Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Golden Globe: Nominations and Pre-Announcement Predictions

Picture (Drama):
• “The Descendants”
• “The Help”
• “Hugo”
• “The Ides of March"
• “Moneyball"
• “War Horse”

Prediction score: 4/5

Prediction summary: As will become apparent in the course of this post, I have a feeling that David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method" could do well here, given the excellent reviews and recent warm appraisal of his work by the HFPA. After the SAG shut-out, this will be a particularly big test for "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," which should be re-titled "Extremely Late and Incredibly Cheeky." Spielberg and "War Horse" don't feel like potential winners of anything anymore, but even if it misses the Academy could still resurrect it, given the obvious advantage of its tearjerking elements.

Picture (Comedy/Musical):
• “50/50”
• “The Artist”
• “Bridesmaids”
• “Carnage”
• “Midnight in Paris”
• “My Week with Marilyn"

Prediction Score: 3/5

Prediction summary: An unusually strong category this year (especially compared to last!) to the extent where I'm only comfortable with the first three picks. After that, "We Bought a Zoo" and "Young Adult" could be outmuscled by the well-reviewed "50/50," or the A-list laden "Carnage." Or else be brushed aside by Simon Curtis' featherweight Marilyn Monroe movie? 

• Woody Allen, "Midnight in Paris"
• George Clooney, "The Ides of March"
 Michael Hazanavicius, “The Artist”
• Alexander Payne, “The Descendants”
• Martin Scorsese, “Hugo”

Prediction score: 3/5

Prediction summary: I toyed with including David Cronenberg but I didn't want to go that crazy with the film. Refn is getting many notices with critics, and I reckon the Globes will be much kinder to "Drive" than the SAGs were or the Oscars likely will be. A host of names could pop up here, like Woody Allen, Stephen Daldry, or Tate Taylor.

Leading Actress (Drama):
• Glenn Close, "Albert Nobbs"
• Viola Davis, “The Help”
• Rooney Mara, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"
• Meryl Streep, “The Iron Lady”
• Tilda Swinton, “We Need to Talk About Kevin”

Prediction score: 3/5

Prediction summary: A Glenn Close snub doesn't seem like the smartest thing in the world to predict after her SAG nomination, but this is a hipper kind of branch. Felicity Jones appears to be more in favour than Elizabeth Olsen, and I've been convinced from the beginning of the season that somebody would give Keira Knightley something given the sheer ferocity of the performance. The other options are Kirsten Dunst and Rooney Mara.

Leading Actor (Drama):
• George Clooney, “The Descendants”
• Leonardo Di Caprio, “J. Edgar”
• Michael Fassbender, “Shame”
• Ryan Gosling, “The Ides of March”
• Brad Pitt, “Moneyball”

Prediction score: 4/5

Prediction summary: When all is said and done, the Globes are about stars. This is one of the starriest actor lineups they can muster this year.

Leading Actress (Comedy/Musical):
• Jodie Foster, "Carnage”
• Charlize Theron, “Young Adult”
• Kristen Wiig, “Bridesmaids”
• Michelle Williams, “My Week with Marilyn”
• Kate Winslet, “Carnage”

Prediction score: 4/5

Prediction summary: Scarlett Johansson was their sweetheart in '03, '04, and '05 (remember "A Love Song for Bobby Long" anyone?) but her spot could easily go to Jodie Foster in a "Carnage" double-dip, Berenice Bejo in a category switchup, or perennial Globe favourites Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz, who worked this year, which is usually good enough.

Leading Actor (Comedy/Musical):
• Brendan Gleeson, "The Guard"
• Jean Dujardin, “The Artist”
• Joseph Gordon-Levitt, "50/50"
• Ryan Gosling, "Crazy Stupid Love"
• Owen Wilson, "Midnight in Paris"

Prediction score: 2/5

Prediction summary: My logic: predict Johnny Depp and then if he's nominated you'll at least be happy that you got it right. Unless of course he manages to be included for his performance in the latest "Pirates of the Caribbean" instalment, in which case you can just kill me. Ryan Gosling could be nominated twice if they liked those abs in "Crazy Stupid Love"; Christoph Waltz or John C. Reilly (the Globes like him!) might find themselves here if the "Carnage" love runs free. I don't even want to contemplate a Tom Hanks nomination.

