This has been an unusual year for forecasting the Oscars. The Academy is often a predictable group, and their decisions often follow an echo chamber of precursor awards from less prestigious groups. More often than not, the Best Picture winner at the Oscars recently collected top prizes from the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the Screen Actors Guild, and the British Academy. The Golden Globe award for Best Drama is often an anomaly, as the award has predicted Best Picture at the Oscars only twice in the last ten years.
Despite the flimsy prognostication abilities of the Globes, the Oscar formula is often reliable, and so are the stats. For example, only one film has ever won Best Picture without a SAG ensemble nomination (Braveheart, in 1995). Only nine films have won Best Picture without a Best Editing nomination. Just three films have won Best Picture without a Best Director nomination (Driving Miss Daisy, Grand Hotel, and Wings).
But if there was ever a year to throw stats out the window, especially the last one mentioned, it’s in 2013. Ever since Ben Affleck (and Kathryn Bigelow, but who remembers this?) missed out on a Best Director nomination for his sharp political thriller Argo, a compelling awards season narrative was born. Since his snub, Affleck has become one of the most decorated directors of any given awards season, though he will miss out in one category (Best Director) on Sunday, and will win another (Best Picture) – as producer. The only thing stronger than stats is a strong “he/she deserves it” narrative.
Read on for my thoughts on the major categories, with input from Jeremy.Continue Reading »
Though I may not have reviewed as many of them as I would’ve liked, I had the pleasure of taking in twenty-two films in theaters over the course of 2012. There were some disappointments (The Dark Knight Rises, Les Miserables), but I look back on this year in film and consider 2012 to be a triumph for cinema. There were many very good films, one that took my breath away (read on for #1 on my list), and refined techniques that really pushed the envelope (like the beautiful, complementary use of 3D in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi).
Overall, I’m impressed by and grateful to artists across the globe that continue to contribute dynamic visual storytelling to our cinemas.
10. “Lincoln” (Steven Spielberg)
9. “The Silver Linings Playbook” (David O. Russell)
8. “Life of Pi” (Ang Lee)
7. “The Sessions” (Ben Lewin)
6. “Django Unchained” (Quentin Tarantino)
5. “The Master” (Paul Thomas Anderson)
4. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (Benh Zeitlin)
3. “Argo” (Ben Affleck)
2. “Ruby Sparks” (Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris)
1. “Zero Dark Thirty” (Kathryn Bigelow)
Cheers to 2013!
Continue Reading »
In 2008 Kathryn Bigelow and her screenwriting partner (in work and in “real life”) Mark Boal made a successful run for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and an array of other honors at the Oscars with their remarkable action thriller The Hurt Locker, starring Jeremy Renner. But more than an action thriller, The Hurt Locker is an intellectual study of a soldier’s psychological health in such a dangerous job, and ultimately, the abrupt changes following the completion of his duties. It’s a gripping theme and a question that those of us who do not face daily threats to our lives never have to confront: “where do I go from here?”
The same question reverberates through the last scene of Zero Dark Thirty, as young CIA agent Maya (Chastain) boards her plane following the successful operation that resulted in the death of al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden—an operation that began with intelligence she bravely acquired over the course of a decade. “Where would you like to go?,” the pilot asks, as Maya sits back in her seat, deeply exhaling as tears slowly roll down her cheeks. It had been a long ten years since she first joined the operation in Pakistan following the September 11th, 2001, attacks, but now her mission is finished. Where does she go?
Arguably the best female director working today (although, there should be more to choose from, but that is a tangent for another day…), Bigelow is captivating audiences with her studies of people in dangerous jobs. In 2008 she adeptly studied soldiers carrying out the most horrifying tasks in Afghanistan, and this year, with Zero Dark Thirty, her lens followed CIA agents in their arduous hunt to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. With a procedural tone and aggressive pacing, Bigelow’s direction draws the audience into Maya’s head space as she confronts her mission with calculating moves, suppressing her emotions to keep her focus. Only at the end, after the mission is complete, do we see her release.
