Monday, March 22, 2010

'Justified' has makings of a new crime classic

Property The Daily Gamecock

FX’s atmospheric, gritty and engaging new crime drama, “Justified,” feels like it’s drawn from the pulpiest of crime novels and the classic works of Western fiction. Its pilot, adapted from Elmore Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole,” is one of the most promising and riveting of the 2010 season. If properly developed over its first dozen episodes, FX could have a bone-crunching law enforcement drama on its hands.

U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant, stoic but controlling in what could be a powerhouse leading turn) murders a gunrunner in Miami. Though he feels justified – the other man drew first – the brutal murder lands him a re-assignment to Harlan, Ky., his old hometown.

Harlan, with its rundown homes and insulated culture, is designed to look like a modern-day pioneering town. Its main source of income has been coal mines; Givens mined coal as a young man, enforcing his ties to the community.

The local law enforcement has also run into problems with a group of eo-Nazis who insist on terrorizing the town. They are the outlaws, the renegades, dressed largely in black and insisting on a righteous philosophy of violence.

Though pilot writer Graham Yost enjoys playing with backwater stereotypes, he rarely condescends these characters. If anything, the gangs are treated as an efficient and powerful organization, bombing churches and terrorizing with shotguns.

And then there’s Givens, the cowboy with a past, the man of violence and rage who hides it all behind an icy exterior. In his dark jacket and broad white cowboy hat, Olyphant gives all the rugged dialogue a cryptic groove.

The pilot has Givens tracking down and trying to expose a friend from his mining days who’s now turned into a neo-Nazi thug (Walton Goggins, who comes packed with a terrifyingly likable violent streak). Along the way, he runs into people from his previous life in Harlan – including his ex-wife, Winona (Natalie Zea, who sets up a character with a great deal of potential depth in the pilot).

As the pilot for “Justified” comes straight from Elmore Leonard’s prose, it gets all the benefit of his effectively drawn characters and his gift for dialogue that can both zing and purr. The plot rolls, but it’s really the program’s atmosphere that gives it weight.

Both a straightforward cop drama by way of an old West philosophy and a surprisingly ethnographic dissection of Harlan’s people and their complex relationship to society, “Justified” is able to deftly make Givens’ return to the town a homecoming and a classic fish-out-of-water scenario.

It also hits hard, with several moments of suspenseful stare-downs leading to dramatic spurts of violence. In the best tradition of the Western, “Justified” is all about the forces of good taking down the throngs of evil with a fast shot.

That its first hour manages to ignite the characters and the environment in such vivid and varied ways is a very hopeful sign for the show, which has a 13-episode run for its first season.

As long as Timothy Olyphant towers so tall in every moment of “Justified” — and as long as the show resists the urge to feel like a by-the-books cop drama, where catching the criminal is less important than what the action means in a broader sense — it should stand head-and-shoulders above any kind of procedural broadcast show.

Freed as it is on cable from the confines of broadcast network censorship, it surges forward with a bite, a rhythm and a vibe all its own. “Justified” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Oscars producers make poor decisions

Property The Daily Gamecock

Producers Adam Shankman and Bill Mechanic seemed to have two goals in mind for this year’s Academy Awards: streamline the show and get a bigger audience. Well, they succeeded, but at what price?

Yes, the Oscars enjoyed a nice rise in viewers — up to about 41 million after last year’s roughly 36 million, and the problem of resolving the behemoth length seemed under control for most of the show, with awards and speeches moving quickly.

But somewhere along the way, Shankman and Mechanic moved past efficiency and into sheer disgrace. There’s a difference between trying to quicken a show’s format and simply disrespecting those you’re supposed to be honoring.

The problem started with the Academy’s annual tradition of awarding entertainers with a Lifetime Achievement Award. This year they chose four, and dedicated a separate, untelevised evening to honor their work. At the actual Oscars ceremony director Roger Corman and actress Lauren Bacall, two of the four, showed up but barely got an introduction. They didn’t give any context for unfamiliar viewers.

Heck, they didn’t even get to a microphone. Corman and Bacall merely stood at their seats and waved at a bemused Kodak. Attendees clapped politely, unsure whether or not they were going to move to the podium or not. After a moment, everyone just sat down.
No eloquent, long-winded speeches and no moving montage, just a polite wave.

Later, James Taylor took the stage for a live rendition of “In My Life” to accompany the annual In Memoriam montage. Plenty of departed faces moved past in slow motion, including Michael Jackson for his acting turn in “The Wiz,” but it all felt over far too quickly.
Only the next day did industry writers realize: The Academy forgot Farrah Fawcett, who tragically died earlier this year approximately the same time as Jackson. On top of that, they forgot legendary Bea Arthur too. Now, one can make the argument that Arthur was more a TV than film actress, and thus the Academy didn’t owe her anything, but Fawcett was a 40-year Academy member.

In an attempt to appeal to younger viewers, “Twilight” stars Kristen Stewart and Taylor Lautner introduced an out-of-place montage tribute to horror films; their opening script included the line, “it’s been 37 long years since horror had a place on this show, when ‘The Exorcist’ picked up two awards.” Fittingly, Stewart coughed as she said the line, perhaps realizing it simply wasn’t true.