Supporting Actress:
• Berenice Bejo, "The Artist"
 Jessica Chastain, “The Help”
• Janet McTeer, "Albert Nobbs"
• Octavia Spencer, “The Help”
• Shailene Woodley, “The Descendants”

Prediction score: 3/5

Prediction summary: Will this be where Carey Mulligan lands a major nomination? She's certainly a huge star profile right now. Melissa McCarthy is the biggest lock here after that SAG inclusion, but someone else could well be ousted to make room for Sandra Bullock. Winning Globe, SAG, and Oscar two years ago isn't enough for these people. They want to canonise their Bullock at every opportunity.

Supporting Actor:
• Albert Brooks, “Drive”
• Kenneth Branagh, “My Week with Marilyn”
• Jonah Hill, "Moneyball"
• Viggo Mortensen, “A Dangerous Method”
• Christopher Plummer, “Beginners”

Prediction score: 4/5

Prediction summary: Sacha Baron Cohen is well-liked, and let's face it: this category is batshit crazy. Beyond Branagh, Plummer, and (surely) Brooks, there's no telling where the Academy is going to go. I definitely don't see a Nick Nolte nomination happening here, so it's gonna differ from the SAG whatever happens.

• "The Artist"
• "The Descendants"
• "The Ides of March"

• "Midnight in Paris"
• "Moneyball"

Animated Feature:
• "The Adventures of Tintin"
• "Arthur Christmas"
• "Cars 2"
• "Puss In Boots"
• "Rango"

Foreign Language Film:
• "The Flowers of War" (China)
• "In the Land of Blood and Honey" (USA)
• "The Kid with a Bike" (Belgium)
• "A Separation" (Iran)
• "The Skin I Live In" (Spain)

Original Score:
• Ludovic Bource, "The Artist"
• Abel Korzeniowski, "W.E."
• Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”
• Howard Shore, "Hugo"
• John Williams, "War Horse"

Original Song:

• 'Hello Hello', "Gnomeo and Juliet"
• 'The Keeper', "Machine Gun Preacher"
• 'Lay Your Head Down', "Albert Nobbs"
• 'The Living Proof', "The Help"
• 'Masterpiece', "W.E." (Madonna!)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Screen Actors Guild: Nominations & Reaction

This year the Screen Actors Guild Nominations and Golden Globe nominations occur just a day apart, giving the biggest indicator as to what/who will be nominated at the Oscars in January.

The SAG nominations are below, along with reactions and pre-nomination analysis.


• “The Artist”
• “Bridesmaids”
• “The Descendants”
• “The Help”
• "Midnight in Paris"

Reaction: I don't consider "Midnight in Paris" a particularly meaty ensemble, so this is probably more about them appreciating the film. Poor "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" looks a goner this awards season.

Prediction score: 4/5, missing “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” for "Midnight in Paris."

Prediction Summary: I may be dropping the ball here by not predicting “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” for anything, but aren’t they risking things greatly with this last-gasp grab for attention? As I was reliably informed on Twitter this week, even “Million Dollar Baby” had screened for most of the press by the end of November. In any case, neither Daldry’s film, nor Scorsese’s “Hugo,”nor Spielberg’s “War Horse” seem like the immediate go-to-feature for ensemble prizes, peppered with veteran actors here and there, but essentially led by youngsters. It might finally be time for “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”and its British thespian talent to join the precursor party, but it’s unclear whether anyone has particularly taken to the film.

“The Artist,” “The Descendants, “ and “The Help” are probably the three wisest predictions for an eventual Oscar winner, and they’ve all got sufficient enough cast lists (John Goodman, James Cromwell and Malcolm McDowell give the former a leg up here) to comfortably make this guild’s lineup. And why not “Bridesmaids,” which nearly everyone liked, and which boasts a wonderful set of comedic performers?

Leading Actress:

• Glenn Close, "Albert Nobbs"
• Viola Davis, "The Help"
• Meryl Streep, “The Iron Lady”
• Tilda Swinton, “We Need to Talk About Kevin”
• Michelle Williams, “My Week with Marilyn”

Reaction: So Glenn Close has clout! This was a game-saver, given that I don't particularly think the Globes are going to go for this film in as big a way. If they don't, this is gonna be a mighty unpredictable year in this category.

Prediction score: 4/5, missing Close for Charlize Theron, who this hurts a little but who still has a chance.

Prediction summary: This could well be what the eventual Oscar lineup looks like, but realistically this could go any-which-way-but Mara (kidding!) Davis, Streep, and Williams all look strong, while Theron and Swinton look fairly comfortable – even with characters and films that will inevitably deter some from investing fully. I’d suggest watching out for the hot trio of Elizabeth Olsen, Felicity Jones, Kirsten Dunst as spoilers to the party, or of course that veteran Actress with gender-swapping credentials, but currently without any precursor support.

