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The King’s Speech was fine, I guess…but Best Picture, really?

Thursday, January 27th, 2011

I was pretty shocked when I read that The King’s Speech had gotten the most nominations (12) at the Oscars this year.  For me, it was really nothing more than a middling film that I felt like I had seen countless times before: poor little rich prince needs to overcome hurdles in order to succeed.  But this time, it seemed like the hurdle was fairly silly.  I don’t mean to belittle folks who have speech impediments, as I understand that they can make life difficult for those who suffer from those afflictions, but it’s not like the guy was dealing with a fatal disease or anything.  The fact that King George VI stammered is a sad foot-note, I suppose, but it’s hard for me to really get behind the guy in a meaningful way when I know that the stakes are not that high.  World War II and Adolf Hitler are sort of looming in the background, but I’m not really that terrified that the future safety of the planet is at stake just because one of the tangential figures involved in that war had a speech impediment.

I really enjoyed the performances of the cast for the most part, but I was fairly underwhelmed by Colin Firth’s portrayal of the titular king.  It’s not that he didn’t do a good job stammering, but rather that I didn’t feel like I knew him all that well by the end of the film.  It’s partly the fault of the script, but what do I really know about this man besides the fact that he has a speech impediment?  The script keeps telling me he’s noble and Geoffrey Rush’s character tells him that “he’s the bravest man” he’s ever met, but why exactly is he brave?  It seems like he’s quite willing to walk away from therapy and help several times throughout the film because it doesn’t suit his royal blood to discuss trivial matters with his therapist.  That doesn’t really strike me as bravery.  Also, Firth comes off as being whiny quite often in his therapy sessions, which doesn’t fit into my definition of “brave.”

I thought Rush and Helena Bonham Carter were good, as they almost always are.  Guy Pearce seemed to relish playing the caddish older brother.  But the film as a whole didn’t really feel all that vital to me.  When we finally get the speech at the end, it’s really not such a great speech.  So, we’re just supposed to look at this as a victory because he didn’t stutter much, but what about the content of the speech?  It’s another example of the film telling me to feel something because other characters feel it rather than making me feel that emotion.

There is also a decided lack of tension in the film, even if you don’t know the history of what happened, because there’s no other possible way for the film to end.  Every single time Firth and Rush part ways, we know they are going to come together again to finish out the therapy session because the film is firmly entrenched in a certain genre with a certain plot.  The subplots don’t inform the characters any more than when we first meet them, there is no great change besides the speech of one particular character, and the film slowly comes to the only logical conclusion.  Some films are about seeing the puzzle pieces come together in the way that you imagine it, but there are no puzzle pieces here, there is nothing to put together.  If you hadn’t seen the film and just pictured what it would be about and what would happen, you could probably safely say that you’ve seen the movie.

Look, I don’t have the energy to mount some big take-down of the film because it’s not an awful movie.  It’s just a pedestrian one that is handsomely mounted, like a decent HBO biopic.  If it won Best Picture, it would be more like Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan (although in my eyes, the winner that year should have been The Thin Red Line) than Crash over Brokeback Mountain (although in my eyes, the winner that year should have been Munich).  Still, I do think we’ll find it laughable in ten years if somehow The King’s Speech beats out the obviously superior The Social Network or Black Swan.

I think the Academy Awards should always, always, always be about rewarding the best film of the year and often, that’s not the case because of political jockeying.  But, I would sincerely hope that the Academy members look at their ballots and think about which film will age the best, which film defines the year it came out, and which one they won’t be embarrassed about in ten years.  I don’t see how it could be The King’s Speech.

Frenzy on the Wall: If I Had a Ballot 2011

Monday, January 24th, 2011

2011 was not a very strong year for movies, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t worthy performances and filmmakers that deserve some attention.  As I do every year,  I’m going to give my picks for the Oscars in the major awards as if I had an actual ballot.  Since the Academy cannot be trusted to make the right decisions and will probably make the safe choice whenever possible, it’s fun to give my perspective.  Needless to say, I don’t see the Academy sending me a ballot anytime soon.

Best Picture

  • The American
  • Black Swan
  • Blue Valentine
  • The Social Network
  • Trash Humpers

I don’t believe in the Academy’s new(ish) rule to expand the category to ten nominees, so I’m going with five.  I think Black Swan and The Social Network are locks for spots and Blue Valentine will most likely make an appearance, but you can forgot about the Academy nominating something as deliberate as The American or something as truly avant-garde as Trash Humpers.  The Academy will pat itself on the back for nominating Black Swan, thinking that it’s an “art” film when it’s really just an amazingly well-done and dense genre picture.

I’m not knocking Black Swan at all – it was my second favorite film of the year – but what the voting bloc views as “avant-garde” and what is actually avant-garde are two entirely different things, so let’s not applaud the Academy just because they nominate a film as complicated as Black Swan; that should be the norm and we should be pushing them to go even further.

Having said that, I think all five of these films are worthy pictures of getting nominated in a field of ten in any given year.  A film like The American or Trash Humpers probably wouldn’t make it on my ballot of five in a stronger year and Blue Valentine is pushing it.  I didn’t catch the latter film until recently and I think it’s strong from start to finish, but that scene at the hospital towards the end really strained credulity.


I just don’t see how a man can go into a hospital and punch someone/wreck the place without security or an orderly coming to help.  People in hospitals are trained to subdue people who may get violent and yet, the man in question is able to walk out of the place and get in his car.  More than that: this was a film that I related to on such a deep level for almost every second of the film until that moment, when I could no longer relate to that character.  It’s a shame, because it’s a perfect film otherwise.

(End Spoilers)

But really, The Social Network is the film to beat and I don’t see anything coming close.  It’s not a revolutionary movie, it’s just a really great story told well.  It’s a profound statement about the times we live in and there are a lot of issues of betrayal, friendship, privacy, etc. that are brought up and explored in the film.  But more important than any of that is that it is exceptionally entertaining on a surface level.  The subtext of the film would not be nearly as interesting if it wasn’t for the fact that the text itself is so funny, poignant, and exciting.  It’s not perfect, but it’s close to it.  If I had any issue with the film, it’s that I wish it was at least an hour longer.  It’s the film of the year and unless the Academy is incredibly short-sighted (and they are), it will win Best Picture.

Best Director

  • Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan)
  • Anton Corbijn (The American)
  • David Fincher (The Social Network)
  • Harmony Korine (Trash Humpers)
  • Gaspar Noe (Enter the Void)

Ordinarily, I believe that the best five films are the five best directed films.  However, I had to make room for Gaspar Noe for his dynamic achievement with Enter the Void.  It’s not a great film because Noe’s script is a bit too trite, but the way he brings the impossible to life is something to be applauded and rewarded.  Derek Cianfrance did a fantastic job,  though I think it owes a big debt to the films of John Cassavetes, but it’s really not about the job that he did with Blue Valentine, but rather how masterful Noe’s direction was for Enter the Void.

Noe and Korine were the only filmmakers this year that sought to create something that was unique to the screen yet familiar enough to audiences.  I don’t think they were perfect because their natural impulse is to push the audience away rather than invite them in; it’s almost like they created video art rather than cinema (although that argument is a slippery slope and worthy of its own column).  Both Noe and Korine were successful in bringing their eccentric visions to life, but I can’t say they were the best because it was harder for me to engage with their works.

I think Corbijn did a fine job with The American, which has one of the most beautifully melancholic tones and a somnambulant yet charming pace.  The film it reminded me of the most was Anthony Minghella’s fantastic The Talented Mr. Ripley.  Both films are about handsome killers who hide themselves and fall in love, yet can’t escape their pasts; and both films are set in beautiful European cities that are shot lovingly and without rapid movements of the camera.  It’s really a complete 180 from Corbijn’s first feature, Control, and showed that he’s capable of all sorts of genres.  I’m excited to see what he does next.

For me, this award is a race between Aronofsky and Fincher.  These couldn’t be two more different films and both are really indicative of who each of these directors are as filmmakers.  Aronofsky’s Black Swan is hyper and emotional while Fincher’s The Social Network is controlled and tightly focused.  I think both films are touching in their own ways and both have (very different) built-in reasons to keep us from being too heartbroken by what occurs.  But for me, I have to go with what I thought was the better film and that’s The Social Network.  Having seen both multiple times, I don’t think The Social Network loses anything on repeat viewings whereas Black Swan loses the element of surprise that makes it so distressing to watch the first time around.  So, Fincher should – and will – win the award for Best Director.

Best Actor

  • George Clooney (The American)
  • Aaron Eckhart (Rabbit Hole)
  • Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network)
  • Andy Garcia (City Island)
  • Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine)

To me, it’s a real shame that Aaron Eckhart isn’t getting more love for his performance in John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole.  He and Nicole Kidman are equals in that movie, one performance doesn’t work without the other and both of them smash it out of the park.  Eckhart is understanding and sympathetic and yet flawed and on the verge of making mistakes; what makes his performance (and the film) work so well is that we relate to both his and Kidman’s characters from moment to moment.

Gosling is similarly great and for a lot of the same reasons.  Blue Valentine is also a film about a couple first and foremost and wouldn’t work if the two actors weren’t at the top of their games.  Gosling is given the more difficult role in Blue Valentine because he does quite a few things that might make us detest him, yet he more than makes up for it by playing a character who is understanding at the oddest of times – and Gosling makes it feel earned.  His character is not a particularly intelligent person and we’re given a few hints at why this might be the case, but can sympathize with his longing and with the ways in which he tries to make this relationship work.  Gosling and Eckhart both deserve to be nominated.

Clooney and Garcia are playing two completely different parts (and I just realized at this moment that they played adversaries in the Ocean’s 11 franchise).  Clooney is introverted from beginning to end and is loathe to tell his secrets to anyone.  Garcia is more manic and upbeat, anxious to get his secrets out.  People don’t give Clooney a whole lot of credit because he’s always so cool, calculated and…well, handsome as hell.  But he’s playing a difficult part in The American because so much of it is dependent on the way in which he moves rather than the way in which he speaks.  Garcia’s part in City Island is the exact opposite – it depends so much on how his speech and manner changes from scene to scene depending on who he is around.  Clooney’s part is dramatic and tragic in every sense of the word; Garcia’s part is dramatic in the hysterical sense of the word.  Both actors play their parts as perfectly as could be expected and I’d be willing to bet that if you swapped their roles, we wouldn’t be talking about either movie right now.

Finally there is Jesse Eisenberg who gives the best male performance of the year in The Social Network.  There isn’t enough I can say about this guy, who manages to make the character of Mark Zuckerberg into both villain and hero.  We cringe when he puts down his best friend because we know he’s better than that.  We believe he’s capable of redemption, that he’s not a monster.  The tragedy of the film is that he’s a person that so badly wants to connect with the people around him, that he wants to be popular, and yet he fails at every turn on a human level while succeeding on a business level.  Ultimately, at the end of the film, he’s in the Facebook offices surrounded by people and yet he’s completely alone – headphones on his ears, isolated from everyone and even his best friend can’t jolt him out of this unreality by smashing his laptop because there’s always another computer at his disposal.  Eisenberg convinces us that Zuckerberg is human and so we realte to much of what he does.  If we didn’t,  we wouldn’t be so disgusted by what he does wrong.  He should win Best Actor, but he won’t because the Academy will reward Colin Firth’s stammering performance in The King’s Speech.

(Side note: The King’s Speech is a perfectly decent film but it’s nothing you haven’t seen before.  Firth is a great actor, but this is hardly his crowning achievement.  The truth of the matter is that we can see Firth’s acting in every scene, we can see the wheels turning.  William Goldman once said that actors love playing drunks and mentally disabled people because Oscar voters can actually see them acting, knowing that the actor themselves isn’t actually disabled in any way.  But those aren’t the difficult roles at all; rather, the difficult roles are the ones where it’s hard to see the strings.  I think Firth does a good job in The King’s Speech, but I don’t think it was particularly difficult role to pull off.)

Best Actress

  • Madeline Carroll (Flipped)
  • Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole)
  • Natalie Portman (Black Swan)
  • Rachel Weisz (Agora)
  • Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine)

It was difficult to leave off Jennifer Lawrence (excellent in Winter’s Bone), Annette Bening (for that one amazing scene in The Kids Are All Right), Zoe Kazan (astounding in The Exploding Girl), Tilda Swinton (heartbreaking in I Am Love), Carey Mulligan (wonderfully understated in Never Let Me Go) and Hailee Steinfeld (for carrying True Grit).  It was a strong year for lead female performances.

However, I couldn’t in good conscience omit young Madeline Carroll’s dynamite turn in Rob Reiner’s Flipped.  I don’t blame you if you haven’t seen the movie because it doesn’t look like it’s going to be nearly as engaging as it is.  It’s a sentimental and saccharine-laced story of young love in early 60s suburbia, but one of the primary reasons why it works so well is Carroll’s charisma.  She’s playing an eccentric character who is irrationally in love with the boy next door.  The only reason the film doesn’t work is because Carroll is so much more magnetic than her counterpart.  She’s so good that it almost ruins the movie because no other part of the film works as well as her performance.  Carroll is someone to watch for.

Rachel Weisz carries Agora in a way that very few actresses could.  She is powerful and dynamic as Hypatia, the mathematician and astrologer in 5th century Alexandria.  There is a fine line that Weisz navigates between being magnanimous and being a martyr, yet Weisz’s Hypatia is noble throughout without us ever feeling like we’re being given a caricature of a decent person in the face of evil.  A lot of the dialogue Weisz has to recite is a bit cumbersome, but she is able to pull it off and make it sound natural.

Nicole Kidman and Michelle Williams are fantastic for all of the reasons I mentioned above in regards to their co-stars.  Kidman does some of the best work of her career in Rabbit Hole, giving us a character who is going through unimaginable pain.  And Williams continues to prove that she might be the best actress of her generation by playing a woman on the precipice of imploding.  What makes both performances so strong is the fact that both actresses make difficult choices in order to make their characters feel real and human.  The disinterested look in Williams’ eyes as she walks past Gosling in the shower “future room” sequence in Blue Valentine or the way Kidman smacks herself in the shoulder in the climactic argument in Rabbit Hole, these are tics that the actors bring to the table that humanize their characters in unexpected ways.

