Category Archives: Billy

For Your Consideration: The Nominees, a Primer

Oscar season is upon us and like always there is a fair share of controversy surrounding the nominations this year. I’ve been watching the Oscars from a fan’s perspective for a lot of years now.  It’s easy even for a layperson like myself to recognize that the Oscars have always been less a vehicle that strives to shine a light on the best work from the previous year, but a machine driven by Hollywood politics and studio power brokers all too willing to prove they have the biggest cock in the room. In my honest opinion, I don’t think the Academy would have it any other way. The broadcast is a rich pageant of pomp and celebrity and in the Academy’s ever increasing desire to maintain relevancy, they have courted any storyline, whether it be bad or good, as a mechanism to get people talking or better yet watching the show.

Of course, this may sound a little jaded, but don’t get me wrong; I love the Oscars. I love the three hour pre show in which glad handers pester the actors, who seem like they’d rather be anywhere else, about what they’re wearing and if they think they have a shot at walking away with a statue. I love the host, whomever it may be. I mean, really, is there any more of a thankless job than the host of an awards program? There’s no way to be edgy and saintly and charming and witty all at the same time without pissing someone off. And then you get what you get last year. Honestly, I defy anyone to find more riveting television than watching James Franco crash, burn and give up, followed by Anne Hathaway, running around backstage like a manic pixie, desperately trying to compensate for Franco’s half-stoned phone-in. Classic.

I could literally go on for 10,000 words on why I love the Oscars, but this piece does have a point, I assure you.  Let’s talk about the nominees for the major categories, shall we.

Best Picture:

A couple of years ago, the Academy, publicly derided for not giving The Dark Knight a Best Picture nod, decided to mix it up a bit and expand the category to ten nominees. After two years of stretching the definition of what Best Picture means (The Blind Side…Best Picture…you’ve got to be fucking kidding me) they tinkered with the process yet again and set a floor of five nominees and ceiling of ten. Of course, it didn’t really change things. There are nine nominees this year and while I can make a case for eight of them, my jaw hit the floor when I saw that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was nominated for Best Picture. Scott Rudin, who is by all accounts a brilliant producer, having championed films by the Coen Brothers, David Fincher and Paul Thomas Anderson, must’ve made some deal with the devil to get that insulting, over-sentimentalized piece of garbage a nomination. Sure, it has all the elements of a Best Picture: star power, an apt director, good source material, and an annoying child actor pulling at your heartstrings. However none of those elements congeal to make anything resembling a good movie.  Come Oscar night, it’s a two horse race for Best Picture with The Artist and The Descendants leading the pack. There will be a strong contingent pulling for The Help, if for no other reason than it made the most money out of all the nominees. In a fantasy world, where people like me get a vote, mine would be cast for The Artist. Call it derivative, call it gimmicky, I don’t care. It worked on a level that most films seldom do these days.  It made you laugh, it made you cry and it satisfied the soul.

Best Actor:

For me it’s less about who was nominated than who wasn’t. If you follow the site or listen to the podcast, you know how I feel about Michael Fassbender’s performance in Shame. I consider it a crime against humanity that he was not nominated for what I consider to be  one of the finest performances in recent year’s. As far as the performances that were actually nominated, I have a sneaking suspicion that Jean Dujardin and George Clooney may split votes here. Without a clear majority, the projection becomes a little less clear. Look for a major upset in this category with Brad Pitt, in by far his most winning role to date, or Gary Oldman, in full-on career achievement mode, taking home the statue.

Best Actress:

Tough category. Really tough. Fantasy world: Rooney Mara. No other nominee took as many chances or transformed themselves so completely. It’s a trail blazing performance and I can’t help but just be happy she got some recognition for it. Meryl Streep was great as per usual, but I don’t see it happening. Likewise with Glenn Close (Although, if there was a “Most Creepy Performance” category, Close would win it in a walk). I think Michelle Williams’ nomination is, for lack of a better word, filler. Williams has become an award show darling in recent years, but if it were a stronger year for women, the performance would not hold up. Real world: Viola Davis. The Help was by in large a heap of manipulative drivel, populated by a gaggle of scene chewers. However, Davis stood tallest with a muted, subtle performance full of pain and quiet desperation.

Best Supporting Actor:

Fantasy World: Nick Nolte. Warrior was a criminally under-seen movie. Sure, at first glimpse it looks like a stock underdog story, but dig a little deeper and you find a film populated by three great performances: Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy as brothers on collision course with one another, and Nolte, as their father, desperately trying to atone for a past life’s worth of sins. Real World: Christopher Plummer in Beginners. Book it.