The strengths of Bigelow’s direction and Boal’s in-depth, engaging script (his roots as an investigative journalist suit the material very well) are further enhanced by Chastain’s crisp portrayal of Maya. Beyond her intuitively cold and distant persona, her passion matures from a fresh young “killer,” as her boss describes her, in 2001, to a tired young killer in 2011. While her youth and passion never fades, she appears visibly spent by the end of the mission. A decade of frustration and hard work in the hunt pervades Chastain’s movements and expression in the film’s last act.
Beyond this complex study of Maya’s character, Bigelow draws great intensity from her action sequences, culminating in the successful raid by Navy seals. The nearly half-hour long sequence is breathtaking, with quiet pattering of footsteps in the dusty landscape, sharply whispered commands, and the riveting shootout and conclusion of the hunt. Of course the audience aware of what will happen, but the mood was severely unsettling nevertheless.
An explosive thriller and a captivating character study, Zero Dark Thirty echoes the themes of The Hurt Locker, while Bigelow and Boal successfully bring their interest in individuals with dangerous jobs to the screen once again.Continue Reading »
Earlier this year, I went to see Joe Wright’s recent take on Anna Karenina. At the onset, I was surprised to learn that his interpretation included painted sets, theater props, and exaggerated choreography, as though the film meant to record a live stage production of Tolstoy’s classic political drama. Wright faced a mixed reaction to his heavily stylized approach, but, at this very moment, I find myself appreciative of his risk taking in the name of artistic vision.
This evening I saw Les Miserables, another classic political drama, one that has already been adapted for the stage quite successfully. My general reaction to the film is overwhelmingly positive. I wept throughout the third act, and found the performances to be some of the most affecting of any I’ve seen this year. Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine is haunting—her delivery of “I Dreamed a Dream” hangs in the air as I type.
Adapted from the 1980 musical based on the classic novel of the same name, Les Miserables, directed by Tom Hooper (who most recently gave us The King’s Speech), tells the story of a number of intertwined characters living in 19th Century France, culminating in the bloody 1832 June Rebellion. The central character, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), is an ex-convict searching for redemption through acts of benevolence amid the changing political landscape.
As thoroughly affecting and palpable these performances are, and with the strong story there as a blueprint, I have to wonder what a more innovative director could have done with the material. Hooper relies on the same old playbook for sweeping historical epics—and it works—but where are the risks?
Hooper’s controversial decision to film his actors singing live has paid off, to be sure, bringing a sense of urgency to grand solo numbers. But the uninspired camera work that happens in between these moments is the real problem. What if similar, heavily stylized risks that Wright tried out on Karenina were taken to Les Miserables? It may not have worked, but it also might have brought a stronger sense of connection to the film.
Hooper’s realism has an intense emotional impact, but I wish there were more energy to his direction.Continue Reading »
About a third of the way through Quentin Tarantino’s latest feature-length bloodbath (no surprises there), Django Unchained, a group of pistol waving white supremacists gather one night on horseback in the middle of a Mississippi field, charged with protecting their self-proclaimed right to slavery. It’s a scene that, given a different tone, might shake you to your core. Instead, the theater erupted in laughter as the men comically struggled to see out of poorly designed (perhaps KKK-inspired) white sacks, cursing in lilting southern accents while clunking into one another. By the time the racist mob members decided they had had it with their ill-fitting garb, nearby freed-slave-turned-bounty-hunter, Django (Foxx), and his mentor, Dr. Schultz (Waltz), had settled their score. Ensuing images of blood splattered across a white horse’s back, and across pristine white cotton ready to be picked off the plant by a field slave—which in another movie might evoke somber feelings—serve as a backdrop for this campy epic western.
Notorious for his unflinching use of violence in his films, Tarantino has found the right notes to play with strong storytelling in historical settings. Violence, shrouded in Tarantino’s mockery, is much more palatable when directed towards some of history’s greatest villains. In Inglourious Basterds, he took on the Nazi empire. Here in Django, he takes aim at slave owners clutching to their oppressive societal customs.
