2012 Academy Award Predictions

Another year, another Oscars. In years like this, where the major categories are almost entirely locked up, it is difficult to become anticipatory. This is an Oscar year I moved past in investment pretty quickly. I have no problem with The Artist taking the major awards tonight. Audiences love it and it’s a fine film (albeit one I forgot entirely ten minutes after it ended). I personally prefer Hugo, The Tree of Life, MoneyballMidnight in Paris and The Descendants (for as clunky as it is at times) over it (and that’s just a preference over fellow nominees, not to mention the much larger slate of worthy and worthier films from 2011). But there is no animosity between The Artist and I, just indifference, and this shrug of an Oscar year will be an enjoyable event nonetheless.

My picks are, for the most part, very standard. I almost always go for the majority rule to play it safe. I also put my preferred win under ‘want’ . If it is not there, it is because I have not seen the majority of the nominees or do not feel knowledgeable enough to make a preferred choice. I also have 3 No Guts, No Glory picks.

Best Picture:
Think: The Artist
Want: Hugo

Best Director:
Think: Michel Hazanavicius – The Artist
Want: Terrence Malick – The Tree of Life

Best Actor:
Think: Jean Dujardin – The Artist
Want: Demian Bichir – A Better Life

Best Actress:
Think: Viola Davis – The Help
Want: Rooney Mara – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (but Davis winning will be equally satisfying)

Best Supporting Actor:
Think: Christopher Plummer – Beginners
Want: Nick Nolte – Warrior

Best Supporting Actress:
Think: Octavia Spencer – The Help
Want: Jessica Chastain – The Help

Best Original Screenplay:
Think: Midnight in Paris – Woody Allen
Want: A Separation – Asghar Farhadi

Best Adapted Screenplay:
Think: Alexander Payne, Nat Rash, Jim Rash – The Descendants
Want: Bridget O’ Connor, Peter Straugh – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Best Art Direction:
Think: Hugo
Want: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Best Cinematography:
Think: The Tree of Life
Want: The Tree of Life

Best Costume Design:
Think: Anonymous 

Best Foreign Language Film:
Think: A Separation

Best Sound Editing:
Think: War Horse

Best Sound Mixing:
Think: Hugo

Best Documentary:
Think: Hell and Back Again

Best Documentary Short:
Think: Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom

Best Live-Action Short
Think: Tuba Atlantic

Best Animated Short:
Think: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

Best Animated Feature:
Think: Rango

Best Editing:
Think: Hugo
Want: Moneyball

Best Original Score:
Think: The Artist
Want: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy 

Best Visual Effects:
Think: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Want: Rise of the Planet of the Apes 

Best Original Song:
Think: “Real in Rio” – Rio
Want: “Man or Muppet” – The Muppets

Best Makeup:
Think: The Iron Lady
Want: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 

No Guts, No Glory:
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 wins Art Direction
A Separation wins Best Original Screenplay
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy wins Best Original Score

Review: The Woman in Black (2012, Watkins)

There is an ornate decaying delicacy that comes with the period haunted house film. The Woman in Black is a classic back-to-basics Gothic tale that boasts an impressively patient and confident execution of familiar tropes, successfully piling on spook after spook. This may be all the film has to offer, but it garners enough satisfaction to ward off disappointment.

Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) is a young widowed lawyer with a son. He is given an assignment (which his job hinges on) in a secluded English village where he is to sort through the estate of a deceased woman named Alice Drablow. The villagers are troubled by Arthur’s arrival. He gradually learns that many of the villagers have children who have died, including two hospitable citizens’ played by Ciaran Hinds and Janet McTeer.  It is only when Arthur is alone, in the entirely isolated and haunted estate of Eel Marsh, that he is able to put the pieces together amidst a ghost who means harm.

The vast majority of ghost stories are all essentially the same. There is a ghost. This ghost has been somehow wronged in their former life. The ghost wants to invoke suffering to others because of what they were forced to endure in life. This suffering could be targeted at nobody in particular, at a specific type of person, or at the ghost’s perceived wrong-doers.