Best Supporting Actress:

Octavia Spencer is going to win this award. It’s a loud, boisterous performance that the Academy just loves. Bejo, Chastain (who could’ve been nominated in any of the other 80,000 performances she gave this year) and McTeer (creepier than Close?) have no shot.  At least they can get dressed up, get loaded at the Vanity Fair party and help themselves to all the schwag they can carry. Neither does McCarthy, who was hysterical in Bridesmaids, but should be given something for delivering the funniest line of the year: “It’s coming out like lava!”

Best Director:

Any category that is populated by the likes of Scorsese, Allen, Payne and Malick is going to be tough to handicap. Scorsese is tricky. If the voter’s feel that his win for The Departed is enough to atone for not giving him the award for Raging Bull or Goodfellas, then it’ll go to someone else. If not, maybe he gets another for a lesser work. Allen and Malick won’t be at the ceremony and it’s naive to think that doesn’t weigh on the voter’s decision. Payne’s best work is done in the writing and The Descendants isn’t sexy enough technically to garner much support.  The Artist’s Hazanavicius has to be the favorite. Sure, he gave himself the restriction of making a silent film, but he pulled it off famously.

Best Screenplay:

Given that it’s split into two categories, it makes it easier for the Academy to include edgier fare or give recognition to films that may have just missed the cut for Best Picture. This year, lesser known films such as A Separation and Margin Call got nods in the Best Original Screenplay category, while Best Picture contenders The Ides of March and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy get the consolation prize of a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. The Academy loves a comeback and as a long time Woody Allen apologist, I would love him to take home another Oscar, even though he couldn’t possibly care less. As for the Adapted Screenplay category, The Descendants is your winner, especially if Academy voters decide on The Artist for Best Picture.

In the end, I have no idea what I’m talking about, but I can tell you this: I have seen every movie nominated in a major category, which is more than I can say for most Academy voters. It wasn’t a particularly strong year for movies, but it won’t stop me from endlessly pondering the outcomes. Do the Academy Awards still matter? Did they ever? I don’t know. But, I’ll be watching and yelling at the TV with a fervor of a crazy person. If you’ve made it to this point of this opus, you probably will be too.


For Your Considerat​ion: Hugo, The Artist, and Film Adoration

It was a middling year in the movie business.  The industry’s output has, for the most part, consisted of uninspired popcorn fare that left your mind the second it entered, as well as equally uninspired Oscar bait where studios trotted out star-driven tent poles made specifically to blanket the largest possible Academy demographic.  So jaded by this year’s film slate, that when faced with the idea of writing a Top Ten list, every attempt at producing said list rang untrue. I could not summon ten titles that I could legitimately say that I enjoyed enough to put in a list, much less rank them.
 
That’s not to say that 2011 was a total loss. I loved Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” I was intrigued by Nicholas Winding Refn’s “Drive”, and I was blown away by Michael Fassbender in “Shame” and Rooney Mara in “The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo”.  Hell, I thought the “building” scene in “M:I Ghost Protocol” and the subsequent sandstorm melee was one of the best action sequences I’ve ever seen.  As much as I enjoyed certain aspects of these films, all of them were unbalanced pieces… incomplete thoughts, if you will.  There were entire passages of each film that had me squirming in my theater chair or checking my watch.
 
Unable to produce a Top Ten, I decided to look for something that stood out to me amongst all the waste.  In searching, I began to think about movies in general. When you’re writing a weekly column about film, the way that you watch movies actually changes.  Your perspective shifts and you bury yourself in the details of the production and the nuances of every performance.  When you’re watching a bad movie, it’s exhausting.  You find yourself looking for things you like about the film, however small, or thinking of snappy one liners you could apply to your writing.  When you’re watching a great film, everything fades away.  The column, the responsibilities, the world outside the theater doors vanishes and you’re transported to wherever the film wishes to take you.  It’s the magic of cinema and it’s why the medium is still relevant, even in this day in age of diminishing attention spans and everything being a click away.
 