The montage included clips from 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs,” and while many would argue whether it is or isn’t a horror movie, it still won five Oscars, including Best Picture. Clearly, it had been a little less than 37 years; was this simply the Oscars of stupid mistakes?

On top of this, the producers axed performances of the Best Original Song nomination to streamline the show, but had a massive interpretive street dance accompany samples from the five nominees for Best Original Score. Sorry, “The Hurt Locker’s” subdued guitar work doesn’t really lend itself to street dancing, and such a performance isn’t really saving any time.

By the end of the ceremony, Best Picture presenter Tom Hanks practically ran on stage and ripped the envelope open in haste, as if he had to get it in under the wire.

While the Oscars glided down at a breezy three and a half hours, it would have been nicer to enjoy an hour more of careful planning and producing instead of what felt like a series of severely misguided decisions. Hopefully next year the producers can find a classier way to reward the viewers they draw in. That’s Entertainment.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Are You THAT Alice?

Alice in Wonderland

* *
/ * * * *

Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland has one eye bent toward visual reinvention, the other towards narrative revisionism. Truth be told, this Alice is more "Through the Looking Glass" than "Alice in Wonderland," although scribe Linda Woolverton takes elements of both and adds her own stuff in.

As would be expected, Alice is a visual showcase for Burton. He gives it his penchant for gothic expressionism and vibrant colors. It's a strange, beautiful world that seems more in line with his Sleepy Hollow than Edward Scissorhands - there's not a sense that Wonderland is a lived in place, but rather a world of diversions and episodes where nothing connects and nothing seems to extend more than several hundred yards past the edge of the frame. In a way, that's how it should feel. It's long been held that Carroll's work is a mix of sexual awakening and massive drug trip, and this one's no different. From the second 19-year old Alice just "needs a minute" before falling down the rabbit hole to experience Wonderland again, there's a chronic idea that Wonderland represents an escape, a tortured break from coherence and logic.

That's Burton's cinema, but unfortunately the director gets too hung up on his quirks to really figure out how to make Alice in Wonderland all of a piece. He's a great visualist, and the production design, costuming, visual effects, and make-up are all first-rate throughout the film. It's pure sensation, a movie so detached it almost detaches us from the screen. Part of the problem is in Alice herself, as youngster Mia Wasikowska hasn't the depth or the flair for a surprisingly demanding role. She can't seem to get past the effects-driven nature of the environments, and delivers most everything in a flat-line.

Thankfully, there's Johnny Depp, who turns the Mad Hatter into a deranged resistance fighter suppressing his political unrest beneath a guise of tea-driven lunacy. In pale make-up and crazy eyes, Depp is always flashy, but always interesting. He makes all his scenes pop. There's too little popping in the rest of Alice, though. It all feels so routine, so lacking in spontaneity or sincere filmmaking prowess.

Whereas Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson (I daresay) reinvented children's movies and their adaptations on a whole new intellectual level with Where the Wild Things Are and Fantastic Mr. Fox, Burton's Alice in Wonderland just treads back over established ground. It's almost Alice, but it's a deflated Alice. Even as she grows larger, it feels like she's only shrinking. The real lamentation here is that Burton himself seems so far removed from something like Ed Wood - his opus - or even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - a visually daring adaptation that's everything Alice in Wonderland isn't.

Oddly, it's the film's mish-mash of A-Z plotting and simultaneously its insistence on a lack of plot that create its central contradiction and makes the rest of it flail out in a dozen different directions. Everything that makes it Wonderland and that makes it Tim Burton is up on the screen, and while it's easy to revel in the sheer creativity of the world, there's not much beyond the aforementioned technical aspects.

A fleeting thing of beauty, but one that dramatically underplays the potential of all involved.

Also, it's rated PG for a smoking caterpillar. No, I'm serious. The MPAA rocks.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Oscars make a statement

For my obligatory Oscar wrap-up, I want to TRY and keep it short and sweet. I've said so much coming into the race, I feel I'd just be pushing it to say a lot AFTER.

The Hurt Locker stole the show. It was a shining historical moment for Bigelow and her wonderful team, but let's think about what this means: it's the Academy embracing independent film, traditional gutsy filmmaking, strong work in an established genre that reworks a formula, and gives serious treatise to a serious contemporary concern.

But they didn't reward Avatar. This year was marketed as a clash between revolution and tradition, David and Goliath, the King of the Universe and the Queen Director. They didn't really go for Avatar. They gave it three; the only surprise was cinematography. They gave Hurt Locker six; surprises including both sound awards and screenplay. To me, that's a huge industry embrace for filmmakers willing to take rests. Sure, the industry cares about box office and revolutionary technology, but where they want to REWARD filmmakers' visions is in carefully crafted, often independent productions.

It wasn't a very diverse ceremony; Avatar, Hurt Locker and Precious accounted for 11 of the 21 categories, with no other film winning more than one. So they split it up; despite 6 for THL, the Academy shared the love with plenty of other work. It was a predictable ceremony, and I only lost my Oscar pool because I went against convention. Silly me.

As for the ceremony, I don't think Shankman should be invited back. The horror montage failed, as they said horror hadn't been invited to Oscars since 1973, and then showed Silence of the Lambs IN the montage (a film that won Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay). Le sigh. Not having the lifetime achievement recipients give a speech was misguided; that dance number looked weird (good dancers, good music, but TERRIBLE combination). And as per the last few years, they really under-utilized the hosts. Baldwin and Martin were great together - the Paranormal Activity bit and the Snuggie thing were HI-larious, but they had far too little witty banter.