Leading Actor:

• Demian Bichir, "A Better Life"
• George Clooney, “The Descendants”
• Leonardo Di Caprio, "J. Edgar"
• Jean Dujardin, “The Artist”
• Brad Pitt, “Moneyball”

Reaction: *sigh* I often find that SAG opt for blander, more uniform choices than even the Academy can tend to. Di Caprio fits the bill on this occasion, but it's nice to see Demian Bichir's accomplished performance in a tiny film gather some awards traction. This is awfully crowded, isn't it?

Prediction score: 3/5, since I mistakenly thought that those fans gunning for Fassbender and Shannon would bring about some much-needed nuance in this lineup.

Prediction summary: You would think Gary Oldman would be able to make a dent in this category, given the overdue status and immense appreciation for him in the industry, but this is going to be tough. Fassbender and Shannon appear to be sharing the spoils in the lesser-seen-actor-to-champion stakes, and so Oldman, along with Harrelson, may well have to go without. A Dujardin snub isn’t out of the question, but if it happened it wouldn’t be that disastrous for him, since the Oscar could still be his with a three-way split.

Supporting Actress:

Berenice Bejo, “The Artist”
• Jessica Chastain, "The Help"
• Melissa McCarthy, "Bridesmaids"
• Janet McTeer, "Albert Nobbs"
• Octavia Spencer, “The Help”

Reaction: Wow. It's good to see the best Chastain performance singled out in as important an Oscar precursor as this one. They clearly appreciated "Albert Nobbs" much more than critics, although they also went for "Get Low" last year, which eventually got shuffled out of the mix. Can the excellent Melissa McCarthy hold on for Oscar, despite the crass role and inherent comedy bias?

Prediction score: 2/5, and I'm glad to be. Apart from Redgrave's snub, the guild definitely got this category as right as they could have.

Prediction summary: This “The Tree of Life” isn’t an obvious pick for an ensemble prize, but actors’ sensibilities may still be more attuned to this film than something like “The Help,” which could pose problems for Chastain’s perceived chief assault on a Supporting actress nomination. I’d be very surprised if an actors guild didn’t warm to the serious chops of Redgrave’s performance in “Coriolanus,” even if the film doesn’t have a particularly high profile.

Supporting Actor:

• Kenneth Branagh, "My Week with Marilyn"
• Armie Hammer, "J. Edgar"
• Jonah Hill, "Moneyball"
• Nick Nolte, "Warrior"
• Christopher Plummer, “Beginners”

Reaction: It's especially great to see Nick Nolte singled out for his excellent performance in "Warrior." Hammer and Hill were considerably off the radar (for entirely different reasons) but this gives them a definite leg-up. Kenneth Branagh should be fairly safe now.

Prediction score: 1/5. Disastrous, but there were an awful lot of guys in the mix. I should have predicted Branagh.

Prediction summary: With regard to Pitt, refer to what I said earlier about “The Tree of Life.” From there: Kingsley and Forster have small roles in big films, and there isn’t an awful lot of competition around. Beyond Brooks and Plummer this is rather a wildcard category.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

And Then There Were 100: Best Picture

Time flies when you're having fun. Back in May, I posted the final 100 of Oscar's Best Actress nominees I had yet to see. As that figure now nears fifty the number of Best Picture nominees left has just reached the century mark itself. I have purposely left tasty-looking options to avoid a stale anti-climax, and I've also tried to spread the films in terms of decades, although -- as you'll see -- there are rather a lot of 1920s/30s films remaining. I don't know much about many of them, so please feel free to chime in with suggestions of which to get out of the way and which to leave until last.

Here's the list:

1. *Wings (1927-28)
2. The Racket (1927-28)
3. Alibi (1928-29)
4. Hollywood Revue (1928-29)
5. In Old Arizona (1928-29)
6. The Patriot (1928-29)
7. The Big House (1929-30)
8. Disraeli (1929-30)
9. The Love Parade (1929-30)
10. East Lynne (1930-31)
11. Trader Horn (1930-31)
12. Arrowsmith (1931-32)
13. Five Star Final (1931-32)
14. The Smiling Lieutenant (1931-32)
15. Smilin’ Through (1932-33)
16. State Fair (1932-33)
17. Flirtation Walk (1934)
18. Here Comes the Navy (1934)
19. The House of Rothschild (1934)
20. Imitation of Life (1934)
21. Viva Villa! (1934)
22. The White Parade (1934)
23. The Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935)
24. David Copperfield (1935)
25. Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)
26. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)
27. Les Miserables (1935)
28. Naughty Marietta (1935)
29. Anthony Adverse (1936)
30. Libeled Lady (1936)
31. A Tale of Two Cities (1936)
32. The Good Earth (1937)
33. Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938)
34. Four Daughters (1938)
35. Test Pilot (1938)
36. Of Mice and Men (1939)
37. All This, and Heaven Too (1940)
38. The Great Dictator (1940)