There were two films this year in which I was taken over by the “magic” – Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” and Michael Hazanavicius’s “The Artist”.  Oddly enough, both films have a lot in common thematically.  They are both loving odes to the early years of film, when the medium was still a raw and incredibly creative endeavor.  When the “magic” was thick and in abundance.  A lot has been written about these two films already with many critics placing them atop their Top Ten lists, and justifiably so.  “Hugo” is a complete about-face for Scorsese.  As well-known for his love of film as for the films he’s directed, “Hugo” is thinly veiled love letter to the medium he works so brilliantly in.  He astutely incorporates 3D into his portrait of a young orphan living in a Parisian train station during the early twentieth century as he tries to solve a mystery left behind by his dead father.  In doing so, he befriends a precocious young girl and helps a once brilliant filmmaker rediscover his creativity.  The film is brimming with the joy of film making and adds a new wrinkle to Mr. Scorsese’s already stellar career.
 
“The Artist” is quite simply a revelation.  In the age of CGI and motion capture animation, watching this film was like a cool drink of water.  Taking place in the early 1920’s, the film juxtaposes the fall of a once famous silent actor and the ascension of a young actress moving quickly up the studio hierarchy as “Talkies” are being introduced.  The film pays tribute to its setting by being shot in black and white and forgoing any dialogue.  In doing so, it perfectly captures the essence of what makes movies great.  It’s brilliant use of nostalgia has you longing for a simpler time or merely a time when we hadn’t reached a saturation point;  When movies were still a new and exciting thing.  Despite the restraints of a silent film or perhaps because of them, “The Artist” wonderfully balances the tragedy and the comedy inherent in the story.  Not since “Pulp Fiction” have I been so thoroughly entertained by a film.
 
2011 may not have been the best year for film, but that won’t stop me for being in line for “The Hobbit” or see for myself if “Prometheus” is indeed a prequel to “Alien”.  I’m a film junkie, and films like “Hugo” and “The Artist” just up the ante of my addiction. 

So, A Very Cinema Recon New Years to all of you.  I’ll keep writing at you.


Because You Never Saw it: Margin Call

The time is now. Things are rough and looking to get even rougher. A nameless investment bank is making cuts and the department taking the largest blow is the perhaps the most important: risk management. Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is onto something, something big. But he’s getting his walking papers. As he’s being escorted out of the building, he hands this information off to Peter Sullivan (Syler… er….Spock, I mean Zachary Quinto). Sullivan takes a look at the information and puts it all together. It’s a projection and not a good one. The company, heavily invested in a real estate market in the midst of a collapse, will soon be severely over leveraged.

Thus begins Margin Call, the year’s best action film. There are no guns or explosions, nary a car chase in sight. With the exception of a few rooftop smoke breaks, the film is contained within the offices of the bank. The fireworks lie in the pace of film and the Mametesque dialogue delivered like bullets by a large and capable cast.

As the projection makes its ascension up the ranks of the company, the office politics shift into high gear. Fingers are pointed, deals are brokered and everyone looks around wondering how the hell it all got so bad. Everyone is complicit and by the end of the day no one is left unscathed. By the time the opening bell sounds the following day, plans are set in motion, ethics are compromised and the bank, while still standing, is but a shell of it’s former self.

The film is chalk full of great performances most notably by Jeremy Irons, as the top rung of the ladder and Kevin Spacey, as a long time employee forced to carry out the bank’s plan to rid themselves of their toxic assets. Both actor’s operate in survivor mode, one desperately hanging onto his last shreds of dignity and the other doing whatever it takes to stay alive. These are desperate men leading desperate lives. A cast of better dressed Willy Loman’s hopelessly clinging to the prospect of another giant bonus.

While Margin Call operates at a break neck pace and the financial crisis is front and center, the devil is in the details. The problems of our financial system are malignant and contagious. The recklessness has trickled down to everyone. Brokers making millions of dollars a year are living hand to mouth, over extended or tapped out. Brilliant rocket scientists would rather crunch numbers for an investment bank because the pay is so much better. The film taps into the dark side of human nature and asks the audience how we would act if we were in the same situation. In the film Margin Call, the answer is simple: everyone has a price.


For Your Consideration: My Week with Marilyn

We, as a society, are obsessed with celebrity. It’s a systemic problem that is rooted in our belief that in America, anyone could be rich and famous, with hoards of people falling at your feet and succumbing to your every whim. For most people it’s seen as the easiest and most desirable route to the American Dream, one which takes the least amount of work and provides the most benefit. And while we all at one time have taken a shot at achieving that level of success, we are also obsessed with seeing those who have become rich and famous fail. We live in a 24 news cycle in which we populate countless websites and read hundreds of magazines looking for the latest gossip. These outlets report everything, free of remorse and regardless of how trivial it may be because they know the hunger for information is insatiable.