But the performance of the year – male of female – is Natalie Portman in Black Swan.  It’s not just that Portman’s Nina Sayers is so fragile that she’s almost on the verge of tears in almost every scene or that she commits herself so fully to this unhinged performance that is both repulsive and attractive at the same time, it’s that in addition to all of the typical acting traits she exhibits, she is also a convincing dancer.  Let me make that clear: Portman’s dancing ability and the way in which it morphs throughout the film is integral to the development of the character.  When Portman dances at the end of the film and we see that she has finally captured the essence of the “black swan” role, I could tell that there was a difference in the way she danced.  I’m not a ballet scholar, but even I could tell that there was a different emotional tone to her dance at the end of the film.  It wasn’t just in the way she moved – although there was that – but it was in the look in her eyes.  I can’t think of another performance that I’ve seen in recent years that was so dependent on movement and I can’t think of another performer who pulled it off so well.  Portman is in nearly every frame of Black Swan and she doesn’t give a single false note.  Nina Sayers is the Daniel Plainview of this year.

Best Supporting Actor

  • Matt Damon (True Grit)
  • John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone)
  • Kevin Kline (The Extra Man)
  • Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom)
  • Justin Timberlake (The Social Network)

The most difficult thing about this category was figuring out The Social Network situation.  I could easily replace Timberlake with Andrew Garfield or Armie Hammer.  And it was difficult not to put Garfield or Hammer in there in place of Kevin Kline or Matt Damon, as well.  Ultimately, I went with Timberlake in my Social Network slot because the film goes to a completely different level the moment Timberlake steps on the screen.  He is playing the most engaging character, for sure, but he is absolutely mesmerizing.  Timberlake has always been charismatic, but here he uses it to play a character who he is ruthless and villainous; he is the Iago of the film and his paranoia is always bubbling under the surface.

Kline and Damon are both playing oddball characters in their respective films and there are few actors better suited to those sorts of eccentrics than the two of them.  Kline plays a kind of greasy and unhygienic “gentleman” that I had never seen before on a film screen, yet he makes it seem familiar and comfortable.  And Damon plays a cocky and stupidly courageous Texas Ranger.  When writing about their characters, one has to use odd word pairings in order to describe them, like “stupidly courageous” or “unhygienic gentleman;”  for that alone, I think they deserve to be here.

Hawkes and Mendelsohn, for me, gave the two best performances in this category and they are surprisingly similar.  They both play shady criminals who are akin to caged animals, ready to strike at a moment’s notice despite the fact that there aren’t many scenes where they do.  It’s all in the way these actors move, the eerie calm in their eyes.  They are playing different sides of the same coin, to be sure, since Mendelsohn is truly villainous and Hawkes is surprisingly heroic.  However, if Animal Kingdom was from Pope’s perspective, perhaps he would seem more heroic and if Winter’s Bone was from Teardrop’s perspective then he might seem more evil.  I found it hard to shake either of their performances and each had a specific scene that was emblematic.  In Animal Kingdom, there was the scene in which Pope harasses one of his younger brothers and calls him gay and in Winter’s Bone, there’s the scene in which Teardrop gets pulled over by the cop.  In both scenes, we can tell from the performances of Hawkes and Mendelsohn (as well as their co-stars in those scenes) that they are capable of doing absolutely anything in that moment.  We have no freaking idea how these characters are going to react in those scenes and that’s what makes their performances so fantastic.

If I had to pick a winner, though, it would have to be Hawkes.  When the film ended, I wished I was following Teardrop on to wherever the hell he was going.  It haunted me.

(Side note: I know, I left Christian Bale off for The Fighter.  Truthfully, I really liked his performance and thought it was the best Bale has been since Rescue Dawn.  However, similarly to Colin Firth, I think Bale has the showier role and I think quite often he goes over the top.  I think he’s saved somewhat by the fact that Melissa Leo goes so far over the top that Bale’s scenery-chewing doesn’t seem so blatant, yet I found his scenes to be a bit cringe-worthy at times and for the wrong reasons.  He wasn’t terrible, and I’m certainly in the minority, but I didn’t buy into his character whole hog the way I wanted to.)

Best Supporting Actress

  • Greta Gerwig (Greenberg)
  • Rebecca Hall (Please Give)
  • Barbara Hershey (Black Swan)
  • Mila Kunis (Black Swan)
  • Dianne Wiest (Rabbit Hole)

I’m hesitant to even put Gerwig in this category because I think she’s really the lead of the film in so many ways, but I wanted to sneak her in here because she really holds that movie together.  Ben Stiller has the showier title role of the stunted adult, but Gerwig fascinated me because I know that character.  She plays the young hipster who is trying to get by and accidentally (and naively) sleeps around with all the wrong guys, including the title character.  Each of her mistakes is easily forgivable because she’s such a decent person, but despite seeming like she has her head on straight, she continues to see Greenberg, a man who is wrong in every way possible.  I really admired the way Gerwig was willing to do less in each of her scenes, knowing that the audience would be understanding her more because of her quietness.

Rebecca Hall is also playing a character that often goes overlooked by most award-givers: a nice person who does good things.  Hall plays a woman who is kind to her cantankerous grandmother and gives mammograms, often to older women.  She isn’t a dark or dangerous character, but a decent one who strives to be better.  In other words, Hall plays a character like many of us; someone who feels obligated to care for the people that she loves.

The fact that Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest gave terrific performances in their respective films should come as no shock to anyone who has followed their careers.  These are two wonderful actresses.  Wiest is quietly heartbroken and devastated throughout Rabbit Hole, hoping to spare her daughters the pain that she has felt.  Hershey, on the other hand, is playing a character who is almost hoping to pass on the pain she felt to her daughter.

For me, the winner of this category has to be Mila Kunis, for many of the same reasons why Portman should win her category.  Black Swan does not work if Kunis is not Portman’s equal and other in the film.  When Kunis shows up in the film, it’s that same feeling as when Timberlake shows up in The Social Network: everything becomes more electric and exciting.  Each scene with Portman and Kunis in Black Swan is ripe with tension and emotion because of the way they play off one another.  Witness that scene in the restaurant.  It’s not just that Kunis eats a burger while Portman eats her salad, it’s that Kunis derives pleasure from her food without much thought while Portman pokes around at her food meekly and painfully.  I’m sure this won’t be the last we see of Kunis in the awards conversation, but that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t win this year.

The Rest

The column is running a little (okay a lot) long, so here would be my winners in some of the other categories:

Score – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for The Social Network, hands down, no contest.  One of the best albums of any kind that I heard this year.

Cinematography – Benoit Debie for Enter the Void, for doing things with the camera I never thought possible.

Best Original Screenplay – Derek Cianfrance, Cami Delavigne, and Joey Curtis for Blue Valentine.  A great screenplay for what it leaves out.

Best Adapted Screenplay – Aaron Sorkin for The Social Network.  Duh.

Best Documentary – Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, even if it might be a gigantic joke on all of us.  A fascinating portrait of the rise of graffiti art.

Frenzy on the Wall: Downsized and Dispirited, The Company Men Still Has Feeling

Monday, January 17th, 2011

The Company Men is a satisfying film, but not an altogether successful one. However, I’m inclined to give it a pass for a lot of its faults because its cause is such a noble one. The film will serve as a time-capsule for future generations to be able to look back and pinpoint this particular time in our nation’s history, a time when we were all so terrified about the economy, when stock prices mattered more than employing people, and when lay-offs became more and more common.

SNL Recap – Gwyneth Paltrow and Cee-Lo Green

Sunday, January 16th, 2011

If I had to pick a favorite show of all-time, it would have to be Saturday Night Live.  I’ve seen almost every episode of the show for about twenty years, videotaping it when I wasn’t home (or now, DVRing it) and catching up with it late at night or Sunday afternoon.  I think it’s a show that captures the mood of the country and serves as a kind of time-capsule for future generations about what we found funny and who we enjoyed making fun of.  The humor is almost always broad, but I most enjoy the sketches that are absurd.  A lot of people bemoan that SNL isn’t funny anymore.  Anybody who says that doesn’t watch SNL often.  It’s just as funny now as it’s always been.  Go back and watch any season of the show, there were always sketches that flat out sucked and they always went on too long.

The current cast is really good, with folks like Andy Samberg and Bill Hader doing some remarkable things every week while Jason Sudeikis occupies the kind of utility/Phil Hartman role.  Kristin Wiig has been relied upon a lot in the past two season after Amy Poehler left, but I’d like to see more from Abby Elliott who has a lot of potential.  But I think they’re missing the absurdity that Will Fore often brought to the show.

I decided that I would do a pseudo-liveblog/recap of the show starting this week.  I’ll break down each of the sketches and give some thoughts and then give a rating out of “10” to each sketch.  I see a sketch like “Dick in a Box” as a 10, so it’ll be hard to achieve that.  Gwyneth Paltrow has hosted before and between her hosting gigs in the past and her appearances on Jimmy Fallon’s show, she’s shown a wicked sense of humor and excellent timing, so I’m looking forward to seeing how she performs this week.  I really hope there’s at least one “Goop” reference.

Opening Sketch – Kristin Wiig doing her excellent Greta Van Susteren impersonation.  Love Nasim Pedrad this season, she might be the breakout star of the year; her Michelle Malkin is not spot-on, though, and it’s not cutting at all, there’s no joke there.  Ditto Bobby Moynihan’s Sean Hannity.  But the whole skit is just an excuse to have Hader do his James Carville impression, which was funny the first time but is a bit tired now.  Abby Elliott’s Rachel Maddow is probably the best in terms of a straight-up impression.  The skit, as a whole, felt pretty flat and wasn’t a particularly strong opener. 5/10

Monologue – Gwyneth (wearing a black dress that will be easily to slip out of…for changing into costumes, you perverts!) starting off self-effacing, talking about her Britishness, then confusing Kenny Rogers (Sudeikis) for Garth Brooks.  Paltrow is pretty funny and charming, fumbling while trying to duet with Kenny Rogers on “Islands in the Stream.”  Thought there was a missed opportunity for Paltrow to sing the lyrics to “Ghetto Superstar” during the chorus.  Cee-Lo comes out to needlessly elongate the sketch.  Jeez, how tall is Cee-Lo?  Gwyneth is like a full foot taller than him. 7/10

Commercial – A silly send-up of the promos for NBC’s The Cape, replacing the titular item with all sorts of other accessories.  Really enjoyed The Bolo Tie.  A nice interstitial, nothing more.  Crowd didn’t seem too enthused.  6/10

Secret Word – A game show sketch that they’ve done before.  It’s got a good premise, with two contestants playing something similar to to $25,000 Pyramid, except the celebrities keep screwing things up for their partners.  Kristin Wiig and Gwyneth Paltrow are playing the idiotic celebrities.  “There are no secret words to an actress, I see the word and I explore it.”  Wiig kills it in these sketches, when she’s required to be exaggerated and Gwyneth is perfect as the “pretentious” actress…hmmm.  Nothing too special overall.  6/10

Digital Short – Crowd is cheering before it even starts, then I’m cheering as soon as I see Pee-Wee Herman.  Samberg and Pee-Wee doing shots at a bar, loving it.  Ahhh!  The Pee-Wee tequila dance!  Anderson Cooper spotting!  Pee-Wee hitting people with chairs!  Intervention with Chairy!  “They’re a national treasure.”  “I know you are, but what am I?”  Shots!  Surprised they didn’t bring back the “secret word,” especially with the last sketch.  Either way, this was nearly a home run, great digital short.  9/10

Next Week: Jessie Eisenberg and Nicki Minaj.  I’m excited to see what Eisenberg does on live TV, sometimes actors that are able to create indelible characters on film or seem like they have really good senses of humor, just can’t hack it on SNL.  Robert De Niro was awful earlier this season.

Jacob’s Rockin’ Bar Mitzvah – Gwyneth Paltrow as Taylor Swift as a special guest, singing her songs with a “Jewish” twist.  Having been raised Jewish, I chuckled, but I wonder if anybody else will.  Jay Pharoah doing Jay-Z, singing “Empire State of Mind” with a Jewish twist.  I’m sensing a theme and I’m not laughing.  I wish Jay Pharoah was given something to do besides impersonations of black celebrities.  I mean, he does fantastic impressions (his Jay-Z is spot-on), but it seems like that’s all Lorne Michaels lets him do.  Let the man spread his wings!  Abby Elliott doing Katy Perry, easily the funniest song of the three so far (“Ashkenazi Jews are undeniable…”), glad to see Abby getting more air time tonight.  Cee-Lo saying “straight up meshuggana,” blah blah blah.  5/10

Forget You – Gwyneth Paltrow as a music exec, replacing every instance of “fuck” with the word “forget” in reference to Cee-Lo’s famous song.  Pretty funny, “nintendo” for the n-word.  A lot of Cee-Lo in sketches tonight, surprising.  This would be a great 90 second skit, but it’s at least twice that long.  That was weird, it was all just a build-up to Cee-Lo’s performance, don’t think I’ve ever seen SNL do that before.  5/10

Cee-Lo Green – Really not interested in hearing this song if it’s not in its original version.  The whole gimmick with this song was hearing this kind of sweet/sad story about Cee-Lo being overlooked and then saying a cathartic “fuck you” to the woman who made him feel so low.  “Forget” is really not a suitable replacement, no matter how hard the lead-in skit tried to make it okay.  The performance is pretty standard, with an all-girl band and Cee-Lo mostly remaining stationary.  This is not even close to Kanye’s epic performances earlier in the season.  3/10

Weekend Update – I love Seth Meyers as the anchor.  He’s probably my favorite since Norm MacDonald.  Tiny Fey, Jimmy Fallon, and Amy Poehler were all great, but Meyers brings a unique sensibility that is part authoritative and part boyish/puckish charm.  He’s like a mixture of Fallon, Fey, and Poehler.  Boy, I really hope Stefon (Bill Hader’s greatest character) makes an appearance tonight.  “French fries will be the prison cigarette of schools” is a pretty good one, even if the audience politely chuckled.  I love his monologue (Weekend Update’s Constitution Corner) about what the founding fathers would really think if they were around today (guns would be the least of their worries), hilarious and perfectly stated.  The baboon/tangerine joke made me laugh.  Keenan, conspicuously absent from the first half sketches tonight, comes on as the “Rent is Too Damn High” dude and does his usual deal: the obvious joke without taking it anywhere interesting.  Yawn.  Moving on.  “Switzerland: neutral on Nazis, tough on dogs.”  “The guy with the pet skunk definitely also has weed.”  New cast member Vanessa Bayer “on the scene” at the Golden Globes.  Bill Hader as Cher, Nasim Pedrad as Christina Aguilera, singing their answers – not that funny.  Bobby Moynihan as Chaz Bono – very funny.  “Every morning I wake up and…I look at it.”  I liked the I Love Lucy joke.  Garth and Kat, one of my favorite recurring Weekend Update sketches!  Basically Fred Armisen and Kristin Wiig play a singing duo that makes all their words up on the spot.  The hilarity comes from watching Wiig try to keep up with Armisen as he makes up the words on the spot.  Last time they did this, Armisen started laughing almost instantly, which was enjoyable because he never breaks character.  It’s so stupid, but I don’t know why, this skit always kills me.  Gwyneth comes out as a third-member, how is this gonna work?  Wow, shes good.  I love how Meyers plays the straight man during these skits, so fed up yet on the verge of smiling.  “Please, just 10 more really long ones!”  Overall, a pretty middling Weekend Update that’s semi-redeemed by the ending.  6/10