39. The Long Voyage Home (1940)
40. Hold Back the Dawn (1941)
41. One Foot in Heaven (1941)
42. Sergeant York (1941)
43. Kings Row (1942)
44. Wake Island (1942)
45. Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
46. Watch on the Rhine (1943)
47. Wilson (1944)
48. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
49. Great Expectations (1947)
50. *Hamlet (1948)
51. Father of the Bride (1950)
52. King Solomon’s Mines (1950)
53. Decision Before Dawn (1951)
54. Quo Vadis? (1951)
55. Julius Caesar (1953)
56. The Rose Tattoo (1955)
57. Friendly Persuasion (1956)
58. The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)
59. Sons and Lovers (1960)
60. Fanny (1961)
61. The Music Man (1962)
62. America, America (1963)
63. Cleopatra (1963)
64. Becket (1964)
65. Doctor Zhivago (1965)
66. A Thousand Clowns (1965)
67. The Sand Pebbles (1966)
68. *In the Heat of the Night (1967)
69. Doctor Dolittle (1967)
70. Romeo and Juliet (1968)
71. Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)
72. Z (1969)
73. American Graffiti (1973)
74. The Towering Inferno (1974)
75. Barry Lyndon (1975)
76. All the President’s Men (1976)
77. Bound For Glory (1976)
78. *The Deer Hunter (1978)
79. Heaven Can Wait (1978)
80. Tess (1980)
81. *Gandhi (1982)
82. Tender Mercies (1983)
83. Kiss of the Spiderwoman (1985)
84. Prizzi’s Honor (1985)
85. The Accidental Tourist (1988)
86. Mississippi Burning (1988)
87. My Left Foot (1989)
88. The Godfather: Part III (1990)
89. Goodfellas (1990)
90. The Prince of Tides (1991)
91. A Few Good Men (1992)
92. Howard’s End (1992)
93. In the Name of the Father (1993)
94. *Braveheart (1995)
95. Il Postino (1995)
96. Jerry Maguire (1996)
97. Good Will Hunting (1997)
98. The Sixth Sense (1999)
99. Traffic (2000)
100. Gangs of New York (2002)

Thursday, December 01, 2011

The Not-So-Silent Backlash & NBR Predictions

As the saying goes: ‘silence is golden’, but if many people have their way, the silent film that has so far won over several festival audiences and at least one major critics group, will not be crowned the best of 2011. Monday afternoon saw the announcement of the New York Film Critics Circle winners, as well as this year’s Indie Spirit nominations, both of which gave Michel Haznavicius’ “The Artist” a boost with Picture, Director, Leading Actor, and Cinematography notices. The aftermath of NYFCC’s awardage of the film with its two biggest prizes proved unexpectedly negative, the decision labelled safe, and the film denounced as a novelty by high-profile figures. “The Artist” isn’t terribly original because it’s an homage which lends plot devices from classic cinema, but it’s far more comfortable with what it is and tight in story-structure than most of the other frontrunners. It may not necessarily be a five-star film but it certainly trumps the likes of “The Descendants,” “The Help,” and “Midnight in Paris.”

It remains to be seen whether the film can build upon its New York win to mount a strong showing with the critics, which previously appeared unlikely. With its nose firmly put out-of-joint the National Board of Review votes for their ten best films today, and although “The Artist” seems within the mould of their admittedly old-fashioned preferences, I’m going to hold off on suggesting it can set the ball rolling for a sweep. This year feels like more of a scattered, spoil-sharing prospect after last year’s uniform endorsement of “The Social Network” – especially with voting bodies seemingly at war with one another. All things considered, “Moneyball” remains the best-reviewed film with realistic awards potential, so it makes sense for it to win a prize from a significant voting body (whatever your view on the NBR, their opinion carries weight).

The top ten is a minefield to predict, but you can be assured that they like political dramas, so this could be a handy get for the dwindling “The Ides of March,” and they always include Clint Eastwood’s films so expect “J. Edgar” to pop up here despite the disastrous reviews. From there, it gets tricky. Who knows if they’ll even remember those earlier acclaimed films “Beginners,” “Jane Eyre, “ and “Win Win”? Are “Melancholia,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “Take Shelter” a bit too far outside of the box for this group? Your guess is as good as mine.

