether different direction in GRINDHOUSE, first as a smooth-talking, coldhearted psychopath, then as the simpering baby that's found within every true bully. Bardem made for one of the great villains of modern cinema, but I'd argue that Russell's performance was even deeper.

Best Supporting Actress
Cate Blanchett, I'm Not There
Ruby Dee, American Gangster
Saoirse Ronan, Atonement
Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone
Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton (winner)
Should have won: Solid as Blanchett and Swinton are, no one touches Ryan's brilliant turn as a trashy mother suffering in the fallout of her daughter's abduction.
Should have been nominated: All right, so I'm bending the rules a little, seeing as how the Academy has never really gone for omnibus films. But can anyone who's seen Margo Martindale in the "14th Arrondissement" segment of PARIS, JE T'AIME really say she doesn't belong here? Martindale anchors the film's most memorable section- in broken French, no less- as she navigates the story of a Midwestern tourist in Paris from fish-out-of-water comedy to something approaching transcendence.

Best Original Screenplay
Juno (winner)
Lars and the Real Girl
Michael Clayton
The Savages
Should have won: Combining an absurd yet irresistible premise with some of Pixar's tastiest and most sophisticated dialogue, Ratatouille should have walked away with this one.
Should have been nominated: HOT FUZZ cleverly cross-breeds a number of venerable big-screen genres- police shoot'em'ups, Agatha Christie-esque murder mysteries, even a dash of eccentric-village comedy. That it works so well is a credit to how much screenwriters Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg honor their inspirations, even as they kid them.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Away From Her
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
No Country for Old Men (winner)
There Will Be Blood
Should have won: No Country for Old Men, which found the Coens refusing to goose their source material and instead tweaking it subtly to make it as Coen-esque as anything they've done.
Should have been nominated: Does anyone in Hollywood know who Richard Shepard is? Only one of the most singular comedic filmmakers currently working, that's who. THE HUNTING PARTY takes a fairly standard war-in-the-Balkans storyline and injects it with loose-flywheel comedy that's dark yet sincere.

Best Animated Feature
Ratatouille (winner)
Surf's Up
Should have won: Ratatouille, hands down. I respect that Persepolis aimed for adult audiences, but its reliance on cheap crowd-pleasing moments (um, "Eye of the Tiger" anybody?) made it lose a lot of its charm.
Should have been nominated: Uh, THE SIMPSONS MOVIE? I'm drawing a blank here.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Hindsight Oscars: 2002

Best Picture
Chicago (winner)
Gangs of New York
The Hours
Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
The Pianist
Should have won: THE TWO TOWERS is as good and as entertaining as its predecessor while doing a masterful job of setting up the final installment in the trilogy. GANGS and PIANIST are pretty great too, but I'd give Jackson's film the edge.
Should have been nominated: There's no way in hell 8 WOMEN could ever have gotten a Best Picture nomination, but it seems remarkably shortsighted that the two 2002 releases that have had perhaps the greatest staying power- 25TH HOUR and PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE- were overlooked. The former in particular seems especially egregious- the Academy has never been all that keen on Spike Lee, but considering the timely setting and the emotional pull of the final reel, it might have found its way onto a good number of ballots had Touchstone given it any marketing push whatsoever.

Best Lead Actress
Salma Hayek, Frida
Nicole Kidman, The Hours (winner)
Diane Lane, Unfaithful
Julianne Moore, Far From Heaven
Renee Zellweger, Chicago
Should have won: Even while submerging herself in the heightened style of 50s melodrama, Moore mustered more genuine feeling than any of her competition. No mean feat, that.
Should have been nominated: Isabelle Huppert is one of the world's great actresses, and few movies show off the depths of talent and fearlessness she brings to the screen than THE PIANO TEACHER. As the repressed educator of the title, she seems to give so little, but conveys so much as the emotions barely seem to flicker across her face.

Best Lead Actor
Adrien Brody, The Pianist (winner)
Nicolas Cage, Adaptation.
Michael Caine, The Quiet American
Daniel Day-Lewis, Gangs of New York
Jack Nicholson, About Schmidt
Should have won: Day-Lewis' Bill the Butcher is seriously scary, but that's really more of a supporting turn, isn't it? Instead, I'll take Cage's riotous double act as the neurotic screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his genially doofy brother Donald. It's rare to see a Cage performance that keeps his wackadoodle impulses in check while still being powered by his crazy energy.
Should have been nominated: Hey girl. I know you think Ryan Gosling's all sensitive and swoon-worthy. But prepare to have your mind blown by his youthful turn as a Jew-turned-skinhead in his breakthrough vehicle THE BELIEVER. Hard to imagine him not being nominated if he gave that performance today- but would he dream of doing so?