Shakespearean Previews – Nobody has ever done previews before now.  Love Bill Hader as the “voiceover” guy and Samberg as the skeptical peasant who doesn’t understand what “previews” are.  “Coming Soon: Hamlet never believed in ghosts…until his father came back from the dead.”  Jay Pharoah: “Watch out, Hamlet, there’s a ghost!”  Nice.  “Aww, hell nay!”  I’m really loving this skit.  “Coming soon: You loved Henry IV, well guess what, there’s a new king in town…Henry V!”  “Let’s burn this place down!”  “And so they did…and no one ever heard of Shakespeare again.”  This was really good.  8/10

Fresh Prince 20th Anniversary Boxed Set – Jay Pharoah doing his instantly classic Will Smith impression.  I used to love Fresh Prince when I was younger.  “The script just said to react,” so he reacts like Scooby-Doo would react, very funny.  Wow, Gwyneth as the cop looks a lot like Daphne Zuniga.  “Cha-ching!”  Keenan is actually great in this sketch, playing the uptight straight man to Pharoah’s goofball.  This was a clever idea for a sketch and they pulled it off.  Points for not letting it go on too long.  7.5/10

Sportscenter Deportes – I’ve really liked what I’ve seen from Paul Brittain this year, like his manner.  This is a pretty silly and funny skit where these Spanish speaking broadcasters inject the English words and expressions into the Spanish recaps.  Armisen interviewing Jay Pharoah as Kevin Garnett.  (Lots of Jay Pharoah tonight and less Keenan, and I’m sure it’s no coincidence; SNL has long had a problem injecting more than one black person into a skit at any given time and in time, Pharoah is going to take all of Thompson’s parts, just watch.)  Tres Equis commercial, Bobby Moynihan popping out.  Paul Brittain is really killing it in this skit and Paltrow is right there with him.  Post-update skits have been way better than the pre-update ones.  8/10

Cee-Lo Green Again – I didn’t buy his album, so this song is new to me, but I’m kinda digging it…it’s got a Princeish beat to it, with heavy rock riffs to go with the R&B flow but Cee-Lo’s got that great voice that holds it together.  It does what a performance on SNL should do: make me download the song.  But it’s not quite good enough for me to check out the whole record.  8.5/10

New Co-Host for Spitzer – Hader’s Spitzer is excellent and appropriately lascivious.  Nasim Pedrad’s Christiane Amanpour is off.  “I’d like to take that bet, but my wife doesn’t let me carry money anymore.”  Gwyneth Paltrow as Heidi Klum.  “Perfect, hired.”  “In or out, in out in out in out.”  “I’m about to say something awful, you should go, hahahaha.”  Ahhh, Armisen as David Patterson always kills.  Nice one.  7.5/10

Final Grades:

Gwyneth Paltrow – She was excellent, really a top-notch host who didn’t rely too heavily on the cue cards and did a lot of interesting impressions.  A lot of energy, lots of different characters, and a lot of fun.  9.5/10

Cee-Lo Green – Wasn’t crazy about his first performance because a neutered “Fuck You” just doesn’t sound right, but he got some points for his second song.  Also, I give him credit for making appearances in some of the skits.  6.5/10

The rest of the cast – Nobody really stood out to me tonight.  Lots of Jay Pharoah and Abby Elliott, which was a good thing.  Wiig, Hader, and Armisen were on their game.  I think Samberg needs to be used more in the skits and not just in the digital shorts (which was awesome tonight).  The cast is a little cumbersome, too many castmembers and not enough parts.  I thought Nasim Pedrad was off tonight, not her best night.  Seth Meyers seemed a little subded on update.  Overall, they didn’t bring the energy that Paltrow brought.  6/10

The writing – The first half was really weak and played it too safe.  The second half was really strong, too more risks.  I think it hit the mark more than it missed.  Nothing I feel compelled to send to my friends tomorrow morning, except for the digital short and possibly – POSSIBLY – the Sportscenter Deportes skit.  7/10

Okay, that was exhausting for me.  I give myself a 5/10, I think I can do better next week.  What’d you all think?

This guy is scoring Francis Coppola’s next flick?

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

I’m a big Francis Ford Coppola fan.  When I heard that Coppola’s next film was going to be a horror movie starring Val Kilmer – called Twixt Now and Sunrise – I was pretty elated.  The few details that have emerged are: he’s filming it around his own estate and it was based on a dream he had.  Bruce Dern and Ben Chaplin are co-starring along with Alden Ehrenreich (I will never stop beating the drum for this kid) and Elle Fanning.  As many of you know, I thought Tetro was one of the best films I’ve seen in recent years and I’m curious to see how Coppola will follow it up.  And as a youngster, Val Kilmer was one of my very favorite actors – I mean, Tombstone, The Doors, Real Genius, these are fantastic performances.

I’ve been a Dan Deacon fan for a while.  But as you might be able to tell from the video above, he’s…not quite what I would have in mind for a “gothic horror” film.  The dude creates awesome music that makes you want to dance and unless Coppola is making this generation’s Rocky Horror Picture Show, I’m fascinated to see how Dan Deacon will adapt his style to Coppola’s vision.

Frenzy on the Wall: Somewhere Goes Nowhere

Monday, January 10th, 2011

I consider myself a fan of Sofia Coppola. I think her first two films – The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation – are up there with any other filmmaker’s first two movies. These films showed a fascinating insight into the minds of both males and females, young and old; these were movies about lost souls that feel cut off from the rest of humanity, a theme that runs through all of Coppola’s films. She also happens to be a gifted stylist, bathing her films in a sun-dappled light. But it seems as she gets older, she is less interested in things like story or character, and more interested in watching billowing cigarette smoke for three minutes. In other words, this isn’t a matter of “style over substance,” but rather that Coppola has become a filmmaker whose style is her substance.

Directors Selling Out

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

I had a long discussion the other day with my buddy Jack about how disappointed I was that Darren Aronofsky was going to be making the sequel to Wolverine as his next film.  Part of me understands that Aronofsky has made his first five films for no money – and probably didn’t make much money himself.  He even said at one point that he was tired of being the only person in the room that wants to make a movie and that with the Wolverine sequel, there are many people at the studio that want him to make this movie.  I get all that and I can even respect that.

But I can’t put him in the same tier as Wes Anderson or Paul Thomas Anderson or Lukas Moodysson, who make the films they want to make.  I think there’s certainly a paucity of original voices out there and I can’t help but think that when one of them chooses a comic book project, that’s one less original film they might have made.  It takes years to make a movie and I would rather those years be spent on projects that don’t have the ceiling of a big blockbuster film or comic book movie.  This goes for David Fincher, too, by the way.  I happen to think he’s one of the five best directors working today, but he’s also made Alien 3, Panic Room and the upcoming Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake, so I can’t really put him on the level of those original filmmakers either.

I thought about all this today with the news that Gareth Edwards, director of one of the underrated films of the year Monsters, is attached to make yet another version of Godzilla.  To me, it just seems like such a waste of talent.  Edwards has already made that movie and made it better because he didn’t have hundreds of millions of dollars at his disposal.  I couldn’t wait to see how he was going to follow up Monsters; now, I feel like shrugging.

The point is: do you think Terrence Malick would make a Batman movie?  Do you think Woody Allen would have directed Godzilla?  Is Harmony Korine ever going to make a movie like Harry Potter or Twilight?

What do you think, am I off-base here?  Who are some filmmakers who would never make a “sell out” film?

Frenzy on the Wall: Looking Forward to a New (Hopefully Better) Year

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

2010 was not my favorite year at the movies. There were certainly films that I enjoyed and ones that I expect to own and revisit more than a few times, but there wasn’t a single film that made me shudder or give me goosebumps or to even make me gasp aloud. In other words, while there were a couple of great films in 2010, there was only one or two that made me say, “Yes! That is why I love cinema.” But the great thing about life is that every time the year changes, it’s a clean slate, and there’s always something to look forward to.

Frenzy on the Wall: 2010 Top Ten

Monday, December 27th, 2010

2010 has not been a great year for movies.

I think the films that are on this list are superior works of cinematic art, but I think that I saw more mediocre and middling fair than ever before. Is it that the actual quality of the films this year wasn’t as good as the past few years, or is my own perception of “good” and “great” changing as I grow older?

Critics and film writers will always be out of touch with the mainstream, because we see so many movies that the cumulative effect is to make everything — especially mainstream Hollywood films — seem formulaic and predictable. As a result, we look outside Hollywood for something that will surprise or delight us.

Best Albums of 2010

Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

(Warning: this post is not about movies.  Proceed with caution.)

I don’t claim to have the same knowledge about music (historically or currently) that I do about movies.  (I am NOT an expert on music.)  But I do have a passion for listening to new music.  In fact, I find it damn near impossible to write anything without music playing in the background.  Music inspires me and I find the best lyricists today to be some of the best poets; writing poetry is difficult enough without having to set it to a particular beat or rhythm.  This year I spent a lot of time listening to music that was new to me, but wasn’t necessarily new, but I’m going to focus this list on albums that came out in 2010.  As a reference, my favorite artists of all-time are: David Bowie, The Velvet Underground, The Strokes, Nine Inch Nails, Beastie Boys, The Beatles, The Clash, The Doors, The Streets, Fiona Apple, and about a million others – but if you appreciate that cross-section, then you may or may not agree with my choices below.

(Note: I’m going strictly with LPs, but the best things I listened to this year was the EP by The Rassle and the music of Jared Evan.  Full Disclosure: the members of that band are some of my best friends and I’ve known Jared since he was 11.)

10.  Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

I wasn’t a particularly big fan of Arcade Fire‘s first two albums, finding them a bit meandering, pretentious and overly wrought.  I felt with this album, they had a focus which helped me connect to it on an emotional and visceral level; more than that, they created songs that really lingered.  Songs like “We Used to Wait” or “Sprawl II” evoked feelings of emptiness and nostalgia while “Month of May” is just a really good straight-up rock song.  Overall, as a band, I find them to be a bit boring but undeniably talented.  And while I didn’t love this album, at least I can finally see why everyone went nuts over them after Funeral.

9.  Gorillaz – Plastic Beach

Damon Albarn is just a twisted genius and with this album, he’s finally lifted Gorillaz to the same plateau as Blur.  At first, it seemed like Gorillaz would be a one-off gimmick, but now they seem more relevant than ever.  The two previous Gorillaz albums seems to be trying really hard to blend a lot of different styles of music, while Plastic Beach blends those genres seamlessly.  Cuts like “Stylo” and “Sweepstakes” get an assist from hip hop artist Mos Def and they flow incredibly well with a song like the hypnotic “Some Kind of Nature” with a guest vocal by the legendary Lou Reed.  Snoop Dogg, Mick Jones, and De La Soul also make appearances on this undeniably fun record.

8. Wavves – King of the Beach

I was a fan of Wavves last record, which relied heavily on “noise” and feedback and distorted vocals.  I was wondering if Nathan Williams, the man behind Wavves, would be a one-trick pony and if he’d continue to use those same noise elements in his sophomore record to hide his deficiencies.  Well, King of the Beach is a much cleaner album and Williams had nothing to hide.  This is an out and out beach record, as the album’s title suggests.  The title track, “Post Acid,” and “Super Soaker” just make you want to rock out with a few friends in the sand.  But what I found really fascinating were songs like “Linus Spacehead” and “Idiot” which are about alienation, loneliness, and depression.  The lyrics aren’t that incisive, but the way Williams sings them and the way he hides his emotions inside of “upbeat” songs, really resonated with me.

7.  Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

I didn’t really care about Taylor Swift and I don’t particularly care that Kanye is brash and full of bravado.  Like any great artist, all that should matter is the art that they put out there.  And for me – as someone who listened exclusively to hip hop as a child but grew weary of the direction it went int – Kanye West is the only artist that matters in the rap game right now.  Nobody else sings about their own securities quite like he does and on this album, he puts it all out there.  He talks about getting cheated on, cheating, lying, what his dreams and fantasies are, the whole ballgame.  But what makes this record so special is that it isn’t derivative of anybody else’s work.  No other rapper would have the insight or the gall to sample an Aphex Twin track for a heartbreaking cut like “Blame Game.”  No other rapper would admit to his douchebaggery so candidly, as West does on “Runaway.”  And no other rapper would talk so insightfully about fame, as West does on “Power.”  People can talk all they want about Jay-Z‘s guest appearances or Nicki Minaj‘s insanely brilliant verse on “Monster,” but this is a peek inside the brain of a genius named Kanye West and he’s the first to admit that it’s not always pretty in there.

6. The Walkmen – Lisbon

I’ve always had a soft spot for The Walkmen.  “The Rat” is just one of those instant classic songs that brings me back to a time and a place of my youth and still resonates with me, almost a decade later.  I’ve admired a lot of their work, a song here and a song there, but I hadn’t found a complete album of theirs that I liked from start to finish.  Lisbon is not a perfect album – the last three tracks are shrug-worthy – but it’s so beautiful and evocative for two-thirds of it.  It opens up with the song “Juveniles” and the lament that, “You’re with someone else/tomorrow night/doesn’t matter to me” and it’s clear that this is a break-up album.  And it’s a heartbreaking one.  The stand-out track is in the middle of the album and it’s called “Stranded” with the gut-wrenching refrain of “And I’m stranded…and I’m starry-eyed.”  If you want to lay in bed and think about your past loves, this is the album for you.