Having past friends honor the Lead nominees was a good alteration to last year's awkward innovation. The tech presentations were all tasteful; the pace was great. But it didn't feel like an Oscars telecast. There wasn't enough glamour; the presenters weren't very interesting (save for Ben Stiller, who was fabulous). Overall, it was kind of blah. Very mediocre.

I still think the expansion to 10 was a great idea. I think the Academy itself made a lot of great decisions (forgetting Sandra Bullock, forgetting Sandra Bullock, forgetting Sandra Bullock), but importantly - they said something about the industry. They encouraged independent filmmakers to keep daring, to keep trying, to keep using the form in exciting ways that don't necessarily cost $237 million.

So despite the ultimate predictability (I hyped it up as much as the next person), the boring and brisk ceremony - I'd say hindsight made this an important Oscars. With a palette of nominees ranging from The Blind Side to A Serious Man, the Academy awarded popular entertainment and highbrow critics' darlings. What a year to watch the Oscars, and what a year to watch the industry grapple with its own future.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Oscars: Complete winners

Best Picture: The Hurt Locker
Director: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Actor: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Actress: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Supp Actor: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Supp Actress: Mo'Nique, Precious
Original Screenplay: Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker
Adapted Screenplay: Geoffrey Fletcher, Precious
Animated: Up
Foreign: The Secret in their Eyes
Documentary: The Cove
Art Direction: Avatar
Cinematography: Avatar
Costume Design: The Young Victoria
Film Editing: The Hurt Locker
Original Score: Up
Original Song: Crazy Heart
Sound Mixing: The Hurt Locker
Sound Editing: The Hurt Locker
Visual Effects: Avatar
Makeup: Star Trek

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The 82nd Annual Academy Awards LiveBlog Live From Los Angeles: Almost Live from the Red Carpet

Final Predictions and Reflections

Predictions Overview

Picture: The Hurt Locker
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Actor: Jeff Bridges
Actress: Carey Mulligan
Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz
Supporting Actress: Mo’Nique
Original Screenplay: Inglourious Basterds
Adapted Screenplay: Up in the Air
Animated Film: Up
Documentary Film: The Cove
Foreign Language Film: The White Ribbon
Art Direction: Avatar
Cinematography: The White Ribbon
Film Editing: The Hurt Locker
Original Score: Up
Original Song: Crazy Heart
Sound Mixing: The Hurt Locker
Sound Editing: Avatar
Visual Effects: Avatar
Makeup: The Young Victoria

As I write this, I’m sitting in at the Atlanta airport en route to Los Angeles. I’m enjoying the fact that I have scenes from “Up in the Air” running through my head as I watch people come and go. Truth be told, I feel a little like Ryan Bingham – I’m evading going home for Spring Break because I’m traveling across the country for work.

Of course, part of my week in LA will involve an attempt to get within 500 yards of the red carpet tomorrow afternoon. It may be the only time I’m in LA at the same time as the Oscars, and I’m also smiling at this Oscars being one of the biggest, most important I’ve watched…potentially since 2005. I’ll be watching the ceremony from an LA hotel room eight miles from the Kodak, LiveBlogging and enjoying the broadcast with my research partner.

For me to say anything more about what’s “at stake” in these Oscars or to try and frame them in a grand contextual scheme is reductive. I wrote nearly 2,000 words on it for The Daily Gamecock on Friday. Scroll down to read it. When this dust storm settles, I’ll be able to more precisely say why everything happened the way it did.

Hindsight is always 20/20. For the present, my vision is very cloudy. Some seasoned Oscar predictors think they have this year pretty much figured out. I say, impossible. This race can’t be figured out. There are too many variables, the least of which is historical precedent, the greatest of which is the preferential balloting system. These are my thoughts and my wishes for who will win and who should win.

I don’t think I’ll win my Oscar pool this year. It just doesn’t feel likely. This is the best I can do, though. I’ll say this much for those in my pool, even those who have yet to submit your ballots: the Oscars are not about 21 separate categories. They are about one award with 21 different facets. There is ALWAYS a larger picture and a recognizable pattern. You just have to be willing to look for it

Best Picture

The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
A Serious Man
Up in the Air

Will Win: The Hurt Locker
Should Win: Inglourious Basterds
Spoiler: Inglourious Basterds

Reasoning: Statistics align behind The Hurt Locker. The winner of the Golden Globe has gone on to win the Oscar only once in the last five years (“Slumdog Millionaire,” a steamroller movie). Avatar doesn’t have the heat, and it doesn’t have the nominations (no screenplay or acting. An instant kill). It doesn’t have Guild wins, so it doesn’t have underlying industry support. The only thing that could help it win is that damn e-mail scandal. But thinking about statistics and patterns, “Inglourious Basterds” is really the best fit to go with how the Academy has recently voted – a mid-level success, an independent film, a renowned producer, an esteemed director, a very stylish film that can be both enjoyed and thought about (in this way, it really is similar to The Departed, No Country for Old Men, and Slumdog Millionaire).
But what about historic revisionism, you say? Won’t the Academy revolt against a film that so shamelessly recasts WWII into an epic revenge fantasy? Well, there was one other time in recent history where they awarded a piece of blatant revisionism – Shakespeare in Love, which upset a polished war film in a Picture/Director split. What I’m saying to you is this: if I had more balls, I’d predict Basterds to burn the house down. But I’m trying to win a pool, and I have to rely on statistics.