Best Director
Pedro Almodovar, Talk to Her
Stephen Daldry, The Hours
Rob Marshall, Chicago
Roman Polanski, The Pianist (winner)
Martin Scorsese, Gangs of New York
Should have won: There's a temptation to reward Polanski for exorcising his childhood demons or Scorsese to realizing his long-gestating dream project. Yet no nominated directorial vision came through more strongly than Almodovar's, which combined his love for melodrama, dark comedy, and sexual outrageousness in a way that he hasn't been able to duplicate since.
Should have been nominated: When is an Adam Sandler comedy not an Adam Sandler comedy? When Paul Thomas Anderson turns it into a jagged, candy-colored autocritique of an Adam Sandler comedy. Just that fact that he forced the ol' lunkhead to actually act speaks volumes about Anderson's achievement.

Best Supporting Actor
Chris Cooper, Adaptation. (winner)
Ed Harris, The Hours
Paul Newman, Road to Perdition
John C. Reilly, Chicago
Christopher Walken, Catch Me If You Can
Should have won: Hard to argue with Cooper's hillbilly charm or Newman's last great big-screen performance, but I'm partial to Walken, who finds real poignance in a con-man father who despairs that his son might have followed in his footsteps but also takes pleasure in how well his chip-off-the-old-block has done for himself.
Should have been nominated: Ten years after THE TWO TOWERS, the actor's branch still has yet to acknowledge the skill it takes to bring a motion-capture performance to life. So while it would have been super-cool of them to recognize the performance that pioneered the form- Andy Serkis' indelible Gollum, of course- it's inevitable that they would have overlooked it. Too bad.

Best Supporting Actress
Kathy Bates, About Schmidt
Queen Latifah, Chicago
Julianne Moore, The Hours
Meryl Streep, Adaptation
Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago (winner)
Should have won: Meryl Streep has become such an institution, what with her knack for accents and her ability to play outsize characters, that it's easy to overlook what a pleasure she can be when she lets her hair down. ADAPTATION is one of Streep's best character roles, and she's rarely been this charming and funny. Too bad she keeps gravitating back to stuff like THE IRON LADY.
Should have been nominated: I can imagine half a dozen performances from 8 WOMEN meriting a spot in this category (because Queen Latifah sureyeahright). Since I already mentioned Huppert in another context, why not the film's youngest cast member, Ludivine Sagnier, who injects real life force into the proceedings while going toe to toe with some of the biggest names in French cinema.

Best Original Screenplay
Far From Heaven
Gangs of New York
My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Talk to Her (winner)
Y tu mama tambien
Should have won: TALK TO HER is the best of the bunch, though it would've been fun to see Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN win as well.
Should have been nominated: ALL OR NOTHING has long been one of Mike Leigh's more sadly overlooked films, and considering the Academy's ongoing love for Leigh- and the relatively weak competition- it wouldn't have seemed out of place here.

Best Adapted Screenplay
About a Boy
The Hours
The Pianist (winner)
Should have won: ADAPTATION is the most writing-centric movie nominated, although THE PIANIST was pretty solid as well.
Should have been nominated: Watching MORVERN CALLAR, it's hard to believe it was adapted from a novel, which is a credit to how complete Lynne Ramsay's cinematic translation was.

Best Animated Feature
Ice Age
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron
Spirited Away
Treasure Planet
The Wild Thornberrys Movie
Should have won: SPIRITED AWAY. No contest.
Should have been nominated: In a category with one killer and plenty of filler (when was the last time you thought about SPIRIT: STALLION OF THE CIMARRON) it's hard to imagine that there's anything that could have been left out.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Hindsight Oscars: 1997

Best Picture
As Good As It Gets
The Full Monty
Good Will Hunting
L.A. Confidential
Titanic (winner)
Should have won: TITANIC may be a grander entertainment, mixing old-school melodrama with cutting-edge effects, but L.A. CONFIDENTIAL is, pound for pound, the superior movie. Acting, directing, writing, production values- everyone involved is firing on all cylinders here.
Should have been nominated: The Academy never would've touched David Cronenberg's infamous auto-erotica classic CRASH with a pole of any length. But in words of Wooderson, it woulda been a lot cooler if they diiiiiiiiiiiid.