5.  Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Before Today

I don’t often agree with Pitchfork, but we’re definitely on the same page when it comes to “Round and Round” as the best song of the year.  That song just has such a perfect bridge and chorus that I would have put Ariel Pink’s album on here even if the rest of it sucked.  But the truth is that the rest of the album is almost as good.  Songs like “Fright Night” and “Beverly Kills” are just stellar.  Pink’s music might not be to everyone’s taste, but this is certainly his most accessible music.  There’s a nostalgic quality to his music, as if it comes from some undefined era in your childhood that you can’t quite place.  This album is like a mixtape you made when you were ten years old and just found again recently; all of the songs sound familiar, but you can’t quite sing along to them.  “Round and Round” is a nice entryway into the album for those who aren’t familiar with Ariel Pink’s style because it’s the poppiest song he’s ever recorded.  If you haven’t yet, then give it a listen.

4.  Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross – The Social Network Soundtrack

For someone who claims to be a film-loving lunatic, I’m not the kind of nerd that plays the scores for movies all day long.  I think there are only a handful of scores that I actually bought and I think two of them were by Clint Mansell.  The problem for me is that I like to listen to music with lyrics.  I mean, I love classical music as much as the next person, but when I come home at the end of the day, I want the music to literally speak to me.  But, as I said earlier, I’m an enormous Nine Inch Nails fan and therefore, I’m a huge Trent Reznor fan.  This is the best score for a film since Jonny Greenwood’s compositions for There Will Be Blood and it’s some of the best music period that I’ve heard all year.  In between seeing the film in theaters and getting my screener, I found myself re-living the experience again and again by listening to the score; the music and the images are married together in such perfect harmony that I couldn’t help but picture scenes of Mark Zuckerberg created FaceMash juxtaposed with images of Final Club parties while listening to the masterful “In Motion” which could easily be an instrumental track on a NIN album.  And I certainly re-lived the regatta race scene again as I listened to Reznor and Ross’ electronic cover of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King.”  This is moving, soulful, and rocking music and it’s what every score should aspire to.  If this doesn’t win the Oscar for best musical score, I may throw a shoe at my television.

3.  LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening

I really hope that James Murphy doesn’t make good on his promise that this, his third record, will be the last LCD Soundsystem album.  With each successive album, they are getting better and better and tighter and tighter.  The opening track, “Dance Yrself Clean” is such an assured, confident piece of music, lulling the listener into safety for the first three minutes until it explodes in a cacophony of bass, synth, and drums and all of a sudden your body is demanding that you move.  A lot of critics have made comparisons to David Bowie‘s Heroes, especially on “All I Want” and I think it’s an accurate assessment.  But songs like “I Can Change” are more reminiscent of early 80s New Wave groups like Devo than anything else.  But really, by the time you get to the finale “Home,” it’s pretty clear that LCD Soundsystem isn’t really like any other band.  Sure, they have influences and borrow some bits and pieces from the groups that have come before, but I can’t really think of any other band that sounds quite like them as a whole.  And I hope they continue to put albums, if only to see where they could possibly go from here.

2.  Best Coast – Crazy For You

A lot of people might point to some of the simplistic lyrics Bethany Cosentino uses as a sign that she’s not a talented songwriter.  I humbly disagree.  Yes, a lot of the lyrics are trite, but that doesn’t make them any less true.  And when she sings these pained lyrics with her soulful voice, it’s almost like they’ve never been sung before.  All of the songs on her first full-length album are, more or less, about wanting a guy, losing a guy, finding a guy, wishing a guy would like her, smoking pot, and her cat.  But the music is beachy (no surprise, she’s dating Wavves lead singer Nathan Williams) and fun, never allowing Bethany to mourn her situations for too long.  But the best thing Bethany has going for her is her humility; on tracks like “Bratty B” she talks about missing her boyfriend but then apologizing for being so needy.  One of the stand-out tracks for me is “I Want To” which starts out with the repetition of the line “I miss you so much” with the same chord plucked over and over again until  it erupts in a wave of emotion as she pleads for things to go back the way they used to be.  The single, “When I’m With You” is a good place for any newcomer to start, it’s a fun and yet poignant song about being lazy or crazy and having the best time with the person you love.  It’s a miracle that this wasn’t my favorite album of the year.

1. Vampire Weekend – Contra

I know, I know.  I hated them too.  Or, at least, I wanted to hate them too.  They seem so pretentious and posed, with their Ivy-League educations and well-to-do backgrounds, what could they possibly know about love and life and suffering?  Well, apparently a lot.  I gave this album a listen and was absolutely floored by it.  The depth of their lyrics, the boldness of the music, the way lead singer Ezra Koenig’s voice hits these amazing high notes – no, no, no, I can’t possibly be loving this band, could I?  Contra is the rare sophomore album that actually made me go back to the band’s first album and realize that I had them wrong all along.  Contra actually makes their debut album better because it shows that they are committed to a certain sound and style and they are capable of growth.  Most of their music happens to deal with rich kids with rich kid problems, but hell, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about rich people, it doesn’t make The Great Gatsby any less heartbreaking, does it?  The song I listened to the most this year is Vampire Weekend‘s epic “Diplomat’s Son” which is a six minute song about having a crush on your friend and the one night that the feelings are reciprocated.  A close second is the song “Run” which is about a couple growing older together and never leaving their mundane lives but keep telling each other that they could always run away.  At least, that’s what I think it’s about.  Like I said, the lyrics are deep and dense and there are many possible meanings.  People listen to the shake of the music and think that Vampire Weekend is just a silly little band, not realizing that what they are accomplishing is extremely difficult.  This is what rock should do: the music draws you close enough to pay attention to the lyrics, which add a whole other layer of enjoyment.  I’ve listened to Contra upwards of fifty times this year…I’m still enjoying new layers.

Okay, so what did I miss?  What should I have put on this list?

Frenzy on the Wall: No Country For The Coens’ True Grit Remake

Monday, December 20th, 2010

True Grit is undeniably brilliant, but I didn’t love it. It’s a very good movie, better than most things you’ve seen this year and completely worthy of your time and money. But considering the talent in front of the camera and behind it, considering the themes on display and the moments of genius that burst through, it could have been a masterpiece. And it misses the mark.

Top Ten TV Shows

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

I’m a bit of a pop culture junkie.  Aside from seeing an average of 150 new films of every year, I also watch a lot of television, listen to a lot of new music, and I read quite a lot of fiction.  As I begin the early preparations of my top ten films of the year list, I decided to give TV its due.  And to answer the critics who will inevitably shout about the ridiculousness of lists…well, I like them and I think they help provoke discussions and (friendly) arguments.  Hopefully my top ten shows of the year will do that.

I want to start by talking about one show you won’t see on this list: Lost.  It was, without a doubt, my favorite show on television while it was airing but I thought it completely crapped the bed.  It wasn’t just the finale, which clearly showed that the creators had no idea what they were doing, but the entire last season.  Within the first seconds of the new season, with Jack on the plane, I thought, “this is not where I want this to go.”  I will always love Lost for the enjoyment it gave me for the first five seasons, but anyone who defends the last season is completely deluding themselves.  I got choked up during the finale, only because it was super manipulative.  I didn’t expect answers to all of my questions, but I expected something that would have satisfied me in a more tangible way.  Every character spoke in vague generalities right down to the very end and I wanted something concrete…I think we all did.

(Note: I’m not including reality shows for two reasons.  1) It’s embarrassing to admit which reality shows I watch (coughRealWorldcough) and 2) I don’t really see the artistry in those shows (coughTopChefcough).)

Honorable Mention:

I really wanted to put Dexter on this list, but I can’t ignore the fact that the first two or three episodes fell flat and the season finale was incredibly disappointing.  Michael C. Hall was as fantastic as ever, but after last year’s killer season finale, this one seemed a little too easy.  Julia Stiles gave the show a new energy in the middle part of the season as Lumen and the deepening of her relationship with Dexter was the most enjoyable part of the season.  I hope she’ll be back next year and I hope the stakes are a bit higher.

I also would have loved to have put Weeds on the list, but I just think it’s petering out.  My biggest gripe with the show from the beginning has been that Nancy Botwin is one of the most despicable characters on television and certainly the worst mother.  I’ve grown tired of seeing her get painted into a corner only to find a way out only because I can no longer root for her to succeed.  Mary Louise-Parker is such a wonderful actress, but I think she needs to spread her wings with a different character.  Justin Kirk, however, still makes the show an entertainment.

30 Rock is still consistently funny every week, but is suffering from the problems that most sitcoms have as they mature: the characters become caricatures of themselves.  Rather than each of the cast members becoming a deeper and more nuanced character, they settle into certain personality traits that ultimately define them.  So Tracy is merely the wacky guy, Jenna the narcissistic actress, Jack the Republican, Liz the lonely gal, etc.  I tune in to every show and I laugh consistently, but I don’t care about the characters in any real way.  It’s like watching a cartoon.  A very funny one.

The Office is like hanging out with old buddies.  I know each of the characters so well that I feel like I know what they’re going to do in every given situation.  It’s a comfortable situation rather than one I tune in to for something mind-blowingly original and dazzling.  I think the show is running out of real stakes for these characters because there is no major conflict unless you count Michael and Holly or Andy and Erin, but those are lightweight issues compared to Jim and Pam’s courtship in the early seasons.  I still love it, but it’s not transcendent television any longer.

The first season of Eastbound and Down was pure gold from start to finish.  The second season finished stronger, but it started out of the gate a little bit slowly.  It took a while for the show to find its rhythm in Mexico, but once it got going (right around the time that Stevie shows up), it really took off.  The last episode was not only hilarious, but oddly poignant and it showed what a terrific actor Danny McBride can be when he wants to.  If only the first two episodes were as good.

Both Modern Family and Parenthood just missed this list because of  a last-second inclusion of something else.  Both of these shows are as funny as they are soul-soothing.  I know that I can flip these shows on and feel the need to call my own family.  Modern Family‘s Phil is proving to be one of the funniest characters on television thanks to a wonderful performance by Ty Burrell and Parenthood‘s Peter Krause holds that show together every week, just as he holds his family together.

Okay, so here’s the top ten:

10) Skins

Nothing gets under my skin (no pun intended) quite like the fact that MTV is re-making this wonderful British show.  The original is frank in its depictions of drugs, sex, and just being a damned teenager.  The fourth season of the show, which follows its second generation of teens, starts off with the suicide of a young girl after she takes some drugs.  The first episode seems to clear up the mystery of why and how, but the repercussions follow our main cast as the season ambles along.  This season falls apart towards the end, especially as Effy develops a strange relationship with her therapist, but it’s engaging enough throughout that we forgive its moments of silliness.  It’s certainly not on part with the first two seasons, mostly because the characters are not as likable and the actors not as charismatic, but it’s still better than most shows on American television.  Jack O’Connell as Cook really surprised me this season, taking a character that I did not care for in the first season and deepening it, making him the true hero of this generation of kids.

9) True Blood

If you think this show about vampires, werewolves, fairies and shifters is too silly, then I completely concur.  But if you can embrace the fact that it’s going to be ridiculous, then I think it’s one of the most entertaining shows on TV.  The political points it tries to hammer home are a bit on-the-nose, but otherwise this is a show that is not meant to be taken seriously.  It’s about watching these insanely beautiful people inhabit a strange world where sexual tension pervades every word and action.  I think Anna Paquin deserves a great deal of credit for being the guide that allows us to believe in this world for an hour every Sunday.  This is a soap opera, but a great one.

8) Louie

Louis C.K. is the funniest stand-up working today, but he’s a difficult person to cast in a television show.  He’s raunchy and dirty, but he brings a strange kind of sweetness to his comedy, a sweetness that is really buried in neuroses.  Lucky Louie was not the project for him because it pigeonholed him in an typical (yet ironic) sitcom.  With Louie, he gets to plumb the depths of his own psyche and he does it by writing and directing every episode; this is Louis C.K. through and through.  It’s a ballsy show too, that is comfortable with whole sections that are not designed to make you laugh.  I especially liked a scene where Louie shares a smoke with the dad of a bully on the steps of his Staten Island home; it’s not funny, but it’s true and it felt right.    With Curb Your Enthusiasm taking the year off, it’s a good thing we had Louie to take the “awkward comedy” reins.

7) Boardwalk Empire

This is a dense show that I think will grow into something gorgeous and even more complicated.  The first season did a wonderful job of giving us this ensemble of great characters that will hopefully be utilized even more in future seasons.  Steve Buscemi and Michael Pitt do wonderful jobs of giving us characters that are duplicitous, murderous yet not evil.  Both men have charitable streaks, moments where they do incredibly loving things for the people they care for.  As the season progressed, though, I found myself completely engaged in two other characters: Chalky White and Richard Harrow.  Chalky, played deliciously by Michael K. Williams, is just flat-out awesome, doing what he needs to do for himself and his people.  Richard is just one of the most original and engaging creations on television, a man who lost half his face in the Great War and is now the most sensitive yet cold-blooded snipers ever.  Characters like this (and the ones played by Kelly MacDonald and Michael Stuhlbarg) make up for the fact that Paz de la Huerta is giving one of the most terrible performances I’ve ever witnessed in a great show.  I just don’t know what she – or the creators – are going for with that character, but she doesn’t resemble a rational human being in any way.

6) Bored to Death

Being an aspiring novelist living in New York City, I probably have a greater affinity for this show than most people.  But I will say that I didn’t like most of the first season, finding it off-putting and strained.  But it’s really come into its own in the second season by giving us more Ted Danson and Zach Galifianakis.  More importantly, the show has done a good job of getting all three of the main characters together more often because that’s when the show really takes off.  Danson, especially, should be given every award there is for his performance as George Christopher, the perpetually stoned magazine editor and benefactor to Jonathan, our hero.  I think Jason Schwartzman also did a wonderful job of giving us a more sympathetic (emphasis on pathetic) portrait of a struggling author with a love for white wine.  The season started off with an episode in which Jonathan runs around Times Square with an S&M bodysuit on and ends with he and George going to smoke some pot; in between, there were moments of hilarity and startling poignancy.  Poignancy, you ask?  When George is headed off to surgery and the nurses asks him if Jonathan is his son, I was already in tears before he said, “Yes, yes he is.”

5) Saturday Night Live

Know what the worst opinion to have is?  “SNL hasn’t been funny since ________.”  That bothers me so much because it shows that whoever said that doesn’t know much about SNL.  Go back and watch those early “great” years of the show and you’ll see that was just as hit or miss as it is now.  The show was never consistently funny all the time, the skits always ran on too long, etc.  Then there’s “this cast sucks.”  People said the same thing when the cast had future superstars Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, and Chris Rock or when Will Ferrell and Jimmy Fallon were on.  The point is that, yes, it sometimes misses the mark and there are off-shows, but when it’s on, it is the funniest live-action comedy show out there.  Between the Digital Shorts and Seth Meyers’ wonderful job on Weekend Update, SNL is still going strong and I’m still watching it (well, DVRing it) every Saturday.  If you disagree, then I suggest you go on Hulu and check out Bill Hader’s “Stefon” character who recurs on Weekend Update from time to time…pure deranged genius.