Upon his release with the help of the forward-thinking bounty hunter, Django teams up with Schultz to raise some cash and track down his wife—and purchase her freedom. The two take on the south, dancing circles around thick-skulled bigots and charming southern gentlemen. Their greatest conquest lies ahead in the slave-trading town of Greenboro, Miss., where Django’s wife serves a young, ruthless plantation magnate named Calvin Candie (DiCaprio).
Similar to Basterds, Django has emotional pull – for the good guys to win, for human rights, and for Django to be reunited with his wife at last. That Foxx is able to play a vengeful, passionate man with quiet reserve in such an ostentatious film may be the greatest success of his acting career. But Tarantino’s absurdity is the ingredient that holds his unique style of film-making together, and I found myself content to suspend belief for nearly three hours in his latest historical payback drama.Continue Reading »
We first meet Ruby Sparks, played by burgeoning screenwriter Zoe Kazan, in a dream sequence. She’s wearing a pair of purple tights and a dress that doesn’t match, backlit by sepia tones. Next, we find Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) tapping away on a typewriter that looked as if it were borrowed from the set of 500 Days of Summer. I began to worry that I might be in for another two hours of watching a failed romance between two “adorable” hipsters, but instead stumbled upon a fantasy film that brought some poignant issues to the surface.
Despite his comfortable life born from his success as a young novelist, Calvin is a lonely recluse, barely able to connect with his dog Scotty, whom he adopted specifically to “make friends.” He has few connections, save his athletic brother, an agent trying to keep his career afloat, and an ex-girlfriend who callously left him shortly after his father died. Just when I thought I was in for a real downer, Ruby Sparks enters Calvin’s life under unusual circumstances. She appears to him in the aforementioned dream, he is inspired to write her, and the next thing we know, she is in his kitchen making omelets with hot sauce.
Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris bring Kazan’s tight, economic script to the screen with finesse, tip-toeing around the question of whether Ruby is in fact real or a figment of Calvin’s wild imagination. Calvin questions this himself for what feels like a lifetime as we’re waiting in anticipation. He calls his therapist. He locks himself in another room. He picks her up, throws her over his shoulder, bolts outside, and queries strangers on the street, asking whether or not they can see her. Indeed—she’s real. Calvin created her, and thus begins a relationship in which power will never be equal. It’s doomed from the start, but Calvin is enamored with her.
And I was, as an audience member, as well. Kazan has written and acted the infectious Ruby masterfully, so much so that you wish by the end that she were not trapped in Calvin’s words and that the pair could stay together. But the love affair erodes, and the harrowing second half of “Sparks” reveals an ugly imbalance of power. Surely, no writer could give this story a happy ending, but Kazan does deliver something worth your attention.Continue Reading »
Levon Helms’ passing this week prompted a viewing of Martin Scorsese’s 1978 rock concert documentary, The Last Waltz in my apartment this weekend.
For those of us with a limited familiarity of rock music of the 1960s, The Last Waltz is a stunning introduction to some of the greats. Scorsese sits across from members of The Band in relaxed, candid interviews in their California studio, while also capturing Bob Dylan, Van Morrisson, and Joni Mitchell, among others, on stage alongside The Band in a phenomenal farewell concert.
Though he is widely known as a feature director of mob violence dramas and grandiose biopics, Scorsese also has an impressive stock of music documentaries under his belt, and, even more impressive, The Last Waltz was his first dive into the genre. He has since told Bob Dylan’s, the Rolling Stones, and recently George Harrison’s stories on screen, in No Direction Home, Shine a Light, and Living in the Material World, respectively. He has also demonstrated a keen interest in rock and roll music through his soundtrack inclusions for his dramatic feature films.