This is not a new development. For decades, hell, even longer than that, our desire to be close to the famous, to live vicariously through them has always been of interest. Never more clearly crystalized is our obsession with celebrity culture than in the case of Marilyn Monroe. There have been countless books, movies, Television specials, recounting the life, death and legacy of the late entertainer. There has never been a person more scrutinized, both in life and in death than Ms. Monroe. The film My Week with Marilyn attempts with great success to show the audience the effects of such scrutiny.

My Week with Marilyn is but a brief glimpse into the life of Monroe. It’s 1956 and she is already the most famous person in the world. Monroe, as portrayed by Michelle Williams, is a walking contradiction. She is all at once a confident sex symbol and shy, bewildered actress. She is both a steely tactician aware of her enormous power and and a walking open wound who just wants to love someone and be loved in return. The motives of the people she relies on the most are questionable at best and they seem comfortable to keep her guarded, propped up by lies and pills.

The story is told from the perspective of Colin Clark, a young man from an upper class family, who desperately wants to work on the pictures. Through sheer persistence, he gets a job as a third assistant director for Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Brannagh) for the film that would eventually become The Prince and the Showgirl. Olivier is a great actor and wants to be a movie star, Monroe is a great movie star that longs, perhaps more than anything else to be a great actress. The dynamic between Olivier and Monroe is cause for a belabored shoot and  a tense war of egos.

If her brilliant performance in last year’s Blue Valentine didn’t completely take Michelle William’s out of the shadow of Dawson’s Creek, then this movie most definitely will. This movie asks her to play Monroe as we’ve never seen before. She plays Monroe as woman teetering on the edge of a million emotions, hanging onto her sanity by mere thread. In the movie we fully grasp what it is like to not have any control on your life, to be at the mercy of an unstoppable machine. Furthermore, we come to understand why Ms. Monroe was so popular. Through the prism of today’s society, where people are famous for simply being famous, we come to understand what a star truly is: A representation, no matter how truthful he or she may be, of our best self. And most importantly, as entertainment.


For Your Consideration: Shame

The world as we know it has never been more crowded and information has never been more accessible. We live in a Facebook universe where its tentacles allow the entire world to be interconnected. Information, both the impactful and mundane, is broadcast instantly in 140 characters or less. The world is one society, never so close, yet as people we have never been so isolated. We have become world driven by “status updates” and “likes”. We’ve traded conversations for tweets and human interaction for “wall” posts. Human voices have become scary, it’s a lot easier to say “no” to someone from the safety of a well-timed text message. Conversation and conflict can be dirty, why not give your opinions under the umbrella of your latest blog post?

Nobody dies without any scars. What happens to us when we lose our best tool to cope with struggle inherent in living life? What happens when we can no longer truly communicate? The film Shame attempts to answer that question.

Meet Brandon (Michael Fassbender). It would be easy to describe him as a sex addict. For Brandon, sex is no longer an act of love, but a physical representation of his emotional pain. He is searching for an absolution that will never come. He is powerless to stop it and is left feeling empty in the absence of it.

From the outside looking in, Brandon is a well-adjusted man. He lives in a sterile apartment and works at a nameless company that produces nothing. He goes through the motions of his day-to-day life. He has no real attachment to anything but his compulsion. Everything in between is a cross to bear. His job, his friends and family are all hindrances. He has completely lost the ability to have a real relationship with someone, especially women. They are a means to an end and nothing more.

The film revolves around his relationship with his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Their pain is shared, but never communicated. Despite a blatantly intimate relationship, Brandon keeps Sissy at a distance. To him, she is merely a reminder of his condition and another problem to be discarded. Sissy, who is equally damaged and self destructive, wants a relationship with Brandon, only to be pushed away at every turn.

Michael Fassbender, quickly becoming the actor of his generation, is simply breathtaking. He smolders as a man whose demons are slowly eating away at him. It’s truly mesmerizing watching him as his carefully manicured veneer chips away and we see the pain that is festering underneath. Equal to the task is Mulligan, who is asked to display the same pain in a different way. She’s an open wound, crying out to the one person who understands her and could possibly help her.

Shame is a transcendent film, perhaps the first truly great film of the new decade.  It’s not an easy film to watch. In fact, I doubt I will ever be able to watch it again. It holds up a mirror to us all and asks us to look at our trajectory and in doing so, stays with us far longer than we’re comfortable with.