4) Friday Night Lights

This is not a show about football.  I’ve had so many friends of mine who aren’t sports fans tell me about how they have no interest in “a show about football.”  It’s a show about a town, a family, a group of friends and they just happen to be connected to each other through football.  Sure there are scenes of games, but they are way less dramatic than the intimate moments between people.  This season, the show has taken a drastic turn with Coach Taylor stuck with the newly formed East Dillon High football team and we just know that there’s going to be a showdown with his old squad, the Dillon Panthers.  This season took a cue from Necessary Roughness, where there is no shot the team is going to win the championship but you just hope they can stick it to the bad guys.  However, the heart of this show has always been about Coach and his wife Tami, who are the greatest married couple on TV and played expertly by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton.  Also, Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) is still around breaking and mending hearts wherever he goes; he’s the character that I’ve become more drawn to as the seasons pass, a different take on the reformed bad boy who is not quite reformed but not that bad.  This season introduces new characters and brings back old ones and its to the show’s credit that it all meshes seamlessly.  I wish that this upcoming season (currently airing on DirecTV) wasn’t its last because I can see how it could go on forever…at least as long as Coach and Tami stick around.

3) In Treatment

This is just such a fantastic example of how great writing plus great acting equals a great show.  There are no elaborate sets or special effects, just two people talking in a room and the dramatic tension within those conversations.  Gabriel Byrne’s Paul is an unusual therapist who gets close with his patients and the way in which he aligns with the people he treats is one of the big themes this season.  Irrfan Khan, who has always been an underrated and fantastic actor, absolutely kills it as Sunil this season – a man who is living with his son and his son’s family in the States and the friction between he and his daughter-in-law.  Debra Winger’s episodes weren’t as strong for me, but I thought she was good in them.  I didn’t respond to the “Jesse” episodes early in the season because he seemed like such a brat, but as I continued with it they became some of my favorites and it’s in no small part due to Dane DeHaan’s complicated and conflicted portrayal.  But this season for me was all about Paul’s relationship with his new therapist Adele, played by the uber-talented Amy Ryan.  The episodes start off by turning the “Gina” sessions from the previous two seasons on their head, making us question the ethics of Dianne Wiest’s character.  Then, of course, the complexion of Paul and Adele’s counseling changes and we veer off into unexpected (although not uncharted) territory for this show.  The last episodes weren’t as satisfying as they have been in the past – nothing is really resolved – but I’m hopeful that HBO will renew it for another season.  There may not be a large number of In Treatment fans (although there should be), but we are passionate and loyal.

2) Archer

Hands down the funniest show on television.  It took me a while to watch this animated show on FX, but when I did it absolutely floored me.  I’m not the kind of person that laughs out loud a lot when I’m alone, but this show had me crying from laughter and my neighbors must have thought I was insane.  The show follows the most self-centered and hilariously deranged secret agent, Sterling Archer, who works at an agency called ISIS that is run by his mother Mallory Archer.  I don’t really know where to go from here because I don’t want to ruin a single second of this show for those of you haven’t seen it, but I’ll just say that H. Jon Benjamin does incredible voice work as the titular character and Arrested Development alums Jessica Walter and Judy Greer (as well as Jeffrey Tambor) also do excellent work.  I’ve been quoting this show non-stop since I saw it – the humor is really quite insane, especially when it’s derived from the relationship Archer has with his butler Woodhouse.  Here’s an example and if you don’t find these this type of humor funny then it might not be for you:

Archer: I have to go. But if I find one single dog hair when I get back, I’ll rub… sand… in your dead little eyes.
Woodhouse: Very good, sir.
Archer: [pause] I also need you to buy sand.
Woodhouse: Yes, sir.
Archer: I don’t know if they grade it, but… coarse.

1) Mad Men

The funny thing about putting these two shows together is that the style of the clothes in Archer is heavily based on the clothes in Mad Men and Archer is kind of a dead-ringer for Don Draper himself.  But, there is no longer any doubt in my mind that Mad Men is the best show on television right now and is possibly in the running for greatest television show of all time.  That is not just hyperbole either; I honestly can’t think of another show that has been this dense and this beautifully crafted.  This season of the show could be called “MadMan.”  It  puts Don Draper in a new office with a new apartment, having moved out following his divorce from Betty, and in the early going he does not handle it well.  Gradually, Don tries to become a better and healthier person.  By the end of the season he is engaged and we’re left wondering if he’s really made any strides at all.  The episode where Don and Peggy spend the night arguing as they try to figure out the ad slogan for Samsonite is certainly one of the best in the show’s history, but I think the season finale is even better.  When Don travels to Disneyland and he sees his secretary Megan cleaning up a spilled milkshake with a smile instead of the scowl that Betty would have worn, it’s one of the greatest moments in the show because no dialogue needs to be spoken for us to understand what is happening.  Everybody at that table, including Don’s kids, has a revelation in that moment, but it’s a subtle one.  And it’s moments like that that make Mad Men such a wonderful show, the way it doesn’t feel the need to spell out its intentions, giving us the benefit of the doubt.  It doesn’t talk down to us and it doesn’t talk at us, it asks us to pay close enough attention so that we can make the most out of our experience of watching it.  The agony of waiting another eight months for a new episode is excruciating.

Frenzy on the Wall: Black Swan

Monday, December 13th, 2010

Let’s get this out of the way right up front: Natalie Portman gives the performance of the year in Black Swan, and the film itself is a masterpiece.

I’m an enormous fan of Darren Aronofsky’s work, and I think he’s one of the true visionaries in cinema. His first three feature-length films — Pi, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain — are all masterpieces. I was not a big fan of The Wrestler, which I found to be wildly over-praised. I thought it was a fine film, sure, but it wasn’t reaching for the same heights that Aronofsky’s previous films had and I thought that it suffered from a lack of dramatic momentum – in other words, I didn’t find myself propelled forward by the story.

Frenzy on the Wall: All Good Things Is Almost a Great Thing

Monday, December 6th, 2010

Capturing the Friedmans was a monumental movie experience for me, because the documentary focused on a fascinating case that just so happened to have occurred in my hometown. I can’t tell you what an oddly transporting experience it was to see streets and houses that I passed by every day, given new meaning because of the tale director Andrew Jarecki unfolded so beautifully. Arnold Friedman taught at the elementary school I went to and I kept thinking that I had unknowingly dodged a bullet, perhaps.

127 Hours (Dir. Danny Boyle)

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

127 Hours is, so far, my pick for the most overrated movie of the year.

Don’t get me wrong, 127 Hours is not a bad film, it’s just one that doesn’t really strike me as having a particular point of view or an interest in characterization.  For some folks, that won’t be an issue, they’ll walk into the film wanting to see a man stuck in a perilous situation for an hour and change and then cut his arm off.  For those folks, that will be enough and they’ll walk out satisfied.  But for me, I need arcs, I need characters, I need to walk out of a film knowing more than when I walked into it.

I don’t know Aron Ralston any better now that I’ve seen a movie about him than I did before I walked into it.  Before the film started, I knew him as the guy who cut his arm off because he was trapped in a crevice for five days, his arm pinned by a rock.  Now that I’ve seen the film and had a day to digest it, I will still think of him in the exact same way.  He is still nothing but a fascinating symbol of the human will for survival.

And all of that is fine and dandy, except that a film is an opportunity to shape that symbol into a character and bring him into focus.  Danny Boyle instead eschews traditional narrative tropes that would have worked to the film’s benefit, instead just giving us minute after minute of James Franco screaming and gasping and slowly dying of thirst.  And while I admire Boyle’s courage in trying to make an interesting movie about this struggle, I don’t think he completely hits the mark.

Imagine Into the Wild, except the entire film is set in the “magic bus” at the end of the film.  After all, that part of Chris McCandless’ life is what brought him to our attention to begin with; had he not died in that bus, nobody would have known who he was.  But instead, the film travels back to give us a picture of how this character came to get to that bus, what drove him as a person.  As a result, when McCandless dies, we feel we have known this character and feel the loss of him.  Conversely, in 127 Hours, we don’t feel like we know Aron Ralston at all, so we he finally decides to cut his arm off, I didn’t feel the film earned that moment.  I didn’t understand what that moment meant to Ralston or what it was supposed to mean to us beyond the surface act of actually doing it.

The film gives us snippets of Ralston’s life, of how he doesn’t return his mother’s calls and his fractured relationship with a girlfriend.  But I’m not sure what these snippets signify other than that Ralston had lived a fairly normal life and had fairly ordinary motivations to get out of this situation.  This would have been the film’s opportunity to deepen the characterization of Aron by deepening his relationships with the people around him.  One could say that, “oh, but what if those relationships were boring in real-life?”  Well, this is a fictionalized account of what happened, the film therefore has license to change things around in order to fit the screen in a more interesting way.  That is the difference between feature and documentary filmmaking, the ability to shift the truth (and some would argue that documentary does the same thing).  I guarantee you that there are many elements of 127 Hours that were completely made up, but even if Boyle didn’t want to invent something entirely that would make Aron’s past more interesting, I’m sure there must have been something already there.  Human beings are inherently complicated, I’m sure there was something in Aron’s past that would capture our attention and make us care more about his plight.

Instead the first half of the film is especially trying to watch because it’s, frankly, boring.  After the initial fall in the crevice, all I was thinking was, “how long until he cuts off his damned arm?” because much of the running time is focused on Aron chipping away at the rock with the knife he eventually uses to do the deed.  There are a few good moments where Aron talks to the camcorder he brought with him (the best moment in the film is probably the “talk show scene”), but I didn’t like the fake “escape” sequence.  If you have to pad your running time by including a five minute long scene that didn’t actually happen, then you might want to think about how to better structure your film.

James Franco is good in the role, but I don’t understand the unanimous acclaim for his performance because I don’t know what he does that another (good) actor couldn’t have done.  The role doesn’t demand that much from its actor other than to scream a lot; there are very few choices that an actor could make that would change the complexity of the character.  If you had replaced Franco with, say, Jake Gyllenhaal, would the film/performance be vastly different?  Franco was certainly convincing in the role, probably his best performance to date, but I’m not convinced of its greatness, especially in a year with so many fantastic lead performances.

As for Danny Boyle, I suppose this is the kind of film you’re allowed to make after you win an Oscar, but I was disappointed with a lot of the visual “tricks” he used in order to keep the story entertaining.  A lot of the close-ups of the water being drunk reminded me of Aronofsky’s work in Requiem for a Dream, only not done as effectively.  I always found that Boyle has had a lot of trouble with the endings of his films (besides Shallow Grave and Trainspotting) and at least here, he found one with a ready-made perfect ending.

The scene of the actual arm-cutting itself wasn’t as disgusting as I anticipated it would be.  Blood doesn’t have the same effect it once did, but the moments where he has to break the bone and then cut through nerve endings were powerfully rendered.

But I got the feeling as the film went on, careening towards its inevitable conclusion that I was essentially watching a snuff film minus the death.  There are some that would be excited by that prospect, but I’m not one of them.

Frenzy on the Wall: How to Fix the Oscars

Monday, November 29th, 2010

I am an unabashed fan of the Academy Awards. I have watched every telecast since I was a young boy and I still anticipate Oscar Day as much as I always have. Historically, I have never really been a fan of the choices the Academy has made, but I still see the show itself as a celebration of cinema. It’s really the one day a year that American audiences can reflect on the past year of film; whether we agree with the choices or not, the Academy Awards offers a remarkable insight into the politicking at the time.

Future generations will look back and try to deduce how Crash could have won Best Picture, but if they dig hard enough they’ll find that the Academy at that time was most likely squeamish about giving the award to a “gay” film like Brokeback Mountain and were overwhelmed by the publicity machine behind Crash.

Aside from the massive changes I would make to the awards themselves (oh, how I’d love to implement campaign finance reform in regards to the Oscars), I’d like to talk about what we can do to make the show itself better. Ultimately every year, I’m surprised by the lack of creativity behind the folks that produce the show. It’s shocking that so many creative people would be so reluctant to mess with a crappy formula.

Anyway, here are some changes I’d like to see:

Go Back to Five Best Picture Nominees

I don’t know whose bright idea it was to expand the category to ten nominees, but it’s made it much less of an honor to achieve a Best Picture nomination now. This is supposed to be something that is difficult to attain. Remember that old cliché of “it’s an honor just to be nominated?” Well, now it’s not.

I used these silly statistics last year when I first found out about the 10 Best Picture nominees, but if you think about the fact that 300 or so films are eligible for nominations every year, that means that if there are five nominations to be had, then there’s a 1.6% chance of getting one. If you double the field to ten, then there’s now a 3.3% chance. Still not a great chance, you say? I’d say that if you consider there are about 200 films or so that have no aspirations to get an award, those chances seems much higher.

I don’t like that we live in a culture that wants to reward as many people for their “achievements” as possible. This isn’t elementary school soccer, where everybody gets a trophy. You’re the Oscars, start acting like it.

Tell Us the Vote Count … or at Least the Order of Finish

William Goldman constantly pleaded with the Academy to tell us the vote counts. His contention was that it would make it so much more instructive and fascinating if we found out how close the races really were. Did The Hurt Locker barely edge out Avatar? By how many votes did Roberto Benigni win his Best Actor Oscar? When Robert Redford beat out Scorsese for Best Director, was it even close? The answers to these questions would be utterly fascinating to film nerds like myself.

But let’s say that for some reason, the Academy is really against that. I don’t see why they would be, but for the sake of argument, let’s go with it. Why wouldn’t they at least let us know the order of finish? Better yet, why wouldn’t they incorporate that into the broadcast? If you’re going to go with the idiotic notion of having ten Best Picture nominees, then wouldn’t it be fun if you announced them throughout the evening in reverse order? Can you imagine how exciting it would be if last year, we counted backwards until it was just The Hurt Locker and Avatar?

Beyond the excitement that it would bring the ending of the show, it would be incredibly interesting to see where each film finished. Hell, why stop with just the films themselves? Why not do the same thing with all of the major categories? I don’t really see any argument against doing this; who wouldn’t sign up for this in a heartbeat?