Best Lead Actress
Helena Bonham Carter, Wings of the Dove
Julie Christie, Afterglow
Judi Dench, Mrs. Brown
Helen Hunt, As Good As It Gets (winner)
Kate Winslet, Titanic
Should have won: Before TITANIC, DiCaprio was the fan-magazine anointed golden boy, while Winslet was the corset-wearing arthouse starlet. But Cameron's mega-hit made it clear that its leading lady had enough charisma- and acting prowess- to go toe to toe with Leo, and to carry the biggest movie ever (circa 1997) on her capable shoulders to boot. Too bad she had to wait another decade to win the Oscar she deserved here.
Should have been nominated: 1997's Oscar-bait movie that wasn't, THE ICE STORM contained a number of great performances, none more so than Joan Allen as a suburban mother trying to keep her head in the free-for-all world of the 70s. Allen doesn't engage in any of the histrionics of AMERICAN BEAUTY's Annette Bening (in a similar role), and her performance is all the more heartbreaking for it.

Best Lead Actor
Matt Damon, Good Will Hunting
Robert Duvall, The Apostle
Peter Fonda, Ulee's Gold
Dustin Hoffman, Wag the Dog
Jack Nicholson, As Good As It Gets (winner)
Should have won: Nicholson was fine, but let's not kid ourselves- the voters honored him because they dig the Jack thing so much. Duvall, on the other hand, was positively inspired, giving an outsized performance that works so well because it comes from so deep inside. Even more impressive was that he directed himself, with the knowledge of just far he should push without going over the top.
Should have been nominated: It's become a cliché by now that the Academy almost never recognizes comedies. But in creating WAITING FOR GUFFMAN's "leading man" Corky St. Clair, Christopher Guest gave one of the funniest and most priceless turns of the decade. Too bad the Oscars didn't make an effort to notice.

Best Director
James Cameron, Titanic (winner)
Peter Cattaneo, The Full Monty
Atom Egoyan, The Sweet Hereafter
Curtis Hanson, L.A. Confidential
Gus van Sant, Good Will Hunting
Should have won: For all its problems, let it not be said that James Cameron doesn't direct the hell out of TITANIC, The sheer grandeur of the film is impressive enough, but considering the massive scale of the production, it's a testament to Cameron's strength of vision that it stayed afloat at all, let alone turn out to be a rousing success.
Should have been nominated: It was almost a running joke in the 90s that the Academy's documentary branch neglected better movies than they recognized. But even if the documentarians didn't want to nominate FAST, CHEAP AND OUT OF CONTROL, why couldn't the directing branch have recognized what a singular achievement the film was?

Best Supporting Actor
Robert Forster, Jackie Brown
Anthony Hopkins, Amistad
Greg Kinnear, As Good As It Gets
Burt Reynolds, Boogie Nights
Robin Williams, Good Will Hunting (winner)
Should have won: Forster was the least-known actor of this bunch, and he gave the most low-key performance. It was also the best, inhabiting a seemingly ordinary man with such empathy and bone-deep weariness that he doesn't so much steal the movie as quietly take control of the movie and win the sympathy of the audience.
Should have been nominated: LOST HIGHWAY is Robert Blake's last film to date, which is understandable considering what's happened since then, but it's also kind of a shame since he's just killer as one of cinema's great creepy villains. But then, the Academy didn't nominate Dennis Hopper in BLUE VELVET either, so maybe they just couldn't handle Lynch's taste in baddies. Their loss.

Best Supporting Actress
Kim Basinger, L.A. Confidential (winner)
Joan Cusack, In & Out
Minnie Driver, Good Will Hunting
Julianne Moore, Boogie Nights
Gloria Stuart, Titanic
Should have won: There are several worthy performances in this bunch- Cusack's a screamin the otherwise forgettable IN & OUT- but Moore just breaks your heart as a woman who takes it upon herself to be a mother figure for other lost souls because she's so definitively failed as a biological mother.
Should have been nominated: OK guys, I know somebody saw THE SWEET HEREAFTER. After all, it got a Best Director nomination. So what's with overlooking Sarah Polley's performance as a paralyzed accident victim with a secret agenda, a role that practically screams "Academy catnip" (she even performs several songs on the soundtrack). But I guess that since she doesn't drop a necklace in the ocean that doesn't matter, does it?