With this in mind, it is imminently clear what is going on in The Woman in Black after about thirty minutes. The trick is to have this not matter. It does matter here, and in that case, the story needs to be stronger. To be an effective ghost story, the basis may be obvious (because at this point they almost certainly will be), but the particulars should be more vague, and at least as intriguing as what can be easily ascertained. The Woman in Black lacks the mysteriousness in story that it puts forth as having.

The story’s shortcomings are largely made up for by the macabre atmosphere and revivified use of tropes that go far in filling the void.  The scares themselves are not unfamiliar, but they work because of the impressively sustained ambiance that figures in far beyond the ‘jump’ moments themselves. James Watkins makes the entire journey one long successfully sustained spook.

Gothic tropes are heartily embraced with an appreciation for creaky doors and hallways, madwomen, shadows and fog, and a grandiose and decaying house that reign supreme over any character or story element to be had. Watkins wrings out a lot with a little; without him and an impressive technical crew (the production design here is stellar), this would have been entirely forgettable as opposed to the somewhat satisfying film that it is. A special kudos to those responsible for the props, who conjure up what is easily the most unsettling collection of antique wind-up dolls one is likely to ever see.

Much has been made of the fact that this is Daniel Radcliffe’s first post-Potter role and I am one of those, being the Radcliffe fan myself. Sadly, there is nothing much asked of him, and it is hard not to ponder if an actor who can make something out of nothing (there are not many that can) might have been able to lend some much-needed gravitas. For one, Radcliffe is oddly callow here as a lawyer with a four-year old son. He spends his time mainly reacting to creepy goings-on within the broadly defined quietness of his character. It does not help that the characterization of Arthur Kipps hinges entirely on the continuous lamenting over the death of his wife, and the constant reminder that he loves his son and wishes he could spend more time with him. This is all he is given to do and he is serviceable.

The problematic end, which I will not explicitly spoil, is impossible to overlook for its painful mawkishness. This kind of ending has always been a personal pet peeve, for the pitiful strain it reveals in insuring that the audience is sent off with a modicum of the ‘happy ending’, no matter what the contradicting circumstances. It is corny, evasive and cowardly.

The Woman in Black is in some sense following the type of film that nobody watches for plot or characterization. There are plenty of horror films, indeed many, that offer nothing in story and are heralded for their aura alone (many Hammer Films included). I was tempted to stride towards the ‘but it wasn’t meant to’ line of reasoning. But The Woman in Black seems to want to simultaneously intrigue with its story. The film neither backs up its plot-oriented ambitions nor goes forward with a bold proclamation of plot scarcity. The result is a potentially involving tale lost as well as a residue of intention that leaves an unfulfilled mark. But its primary reason for being, the resurrection of Gothic atmosphere and tropes used effectively is something The Woman in Black has in spades, and this is almost enough.

Review: Haywire (2012, Soderbergh)

Haywire is a moderately empty exercise in formalism that lights up only when the physical, rigorous skills of retired mixed-martial-arts fighter Gina Carano (receiving the Sasha Grey treatment) get the spotlight. Thankfully, Carano’s physicality is not only called into action plenty, but looms over the film’s entirety.

Steven Soderbergh’s strongest directorial contribution (along with his use of sound as throughout) takes place during the fight scenes, with his decision to cut out all non-diegetic sound, and shoot with a clean distance. Every single one is a livewire delight. He allows these scenes to be entirely Carano’s show, and with his use and non-use of filmic devices says ‘pay attention folks; this is why I spent and time, money and effort to make this’. They are worthy and exhaustively fierce set-pieces.

Mallory Kane (Gina Carano) is on the run; but why? Told largely in flashbacks, we learn that Kane works for a private contractor and is hired for covert secret operations but is soon quitting and taking with her a lot of clientele who rely specifically on her abilities. After a mission to rescue a Chinese journalist in Barcelona goes according to plan, Kane is double-crossed whilst on a last-minute assignment in Dublin. On-the-run, Kane needs to figure out who double-crossed her and why, as well as connect it all back to the Barcelona mission where the attempted frame-up against her began.