Is someone really going to be embarrassed if it turned out they gave “only” the fifth best supporting performance of the year? And anyone who says that it would be wrong to make it such a competition…well, it’s a competition anyway. It would be like watching the Olympics – it’s always most interesting to find out who wins the race, but if you’re a fan of a particular racer, it’s nice to know where they finish.

Make the Show Longer

This is something I’ve been harping on forever. Every year, there are the same idiots who complain about how long the show is. Let me tell you something: the show is going to be long! Get over it. I mean, if you don’t like how long the show is, then stop watching the damned Oscars. Personally, I’ve never once felt like the show was too long – I’ve found parts that were boring, but that’s when I grab a snack. You see, nobody is actually forcing me to watch the whole thing and I’m usually in the comfort of my home, where I have other things to do if I’m bored.

But I always say that the show should actually be longer. If this is supposed to be a real celebration of the movies, then let’s give the cinema its due. Let’s get longer clips of the performances and the films, let’s allow the hosts to be more fully integrated into the show (more on that later), let’s allow the winners to speak (more on that later), let’s not cut the original song performances for time. We have all the time in the world and the ability to fast forward with Tivo.

Allow Actors to be Nominated in the Same Category in the Same Year

I don’t understand this rule at all. If an actor gives two wonderful lead performances in the same year, then they aren’t allowed to be nominated in the same category for those performances. So, even if you give the two best lead performances of the year, you have to put one of them in the supporting category or else it gets lost forever.

I think back to Kate Winslet, who had to choose between The Reader and Revolutionary Road. Unfortunately, she won the Oscar for the wrong role, but she never should have been in that situation. The same thing happened with Leonardo DiCaprio with The Departed and Blood Diamond. Again, he got nominated for the wrong role, but why couldn’t he have been nominated for both? They were both worthy of nomination, so what’s the big fear? That he’ll compete against himself? Um, who cares? He has to compete against four other performances and if one of them happens to be himself, then so be it.

Silly, silly rule.

Pay No Attention to What the Nominee Wants

Along the same lines as the last change, I don’t understand why actors have the right to choose which category they got nominated in. Julianne Moore – or her people – were lobbying for Best Supporting Actress for her role in The Kids Are All Right despite sharing equal screen time with Annette Bening, who is lobbying for Best Actress. Apparently this was scrapped and now she’ll be campaigning in the lead category.

Still, I just don’t think the actors or their PR people or the studios should have that kind of input. I think I’m smart enough to understand the distinction between a lead performance and a supporting one, I don’t need anybody to guide me in that department.

Show Us the Short Films

Every year, the same idiotic people who shout for the show to be shorter talk about getting rid of the “stupid” categories, like Best Animated Short or Best Live Action Short or Best Documentary Short. Well, I like the fact that the filmmakers behind those works of art get equal footing – or close to it – on Oscar night as the feature filmmakers and famous actors. I just think if we were to have a dog in the race, then everybody would be much more interested and invested in who wins, just like with the other categories.

Right before the Oscar telecast, whichever channel is broadcasting the Oscars should show us the short films. Take like an hour or two before the famous people show up for the red carpet and just show us these films. It would help these little-seen films get viewers and it would give us the ability to watch these movies and therefore care more about the outcome of the awards.

Bring the Honorary Oscars Back to the Show

I really hate the idea that Lauren Bacall, Gordon Willis, and Roger Corman didn’t give speeches at the actual Oscar ceremony last year and instead had to settle for the Governor’s Awards. I want to see those speeches given at the Oscars themselves. Same goes this year for Eli Wallach, Francis Ford Coppola, and Jean-Luc Godard. Some of the best speeches I’ve seen at the Oscars were given by folks who received honorary awards – Peter O’Toole comes to mind.

I think it’s a travesty that this practice of giving the honorary winners their own separate non-televised dinner was not only implemented, but is in practice for yet another year.

Let People Speak

Going back to the idea of making the show longer – let these winners give their speeches. This is supposed to be the highest honor for their profession, so why not allow them to have more than 45 seconds without that annoying orchestra shooing them off the stage? I hate boring speeches as much as the next person, but these people have earned the right to thank whomever they feel like. It’s not like people are going to get up there and ramble for three minutes.

The most annoying part of it is that the knowledge of the coming orchestra cue takes up an inordinate amount of time in a nervous winner’s speech. They always waste at least a few seconds talking about the music and how they have to speak very quickly. If they weren’t living in fear of the orchestra coming, they might be relaxed enough to give a coherent and interesting speech.

Hire One of the Following People to Host — and Let Them do Their Shtick

My biggest problem with the hosts has been that the show always follows the same format: the host does a monologue and then pops up for about two more bits throughout the evening and sometimes drops a witty bon mot here and there. That’s it.

I want the host of the show to be more fully integrated into the proceedings, to not only guide me through the evening, but to keep me entertained during the parts of the show that are just never going to be that interesting. I liked Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin last year, but they were used so sparingly after the opening that I was left wanting a lot more.

If you’re going to hire a host, let them run wild and do their own shtick. That means that if you hire Jon Stewart, let him do political humor because that’s what he does. If you hire Chris Rock, let him take about race because that’s where he excels. If you want someone who appeals to a broader audience, then don’t simply hire the funniest guy.

I mean, I love Louis C.K. but I don’t think he’d be the best choice for the Oscars because he’d be hamstrung. I like Jim Gaffigan too, but he’s way too droll. Whitney Cummings would be great, but there’s no way she’d be able to keep it clean enough for the fuddy-duddies. Here are my top choices for hosts:

Steve Martin – I think he’s one of the sharpest comedians who has ever lived and he’s never disappointed me as a host. He’s always in command of the room and his jokes are always incisive and cutting. A personal hero of mine.

Tina Fey – I didn’t really think of her as someone for this job until I saw her speech when she won the Mark Twain Prize for Humor and she just killed it. She absolutely slayed the room and owned it. I think she’d be fantastic.

Conan O’Brien – It would be a mutually beneficial move for both parties. The Academy can hope that the Team Coco train is still rolling and Conan would get a big boost of legitimacy for his fledgling new show. Also, the Masturbating Beat could hand out an award.

Justin Timberlake – Love him or hate him, the dude is a born performer. He can sing, dance, and sell a joke. Watch him on SNL and tell me he’s not capable of being a flat-out outstanding Oscars host.

Martin Scorsese – Nope, not a particularly funny guy. But he’s a film historian who has forgotten more about cinema than I will ever know, and I think it would be interesting if the show was hosted by someone who actually was coming from a place of love for film rather than comedy. It would be interesting to see how he’d navigate the proceedings, perhaps throwing in clips of old films to compare to the newer ones, showing us how we got from there to here. I’d sign up for that.

Of course, I know many of you will disagree with my thoughts on how to make the Oscars better, particularly about making the show longer rather than shorter. I’d love to hear what ideas you have, and what you think about mine. Should the Oscars be shorter or longer, or would you rather they just went away? Would you like to see the shorts, or should Oscars not be given for short films at all? Sound off with your own Oscar thoughts; I’ll share your best ideas, and my own thoughts on them, in a follow-up post on the Frenzy On blog later this week.

P.S. On the Hathaway/Franco hosting news: I’m fairly astounded by this news. Part of me likes the fact that the producers are thinking outside the box and I have enjoyed Hathaway and Franco’s hosting skills on SNL. However, I’ve also written columns in recent weeks on both of them and how I think they are over-rated as actors and performers.

There is precedent for this, of course. In the ’80s, Chevy Chase hosted with Goldie Hawn and Paul Hogan one year and another year had Alan Alda with Robin Williams and Jane Fonda. However, considering that Hathaway and Franco are being bandied about as possible nominees this year, it rubs me the wrong way. It seems a bit like a bush-league move, something that MTV would do for their VMAs, trying to capitalize on the fact that the “kids” love James Franco and Anne Hathaway.

I’m usually more in favor of someone who is naturally funny doing the hosting or – as with my Scorsese suggestion – someone who is knowledgeable about film. But, I will reserve judgment until I see them perform. One suggestion: if you’re going to go this route, then lose Bruce Vilanch as the head writer and hire someone like Judd Apatow or Jody Hill to craft some more appropriate jokes for hosts of a much younger generation than the normal emcees.


Friday, November 26th, 2010

I’m a little late on giving thanks, but I do have quite a few things to be thankful for this year.  First and foremost is you, my loyal readers, who make it worthwhile for me to spend time in front of my laptop for hours at a time.  I know a lot of you by name from our e-mails back and forth, others I just know are there, and most I hope to hear from in the future.  With the new format here, I’m excited to be able to communicate with you in the comments.  Anyway, thank you for thinking that my silly scribbling is worth your time.

I’m thankful for David Poland for continuing to give me more space in his center of the internet universe and for Kim Voynar for painstakingly editing all of my columns and making me look good every week.  And of course, the rest of the MCN staff (Pride, Dretzka, Pratt, Wilmington, Klady) who I’m honored to see my name next to on bylines.

I’m thankful for all of the great movies I see every year and for those that I’ve yet to see.  This year I’m especially thankful for David Fincher’s The Social Network, which continues to impress me every time I think of its various accomplishments.  Fincher has firmly established himself as one of the top three or four directors in the field, someone whom I will gladly line up for, despite the projects he chooses.  I have no doubt that his remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will be vastly superior to the mediocre and overpraised Swedish version.

I’m thankful for the great performances this year by Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone), Rachel Weisz (Agora), George Clooney (The American), Annette Bening (The Kids are All Right), Robert Duvall (Get Low), Tilda Swinton (I Am Love).  These actors are almost always worth watching and this year, they were especially convincing in their roles.

I’m thankful that Steven Spielberg finally got the cojones required for him to make his long-gestating Lincoln biopic.  But I’m even more thankful that Daniel Day Lewis has replaced Liam Neeson in the title role.  I’ve gone on record more than a few times that I think DDL is the greatest living actor (and it’s not even close).  He works so rarely, so the fact that he’s taken time out to make this film leads me to believe that this will be one of Spielberg’s “good” projects.  I’m certainly more excited to see this than Robopocalypse and Tintin.

I’m thankful that I’m still surprised by the movie industry sometimes, like when I heard that Francis Ford Coppola was secretly filming a horror movie called Twist Now and Sunrise with Val Kilmer (my favorite actor for much of my young adult years), who badly needs a reclamation project.  After Coppola’s last film, Tetro, which I thought was a masterpiece, I have high hopes for this one.  It’ll also be nice to see the best young actor you’ve never heard of on screen again (Alden Ehrenreich).

I’m thankful that I still have so many gaps in my movie-watching history, allowing me to see films like Rocco and His Brothers for the first time.  It gives me comfort to know that there are thousands of great films out there, waiting for me to discover them.

I’m thankful for my favorite filmmakers: Lukas Moodysson, Arnaud Desplechin, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, David Fincher, Woody Allen, Spike Lee, Rebecca Miller, The Coen Brothers, Michael Haneke, Gus Van Sant, Steven Soderbergh, Noah Baumbach, Sidney Lumet, Todd Field, Darren Aronofsky, Alfonso Cuaron, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater, Larry Clark, Harmony Korine, Lars von Trier, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Terrence Malick, Judd Apatow, Susanne Bier, Steven Spielberg, David O. Russell, Mike Nichols, Walter Salles, Alexander Payne, Jonathan Demme, Sofia Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola, Jim Sheridan, Gabriele Muccino, Peter Weir, Fernando Meirelles, Danny Boyle, Roman Polanski, Spike Jonze, Pedro Almodovar, Michael Winterbottom, Cameron Crowe, James L. Brooks, Alejandro Amenabar, David Wain, John Cameron Mitchell, Julian Schnabel, Curtis Hanson, Stephen Frears, Sam Mendes, Doug Liman, Frank Darabont, the Wachowskis, Milos Forman, Whit Stillman, Ang Lee, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, and so many more that I’ve forgotten.

For all those who think “they just don’t make ’em like they used to,” I’d like them to take a look at the list above and name me a time when so much talent was behind the camera at the same time.  These filmmakers give me so much to be thankful for, whether I enjoy their films or not; because I know at the end of the day, they make films that I’m glad to have seen.

I could go on about the great things in my own life, from wonderful friends to an amazing family, but each and every one of those people knows how truly thankful I am to have them.

The single thing I’m most thankful for, though?  The feeling of walking into a film, expecting greatness, every single time.  Hope you all have a wonderful holiday.

Frenzy on the Wall: Anne Hathaway is a Great Actress … Right?

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

“Anne Hathaway is a great actress.”
“Is she, though?”

Both speakers in that conversation are me. This was the dialogue I was having with myself as I watched Hathaway on Saturday Night Live this past weekend. She was so effortlessly charismatic, her timing excellent, and her presence inviting. Whether she was playing a hillbilly waiting in line at MegaMart or a very frightened Kate Middleton, she seemed at ease getting into the skin of many varied characters. She, like Justin Timberlake, was one of the rare guest hosts who I could see being a regular cast member (provided, of course, she wanted to take a huge step back career-wise and make far less money).

I found myself thinking that it should have been obvious how good she would be (and she was excellent last time she hosted too) based on how talented she is. Then I started to think of all the great performances she had given.

That’s where I ran into a bit if a problem. I rushed onto IMDb and found that, despite the universal praise for her acting skills, she has given only one unquestionably great performance – Rachel Getting Married – and a whole lot of forgettable or passable or pretty good ones. Have we all been brainwashed by some kind of massive conspiracy plotted by a team of publicists and journalists into believing that Hathaway was the next Meryl Streep?

Let’s look at the evidence.

Hathaway burst onto the scene with The Princess Diaries, a film that is admittedly not aimed at me. However, I thought that she was pretty good, considering the material. Although I don’t really know how much of that performance is due to good acting and how much is simply due to the fact that, as we’ve already covered, she’s immensely likable and charismatic. She has something that is completely separate from any kind of talent – she has a face that we trust and like and she projects warmth as a human being, especially in interviews. So I’m inclined to believe that her portrayal of Mia Thermopolis is really the result of her being a performer we like rather than one who is truly crafting something special.

I never saw The Other Side of Heaven, but I’m fairly certain that if she set the world on fire with that one, I would have watched it by now. Her next film is Nicholas Nickleby, the adaptation of the Dickens novel. I thought the film was passable and utterly unmemorable. In fact, I remember very little about it – including Hathaway’s performance. I would fault the filmmakers more than Hathaway for that, however, because as we’ve already established – Hathaway is memorable. To somehow take a performer like her and have her not make much of an impression is a shame. But I do like that Hathaway was attempting to make a “prestige” film, so points to her for that.