Best Director

Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
James Cameron, Avatar
Lee Daniels, Precious
Jason Reitman, Up in the Air
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds

Will Win: Kathryn Bigelow
Should Win: Kathryn Bigelow
Spoiler: James Cameron

Reasoning: With the Directors Guild and a groundswell of support for her film, Bigelow should have this award locked up. The only reason she might not win – sexism. Yep, I went there. No female director has ever won this award. A win for James Cameron isn’t a win for James Cameron (he already has an Oscar; very few directors have more than one), it would be on par with Crash beating Brokeback.

Best Actor

Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
George Clooney, Up in the Air
Colin Firth, A Single Man
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

Will Win: Jeff Bridges
Should Win: Jeremy Renner
Spoiler: Jeremy Renner

Reasoning: It’s Jeff Bridges time. This is a “career vote” for a very typical performance. It’s an Oscar performance given by a respected actor who’s never won. The only upsets I see are Colin Firth because he’s ALSO a respected actor who’s never won – he’s just British – and Jeremy Renner if they pull a Hurt Locker sweep (see also: The Pianist. Only difference there, Nicholson and Day-Lewis had already won; Brody was the exciting newcomer). I also can’t deny Renner’s been charming the pants off everyone while campaigning for his film.

Best Actress

Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Helen Mirren, The Last Station
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia

Will Win: Carey Mulligan
Should Win: Carey Mulligan
Spoiler: Sandra Bullock/Meryl Streep

Reasoning: I can’t physically bring myself to put Sandra Bullock down. I also think this race is incredibly close. Think about it: Bullock and Streep tie at the Critics Choice. They both win a Globe. Bullock wins the SAG. Mulligan wins the BAFTA. Yes, Mulligan’s British, so she had the home-field advantage, but a lot of people pointed at The Blind Side’s Picture nom as a sign it had enough support to award Bullock. Sorry, but An Education has a BP nod too. This is a category I probably won’t get right, but no guts no glory.

Best Supporting Actor

Matt Damon, Invictus
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Christopher Plummer, The Last Station
Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

Will Win: Christoph Waltz
Should Win: Christoph Waltz
Spoiler: Woody Harrelson

Reasoning: Waltz has won everything. Harrelson is a respected actor who had a great, diverse year. If anyone’s going to upset, it’s him.

Best Supporting Actress

Penelope Cruz, Nine
Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crazy Heart
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Mo’Nique, Precious

Will Win: Mo’Nique
Should Win: Anna Kendrick
Spoiler: Anna Kendrick

Reasoning: She’s won everything. It’s the place they will choose to award Precious.

Best Original Screenplay

The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
The Messenger
A Serious Man

Will Win: Inglourious Basterds
Should Win: Inglourious Basterds
Spoiler: The Hurt Locker

Reasoning: A lot of people think The Hurt Locker will win because it won the WGA and the BAFTA. I don’t buy it. BAFTA was a sweep. Tarantino was disqualified from the WGA because he’s not a guild member. Basterds is a more “written” film than the Hurt Locker, so unless there’s a sweep brewing I don’t see how Tarantino loses.

Best Adapted Screenplay

District 9
An Education
In the Loop
Up in the Air

Will Win: Up in the Air
Should Win: Up in the Air
Spoiler: Precious

Reasoning: This is where they award Up in the Air. It’s won virtually all screenplay awards prior to this. Only if they dramatically go for Precious can it lose.

Best Animated Film

Fantastic Mr. Fox
Princess and the Frog
The Secret of Kells

Will Win: Up
Should Win: Fantastic Mr. Fox
Spoiler: Fantastic Mr. Fox

Reasoning: The only way Pixar loses if it voters don’t want to vote for it for both Picture and Animated Feature – and foolishly decide to vote for it in Picture. I doubt it.

Best Documentary

Burma VJ
The Cove
Food, Inc.
The Most Dangerous Man in America
Which Way Home

Will Win: The Cove
Should Win: N/A
Spoiler: Food, Inc.

Reasoning: The Cove is the most highly acclaimed and the most innovative of the bunch. Food, Inc. is arguably more timely.

Best Foreign Language Film

El Secreto de Sus Ojos
The Milk of Sorrow
Un Prophete
The White Ribbon

Will Win: The White Ribbon
Should Win: The White Ribbon
Spoiler: Un Prophete

Reasoning: Un Prophete is more popular. It racked up at the French Academy. The White Ribbon is a more cerebral and more difficult work. I’ve also heard a lot of people say El Secreto de Sus Ojos stands a good chance of winning this. I can’t say. It’s really hard to predict this category, especially since you’re not allowed to vote unless you see all five. I have to cast my hat in Haneke’s favor simply because of how renowned he is, but White Ribbon and Prophete are fighting to the death. Secreto can easily take a surprise win.