Best Original Screenplay
As Good As It Gets
Boogie Nights
Deconstructing Harry
The Full Monty
Good Will Hunting (winner)
Should have won: BOOGIE NIGHTS, which not only balanced a dozen or so major characters with verve and wit, but also served as the Hollywood coming-out party the colossally talented Paul Thomas Anderson.
Should have been nominated: By any yardstick, IN THE COMPANY OF MEN is a bitter pill to swallow. But its unsparing, darkly comic look at corporate drudgery and gamesmanship is magnificently written by first-timer Neil LaBute.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Donnie Brasco
L.A. Confidential (winner)
The Sweet Hereafter
Wag the Dog
Wings of the Dove
Should have won: Strong cases could be made for both L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and THE SWEET HEREAFTER, which translate well-regarded novels to the screen skillfully even if they don't quite stick their respective landings. But I also have been OK with DONNIE BRASCO, which de-emphasized high-octane suspense and violence in favor of tangy, jargon-heavy dialogue and vivid character development.
Should have been nominated: Now that Quentin Tarantino has made it his mission to mount one big-budget fanfiction after another, it's easier to appreciate what an achievement an anomaly JACKIE BROWN was in his career. Tarantino was able to sublimate his own voice in order to accommodate an equally strong one- that of writer Elmore Leonard- and it works so well that one wishes he'd try it again sometime.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Hindsight Oscars: 1992

I don’t know if I could pinpoint exactly when my love for cinema was born, but I do know that some of the seeds were sown twenty years ago this year, during my freshman year of high school, when I began going to the movies with friends on a regular basis. One of the first I remember seeing on my own was UNFORGIVEN, which at the time had been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar but hadn’t yet won. Because of this, I really felt like I had a horse in the Oscar race for the first time.

Of course, I’ve had something of a love-hate relationship with the Oscars in the past couple of decades, but I always feel kind of sentimental about the idea of the Oscars, even if they almost always disappoint me in some way or other. Therefore, to commemorate the last twenty years of Oscar, I’ll be posting retrospective ballots from 1992, plus other anniversary years- 1997, 2002, and 2007- leading up to my final Oscar predictions on Sunday. I’ll include the “Big Eight” categories- picture, director, screenplays, and the four acting categories- plus animated feature when applicable. And if you have any additional remarks about your choices, don’t hesitate to post them too.

Best Picture
The Crying Game
A Few Good Men
Howards End
Scent of a Woman
Unforgiven (winner)
Should have won: UNFORGIVEN, no contest. Awesome as CRYING GAME is, UNFORGIVEN is a masterpiece, and one of the rare really deserving winners here.
Should have been nominated: GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS is twice the play A FEW GOOD MEN is, and twice the movie too.

Best Lead Actress
Catherine Deneuve, Indochine
Mary McDonnell, Passion Fish
Michelle Pfeiffer, Love Field
Susan Sarandon, Lorenzo’s Oil
Emma Thompson, Howards End (winner)
Should have won: Sarandon and McDonnell gave the best performances of the bunch, although part of me would award this to the great Deneuve, who got her only Oscar nomination here. Then again, it’s for effing INDOCHINE, so maybe not.
Should have been nominated: Not exactly a banner year for female lead performances, eh? Although if RAISE THE RED LANTERN was eligible, Gong Li definitely deserved a nod.

Best Lead Actor
Robert Downey Jr., Chaplin
Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven
Al Pacino, Scent of a Woman (winner)
Stephen Rea, The Crying Game
Denzel Washington, Malcolm X
Should have won: Washington still has yet to top this, although anyone but sympathy vote Pacino would have been fine.
Should have been nominated: Gary Oldman’s Dracula was one for the ages, and it’s too bad the Academy has never been cool enough to go for a performance as crazy as John Lithgow in RAISING CAIN.

Best Director
Robert Altman, The Player
Martin Brest, Scent of a Woman
Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven (winner)
James Ivory, Howards End
Neil Jordan, The Crying Game
Should have won: By this time, it was no longer a surprise that Clint Eastwood was an honest-to-goodness filmmaker, but he has yet to top UNFORGIVEN.
Should have been nominated: Spike Lee, who reinvigorated the old-school epic form with MALCOLM X, and on a non-epic budget no less.