The Last Waltz oscillates between the euphoric energy of the farewell concert and the sobering interviews as The Band members recall the good times and the bad in their life on the road. Though their love for the music they made together is entirely genuine, their fatigue is transparent, and it seems like the time is right to break up The Band. Scenes from the enrapturing final concert leave no room for doubt that The Band chose to quit while they were ahead. As they prepared to put down their instruments, Scorsese masterfully preserved their final concert on screen for us to enjoy many decades later, highlighting some of the greatest musicians of that generation and The Band that shared the stage with them.Continue Reading »
The 1967 Best Actor race was filled with strong contenders–a mix of method actors (Paul Newman), newcomers (Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty), and classic Hollywood studio actors (Rod Steiger and Spencer Tracy). The winner that year was Rod Steiger in his spirited performance as a bigoted southern police chief working with a northern black detective (Sidney Portier). It’s surprising that Portier wasn’t nominated in the lead role over Steiger. He should have won for this performance instead of 1963’s Lilies of the Field. Instead, the studios pushed him into the Supporting category.
Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night
In the Heat of the Night is a great film and Steiger’s performance is excellent, but 1967 had some even more iconic roles for the younger actors, specifically Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde, and Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate.
These were Beatty and Hoffman’s first nominations. Beatty went on to win for Best Director in 1982 for Reds and Hoffman won two Oscars for Best Actor in 1980’s Kramer vs. Kramer (a much deserved win) and 1989’s Rain Man. Beatty was just coming out of the shadow of being Shirley MacLaine’s brother, and Hoffman has always been known for being very anti-establishment and very anti-Oscar. Beatty is great as Clyde Barrow opposite Faye Dunaway, and Hoffman displays a boyish dumbfoundedness in The Graduate. These two roles were career-defining for Hoffman and Beatty, but the one role that served as the embodiment of another actor’s career was Paul Newman as Lucas Jackson in Cool Hand Luke.
Newman came onto the Hollywood scene in 1954 with the religious dud, The Silver Chalice, but his breakthrough role came in 1956 as boxer Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me. Newman exuded a youthful, charismatic charm that audiences found intoxicating. In some ways he was the successor to James Dean (with whom he was originally going to star in East of Eden), but a more stable, mainstream version. From 1958 to 1969, he starred in box office hits such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Long Hot Summer, Exodus, The Hustler, Sweet Bird of Youth, Hud, Harper, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. All of these films embodied the Newman anti-hero, the roguish rebel that charmed audiences into getting his own way. But the role that really defined him was as Lucas Jackson in Cool Hand Luke. Jackson is sent to a chain gang prison for breaking parking meters and stealing change (a funny, if somewhat idiotic offense) and there he finds the will to live against the ruthless guards. The famous “What we have here is a failure to communicate!” line comes from this film.
It’s in the quieter scenes where Newman really shines, such as when he bets his fellow prisoners he can eat 50 hardboiled eggs, and when he slowly sings “Plastic Jesus” to himself. Newman deserved the nomination and in my opinion deserved the win that year. Ironically Newman, who was nominated 10 times (and won an Honorary Oscar and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Oscar) finally won for the sequel to The Hustler—Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money in 1986 (a year after he won his Honorary Oscar).
And where is poor Spencer Tracy in all this? Tracy, a solid character actor who was at his best in the 30s and 40s, would be nominated as the doubting father of a girl who wants to marry a black man in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? This was his 9th nomination and a posthumous one at that. He died 17 days after shooting was finished. Katharine Hepburn (his longtime real life companion) and his onscreen dutiful, liberal-thinking wife Christina Draper, won for Best Actress that year in what many (myself included) see as a consolation prize for Tracy’s death and a tribute to the many films that Hepburn and Tracy starred in together (9 in total from 1941 to 1967).
While Steiger took the Oscar home that night, Paul Newman deserved the win.
Below are the lyrics to “Plastic Jesus” written by Ed Rush and George Cromarty.
Paul Newman sings “Plastic Jesus” in Cool Hand Luke
I don’t care if it rains or freezes
‘Long as I got my Plastic Jesus
Sittin’ on the dashboard of my car.