Picture: “Moneyball”
Alt: “The Artist”

Top Ten:
“The Artist”
“The Descendants”
“The Ides of March”
“J. Edgar”
“Midnight in Paris”
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”
“The Tree of Life”
“War Horse”

Director: Martin Scorsese, “Hugo”
Alt: Terrence Malick, “The Tree of Life”

Leading Actress: Michelle Williams, “My Week with Marilyn”
Alt: Elizabeth Olsen, “Martha Marcy May Marlene”

Leading Actor: Brad Pitt, “Moneyball”
Alt: George Clooney, “The Descendants”

Supporting Actress: Jessica Chastain, “The Help,” “Take Shelter,” “The Tree of Life”
Alt: Vanessa Redgrave, “Coriolanus”

Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer, “Beginners”
Alt: Kenneth Branagh, “My Week with Marilyn”

Screenplay: “Moneyball”
Alt: “The Descendants”

Animated Feature: “Rango”
Alt: “Chico & Rita”

Foreign Film: “Certified Copy”
Alt: “A Separation”

Documentary: “Project Nim”
Alt: “The Interrupters”

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Review: The Descendants

The Descendants
Directed by Alexander Payne
Starring: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Matthew Lillard, Judy Greer, Robert Forster
Grade: C+

As maudlin voiceovers go, Miranda July’s cat-on-a-deathbed soliloquy in “The Future” has competition for the prize of ‘most annoying of 2011’, as George Clooney’s opening gambit in the wearily-spirited “The Descendants” may narrowly beat it out. In a speech in which Hawaii is characterised as a pillar of heritage, Clooney’s Matt King divulges to the audience the exposition that director Alexander Payne (“Election,” “About Schmidt,” “Sideways”) neglects to integrate into the narrative insightfully – which is that Matt’s wife Elizabeth is in a coma as a result of a boating accident, and that he’s struggling to take care of his two daughters. A fine premise for a film, given Payne’s history of resisting the urge to plumb the tearjerking sensitivities in his scripts for emotional effect, but as “The Descendants” proves: there’s always one exception to the rule.

Burgeoning talent Shailene Woodley’s entrance into the story as inebriated, frolicking teen Alexandra gives her the tag of the problem child, but is dismantled fairly soon after the daughters are rounded up to hunt down their dying mother’s fellow adulterer. The film charts Matt’s attempts to deal with the revelations of his wife’s recent behaviour, and his confrontation with the reality that many of his questions about their life together may well be left unanswered. In the midst of crises Matt’s relationship with his two daughters slowly comes together, revealing them to be a genuine unit, even as the early scenes had threatened to expose this as a hiding to nowhere. The genealogical angle employed to give the title added meaning sees Matt and his shareholder relatives in negotiations to sell the expanse of land on the island belonging to their ancestors, providing him with a secondary avenue in which to determine what ‘family’ means.

“The Descendants” boasts an unlikely setup for a comedy, but its blackness comes off as largely honest. The use of the Hawaiian setting to illustrate the film’s theme of disconnection works effectively in mirroring the tenuous nature of the frayed relationships within the family, and, whether as a result of having to make do with being thrown together or through the guidance of a director looking to develop the premise through the skills of his actors, the ensemble of “The Descendants” find a way to somewhat authenticate this band of people. There’s a makeshift sense of construction to their interactions which works within the film’s dramatic arc, and Payne’s presentation of familial solidarity-in-progress at least finds a way to resonate uniquely and effectively. Much of this can be attributed to the supporting performances surrounding Clooney, whose instincts for dry comedy have always felt like a neutered form of his zany “O’ Brother Where Art Thou” shtick. He has soulful moments but mostly relies upon the presence of Krause, Miller, and particularly Woodley alongside him, whose layered performance looks set to grab awards attention.

The problems lie in the strange tone of the film, and the tendencies of the humour to cheaply play to the audience. With alarming regularity, Clooney and his troupe go island-hopping at the drop of a hat, aided by tag-a-long Californian oaf Sid in the designated role of an outspoken jackass. There’s more than an element of “Little Miss Sunshine” to this family-outing setup, diluted by the morbidity and emotion of the predicament, but nonetheless indicative of Chabrol-style whimsy, alienating us from the characters as much as it draws us to them. Payne isn’t shy when it comes to big confrontation scenes, but he often uses directness to further the story when it doesn’t seem best appropriate, and his and Clooney’s attempts to extricate empathy for Matt occasionally fall on deaf ears.