For Your Consideration: The Descendants

The Descendants is a film that should not work. From the outset, the audience is told that rich people have feelings too. That pain felt is pain felt. In addition, it takes place in Hawaii and yes, we’re then told that people who live in paradise have the same hardships as everyone else. While this is obviously true, the fact that the director felt the need to make explaining this the first order of business is essentially acknowledging the inherent problems with film. Making an audience care about rich people is a tall order. Misery set against the backdrop of such overwhelming geographical beauty is even taller.

In the hands of lesser filmmakers this film should have crumbled under the weight of its own pretentiousness. The film is directed by Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Sideways), who is no stranger to toeing that thin line between drama and melodrama, between comedy and farce. He hasn’t always produced the best results but he seems comfortable pushing the tone of his films in one direction or another, trying to create a delicate balance between laughter and tears. That task is made a lot easier when you have a big goddamn ace in the hole: George Clooney.

Clooney plays Matt King. To say Matt has a lot on his plate would be an understatement. He’s a husband, father and a practicing attorney. He is also the sole heir of his family’s very large estate and decision needs to made in regards to large parcel of land he is responsible for. In addition to that, his wife is currently on life support having suffered a devastating injury in a boat accident. The situation is further complicated when his eldest daughter confides to her Dad that his wife was having an affair.

The film plays out like a high wire act on the shoulders of Clooney’s performance. In a career full of winning, charismatic characters, this is his most fully realized portrayal to date. He effortlessly and in the end triumphantly travails the emotional minefields of this movie, taking it perilously close to edge of an all out disaster, but never going over it. In the end, the film is about the messiness of life. The sheer unpredictability of it. In hindsight, I suppose it makes sense that the film is a bit sloppy. In a film that’s about life itself,  what’s the point of making it neat?


For Your Consideration: Melancholia

The films of Lars von Trier are a mixed bag.  The majority of his cannon are exercises in provocation that are hindered by an exuberance of ideas or needless restrictions he would impose on himself. Whether it’s his hyper stylized early works (The Element of Crime, Europa) or his “Golden Heart” Trilogy (Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, Dancer in the Dark) or the abandoned trilogy on the American Condition (Dogville, Manderlay) von Trier has a knack for making films that beg to be pondered and discussed, if not necessarily enjoyed. Relentless in pursuit of his vision, the director is both talented and infuriating. His last film, Antichrist, was a muddled, unsettling dissertation on grief, marriage, psycho-analysis and feminism all shrouded under the veil of a horror film.

His latest, Melancholia, brings us no closer to answering that question, but that’s not saying that the film is unsuccessful. In fact, this may be von Trier’s most controlled effort to date. It has been said that von Trier has on occasion  suffered from debilitating bouts of depression. If Antichrist was the filmmaker at war with himself, Melancholia is his catharsis. It’s the story of two sisters (Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg) that plays out in two parts.

The first half of the film takes place during the wedding reception of Michael (Alexander Skarsgard) and Justine (Dunst). The reception is being held at the palatial estate of her sister Claire, her young son and her husband John (Keifer Sutherland.) They play hosts to a cavalcade of friends and family, of which include the sisters’ bitter, outspoken mother and their aloof father. Justine, who we quickly learn suffers from depression, lays to waste her own marriage, leaving the entire procession, especially her long-suffering sister in her wake.

The tone shifts in the second half of the film as we learn that a rogue planet, aptly named Melancholia, is possibly on a collision course with earth. The end of the world is coming and while there is hope that the planet will simply pass Earth by, the inevitable questions of hope and reason, of faith and science, of our very existence are pondered. Melancholia is disguised as many things. It is at times a family drama, a comedy of manners or a science-fiction film. At its core, this is a film about depression.  The planet, a metaphor for the affliction, bears down on everyone in the film.

Kirsten Dunst, a minor annoyance in many of her roles, a major one in her others, gives a fearless, emotionally naked performance worthy of the promise she showed over a decade ago. Never has the impact of depression, both on one’s self and on their surroundings been so clearly personified on film. Equal praise should be given to Gainsbourg and Sutherland, as a couple tasked with dealing with Justine’s depression and the end of the world.

In the end, Melancholia is more of what we’ve come to expect from von Trier – A film that is full of ideas, some of them explored with great depth, others merely skimmed over. What the film lacks in clarity, it more than makes up with beauty and passion. This is clearly a subject that von Trier has given a lot of thought to and it shows, particularly in its second half. Von Trier is excellent at asking questions, one only hopes that one day he will have some answers.


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