Best Art Direction

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Sherlock Holmes
The Young Victoria

Will Win: Avatar
Should Win: The Imaginarium of the Doctor Parnassus
Spoiler: Sherlock Holmes

Reasoning: Avatar built an entire planet. The sheer conceptual work behind it should elevate it. If they want more traditional period stuff, Sherlock Holmes can win. Both won separate Art Directors Guild award.

Best Cinematography

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
The White Ribbon

Will Win: The White Ribbon
Should Win: The White Ribbon
Spoiler: The Hurt Locker

Reasoning: Anyone can win this category. They usually go for the most traditionally pretty film. Avatar is mostly visual effects, so I can’t see them voting for it. Hurt Locker is compellingly shot, but it’s very “dirty.” Inglourious Basterds is the most composed next to White Ribbon – the latter won the ASC, but it’s hard to tell if they’ll go for it. Because it’s black and white and very beautiful, I give it the vote. But seriously, this race is really wide open.

Best Costume Design

Bright Star
Coco Avant Chanel
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
The Young Victoria

Will Win: The Young Victoria
Should Win: Bright Star
Spoiler: Coco Avant Chanel

Reasoning: Victoria is classy period costumes, which they love. And it won the Costume Designers Guild.

Best Film Editing

District 9
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds

Will Win: The Hurt Locker
Should Win: The Hurt Locker
Spoiler: District 9

Reasoning: The only one I can’t see winning here is Precious. More often than not, the “most edited” film wins, and with the Hurt Locker’s sustained sequences with lots of quick cutting, it’s far more noticeable than Avatar or Inglourious Basterds. It’s also just really well edited.

Best Original Score

Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Hurt Locker
Sherlock Holmes

Will Win: Up
Should Win: Up
Spoiler: Sherlock Holmes

Reasoning: Best score of the bunch, has won most previous awards. In a year of really weak scores, it stands out.

Best Original Song

Princess and the Frog, Almost There
Princess and the Frog, Down in New Orleans
Paris 36
Crazy Heart

Will Win: Crazy Heart
Should Win: Crazy Heart
Spoiler: Nine

Reasoning: It’s the only good song nominated?

Best Sound Mixing

The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Star Trek
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Will Win: The Hurt Locker
Should Win: The Hurt Locker
Spoiler: Avatar

Reasoning: This is really just because Hurt Locker won the Cinema Audio Society. Avatar could very easily win both sound awards. This also plays into my broader idea that the Academy will largely reject Avatar.

Best Sound Editing

The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Star Trek

Will Win: Avatar
Should Win: Star Trek
Spoiler: Up

Reasoning: Both Avatar and Up scored at Motion Picture Sound Editors awards, and the Academy has a history of giving sound awards to a) big action movies, b) musicals, c) animated movies. I think it’s weird Up is nominated here, and is the only film that’s not a carryover from Sound Mixing. Does that make a difference?

Best Visual Effects

District 9
Star Trek

Will Win: Avatar
Should Win: Avatar
Spoiler: District 9

Reasoning: The whole movie is a visual effect. For Avatar not to win this award would be the night’s greatest upset.

Best Makeup

Il Divo
Star Trek
The Young Victoria

Will Win: The Young Victoria
Should Win: Star Trek
Spoiler: Star Trek

Reasoning: A lot of people are thinking Trek will win this as a consolation prize. I don’t really think the Academy sees Star Trek as a movie they have to reward. Victoria is the classier, showier piece. It also has the same number of noms as Star Trek overall.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Oscar Mania from The Daily Gamecock

Property The Daily Gamecock

82nd Oscars to set historical precedents

Regardless of which performers, technicians and films ultimately walk away with the statues at this Sunday’s 82nd Annual Academy Awards, there will be an unconventional, unexpected or unprecedented winner among the bunch. Ever since the Academy announced they would be expanding its Best Picture lineup to include 10 nominees for the first time since 1943, this season has been one of constant speculation."

And while 10 films may have the honor of being a nominee, the precursor award season and media reporting have focused the race into an epic duel between David and Goliath. “The Hurt Locker,” made for $11 million and grossing only $12.6 million on its modest theatrical release, goes head-to-head with “Avatar,” made for an estimated $237 million and already grossing more than $700 million domestically, making it the all-time box office leader. Both tied for the most nominations this year with nine apiece, but for either to win would be a historic moment for the Academy. Were “The Hurt Locker” to win, it would be the first film ever directed by a woman to do so, and it would also be among the lowest-grossing winners of all time, adjusted for inflation.

If “Avatar” wins, not only would it be the first science fiction film to ever do so (and only seven years after “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” was the first fantasy film to cap the big win in 2003), it would be the first film to win Best Picture without having either a writing or acting nomination since 1932.

Despite these statistics, “Avatar” and “The Hurt Locker” have been at the heart of the contentious battle for statues. Making matters more interesting, their directors, James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow, respectively, are ex-spouses. In the year he finally delivers his long-awaited sci-fi opus, she may be the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director (she is only the fourth to be nominated; the last was Sofia Coppola in 2003 for “Lost in Translation”).

While Cameron won the honor at the Golden Globes, where his film also won Best Picture, Bigelow has won Best Director from the all-important Directors Guild of America, the British Academy and the Critics Choice Awards, among others.