Best Supporting Actor
Jaye Davidson, The Crying Game
Gene Hackman, Unforgiven (winner)
Jack Nicholson, A Few Good Men
Al Pacino, Glengarry Glen Ross
David Paymer, Mr. Saturday Night
Should have won: Hackman. He’s almost a co-lead in this, but he gives good, un-fussy villainy and gets a surprisingly pathetic fade-out.
Should have been nominated: Sydney Pollack won Best Director for OUT OF AFRICA, but he never got his due as an actor- a shame, because his performance in Husbands and Wives is every bit as good as co-star Judy Davis’.

Best Supporting Actress
Judy Davis, Husbands and Wives
Joan Plowright, Enchanted April
Vanessa Redgrave, Howards End
Miranda Richardson, Damage
Marisa Tomei, My Cousin Vinny (winner)
Should have won: Judy wicked-awesome Davis.
Should have been nominated: Michelle Pfeiffer got nominated for the wrong movie, dammit! Sorry, Anne Hathaway- Michelle’s still the Catwoman to beat.

Best Original Screenplay
The Crying Game (winner)
Husbands and Wives
Lorenzo’s Oil
Passion Fish
Should have won: UNFORGIVEN's script is one for the ages, although I can’t begrudge the Academy its change to recognize the masterful misdirection of CRYING GAME’s script.
Should have been nominated: Quentin Tarantino's become an Academy perennial of late, so it's easy to imagine that RESERVOIR DOGS might have gotten nominated here today, though it's not like the voters would have paid him any mind back then.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Enchanted April
A Few Good Men
Howards End (winner)
The Player
Scent of a Woman
Should have won: THE PLAYER. Altman’s effortless direction and Tim Robbins’ performance are aces, but Michael Tolkin’s acidic storytelling sets the tone nicely.
Should have been nominated: Alec Baldwin's "Always Be Closing" monologue was famously written just for the movie version of GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, but it's become such an integral part of the text that it's actually been used in the majority of subsequent stage productions. If that's not strong adaptation, I don't know what is.

Friday, January 25, 2013

It’s Back!: White Elephant 2013

Let’s take a break from our regularly scheduled Muriels planning to focus on another Silly Hats Only tradition – The White Elephant Blogathon! Now in its seventh year of existence and its fourth year at its current location, the White Elephant has become a kind of April Fool’s Day mainstay for a certain strain of masochistic movie lover.
If you’ve done this before, I don’t need to tell you what to do. But if you haven’t, here are the rules as laid down by creator Ben Lim:
1) Submit the title of a movie that you want someone else to review (preferably something available via Netflix).
2) Review the movie that you get assigned and post the review for your site/blog on April 1.
3) Have fun!
Not sure what movie to submit? You’ve got plenty of options, as evidenced by last year’s selections – classics, garbage, divisive stuff, and out-and-out curiosities. Basically, if you want to see someone write about it (hopefully at some length), feel free to submit it.
So if you’re interested in taking part this year- and yeah, you probably are- please send your submission to me at no later than February 15. And if you’d like to know more about the White Elephant Blogathon, feel free to e-Mail me about that as well.

See you in April!

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Oh what the hell: My predictions for tomorrow morning's Oscar nominations

Although my proposed Oscar contest never got off the ground- as we Cleveland sports fans like to say, there’s always next year!- I figured I’d go ahead and post my predictions for this Thursday’s nominees. Each category’s predicted nominees are listed in order of how likely I think they are to be announced on Thursday morning.

Best Picture
Les Miserables
Zero Dark Thirty
Silver Linings Playbook
Life of Pi
Moonrise Kingdom
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Possible spoilers: The Master, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Flight, The Dark Knight Rises, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Comments: top 6 seem to be pretty secure, with Moonrise looking stronger as the season progresses .Amour could be the late-in-the-game critics’ favorite that garners support, while Beasts and Django, despite their precursor support, could be too wonky to get wide-ranging love. Because there could be up to 10 nominees, I’m predicting a top 10, but I’d guess the Academy would be more likely to go with 7 or 8 this year.
Best Lead Actress
Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Naomi Watts, The Impossible
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone
Possible spoilers: Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild; Helen Mirren, Hitchcock; Judi Dench, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; Meryl Streep, Hope Springs; Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea
Comments: top 3 seem pretty safe, and if Amour gets Best Picture love then Riva should slide in here as well. I’m predicting Cotillard in the fifth spot because more often than not this category seems partial to young and hot, especially when they play disabled or otherwise afflicted characters. However, if Wallis gets nominated, don’t be surprised if a best picture nom happens for Beasts as well.