Comes in colors, pink and pleasant
Glows in the dark ’cause it’s iridescent
Take it with you when you travel far.
Get yourself a sweet Madonna
Dressed in rhinestones sittin’ on a
Pedestal of abalone shell.
Goin’ 90, I ain’t scar-ied
‘Cause I got the Virgin Mary
Assurin’ me that I won’t go to Hell.
By N. DiSabatinoContinue Reading »
Alfred Hitchcock had a thing for blondes–just look at Rear Window, North by Northwest, Vertigo, and The Birds if you don’t believe me. Some of Hitchcock’s greatest leading ladies share particular qualities: blonde, chic, sensual, sarcastic, and definitely easy on the eyes. Hitch was meticulous in the details, from the right outfits (usually designed by the great Edith Head), the right hairstyles, and the right cool attitudes. Below are my picks for the top ten Hitchcock heroines. Some of these actresses have been in several Hitchcock films, so their placement on the list may represent several different roles.
10) Tallulah Bankhead as Constance Porter in 1944’s Lifeboat
Known primarily as a stage and radio actress, Tallulah Bankhead starred as sophisticated, materialistic reporter Connie Porter. After the boat she’s on is torpedoed by Germans, Bankhead finds herself stranded on a lifeboat with the other surviving passengers. One of the German soldiers is rescued and put on board. The passengers must decide his fate as well as their own in order to survive. Bankhead’s funniest moment may be when the crew are finally rescued and she instantly realizes she’s been without her makeup, “my lips! My face!” she screams.
9) Barbara Harris as Blanche Tyler in 1976’s Family Plot
In one of Hitchcock’s dark comedies, Barbara Harris plays Blanche Tyler, a fake psychic working with her boyfriend (Bruce Dern) to locate a woman’s missing nephew in order to earn $10,000. Some of the best scenes include Harris working her mojo as a psychic.
8 ) Shirley MacLaine as Jennifer Rogers in 1955’s The Trouble with Harry
The trouble with Harry is that he’s dead and no one knows what to do with his body. This was Shirley MacLaine’s first movie and she radiates on screen. MacLaine plays Harry’s widow, and she’s not too concerned with her husband’s demise. This was one of Hitch’s greatest black comedies and probably the only “non-blonde” Hitchcock heroine that fits the role of the Hitchcock woman.
7 ) Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs. De Winter in 1940’s Rebecca and as Linda McLaidlaw in 1941’s Suspicion.
Hitchcock’s first “American” film (and the only Hitchcock to ever win Best Picture) features Joan Fontaine’s breakthrough performance in the adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. There’s a lovely frailty about her in this performance as she tries to understand her husband Max De Winter’s (Laurence Oliver) past history with his first wife, Rebecca. Fontaine should have won that year, but instead it went to Ginger Rogers (a huge mistake, Academy!). Instead, Fontaine won a makeup award the following year in Suspicion, opposite Cary Grant, as a woman who suspects her husband may be trying to kill her in order to collect her life insurance.
6) Eva Marie Saint as Eve Kendall in 1959’s North by Northwest
In what may be one of the most seductive performances of all of Hitchcock’s heroines, Eva Marie Saint plays Eve Kendall opposite Cary Grant. Her best scene is upon meeting Grant on a train, and she mentions to him that, “I paid the porter $5 to sit you next to me.” Some of her racy dialogue would have to be edited out before the final release. Her original line, “I never make love on an empty stomach” was changed to “I never discuss love on an empty stomach.”
5) Tippi Hedren as Melanie Daniels in 1963’s The Birds and Marnie Edgar 1964’s Marnie
Tippi Hedren may be the best example of one of the actresses that Hitchcock “molded” to fit his vision. Her part as socialite Melanie Daniels, who is terrorized by the unexplainable bird attack, was physically challenging to the actress and she suffered severe trauma when they filmed a scene where live birds were actually thrown at her face for hours at a time. Her follow up, Marnie, about a sexually frigid thief, contains a disturbing rape scene. She and Hitchcock had a huge falling out and he blacklisted her by refusing to let her out of her contract for years.