Soderbergh and returning screenwriter Lem Dobbs make sure not to give Carano more than she can handle acting-wise. To answer the question ‘can she act’, the answer is not really, but the camera sure does love her. Some have found her demeanor of seemingly one-note indifference distracting, but for me her smoky no-nonsense presence is actually far more engaging than any other actor here. The goal here was never to turn Carano into an actress; it was to give her a chance to showcase her physical prowess. And this she does with aplomb, with the added bonus of her alluring je ne sais quoi throughout.

Aside from Carano and her action sequences, there is not much good to say. Haywire is too clean, too barebones without intrigue or consistency to support it. Its transparency is progressively evident and it is this, and not Carano, that becomes distracting. It feels like Dobbs struggled to stretch this to a full-length running time. Since its existence is to showcase Carano, the many scenes meant to fill in the blanks come off as expositional chores and tiresome meaningless table-setting.

At a certain point it becomes clear that Carano is all Soderbergh has to offer, and so the viewing experience becomes a waiting process in the hopes of arriving at the next action scene. The supporting characters played by Michael Douglas, Ewan McGregor, Michael Fassbender, Channing Tatum and Antonio Banderas all fail to register in the slightest, and I say this having gone in with the very low expectations set for supporting character development in action-thrillers. Only Bill Paxton is able to make something with his screentime.

Nothing falls into place the way it should. For one thing, no stakes whatsoever can be felt. Even if said stakes never really feel up for grabs they should still be remotely palpable, or at the very least, there to begin with. Sure, the double cross is elaborate but in a spinning its wheels kind of way. The screenplay by Dobbs wins the award for efficiency, but the rickety framing device is beyond weak, aligning the audience with a teenage non-character (the sadly thankless Michael Anagrano) who is present to repeat names of important people and places for us.

Soderbergh uses his skills to show off here with his typical precision and flair for shooting sequences in fairly off-kilter ways as he attempts to evoke a 70’s B-movie sensibility (this includes the purposefully simplistic plot). With the half-baked and unengaging story backing the formalist presentation, the final product emits an air of false superior ‘cool’ that is unearned. Hanna pulled off this sort of schtick a hell of a lot better. Taken as a whole, Haywire is surprisingly dull, and Soderbergh’s various aesthetic decorative touches read as empty self-consciousness. In the end, there are two impossibly strong reasons to seek it out (and please do if only for these elements) despite its indifferent nature; the mesmeric presence of Gina Carano and the cleanly shot action scenes that come with her.

List: Top 30 Most Anticipated Films (January to April 2012)

The early months of the year are usually pretty empty when it comes to quality studio releases. But luckily for us cinephiles, the early months are jam-packed with smaller releases of long-awaited international fare and smaller indie flicks finally getting their release dates. January through April becomes an exciting time for films despite the assumption that there is nothing out there to see. Additionally, there are always several big releases that surprise with their quality, seemingly coming out of nowhere (and those that don’t come out of nowhere with solid reception such as The Grey and Haywire) with a release that could have only come during this time of the year. I think we can agree that Chronicle fits that slot. I usually have some kind of interest in the majority of releases, whether it be for genuine interest or for guilty pleasure reasons. I’m pretty surprised that my 30 is this jam-packed.I can’t think of a more internationally eclectic group of films that have ever made up one of my Anticipated Films list (and I’ve been doing these 3 times a year since 2006). I’ve got films represented in the 30 alone from the UK, Greece, Albania, Chile, Mexico, Poland, Norway, France, Japan, Turkey, Belgium, Israel, Iran, Indonesia, Austria and Australia!