There's something of Alexander Payne lurking in "The Descendants," beneath its unmistakeable plotting, infantile humour, and precious advocacy of togetherness. It has the midlife crisis-element of “Sideways,” the adolescent angst present in “Election,” but, more than anything else, exhibits the caustic charm of "About Schmidt" – albeit with a touch more humanity and considerably less nudity. Like Almodovar with the maligned “Broken Embraces” Payne’s auteurial gaze rakes over old ground, but lightly riffs rather than wickedly satirising, and ultimately feels like a backwards tread. However well its assemblage of young actors can pull off ‘artfully precocious’ with rounded aplomb, “The Descendants” surely represents this filmmaker’s most flawed work to date.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Bitesize Best Actress Oscar Profiles: Anna Magnani

Anna Magnani in “Wild Is the Wind”
Lost the 1957 Best Actress Oscar to Joanne Woodward in “The Three Faces of Eve”

Grade: ***

Despite the pedestrian warbling of Johnny Mathis in the titular signature tune, “Wild Is the Wind” has clearly been made with the intention of ruffling feathers. The decision to cast impassioned actors Anthony Quinn and Anna Magnani (Mexican and Italian-born respectively) can only help but add intensity to a story of unhealthy attraction and morbid obsession. It’s especially interesting to see the rural side of America explored in a narrative which, in its subversion of burgeoning coupledom, traditionally lends itself more to white middle-class suburban woe, with newly-united pairing Gino and Gioia undergoing domestic turmoil. George Cukor, in a rare outing from the studio, mirrors an earthy setting with the tempestuous nature of the film’s romance, and one suspects that he didn’t have to work too hard to get these particular actors to comply with the theatrical entanglement in the script.

We’re immediately aligned with Magnani’s Gioia, who enters the film as a stranger to the rural American paradigm, and must learn to co-exist with Gino and adapt to his way of life. Early scenes in which Magnani is afforded the freedom of her Italian accent underpin the emotional alabaster of this woman, her tentative interaction with the farm folk invoking the magnitude of the cultural leap she’s taking. While the film dismantles this language barrier in order to usher the plot towards more scandalous intentions, and the ever-clearer themes of lust, identity, and belonging, Magnani is able to shape the experiental pitfalls of the woman and strongarm some identifiable, go-getting charm into her homemaking character.

Yet, particularly when the script is intent on generating issues for the couple, the hypersensitivity of Gioia as a fiery, stubborn woman isn’t always condusive to the development of the character, and in the repetitive instances of kitchen-based barneys Magnani doesn’t deviate much from bouts of severe frustration. This actress’ trademark physical imposition can restrict access to Gioia’s internal conflicts, too definite when confronting her husband over his many failures, with less of a tremulous sense of edge or self-doubt than somebody relatively new on the scene. This is a woman apparently governed by her impulses, but whom demonstrates emotional maturity only when the story suits, and with scene partners Quinn and Franciosa straddling wildly uneven extremes of angst, Magnani must shoulder most of that burden herself.

Magnani reacts to the kindling of her tryst with farmhand Bene with too much visible horror – an approach which makes the character appear too fickle, and somewhat neutralises the tragedy of her missteps towards the end of the film. She does, however, bring a naturalistic candour to this desolate landscape, and feels at home within the Tenessee Williams-esque elements of the narrative more than anyone else involved. The misguided theatrics of her performance dilute the nuance, but it’s an acceptable climax to this woman’s brace of Academy notices.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bitesize Best Actress Oscar Profiles: Fay Bainter

Fay Bainter in “White Banners”
Lost the 1938 Best Actress Oscar to Bette Davis in “Jezebel”

Grade: ***

Perhaps the greatest comment on behalf of Edmund Goulding's understated “White Banners” is that it makes a great advertisement for small-town America: a place where issues can be presented and overcome with grace and solidarity. It must be conceded that, after the initial cosiness of the home is established, there’s a heavy dose of earnestness to this accessible melodrama. What makes the film in many ways superior to similarly moral-driven pictures is in the performances – of and either side of Fay Bainter – who help to shape it into a worthwhile model of family life.

Of the ensemble Bainter’s Hannah remains most noticeably intriguing, predominantly because her character is less receptive to, or dependent upon, the influence of others, and her role as the film's insistent maid intentionally places her as the figurehead of the household. There are elements of self-righteousness to Hannah, which Bainter uses to allude to back-story – both within her half-hidden arc and outside of it. She finds ways to show how this woman has grown from her experiences, developed into a makeshift matriarch, turned dedication and presence into a valuable commodity to suit her needs. Long before the sympathies of the character are revealed, Bainter manipulates without offending – partly because she encounters little to no resistance, but also because she’s very difficult to distrust.