Next we have the one-two punch of Ella Enchanted and The Princess Diaries 2. If anything, these two films proved that Hathaway had officially outgrown films aimed at people under thirteen. Once again, she gets by on her luminosity and smile rather than finding an interesting character in a complex film and then making complicated choices once on set. Because these films are aimed at younger folks, they have characters that aren’t particularly well-drawn and Hathaway doesn’t add that much performance-wise that another performer that was equally charismatic wouldn’t have. In other words, she was coasting.

After that, we have Havoc, in which Hathaway wanted to show exactly how grown up she was. Unfortunately for her, the film was utterly awful and sadly, she was terrible in it. She was not convincing as this damaged character, unable to really make me believe that she was as troubled as she’s supposed to be. And the script doesn’t do her any favors, with lines like “We’re teenagers and we’re bored.” I doubt any actor could say those lines and make them sound right. I admire the fact that Hathaway attempted something that would be a complete 180 for what she had been known for, but she was flat, stilted, and mannered. I saw the wheels spinning the whole time.

With Brokeback Mountain, she had finally picked a winner. It’s a terrific film and while she’s good in it, she is absolutely blown off the screen by Jake Gyllenhaal (who seemed much more focused), Heath Ledger, and Michelle Williams. I thought Hathaway got the part right mostly, although I think she went over the top a few times, whereas the rest of the cast underplayed – making her stand out a bit more, for the wrong reasons. But she was passable and I think the rest of the cast just seemed a lot more comfortable with that kind of material that she was venturing into for the first time.

Then we have The Devil Wears Prada, a choice that I can’t fault because it gave her the opportunity to work with Meryl Streep. A lot of people point to this film as Hathaway’s coming-out party because it was such a massive hit. Unfortunately, she is completely overshadowed by Emily Blunt and – of course – Meryl Streep. So she’s working primarily with two performers who steal every scene from her and, as a result, make her seem like the least interesting character in her own movie.

A good deal of the problem rests with the character herself, who is not pleasant to be around, but Hathaway plays her in such a whiny way that I found myself siding with Streep’s character way more than was intended. I didn’t understand why this snotty girl stuck around if she thought the work she was doing was so beneath her. I found her arrogant, stuck-up, and pouty. It was the first time I had seen Hathaway lose her charms and play a character who was utterly unlikable.

Next was Becoming Jane, which I think I remember as being fine, but truthfully it’s a blur in my head. I remember walking out of the theater and thinking that she had redeemed herself partially, but I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the performance. At this point in Hathaway’s career, I was certainly not a fan.

Her role in Get Smart didn’t make me jump on the bandwagon either. But I thought it was actually an interesting step in the right direction for her. She had found a character that was sexy and in control and she seemed very much at ease in that role, while able to bring back her charisma and likability and winning smile. Her chemistry with Steve Carell was good and I believe in her character. She wasn’t aiming very high in that one, but at least she hit the mark.

Okay, then comes Rachel Getting Married, where for the first time I felt like I “got it” with Anne Hathaway. She was playing a character that was dark, tortured, beaten up and beaten down and supposed to be putting on a happy face for her sister’s wedding. This is the stuff that drama – and great acting – is made of: putting characters in a combustible situation in which outward actions belie inner emotions. It’s also the type of role that needs to be played expertly or else the entire film falls apart under the weight of that failure. Hathaway hit it out of the damn park, taking the audience on a whirlwind of tumult with a biting wit to help us ride out the bumps.

Other actors shine – notably Bill Irwin and Debra Winger – but none brighter than Hathaway. I walked out of the movie believing that Hathaway would win the Oscar that year and I’m pretty surprised that she didn’t. Either way, I could finally see that not only was Hathaway charismatic but she had greatness in her.

And then she does the following: Passengers, Bride Wars, and Valentine’s Day. I don’t think I can express to you how awful all three of those movies are. Granted, the last one she’s not in for more than twenty minutes and she’s actually pretty charming in it and the first one just seemed like it got mangled somewhere in production, but Bride Wars is just inexcusable. I suppose I can’t begrudge actors for trying to get paid, but why that movie?

With the other films, I could understand that it might be about the opportunity to work with a certain actor or director, but was Hathaway’s desire to work with Kate Hudson so great that she would lower herself to those depths of idiocy? I mean, that movie just flat-out doesn’t work. It’s a film that purports that all women want is a fancy wedding at a certain place and they are so persnickety and self-centered that they can’t even allow their friendships to alter their plans. It boggles my mind how Hathaway could stoop to this. I can’t even judge her performance in it because I spent the entire time screaming at the screen, “Why are you doing this?!” (Note: not literally.)

Earlier this year she played the White Queen in Tim Burton’s useless remake of Alice in Wonderland and she was fine in it. The movie was boring and silly, but she got to work with Depp and Burton, so all is forgiven.

Love and Other Drugs comes out this week and I really need for it to be good. More than that, though, I need Hathaway to pick projects worthy of her talents. It’s all well and good to have a fun time at work, doing projects that don’t make you miserable, but the best actors and actresses – I’m thinking Daniel Day Lewis and Kate Winslet, among others – do indeed make themselves mad playing certain characters. Acting is an art form and if I’m to believe that Hathaway is a talent worthy of calling great, I need to see evidence that she believes it’s an art form as well.

While it’s possible that she is the great actress of her generation, the evidence sadly isn’t there to support that. I think she’s got all the talent in the world, but until she starts consistently picking better projects and difficult roles, I can’t put her in that upper echelon. Here’s hoping Love and Other Drugs gets her closer.

Pierce Brosnan and Olivia Williams Interview

Friday, November 19th, 2010

I saw Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer on an airplane a few months after it came out.  As soon as it came out on DVD, I knew I had to watch it again, to get a better feel for the complexities of this tightly-wound thriller.  It held up and it continues to hold up as one of the better films released this year.  So when I had the opportunity to talk to Pierce Brosnan and Olivia Williams about their experience making the film and working with a master filmmaker like Polanski, I jumped at it.

Williams is a woman that every geek fell in love with in Rushmore and has done solid work ever since, while Brosnan has made some fascinating choices since hanging up the James Bond tuxedo nearly a decade ago.  They filled me in on working with Polanski, working with each other, and gave me some info about their upcoming films.

Olivia Williams: Sorry, I’m not very good at these three-way things.

Noah Forrest: Yeah, I feel like the ringleader of a strange carnival.  But I wanted to start by saying that I liked The Ghost Writer a lot and I wanted to congratulate you on that.

Pierce Brosnan: Thank you.

Olivia Williams: Thanks.

Noah Forrest: I wanted to ask both of you whether you came to this film because of the material or for the chance to work with a director like Roman Polanski?  And I guess we’ll ask Olivia first.

Olivia Williams: Oh, that feels all wrong.

Pierce Brosnan: It’s exactly right, Olivia.

Olivia Williams:  Well, it would have to be a combination.  I would have worked with Roman in pretty well anything, but I was very, very lucky that it was this character.  And I completely responded to her immediately.  Not least, without giving too much away, but I had Roman Polanski working very hard on my own denouement.  So I feel consider myself very lucky and privileged to have worked with him and got to play this.

Pierce Brosnan: You had Roman working on your what, Olivia?

Olivia Williams:  My own dénouement.  Maybe that’s arrogance to call it that, but it felt like that.

Pierce Brosnan: Oh no, not at all.  [Pause] For me, it was definitely working with Roman.  He’s such an iconic figure on the landscape, so when I got the call – when I was in London – to go have lunch with him, I hopped on the train and had a most delightful three hour lunch with this great man.  And luckily I had a wonderful part to play as well.

Noah Forrest: And did you and Olivia know each other before filming began or was this the first time you had met?

Pierce Brosnan: It was the first time we met.

Olivia Williams:  We have some mutual friends, so I had heard he was delightful, but that can always be a lie in Hollywood.

Pierce Brosnan: We were on that wonderful island, Sylt, and I got a call and knew she was coming in the afternoon and I got a call from her saying, “Let’s have dinner.  I’d like to have dinner and talk.”  So we hit the ground running.

Olivia Williams:  I felt that we should at least have dinner, considering we were supposed to have been married for twenty-five years. [Laughs]

Noah Forrest:  It’s the least you could do, I guess… [Laughs]

Olivia Williams:  I’m not much of a method actor, but I felt that was a good place to get started.

Noah Forrest:  It’s interesting because you are playing husband and wife, but you don’t share much screen time with one another.  So is it difficult to come up with an idea of who your spouse is or what your marriage is if you don’t get to develop that on screen?  Or do you have to develop that off screen?

Olivia Williams:  I’m not being facetious when I say that the dinner was actually very useful for that, to have a sort of genial time before we started sniping at each other.  A lot of it, for me, was set up because I pestered poor Robert Harris with e-mails and he wrote this wonderful paragraph of things to heed of, that I have to love my husband though it seems in many ways that I’m using him.

Noah Forrest:  Well, I think that’s a tough kind of line you both have to balance – giving hints away without giving everything away.  And I guess you have to rely on the other actors to do the same.  So was the difficult for you to know what your character is, without letting the audience know immediately.

Pierce Brosnan:  Well, not in my case, I don’t think.  I feel that he’s a man about to burst, his brain’s open (and he finally gets his brains blown out) because he knows that he’s in a damaged relationship and its been like this for some time.  The wolves are at the door for him and the long knives are out and he’s hanging by a thread, he’s a very pathetic character.  When he sits on the sofa and he feebly asks, “What would you do?”  It’s the ultimate humiliation.  He succumbs to that.  Olivia is so strong in her work, she cuts like a knife with her performance…it made me feel great in my own sick way about this character.

Olivia Williams:  Having two really tough women fighting over him, having two lionesses protecting him, and the moment when – I think we’re talking about the same scene on the sofa – essentially Ruth says, I bow out, take him with you.  Drama film is about people at the extreme of their lives and you meet all these people when they’re already up against it.  You’re introduced to Ruth, she’s screaming and slamming the door…she’s already behaving just about as badly as any of us ever will.  And then it cranks up.  That’s what Roman does – he just keeps on cranking you up and cranking you up.  And that was such a pleasure to act.

And, as you say, playing one thing and doing another.  There’s a trend in scripts of people saying what they feel all the time and that’s not as much fun as an actor, it’s much more fun to say one thing and do something else.

Noah Forrest:  Well, it’s much more true to life that way, I think.  Often, we’re not saying what we feel.  But Pierce, you bring up that scene which is so wonderful because it exposes what is supposed to be one of the great leaders of the world and he’s really just a sad man at the end of the day.  I think the message there is very subtle, yet direct and I really admired that about the film.  Were you wary of being Tony Blair?  Because there were so many allusions – namely, being the former Prime Minister.  I was wondering if that was something you were fearful of?

Pierce Brosnan:  No, I wasn’t fearful of that.  Roman sort of released me from that on our first lunch.  I said, “Am I playing Tony Blair?  Because it’s already been done brilliantly by Michael Sheen.”  He said, “No, you’re not playing Tony Blair.”  Which made absolutely sense because whatever I did it would turn out to be Tony Blair anyway.  All roads lead to Tony Blair.  Robert Harris is a good friend of his as well.

I did look at Tony Blair’s work as Prime Minister, I watched his speeches.  But I didn’t try to indicate or play this fellow.

Olivia Williams:  You got the grin, Pierce.

Pierce Brosnan:  I got the grin, I got the grin.  I used it once.

Olivia Williams:  And the sadness killed me.  I think you’re talking about the moment, Noah, that I loved when the Ghost says, “It looks like Rycart Publishing set all this up.”  And Pierce says, “Can you ask them to stop?”  Because there was such sadness and powerlessness in that moment.

Noah Forrest:  The thing is, I don’t think you’re playing Tony Blair.  I just asked that because I think you sidestep a lot of traps that one could fall in.  And I think it was well-done that you managed to create this character that was uniquely its own.

Pierce Brosnan:  Well, he’s an actor.  He’s a born actor.  You take the emblems of the script.  He’s really this fellow with Peter Pan syndrome.  He plays at being the Prime Minister, he’s a puppet.

Olivia Williams:  That’s a brilliant phrase, actually, “the emblems of a script.” There were some things about the Blairs that were very important to honor to make the script work.  And one of them was what Pierce was saying, the fact that he was the charismatic one, the one that people immediately responded to and loved of the two.

Noah:  It’s almost an interesting feminist take on it because this really takes that saying of “Behind every great man is a woman” to its logical extreme.  But I wanted to ask both of you – I mean, Roman Polanski is one of my favorite directors and he’s kind of renowned for being a controlling filmmaker.  Did you find that to be so?

Pierce Brosnan: I had a baptism by fire with the fellow.  My first day’s work was really my last scene with the character – it was on the airplane, on the jet.  I walked straight into this vortex of Polanski and after that day’s work, he left me alone.  I could see him get twitchy and I could feel his energy and I think we were all on our game because you just don’t want to get found out by Roman.  You don’t want to have this guy coming up to you saying, [in Polish accent] “Why do you do it like this?  Why?  Why?”  [Laughs]

Olivia Williams:  Well, the point is that he’s worthy of being one of your favorites because there’s nothing accidental on that set.  Nothing has happened by accident.  It’s happened because Roman has seen it in his head and he wants it to be there.  And therefore he really deserves the title of a great director or a great auteur.  It is a terrifying experience to work with, but we were all in.  As Ewan [McGregor] used always said, “You can argue with him, but he’s right, you do it his way and the whole machine works.”  If you rebel, the machine doesn’t work.  For him, filmmaking is very painful.  The man is in quite a lot of pain most of the time, it feels like.

Pierce Brosnan:  Especially when he can’t get the right lens.  [Laughs]

Olivia Williams:  And when it’s not right, he actually said to us that he closes his eyes and sees in his head this model vision.  And he’s trying to force everyone and every object there to recreate that vision.  I would be really upset if what I’m saying makes him sound like a difficult person to work with because that doesn’t come into it.  There is a vision and we must all try to make it happen and then you, the viewing audience, will see what this man has created in his head.

Pierce Brosnan:  You get a lot more from his camera, from the positioning.  As you work on a scene, he will really take time to find the best dramatic angle.  In relation to what is Olivia is saying, he really takes the time.  That day when we were on the airplane, I was ready to go and Ewan was ready to go, it’s a six or seven page scene.  But he spent the morning, as we sat there, just finding the angle.  He worked backwards and forwards, backwards and forward.  You could feel him generating this energy and you’re thinking, “Well Christ, I’m here, Ewan’s across from me, just put the camera here and shoot it.”  But, he didn’t.  He spent the morning looking at the guns, looking at the laptops, dealing with the props…

Olivia Williams:  He never quite recovered from the disappointment of never finding the right slippers for under the bed.