But if neither of these films ends up winning, who could stage a coup? Many are pointing at “Inglourious Basterds” as a possible spoiler; while it certainly would be one of the most audacious films to win the prize in the Academy’s history, it also follows closely behind the two frontrunners with eight nominations, including writing and directing nods for Quentin Tarantino, a supporting actor nod for Christoph Waltz and multiple tech noms. The film additionally won top honors at the Screen Actors Guild awards.

Other Hot Races
And if the Best Picture race is a fight to the finish, several other key categories are similarly hotly contested. As far as acting goes, Jeff Bridges looks to have sewn up his first Academy Award for his embodiment of an alcoholic singer in “Crazy Heart,” while Christoph Waltz and “Precious’s” Mo’Nique have won nearly all Supporting Actor and Actress competitions this year.

That leaves Best Actress, a race many predict will go to Sandra Bullock for sleeper hit “The Blind Side.” While Bullock did win the Critics’ Choice, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild, those wins are deceptive — at the Critics’ Choice she tied with fellow nominee Meryl Streep (for “Julie & Julia”), and at the Golden Globes she won Best Actress in a Drama while Streep won Best Actress in a Comedy/Musical.

With her only outright win being the SAG award and Streep breathing down her neck at every turn, expect either of these actresses to take home the statue or, if Oscar is in the mood for an upset, BAFTA-winner Carey Mulligan could claim the honor for “An Education,” also a Best Picture nominee.

Best Original Screenplay is the other major category that has several question marks floating around it. Mark Boal, writer of “The Hurt Locker,” won the Writers Guild and BAFTA award for his script, but he faces stiff competition with Quentin Tarantino.

Tarantino, importantly, was disqualified for the Writers Guild award, as he is not a member of their guild. With both “Basterds” and “Hurt Locker” being such high-profile films, it’s hard to see which will reap the win.

Aside from all this competition in the main categories, a fair many of the tech awards have formed their own battlegrounds as revolutionary spectacle “Avatar” contends against more traditional work in “The Hurt Locker” and “Inglourious Basterds,” among other great looking and sounding films.

There may be little that feels absolutely sure about this year’s Academy Awards, but one thing that is sure — someone is going to make history.

If The Mix had a vote...

Picture: “Inglourious Basterds”
The major Oscar contenders offer multifaceted ways to look at war. Whether in the color-drenched spectacle of “Avatar,” which bluntly recasts colonialism into a space epic, or the hyperrealism of “The Hurt Locker,” perhaps the most realized vision of the Iraq war to date, war has once again populated our screens.

“Inglourious Basterds” blows them out of the water, though. In Quentin Tarantino’s best film since “Pulp Fiction,” he has more than scalped Nazis and intricate dialogue on his mind. Through its wild audacity, “Basterds” is not just a jaw-dropping revenge fantasy, but a whole new way to think about how World War II gets represented on film.

Award-worthy scene: The climactic showdown in the movie theatre and the subsequent historic revisions

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Bigelow’s win would be a historic moment for the Academy and a deserved one. Her direction of “The Hurt Locker” is nothing but brave, a sharp and taut construction of life on the ground. The intensity and suspense stems from very traditional, very smart filmmaking that takes full advantage of camera work, editing and sound.

Award-worthy scene: The IED team disarms a trunk full of bombs in what feels like agonizing real time.

Lead Actors: Jeremy Renner & Carey Mulligan
While Jeff Bridges will deservedly win for his work in “Crazy Heart,” we at the Mix still can’t get over how raw and immersive Jeremy Renner was in “The Hurt Locker.” His bomb tech was such a fully realized man of self-destructive flaws; Renner tumbles headfirst into the psychology of an adrenaline junkie.

Award-worthy scene: Confessing his love of war to his infant son
Likewise, Carey Mulligan’s breakthrough turn in “An Education” is a very subtle piece of glamour. Though not a particularly showy performance, she manages to infuse every look and motion with the dazzle of naivete. She perfectly encapsulates the effortless grace of her entire film.

Award-worthy scene: Standing up to her teacher when questioned about her older boyfriend

Supporting Actors: Christoph Waltz & Anna Kendrick
Waltz has won nearly every Best Supporting Actor award during the entire season, and it’s not hard to see why. From his opening scene in “Inglourious Basterds,” he is absolutely devilish. By turns playful, menacing and always eloquent, he plays Col. Landa with a sense of almost tragic self-interest.

Award worthy scene: Bargaining for a deal to end the war

Anna Kendrick has been overshadowed all season by Mo’Nique’s towering turn in “Precious,” but the young actress emerges as a dynamic, endearing presence by the end of “Up in the Air.” She so deftly exposes her character’s false confidence and underlying anxieties, sometimes running a full spectrum in a matter of seconds. It’s hard not to be in awe.

Award-worthy scene: Firing an employee over a webcam and realizing her business philosophy doesn’t work

Oscar choices have lasting significance

Every so often, the Academy Awards get a chance to really say something about a historical moment in film. Whether it was in 1969, when a win for “Midnight Cowboy” helped usher in dozens of daring movies over the next decade that redefined what American films were about, or in 2005, when the shocking upset of “Crash” over heavy favorite “Brokeback Mountain” was construed by many as the Academy resisting one form of social drama in favor of another.