A lot of the films that did not make the cut I am very excited to see. For example, I think the comedic duo of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill in 21 Jump Street looks inspired; yes I said it, inspired. Though Norwegian Wood was a book I felt would have been more meaningful to me if I read it as a teenager, I’m very interested in seeing its adaptation, and with Rinko Kikuchi no less. Just how much of a disaster will Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance be? I don’t know, but I want to see the insane end result with the Crank directors at the helm. Whether is be a passing interest (‘yeah I guess I’ll see through Netflix someday) or an active one, there’s obviously a lot coming out that looks in some way intriguing. Here are the 30 that made the cut, in order, with very short bullet point reasons.

A side note: When I list the synopsis as a reason, I should be clear that this is an element of interest with all these choices (clearly), but that the films where I cite synopsis as a reason means it particularly stands out even more so than the films I did not put it in for.

30. In Darkness

Why? New Agnieszka Holland films are a rarity.

29. Chronicle

Why? For someone pretty sick of superhero films, this sounds like a nice change of pace that seems to embrace the inherent and realistic selfishness of people. The warm reception solidifies its spot.

28. Bernie

Why? Richard Linklater, synopsis and Jack Black doing something I am actually interested in that does not include voicing an animated panda.

27. The Hunter

Why? Willem Dafoe, synopsis. While not the biggest fan of Sleeping Beauty, I love Julia Leigh’s ideas and want to see a work of hers adapted for the screen by someone more capable of filming it than Leigh herself.

26. Friends with Kids

Why? The cast which includes Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Maya Rudolph and the delectable Jon Hamm. Only concern is Westfeldt as lead; not really a commanding presence but we shall see. Plus, it’s her project so she has every right to place herself front-and-center.

25. The Kid with a Bike

Why? Dardenne Brothers, acclaim build-up since Cannes, Cecile de France and Jeremie Renier.

24. Post Mortem

Why? Synopsis. Although I haven’t seen Tony Manero, I know of its acclaim and that Pablo Larrain is one to watch judging by the formers praise.

23. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Why? It’s placement on countless 2011 film lists from those who had seen it, its universal acclaim

22. The Innkeepers

Why? Ti West’s follow-up to The House of the Devil, been making the rounds since SXSW premiere last March, divisive opinions have me further intrigued (although I don’t know the specifics; a new-years resolution is to read less about a film’s reception before seeing it. Nothing really beyond basic critical reaction is my goal)

21. The Woman in Black

Why? Daniel Radcliffe’s first onscreen post-Potter role, Hammer Films output, looks like an entirely old-fashioned ghost story relying on atmosphere which pulls me in, James Watkins (director of Eden Lake which I failed to get to this past October, but who I assume is a director with some kind of credibility)

20. Footnote

Why? Synopsis, critical reception

19. Haywire (seen)

Why? Building a film around a female MMA retiree for the sole purpose of exhibiting her physical skills, Steveb Soderbergh, ensemble cast

18. The Secret World of Arietty

Why? Studio Ghibli

17. The Forgiveness of Blood

Why? Synopsis, Joshua Marston’s nine-year after-the-fact follow-up to Maria Full of Grace

16. The Deep Blue Sea

Why? Terence Davies, months and months of festival buzz build-up, based on a Terence Rattigan play, Tom Hiddleston

15. Attenberg

Why? The endless comparisons (both favorable and unfavorable) to Dogtooth, hearing about this film for the year and a half since its first festival premiere and having wanted to see it way back then.

14. Miss Bala

Why? Synopsis, critical reception

13. Michael

Why? Festival acclaim, made by Haneke’s casting director, intrigued by use of controversial subject matter

12. Cabin in the Woods

Why? Joss Whedon’s involvement, finally getting released after years of sitting on the shelf, Amy Acker, synopsis, genre

11. Headhunters

Why? Festival buzz, while I don’t pay much heed to IMDB scores, when something has a 7.5 from 5,000 votes I take notice, based on a Jo Nesbo novel whose novels I haven’t read but is very well-renowned meaning this is assumedly based on solid source material, Nikolas Coster-Waldau is the Norwegian Josh Holloway (and also the luscious Jaime Lannister).