4) Janet Leigh as Marion Crane in 1960’s Psycho
About 40 minutes into the film, Hitchcock kills off his protagonist in one of the most iconic shower scenes in movie history. Marion Crane has stolen a great deal of money from her employer and finds herself on the run when she checks into the Bates motel. She will not be checking out. Leigh was deservedly nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role as the sensual, yet terrified Marion Crane.
3) Kim Novak as Madeline Elster/Judy Barton in 1958’s Vertigo
Novak stars opposite James Stewart in this psychological thriller in the dual role as Madeline Elster and Judy Barton. In the first half of the film, Novak portrays Hitchcock’s icy blonde to a T, and then reappears as mousy Judy Barton in the second half of the film. It is Novak’s remarkable transformation from Judy to Madeline that always stays in my mind. Set against the eerie green light and Bernard Hermann’s fantastic musical score, Kim Novak’s transformation is stunning.
2) Ingrid Bergman as Dr. Constance Peterson in 1945’s Spellbound, as Alicia Huberman in 1946’s Notorious, and a Lady Henrietta Flusky 1949’s Under Capricorn
One of the films greatest icons, Ingrid Bergman made three films with Alfred Hitchcock throughout the 1940s. Notorious remains one of the strongest performances of any Hitchcock performance as Bergman goes undercover and marries a Nazi spy (Claude Rains) even though she’s in love with agent T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant). Bergman’s best scene may be when she secures a key to get to the basement wine cellar to uncover Nazi secrets for Cary Grant. Her character’s duplicitous nature is countered by her wonderfully vivid laugh and smile.
But of all these ladies, the greatest Hitchcock film has got to be Grace Kelly
1) Grace Kelly as Margot Wendice in 1954’s Dial M for Murder, as Lisa Fremont in 1954’s Rear Window, and as Frances Stevens in 1955’s To Catch a Thief
Grace Kelly best represented the kind of woman Hitchcock wanted on film: icy, cool, funny, sexy, and sophisticated.
Kelly’s greatest part in my opinion is that of Lisa Fremont in Rear Window. As Jimmy Stewart’s sophisticated girlfriend, Kelly radiates in her style and humor. She becomes engrossed with the idea that Stewart’s neighbor has killed his wife. One of the best scenes is when Kelly actually goes over to the neighbor Thorwald’s apartment to find his wife’s wedding ring. She is cheeky, funny, and refreshing in the part. Kelly was nominated the same year for The Country Girl opposite Bing Crosby and William Holden as a boringly drab housewife and won the Oscar over Judy Garland in A Star is Born. In reality, she should have won for this performance, which was the embodiment of the classy, gutsy Hitchcock heroine.
by N. DiSabatinoContinue Reading »
Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster, a tragic story told in history classrooms and on-screen by James Cameron in a film released in 1997. The film was re-released in theaters and in 3D last weekend.
I chose the above screenshot because too many of us remember Titanic as The Jack and Rose story. While the romantic plot was needed to focus this massive disaster story down to two characters we (hopefully) care about, the most affecting part of the film is undoubtedly the last hour and a half when the ship is sinking. The luxurious ship that served as an exquisite backdrop for the love story began to fall apart at every seam – water bursts through its crisp white walls, a cabinet full of china plates rattle to the floor as rushing water floods the lavish dining room, and ultimately we watch thousands of frozen bodies float lifelessly in the biting Atlantic.
Much has been written about Titanic, good things and bad things. Notoriously, the dialogue is a little silly at many points. But watching the film again for the first time on the big screen in fifteen years, I walked away marveling at what a talented visual storyteller James Cameron is. Titanic was one of the first epic, visual effects driven films of its kind, and today it remains an influential part of that history.Continue Reading »