Best Lead Actor
Daniel Day-Lewis ,Lincoln
Denzel Washington, Flight
Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables
Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
John Hawkes, The Sessions
Possible spoilers: Richard Gere, Arbitrage; Joaquin Phoenix, The Master; Jean-Louis Trintignant, Amour; Jack Black, Bernie; Bill Murray, Hyde Park on Hudson
Comments: This group looks pretty solid, actually. Hawkes is the only one who seems slightly vulnerable, mostly because The Sessions didn’t take off with critics and audiences from the performances. Phoenix might have been a shoo-in if not for his anti-Oscar sentiments, so I’m guessing that if anyone could surprise it would be Gere, an established name star who still hasn’t been Oscar-nominated.

Best Supporting Actor
Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
Alan Arkin, Argo
Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Matthew McConaughey ,Magic Mike
Possible spoilers: Javier Bardem, Skyfall; Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained; Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained; Eddie Redmayne, Les Miserables; Ezra Miller, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Comments: I’ll admit that McConaughey seems like kind of a left-field pick, but there are a few of them every year. Besides, I don’t think the Academy is going to nominate a Bond movie (no matter how well-liked) outside of the tech categories, and the Django guys will most likely split best-in-show honors (although Samuel L. Jackson beats them both in my opinion). However, if the voters feel the need to support something younger, Redmayne or Miller could have an outside chance, doubly so for the former if they truly fall in love with Les Mis.

Best Supporting Actress
Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Sally Field, Lincoln
Helen Hunt, The Sessions
Ann Dowd, Compliance
Maggie Smith,T he Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Possible spoilers: Amy Adams,The Master; Nicole Kidman, The Paperboy; Judi Dench, Skyfall; Samantha Barks, Les Miserables; Jennifer Ehle, Zero Dark Thirty
Comments: top 3 look pretty good for nominations, and Dowd’s ongoing self-funded campaign is the kind of thing Oscar voters historically have rewarded (see also: Melissa Leo). I’m feeling Smith over Adams and Kidman because The Master hasn’t really caught on with most audiences and many voters won’t make it through The Paperboy. Besides, Smith has become the Betty White of the Anglophile set, and I think the historically Brit-loving Academy will be on board with that too.

Best Director
Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
Ben Affleck, Argo
Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty
Ang Lee, Life of Pi
Michael Haneke, Amour
Possible spoilers: Tom Hooper, Les Miserables; David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook; Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained; Wes Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom; Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master
Comments: While audiences have responded positively toLes Mis for the most part, Hooper’s direction is probably the most criticized element of the film, aside from maybe Russell Crowe’s croaking singing. Because of this, I have a feeling the director’s branch will pass on him. Likewise, comedies- even ones as nervy as Silver Linings Playbook- are often ignored in this category in favor of heavier fare. Therefore, I’m predicting Haneke to slide into the fifth spot here, being the sort of internationally acclaimed, Sony Pictures Classics-anointed auteur who the directors’ branch likes to recognize every few years or so (see also: Mike Leigh).

Best Original Screenplay
Zero Dark Thirty (Mark Boal)
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola)
Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)
Flight (John Gatins)
Looper (Rian Johnson)
Possible spoilers: Amour, The Master
Comments: This category tends to have a few surprises, which is why I feel a little strange about how predictable most of these choices are. Still, I like Looper and Flight over potential Best Picture nominee Amour because Haneke's film feels like more of a director's triumph, a la The Tree of Life last year.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Lincoln (Tony Kushner)
Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell)
Argo (Chris Terrio)
Life of Pi (David Magee)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky)
Possible spoilers: Beasts of the Southern Wild; Les Miserables, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; The Dark Knight Rises
Comments: I’m predicting Perks over Beasts not just because it feels like more of a writer’s movie, but also because it’s the rare case of an author successfully shepherding his acclaimed book to the big screen. Seems to me like something writers would be inclined to recognize.

Best Animated Feature
Rise of the Guardians
Wreck-It Ralph
The Rabbi’s Cat
Possible spoilers: ParaNorman
Comments: It’s assumed by many that, due to the number of eligible films in this category, there will be five nominees this year. In all the previous years in which the animation branch nominated five films, there was always at least one non-major studio release included in the bunch. Therefore, I’m predicting the French production The Rabbi’s Cat, the highest-profile of the non-Hollywood contenders. However, if the Academy ends up going with fewer nominees, I would predict Frankenweenie, Rise, and one of the two Disney releases.