10. Bully (documentary)

Why? Extremely important and timely subject matter that needs exploration and at the very least addressing in all forms including the documentary medium.

9. Bullhead

Why? Synopsis, buzz, critical reception

8. Crazy Horse (documentary)

Why? Two words; Frederick. Wiseman.

7. This is Not a Film (documentary)

Why? I shouldn’t even have to give reasons here. If the fact that this is absolutely necessary to see does not slam you over the film once you’ve got the proper context for its existence, then I just don’t want to know you.

6. The Raid

Why? Been wanting to drown my eyeballs in this since its reaction at Toronto and subsequent trailer release, exactly the kind of genre flick I anticipate

5. Snowtown

Why? Yet another film I’ve been waiting to see for quite some time (tracking back at the very least to Toronto; see this is why this time of year is awesome, because all these festival films I’ve been waiting to see for months finally get released), synopsis, acclaim

4. Sound of My Voice

Why? Synopsis, the first of two collaborative efforts (each of slightly different sorts) between Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij whose upcoming similarly cult-infiltration based The East is one of my very highly anticipated upcoming films, early buzz.

3. Damsels in Distress

Why? Whit Stillman’s first film in an incomprehensible 14 years. Enough said.

2. Kill List

Why? Since hearing about this from last years SXSW this has been at the top of my highly anticipated films, all-over-the-map critical reaction, hush-hush “Don’t read anything about it, just go see it” comments

1. The Hunger Games

Why? Not at all sorry to break it to you folks, but I’m a “Hunger Games” fan, which clearly means I am more excited about this than anything else coming out through April. With Gary Ross at the helm and Billy Ray being a screenplay contributor (not to mention the quality of the images and footage seen thus far), you can bet I’m counting down the days for this. And I feel bad for anybody willing to immediately write it off.

The rest (in alphabetical order):

21 Jump Street
4:44 Last Day on Earth
Being Flynn
Black Butterflies
Casa de mi Padre
Chico and Rita
Darling Companion
Declaration of War
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
House at the End of the Street
Jeff, Who Lives at Home
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
John Carter
Mirror Mirror
Movie 43
Natural Selection
Norwegian Wood
On the Ice
Perfect Sense
Pirates! Band of Misfits
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
Silent House
The Decoy Bride
The Five-Year Engagement
The Front Line
The Grey
The Moth Diaries
The Raven
The Salt of Life
The Turin Horse
Thin Ice

Screening Log: January 16th-31st, 2012 – Films #14-27

My first review of the year will be Haywire. I will get it submitted to Criterion Cast by Friday. Hopefully it will be up here early next week at the latest. As far as current interests go, I have just begun “Deadwood” (finally). I am two episodes in and I am already completely hooked. The writing is superb; it just has its own rhythm to it and it becomes very easy to be hypnotized by its brand of speaking. Otherwise, I am just having fun catching up on older films that were gaping holes in my viewing. Catching films in the theater is not a priority right now, mainly because it just was for the past several months.

14. A Separation (2011, Farhadi): A

15. Freddy Got Fingered (2011, Green): D+

16. Mademoiselle (1966, Richardson): B+

17. Sabrina (1954, Wilder): A-

18. The Circus (1928, Chaplin): B+

19. The Leopard (1963, Visconti): A-/B+

20. Atlantic City (1980, Malle): B+

21. Pepe le Moko (1937, Duvivier): A-

22. The Big Knife (1955, Aldrich): C+ (I really enjoyed this overall, but there was one major weakness that makes the entire over-the-top grandiose film difficult to become invested in)

23. 12 Monkeys (1995, Gilliam): B+ (The giant red herring that is this film is not something I can ultimately get past.)

24. The Reckless Moment (1949, Ophuls): B+/B

25. Haywire (2012, Soderbergh): B-/C+

26. Kiss of Death (1947, Hathaway): B-

27. Panic in the Streets (1950, Kazan): A-