But for all of these minor successes this method also works against her, and the nature of the film’s narrative in the first hour essentially limits the amount of impact that she can achieve. The dedication to a storyline involving Claude Rains’ inventor character consigns the performance to flashes of matronly self-lionisation which ultimately inhibit her greatly, and there isn’t enough teeth-sinking opportunity in the prolonged middle portion. “White Banners” takes until the hour mark to endeavour to really upset the apple cart, this coming in the form of an incrementally hinted-at revelation from Hannah’s past, which colours our view of her considerably, and allows this actress to finally furrow grief into a guarded pillar of efficiency.

Bainter admittedly furnishes guilt and regret with a degree of plaintive mechanism in the final segment, but she does extricate emotion through revealing the character’s outlook to be more malleable and ambiguous than previously suggested. Her performance crystallises when the moment she has anticipated for most of the film eventually arises, and her concession of weakness when others force her to confront these issues from a different plain of thought brings added depth to Hannah. She’s given inklings of this before, but there’s mild surprise to the way in which she deals with the fraught collision of events that threatens to destruct. It can’t quite boost the resounding impact of her performance from congenial warmth to serviceable excellence, but it’s nontheless befitting of this emotionally intelligent, unendingly modest feature.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Review: Anonymous

Directed by Roland Emmerich
Starring: Rhys Ifans, Jamie Campbell Bower, Sebastian Armesto, Vanessa Redgrave, Rafe Spall, David Thewlis, Joely Richardson, Derek Jacobi
Grade: C+

Whatever our preconceptions about history, it’s easy to take them for granted. When you begin to study the subject you realise that there is rarely a uniform view about anything, and that notions of ‘truth’ are much more murky and uncertain than they appear on the surface. An unlikely purveyor of oppositional theory, Roland Emmerich is more at home with adhering to the expectations of an audience than going against them, but nevertheless helms this tale of fiction’s indubitubly reprised hero William Shakespeare, who has his name on works as iconic as “Hamlet” and “Romeo and Juliet,” but does that categorically mean that he wrote them? Emphatically, Emmerich suggests that he didn’t, and that instead these plays were written by the then-Earl of Oxford, Edward De Vere – an accusation which represents one of the many theories as to the identity of the true author.

If all of this sounds like a far-fetched attempt at rewriting the history books, then consider this: RSC stalwarts Derek Jacobi and Vanessa Redgrave both star in “Anonymous” and advocate its claims. Beyond this film there is weight to the discussion, but Emmerich, protective of the mantra that entertainment supercedes debate, opts to forego cultural responsibility and craft a film that flaunts the factional warfare of Elizabethan politics rather than scrutinising the subject at hand. William Shakespeare (Spall) is portrayed as an illiterate, lecherous fool, and De Vere (Ifans) as the nobleman skirting the stigma of the artist’s profession. The Earl produces the plays, using poet Samuel Johnson (Armesto) as a go-between, and relays a left-wing political voice which opposes the royal aides who surround elderly Queen Elizabeth I (Redgrave).

A story littered with scandalous accusations of sex, betrayal, and incest, “Anonymous” is far too overstuffed and, frankly, ridiculous to achieve any rounded view of history. The goals of the film are in allaying facts and providing a gung-ho impression of Elizabethan England as a haven for self-interested charlatans, and as such asserts that the truth may be even stranger than fiction. But it’s self-parodical in its radicalism of history as laden with hateful, preposterous characters and cross-generational romances, integrating soapy melodrama into the narrative without riffing on artistic tropes the way that “Shakespeare in Love” did thirteen years ago. It’s probably the trashiest representation of the era since at least “Mary, Queen of Scots” in 1971, proffering snap political decisions as the catalyst for emotional grandstanding.

While many will scoff at Emmerich’s commercialisation of 16th century life, the film’s sheer audacity as an anti-history lesson, estranged from logic, is one of its key attributes. There are storylines and plot twists in “Anonymous” which defy belief, but watching them unfold is often tremendous fun, with Redgrave in fine form as the frothy, culture-loving monarch, and Ifans statuesque as the haughty, melancholy puppetmaster observing from the sidelines. There’s a great deal of character brought to the film, which likely benefits from shying away from straight-laced drama and a self-important tone. The inevitable problems emerge from interloping figures, cliched subplots, intercutting between timeframes (all of which have plagued Emmerich’s films before) and primarily the framing of the theory as a viable option in the first place. It’s difficult to imagine that anybody watching “Anonymous” would entertain this impression of Shakespeare as anything other than a fictional fancy, since so much within its approach spurns intellectual engagement for other exploits.