Best Documentary Feature
Searching For Sugar Man (Malik Bendjalloul)
The Imposter (Bart Layton)
The Gatekeepers (Dror Moreh)
Chasing Ice (Jeff Orlowski)
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (Alex Gibney)
Possible spoilers: Bully; The Invisible War; Ethel; This Is Not a Film
Comments: Sugar Man and The Imposter are the most crowd-pleasing of this bunch, while Gatekeepers and Chasing Ice deal with the Middle East and the environment, two issues that tend to resound with the doc branch. And Mea Maxima Culpa is directed by previous winner Gibney. However, Bully and Invisible War could sneak in there if the voters decide to embrace other hot-button issues, or Ethel if they’re feeling nostalgic for that old Kennedy-family magic. Finally, I don’t imagine that This Is Not a Film could actually get nominated, but I’ve included it here in the hope that I’m wrong.

Best Foreign-Language Film
Amour (Austria)
The Intouchables (France)
A Royal Affair (Denmark)
No (Chile)
Kon-Tiki (Norway)
Possible spoilers: Sister (Switzerland), Beyond the Hills (Romania), War Witch (Canada), The Deep (Iceland)
Comments: Amour looks like the favorite, although Intouchables could sneak in for the win if they want something more feel-good. The two Scandinavian picks have the epic sweep the foreign-language branch tends to like, and No seems more crowd-pleasing than the remainder of the finalists. Sister may sneak in as well.

And the rest…

Best Original Score
Lincoln (John Williams)
Life of Pi (Mychael Danna)
Anna Karenina (Dario Marianelli)
Argo (Alexandre Desplat)
The Master (Jonny Greenwood )

Best Original Song
“Suddenly,” Les Miserables
“Skyfall,” Skyfall
“Still Alive,” Paul Williams Still Alive
“For You,” Act of Valor
“Learn Me Right,” Brave

Best Editing
Zero Dark Thirty (Dylan Tichenor & William Goldenberg)
Lincoln (Michael Kahn)
Life of Pi (Tim Squyres)
Argo (William Goldenberg)
Les Miserables (Chris Dickens)

Best Cinematography
Life of Pi (Claudio Miranda)
Skyfall (Roger Deakins)
Lincoln (Janusz Kaminski)
Les Miserables (Danny Cohen)
Zero Dark Thirty (Greig Fraser)

Best Art Direction
Les Miserables (Eve Stewart)
Anna Karenina (Sarah Greenwood)
Life of Pi (David Gropman)
Lincoln (Rick Carter)
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Dan Hennah)

Best Costume Design
Anna Karenina (Jacqueline Durran)
Les Miserables (Paco Delgado)
Snow White and the Huntsman (Colleen Atwood)
Lincoln (Joanna Johnston)
Cloud Atlas (Kym Barrett & Pierre-Yves Gaurad)

Best Makeup
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Best Visual Effects
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Life of Pi
The Dark Knight Rises
Cloud Atlas

Best Sound
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Life of Pi
Les Miserables
Zero Dark Thirty

Best Sound Effects Editing
Life of Pi
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The Dark Knight Rises
Marvel’s The Avengers

Note: I’ve only familiar with one of the finalists in the Animated Short film category (Pixar’sPaperman, which played before Wreck-It Ralph) and none of the documentary or live-action shorts. So I’d just prefer to avoid guessing those altogether. I’m sure you understand.

Prediction tallies:
12 – Lincoln
10 – Life of Pi
9 – Les Miserables
7 – Zero Dark Thirty
6 – Argo
5 – Amour; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
4 – Skyfall
3 – Anna Karenina
2 – Brave; Cloud Atlas; The Dark Knight Rises; Django Unchained; The Master; Moonrise Kingdom ; The Sessions
1 – Act of Valor; The Avengers; Beasts of the Southern Wild; The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; Chasing Ice; Compliance; Flight; Frankenweenie; The Gatekeepers; Hitchcock; The Impossible; The Imposter; The Intouchables; Kon-Tiki; Looper; Magic Mike; Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God; No; Paul Williams Still Alive; The Perks of Being a Wallflower; Prometheus; The Rabbi’s Cat; Rise of the Guardians; A Royal Affair; Rust and Bone; Searching For Sugar Man; Snow White and the Huntsman; Wreck-It Ralph