Not since 2003 has an outright blockbuster won the Academy Award. In the five ceremonies since “Lord of the Rings” had a clean sweep of the evening, the Academy has ventured into mid-level, modestly grossing fare. Movies like “Million Dollar Baby” and “Slumdog Millionaire” triumphed over larger studio projects like “The Aviator” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

Three of the last five winners have been independent films, and the other two — “Baby” and “The Departed” — were $100 million successes, but not quite huge hits.

The Academy has a history of disregarding “larger” films in favor of smaller, more conventional and accessible works when it comes to their big awards. The classic upset of independent period romance “Shakespeare in Love” over studio heavyweight “Saving Private Ryan” in 1998 is among the best proof in recent years.

The trend extends back to 1977, when “Annie Hall” topped “Star Wars” in Picture and Director, despite “Wars” winning six Oscars and “Hall” winning only four overall.

This year, the show’s producers — Bill Mechanic and Adam Shankman — are doing everything they can to try and pull the ceremony’s broadcast out of its television ratings pitfall. They want America to fall back in love with the Oscars — but what symbolic gestures will the Academy itself make, and will they embrace what the public wants?

This is one of the few years where the “people,” the “critics” and those who hover somewhere in between all have things at stake, especially considering the Oscars are usually read as a symbolic gesture of what the industry was “all about” each respective year.

Were “Avatar” to win in the major categories or rack up more than four wins, it would be a dramatic break from their tendency of late to embrace smaller movies that generated more discussion than they did business. It would also be a representative embrace of James Cameron’s vision for what cinema can be.

In the long run, that kind of embrace may be detrimental to something like “Up in the Air” and “A Serious Man,” movies that thrive on the kind of word-of-mouth that awards can generate and whose production continues in part because of how responsive the Academy has been to mid-level independent and quasi-studio work over the last decade.

The Oscars have always had, and will continue to have, that special ring of legitimacy for the film industry. Its unofficial tagline of “film’s highest honor” is an endowment but also a responsibility for those who vote.

While in many ways this year is a contentious David and Goliath, with the public largely on one side and the critics largely on the other, this philosophy extends far beyond the Best Picture and Best Director battles between “The Hurt Locker” and “Avatar.”

Nearly every category has a split of “big, popular” films going against “smaller” works.

Whichever half ends up with the larger overall trophy take may have a lot to say about future Academy broadcasts and potentially the industry as a whole. Remember, the Academy Awards are never about what’s “best.” They’re about what can be framed the best.

It could happen to you!

Never underestimate the upset. By the way, look how f'ing pissed off Jack Nicholson is that Crash actually wins.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Why "A Serious Man" deserves to win; an argument

A continuing series of brief reflections about the Best Picture nominations...

A Serious Man is the third in what I've deemed the Coens' "Trilogy of Ir-resolution" - along with No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading, it's a movie about how we WATCH movies, what we expect out of them, and they represent the Coens' variations on how to mess with traditional narrative form.

It's blacker than black, one of the most shamelessly misanthropic films ever made. Somewhere between a cultural autobiography and a recasting of the Book of Job, they've rooted around their own culture of late-60s Jewish suburbia to expose deep-seated anxieties, religious paradoxes, and personal woes. They've also made one of their quietest, most subdued films. On the one hand, it's as troubling as "The Man Who Wasn't There," and yet without that film's excess. On another, it's more like something from their early-90s period; eccentric yet restrained. Everything hides just below the surface.

A Serious Man is so lethal because it's so unsuspecting. This is the Coens firing on their most potent cylinders. Michael Stuhlbarg is revelatory, and plays their tortured victim with such reposed seriousness. While the Coens usually like to cinematic structure and form as a way to jump into deeper waters about various time periods, here they've taken a lone character study and thrown together cultural and religious politics into a searing blend.

And that ending...that gives us every answer and yet no answer. It makes us want more, and yet, why would we want to see any more of this? The Coens are gods, for they are filmmakers. Films are their worlds. A Serious Man is their craft at its peak.

For Your Consideration - A Serious Man

Why "Precious" deserves to win; an argument

A continuing series of brief reflections on the Best Picture nominees. As always, this is an ARGUMENT, not necessarily what I think SHOULD win. I have to keep this one short if I'm going to get through all ten by Sunday...

Precious is like so many other urban dramas, and yet so different. It's the second time an African American director has been Oscar nominated, it has towering performances at its center, and it stages an almost elemental attack on the senses. It's a raw and impressive film. While the press has inked plenty about Mo'Nique's transformative, horrific performance and Gabby Sidibe's accomplishments as a first-time actress, I find myself far more drawn to how director Lee Daniels works his film.

It's a film very much about perception and torture (mental and physical), and as such he really pulls no punches. It's a gritty, difficult film with little in the way of real answers. Yes, it has a bit of an uplifting end, but c'mon - it's not like things are significantly better at its end. Structurally, the film is guided and woven through Precious's inner flights of fancy, the moments where she can imagine herself as someone else. In that way, "Precious" is really about our inner longing to break out, and Daniels seems to so perfectly understand those emotional nuances that he can create an aesthetic that marries it. The dream sequences are so vivid, so wonderfully edited against the more "stereotypically handheld" moments of huge close-ups and stark emotion.