For Emmerich, “Anonymous” may have initiated a departure from his usual disaster movie blockbusters, but as a competent cinematic storyteller dependent upon familiar narrative beats and clichés, this isn’t a million miles away from his usual fare. Unfathomably, he has fashioned high-brow into low-brow; turned one of the most prestigious periods for literature into a crowdpleasing piece of frippery about profligates and schemers. It’s a loose cannon of a picture, enjoyably frothing with issues and intrigue, but often clumsily executed and manically curtailed in its final third. “Anonymous” even does its best to destroy the credibility of the argument it's founded upon. But for all of that, and irrespective of whether you view this as the work of a hack, a heathen, or a dillettante, it commands admiration for the gall of the venture alone. The world of the theatre may be shown up for its deception here, but it has rarely felt this alive and well.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Review: The Adventures of Tintin

The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig
Grade: B

If there’s a filmmaker more closely associated with the art of nostalgia than Steven Spielberg then his name eludes me. J. J. Abrams’ “Super 8” was an attempt to wrestle sentiment from Close Encounters and E.T. but, as “The Adventures of Tintin” proves: only Spielberg knows the workings of his own ouvre. When this project came to light the assumption that it would be a live action adventure was quickly hushed by an announcement that this was to represent this director’s first foray into the realm of animation. The finished product is somewhere in the middle of both, with the use of motion capture technology providing a hybrid clash of cartoon action and human instinct.

Hergé’s Tintin books are beloved in Europe, where they’ve gained more exposure, and where the continental sensibilities of this crime fighting, globe-hopping hero have more obvious appeal. The African country of Morocco is the destination for “Secret of the Unicorn,” which sees Tintin (Bell) as an already-established sleuth drawn into the mystery of the Haddock family, and the lost cargo of their long-since sunken ship. Accompanied by his dog Snowy he encounters one of their descendants, Captain Haddock (Serkis), but is continually thwarted in his mission of retrieval by the vengeful, greedy aristocrat Sakharine (Craig).

There’s a delicacy to Tintin as a character which makes him seem knowing, but an ultimate show-off, and it’s this vague arrogance that allows for the key elements of the quest to be outlined to an infant audience. As is the case with so many mystery stories aimed at kids (Nancy Drew, The Famous Five etc.) the story hinges on foreseeable plot points, which frequently feature objects or clues as the catalyst for revelations. And still, the thoughtful approach towards themes of heritage, kinship, and masculine inadequacy (there are barely any women in this film) extend “The Adventures of Tintin” into universal territory. In the mould of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” Spielberg shifts the dramatic onus upon uncovering historical truths, and uses the exotic setting as a handy platform for action sequences – one particular street chase a marvel in choreography and execution.

Shifting focus towards a more nautical-themed adventure allows Tintin’s burgeoning relationship with Haddock to take centre stage, and kingpin of the filmmaking medium Andy Serkis to have a ball as the incompetent drunkard with a heart. But ultimately, it’s a shame that Morocco doesn’t greatly contribute to the crux of the mystery, given the amount of television episodes dedicated to interweaving foreign intrigue into the story’s crimes and motives . Moreover, the ending of the film is a tad anticlimactic in the ease at which it shows us what we’ve essentially seen before, and then leads into the promise of a sequel with a very similar goal to this adventure. If the heavily-suggested sequel goes ahead then one expects the follow-up will have to considerably build upon “Secret of the Unicorn,” which lays the groundwork but likely won’t emerge as the model of attainability. It’s stoking the embers rather than blazing the world alight, and setting out its stall for a franchise.

This quirkily-conceived detective adventure meshes well with Spielberg’s cinematic tropes and represents a return to form which – however brief with the hotly-anticipated “War Horse” ready to emerge – will encourage those who had lost faith. It’s worth noting that many of this film’s shortcomings could also be said of the book and TV series adaptation, which itself is a confirmation that Spielberg has done right by this franchise. Some will simply be unable to fully invest in the neither-here-nor-there motion capture technique, but in terms of narrative and character “The Adventures of Tintin” captures the charm of the man, his friends and enemies, and the casual nature of criminal investigation as enlightening, brisk fun. Forget horses for a while, and instead turn your attention to the antics of one man and his dog.