Pierce Brosnan:  Oh really?  [Laughs]

Olivia Williams:  And he was angry to the end of shooting and beyond that these slippers weren’t disgusting enough to be an old man’s abandoned slippers.  And Ewan said that he brought him hundreds of wheelie suitcases that the Ghost carries with him in every scene, that wheelie suitcase had to be right.  That matters to him as much as an actor, almost.  Would you agree?

Pierce Brosnan:  I would whole-heartedly agree.  He gets involved in every detail, the squib, the blood going off in my head, the bullet wound…But it was an exhilarating experience to work with him and I would go out again, in a heartbeat, to work with him.

Noah Forrest:  Does this aspect of his, where he’s very demanding and exacting, does that carry over to your performance as well?  Like he does he do line-readings?

Pierce Brosnan:  Yes.

Noah Forrest:  Oh really?

Olivia Williams:  I would call it a demonstration.

Pierce Brosnan:  A demonstration.  My line, I remember, “Give my ghost a Calvados,” I mean he had so many variations on that.  I tried.  I said, “I’ll try my best,” but it always sounded like I had a Polish accent, so it didn’t work.

Olivia Williams:  It’s interesting because you’d resent it if he wasn’t right.  I made some objections and wanted to change some stuff in the dinner scene and he said, “No, I’ve eaten this meal.”  The food was designed around the scene.  What we ate, the way it looked, how long it took to chew it.  And so, to go in and say, “My character wouldn’t say that,” actually insults the amount of work and preparation that went into it.

Pierce Brosnan:  Did he really say that about the food?

Olivia Williams:  He really did, he absolutely did.  He literally said we timed the scene.  I wanted to make a line shorter and he said, no, I timed it.

Noah Forrest:  Wow.

Olivia Williams:  But he said that he and Robert had actually made the meal and had eaten it when they were writing it.

Pierce Brosnan:  Oh my.

Noah Forrest:  That’s pretty exacting, yeah.

Olivia Williams:  I was kicking against it and I was trying to bring something of myself to the playing of the character, but after he explained his process, I backed off.  “Let me do anything I can to recreate your vision.”  And that was the pleasure of it.  The pleasure wasn’t to kick against it, but to give yourself entirely over to his process because that’s when you “get it” with him, I believe.

Noah Forrest:  I suppose there’s a certain school of directors who believe that acting is an act of submission.  That’s gotta be so difficult for an actor to get to that point, where they’re willing to trust the director.

Olivia WilliamsWell the fact that he has such a track record and he’s not 24 is working in his favor.  I think if most 24 year olds tried to do that with their actors, they’d get kicked in the teeth.  But I think there’s too much of a fashion possibly with directors who are saying, “That was great, do you think maybe possibly you might mind trying it this way…”  And I think if you’re going to have directorial greatness, you need to be…You know, Wes Anderson who I worked with, he’s also exacting but in a different way.

Noah Forrest:  Well, I was going to ask you about Wes Anderson because Rushmore was the first film that I saw you in.  I think I was 15 or 16 when it came out and I was so totally blown away by it and I was going to ask you if they had a similar process because he seems very precise as well.

Olivia Williams:  They couldn’t be more different as people, but there is definitely a comparison to be made in how exacting they are and how clear their vision is.  I worked with Wes when he was very young and starting out and I think it’s interesting that he had such a pleasure with puppets on Fantastic Mr. Fox because he can really make them do exactly what he wants.  [Laughs]  And that is said with love.

Noah Forrest:  And Pierce, I’ve been following your career for a long long time.  I remember seeing The Lawnmower Man when was I was very young and being like, “That guy is gonna be a star!”  But I think it’s interesting the direction your career has taken because it seems like you’ve built up this image and you’ve spent the past decade kind of slyly subverting it with movies like The Matador or The Tailor of Panama.  And even now with The Ghost Writer.  I was wondering if that’s a conscious decision on your part of if these just happened to be the roles you found most attractive?

Pierce Brosnan:  It’s 50-50 really.  You set your intentions to do something, like I did when I came here in 1981, which was to be as successful as I possibly could be in movies.  Well, I got a TV series.  Beggars can’t be choosers, so I ran with that for all it was worth.  And of course, doing Remington Steele, I created this image for myself that ultimately led to James Bond.  So, you find yourself painted into a corner, so you have to find your way out and find parts that will lend themselves to your own creativity and potential.  So yes, there’s certainly a conscious effort to re-mold, re-define, change.  I believe I can play more than one character, so hopefully one can play more than one note.  So that’s the task at hand, always has been.  You know, I’ve managed to stay employed throughout this career.  I’m really a working actor and I’m always happy to go to work.   I don’t like trying to toil over the next direction of where I should go.  Sometimes I’ve just had to work to feed my family.  It hasn’t always been the work I want, but I’m working and that’s the greatest joy for any actor: to work.  And you have to have patience.  So it’s nice to make twists, to make sharp left turns. The Matador was certainly a wonderful experience and one that I wouldn’t have had if I didn’t make it myself, because you get pigeonholed.  People don’t take risks, so that’s why having one’s own company or having a partner as I do in Beaumarie St. Clair at Irish DreamTime, it’s been the most exhilarating and exciting work for me.

Noah Forrest:  And both of you have exciting movies on the horizon.  Pierce, you have Salvation Boulevard coming out next year.  And Olivia, you’ve got Hanna, which is Joe Wright’s next film.  So is there anything either of you can share with us about those films?

Pierce Brosnan:  We went back out to the desert there a month or so ago to put an added scene on it, which I hear works like gangbusters and that’s as much as I know.  I haven’t spoken to anyone about it.  George Ratliff is directing from a book with the same title; Ed Harris, Greg Kinnear and myself.  Just wasn’t enough of Greg.  We kicked the movie off and then it goes off in different directions.  I had a great time doing it.  It was wonderful to be with Greg again.

Noah Forrest:  Well you and Greg Kinnear had great chemistry in The Matador.  And Olivia, what can you tell us about Hanna?

Olivia WilliamsIt was interesting movie from Polanski to Wright.  He’s another director with an extraordinary vision.  It feels like it’s happening much more on the set, his vision and gift.  This film is so many things.  The script just jumped out, I loved the script.  It’s part assassin thriller, it’s part road movie.  I’m in the road movie section of it, so I was driving a huge hippie truck around Morocco with Jason Flemyng and Saoirse Ronan.  She’s astonishing.  I have quite a small part in it, but I was like, come on, this kid is gonna be trouble.  She was so phenomenal in Atonement and she was only 12, now she’s gonna be 16 and a pain in the ass. [Laughs]  She’s absolutely delightful, humble, beautiful.  When she turned those blue eyes on me, I was like, “Okay, you’re gonna be a huge star.”  And Cate Blanchett, you just can’t argue with her…you really can’t argue with her, it’s very difficult.  [Laughs]  I haven’t seen it, but I can’t wait.

Noah Forrest:  Well, I’m gonna get you guys out of here on this question, which is what I ask everyone before they leave: what is your favorite film of all-time?

Olivia Williams:  Pierce, you go first, give me time to think!

Pierce Brosnan:  [Rushing]  Uh, um, There Will Be Blood!

Noah Forrest:  That’s a good one!

Olivia Williams: The Man Who Would Be King.

Noah Forrest:  That’s another great one.  Two wonderful choices.  Well thanks to the both of you.  I really appreciate this.

Olivia: Thank you.

Pierce Brosnan:  Okay, I’ll see you later tonight Olivia.  Noah, goodbye!

Frenzy on the Wall: How About Some Awards Buzz for These Guys?

Monday, November 15th, 2010

Every year around this time, the award-season storylines begin to take shape. You see, like in politics, it’s not always the best candidate or film that gets awarded, it’s usually the one with the best publicity, the best “story.” When Best Picture actually goes to the best film, all it means is that the best particular film that year just so happened to have a great hype machine behind it. As a result of this, a lot of really deserving films and actors don’t get the recognition they deserve.

This is where critics and film writers are supposed to come in; they are supposed to be the ones who point out the films and performances that you haven’t seen, but should.

More and more, it seems like film writers on the beat are merely “covering” the awards and prognosticating rather than offering opinions. Just because the “buzz” is telling a writer that a certain film is a “lock” to get nominated, it doesn’t mean they should just parrot back that buzz. Most of the “buzz” comes from PR folks anyway, or people with a vested interest in what gets talked about as a front-runner. As a film lover first and foremost, I will never stop proselytizing when I believe I’ve seen something noteworthy.

So, I’d like to bring your focus to a few different films and performances that should be talked about more as contendersthis awards season.

Please Give

Nicole Holofcener’s film is a wonderful little movie about what it means to be kind and caring. It follows the lives of two families in New York City: Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt are a husband and wife with a teenage daughter who live next door to a cantankerous 91-year-old woman. That old woman is cared for by her loving granddaughter, played by Rebecca Hall, who lives with her blunt and uncaring sister Amanda Peet.

There are a lot of little moments that I found especially touching, but especially the performances of Catherine Keener and Rebecca Hall. They are playing women who are good and decent, striving to be better people. What makes them so fascinating is that they aren’t portrayed as martyrs; they have flaws too, like real people.

I found it especially touching when Keener goes to a school for mentally disabled children, with the hopes of volunteering and helping, but is so overcome by sadness for these children that she breaks down crying; she cares too much, she feels too much, to help. Or, perhaps it’s knowing that no matter how much she tries to help these children, they will never get better.

Holofcener is a fantastic and underrated writer/director, who continues to get great performances from all of her actors and writes films that are filled with nuance and poignancy. So, of course, she’s never been nominated for her writing or directing. I wish I could say that it would change this year, but it probably won’t. But do yourself a favor and check out her latest movie.


John Hawkes in Winter’s Bone

Jennifer Lawrence is justifiably getting a lot of credit and award-buzz for her lead performance in Debra Granik’s gritty, dirty film. But Lawrence doesn’t even give the best performance in Winter’s Bone and it’s not to say that Lawrence isn’t fantastic – she is – but rather that John Hawkes is so utterly brilliant that he blows everybody else off the screen.

Hawkes has long been an actor I’ve admired, one that is consistently underrated, but as Teardrop in Winter’s Bone, he really cements himself in my mind as one of the finest character actors out there. From the second he shows up on screen, he’s got this quiet ferocity that is always bubbling beneath the surface. There is always doubt as to what his motivation is or whether or not he’s a “good guy.” But one thing is certain: he is terrifying.

One of the best scenes I’ve seen all year is when Teardrop and Ree are pulled over by the Sheriff. With just a few words and that scary, unmoving presence, Teardrop not only convinces the Sheriff that it would be best for him to get back in his car, but he convinces us that the Sheriff makes a good decision by walking away.

In a better world, Hawkes would be the front-runner for Best Supporting Actor right now; as it stands, I haven’t heard any “buzz” about him at all.


Rachel Weisz in Agora

Agora is one of my favorite films that I’ve seen this year and it came and went in a blink without anybody paying much attention. In an article I wrote earlier this year, I called it “The Great Atheist Film.” I stand by that.

It’s a film that stuck with me, a big-budget epic that decided to tackle the controversial topic of religious intolerance. Alejandro Amenabar deserves heaps of credit for not only attempting to dive into the topic, but successfully structuring an engaging story around it (not to mention the monumental task of getting it funded).

But the film doesn’t work at all if it doesn’t have the great Rachel Weisz as its lead character, the astronomer Hypatia. In my earlier column, I said about her performance: “Rachel Weisz is truly astounding in this film, as she often is. Hypatia is not an easy character to play; she must be idealistic yet intelligent, a dreamer but a realist. Weisz is such a wonderful presence, so charismatic and likable that although her character is not as fleshed-out as she could be, she is still imbued with a certain vigor and humanism.”

I’d also add that it’s a performance that is reliant on not just her words, but in the passion behind those words. Weisz has to deliver lines that might not necessarily roll off the tongue easily and she pulls them off. Weisz also does something that I love to see actors do: allow their characters to think. When Hypatia comes to a conclusion about something, Weisz lets us see the wheels turning in her head, her eyes darting back and forth.

Weisz has won an Academy Award for her exquisite turn in The Constant Gardener, but she should be getting buzz in the lead category for Agora. Alas, I don’t think anybody has seen it besides me.


Trash Humpers

Okay, there is no world that exists where a film like Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers would get an Academy Award. This is a truly bizarre film without any coherent narrative and is probably one of the most visceral films I’ve ever seen, a film whose goal seems to be to unnerve and annoy its audience. It might not have the same pretentious attitude of a lot of Godard’s later work, but it reminds me a bit of that man’s experimental spirit … albeit with a bit more of a sense of humor.

This was a film that I saw a few months ago and wanted to write about, but I just didn’t know how. As I was watching it, I wouldn’t exactly say that I enjoyed the experience. But in retrospect, I really love what it does. It’s a film that is just a series of weird scenes where four bandits in old-person make-up just kinda fuck shit up in Nashville. They trash houses, break electronics, and yes, hump trash. And if the whole film followed that pattern, I don’t know that I would think it was anything more than an interesting – failed – experiment.

But then something happens in the last reel of the film. It changes. We no longer focus on all four of the bandits, but two. These two bandits, Herve and Momma, are played by Harmony Korine himself and his wife Rachel. It’s unclear how, but the two of them splinter off and somehow have possession of a baby. They aren’t destroying things anymore and the film ends (spoiler alert, I guess) with Momma singing to the baby as she rocks it back and forth in a pram.

Now, maybe I was in a strange mood, but I found this extraordinarily touching and affecting. It was probably the most personal moment in any of Korine’s films, at least in my eyes, because it seemed to be so much about who he is as a filmmaker (and perhaps a person). He used to be the enfant terrible of indie cinema, happy to be the wacky artist who trashed everything (including his own body for a discard comedy called Fight Harm, look it up). But now he’s grown, he’s matured and he’s moved on from being that person. And despite the fact that Trash Humpers is about people giving fellatio to trees and looks like a found VHS tape, it might be the most mature and confident thing he’s directed.

It’s not a film that will win any awards, but for the patient viewer who understands what he’s signing up for, it might be a real find … or you’ll think I’m insane.