The argument *against* Precious has been that a black filmmaker should explore different things about the black community. I don't think Precious is a condescending film. It's a bit of a paradox - elevating us past emotional torture by subjecting us to it for two hours - and I don't find it a particularly challenging or eviscerating look at the community it tries to build, but it's wonderfully perched behind the eyes of Gabby Sidibe. Lee Daniels is an emotional filmmaker, his vision is more concerned about getting us to empathize than it is about presenting the innate conundrums of life (which he often does in this film). It's got a soft center under its tough shell, which is what I think draws people to it, but it's a very careful film. And by careful, I mean respectful.

For Your Consideration - Precious.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Academy Rules on "Hurt Locker" Rule Violation

AMPAS declares:

Nicolas Chartier's tickets are revoked. As punishment for directly violating clauses in the e-mail and campaign rules, "The Hurt Locker" producer will not be allowed to attend the ceremony.

This means that, should the film win, he will not be on stage to accept a statue. He'll still get one, just sometime after March 7.

It's tough luck, but sometimes if you break the rules you get made an example of.

Full story over on the New York Times blog.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Why "Inglourious Basterds" deserves to win

A continuing series of brief reflections on the Best Picture nominees.

No argument involved. Inglourious Basterds should win the Academy Award. Not only would it be awarding the best of the nominated films, it would be a remarkable step forward in terms of what the Academy is willing to put their label on (think No Country for Old Men). And, if you believe the guys over at The Envelope, the preferential ballot and the polarizing forces of The Hurt Locker and Avatar have created almost uniquely perfect conditions that could let Tarantino and producer Lawrence Bender stage a coup of the Kodak Theater (without burning it down).

Inglourious Basterds, simply put, blows the lid off World War II films. The war will NEVER be presented or thought about the same way on film ever again thanks to Tarantino. As Brad Pitt so reflexively remarks at the end of the film, "this may just be my masterpiece." While I'm hesitant to say Basterds topples Tarantino's post-New Wave pop-artifact madcap masterwork "Pulp Fiction," it is like all his movies, a movie about movies and how we perceive ourselves and our world through them.

It's been called a juvenile gore-fest, a blatantly campy bit of entertainment. This shows no regard for the sheer maturity Tarantino is now able to think about his form. Yes, he's a show-off. He always will be. That's part of what makes him one of the best directors in Hollywood. Think of the opening scene - how that harsh light comes down from the roof and frames the scene like an interrogation room. Think of that 20+ minute bravura piece of writing that is the tavern scene; simplicity at its finest, it goes from a bit of distraction to a deadly stand-off in a matter of a few beats. This says nothing of the entire last 40 minutes, which are some of the most stunning any filmmaker has pulled off in the last decade.

I saw Inglourious Basterds on opening night to a sold-out theater. I sat in the front row. From where I was sitting, the screen was distorted, blown out of proportion, the entire holocaust of revisionism blowing up around me. And it rocked, quite simply. But beneath the surface of its superficial enjoyment, there is a real artist asking some very serious questions, if we're only willing to engage him. Tarantino packs the weight of how Hollywood has miscast the Jews, the Nazis, the American soldiers, the cowboys, and the Indians. If his film is revising anything, it's also calling attention to how flat and homogenous we expect the war to feel on film, how we crave for realistic violence even when we're repulsed by it.

And when Tarantino has everything converge on a lone theater in Paris - where a vendetta-driven Jew, a gang of brutal American soldiers, a vicious SS Colonel, a decorated German soldier, the Nazi high command, and a propaganda film are all competing for attention from Tarantino's swooning camera, there are a few questions in the background: what if it DID end like this? And, maybe more importantly, who cares how history is written?

Movies aren't history. Movies are spectacle. They always have been and always will be. Even if they're slice of life dramas, they are blown up to a screen for us to think about and sift through. They're documents, yes, but they're not reality. Tarantino, beyond his ploys with structure, beyond his penchant for rambling, eloquent dialogue, has keyed into an anxiety of the medium. All film is an adaptation because all films and all stories stem from somewhere. Tarantino has adapted World War II into a bloody revenge fantasy that gives us the space to finally feel catharsis about getting a chance to kill Hitler.

But he still complicates it. He inverts everything. He turns fantasy into a nightmare, he makes the US soldiers look like concentration camp guards, he turns a movie theater into a furnace, he ignites a literal Holocaust where blood-red smoke fills the air. He turns the Jews into "savage Apaches," winking and poking at how both minorities have been victims of genocide and how both have been so simplistically represented in films. And for TODAY'S audience, who is watching a war with a seemingly invisible enemy, he makes an argument for torture, for branding those who would otherwise disappear. Inglourious Basterds is about the anxieties and complexities of violence. It embraces it to such an extreme that we as spectators can't help but question it, even when it seems to do nothing but good.

Inglourious Basterds is one of the true masterpieces of 2009 almost because everyone still believes it's just a war fantasy. A pleasing action film. Sure, Tarantino will publicly agree with them, but he's much smarter than that. After melding Hong Kong and Italian filmmaking in the Kill Bill movies to provide a four hour revenge opus, he's turned with a far more serious eye to his medium. Like Pulp Fiction, Basterds makes us think about how we watch movies, why we watch movies, what we gain from watching movies. For cinephiles, it's heaven. History will never be the same again.

That's a bingo.

For Your Consideration - Inglourious Basterds