Sunday, February 27, 2011

Oscar Picks, 2011

Best Picture

Should win: 127 Hours
Will win: The King's Speech

The King shall reign supreme, even though Aron Ralston's epic one-man journey moved me more.

Best Director

Should win: David Fincher, The Social Network
Will win: Fincher

Many of the directors who made me excited about watching movies this year (Danny Boyle, Christopher Nolan, Derek Cianfrance) weren't nominated. Still, Fincher has been doing innovative work since the '80s, when he directed music videos for Aerosmith and Madonna. He deserves it.

Best Actor

Should win: Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Will win: Colin Firth, The King's Speech

Mark Zuckerberg may not think we deserve his full attention, but Eisenberg certainly had mine for every second he was onscreen. Too bad Firth is a shoo-in.

Best Actress

Should win: Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine
Will Win: Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right

Please, God: Make the Academy voters come to their senses. Don't let them give anything to Black Swan or Natalie Portman. How about Michelle Williams, who gave an almost uncomfortably revealing performance in Derek Cianfrance's amazing Blue Valentine? If not, then how about Annette Bening, even though she was way better in Mother and Child? Thanks, pal.

Best Supporting Actor

Should win: Christian Bale, The Fighter
Will win: Bale

I love every performance in this category, but when Christian Bale is good – like, American Psycho good – he can't be beat. I'm still not 100% convinced he wasn't actually on crack during the filming of this movie.

Best Supporting Actress

Should win: Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
Will win: Steinfeld

The Academy wants to give something to the Coen Brothers' widely acclaimed Western, and Steinfeld presents the best opportunity. Her plucky, resourceful, deeply Protestant teenage avenger is one of the year's most riveting movie creations.

Best Original Screenplay

Should win: Mike Leigh, Another Year
Will win: Christopher Nolan, Inception

I think Nolan will pull a surprise upset, if only because the Academy wants all those fanboys to shut up about how he was robbed of directing noms this year and in 2008. But, forced to choose between Brits, I'll take Leigh over Nolan any day of the week.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Should win: Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network
Will win: Sorkin

He wrote the following, generation-defining line: "As if every thought that tumbled through your head was so clever it would be a crime for it not to be shared." I rest my case.

Best Animated Feature

Toy Story 3

Best Foreign Language Film

In a Better World

Best Documentary Feature


Best Film Editing

The Social Network

Best Cinematography


Best Visual Effects


Best Art Direction

The King's Speech

Best Costume Design

I Am Love

Best Makeup

The Wolfman (click here to read more about this category)

Best Original Score


Best Original Song

"If I Rise," 127 Hours

Best Makeup: "The Wolfman"

The night before they filmed the famous murder-suicide scene, Stanley Kubrick told Vincent D’Onofrio on the set of Full Metal Jacket: “Just remember, it has to be big. It has to be, like, Lon Chaney big.”

You’ll get a good idea of what Kubrick was talking about when you watch Chaney’s memorably anguished performance in The Wolf Man (1941). Here’s a horror movie so romantic, scary and well made it took Hollywood nearly 70 years to screw it up.

The Wolfman (2010) stars Benicio Del Toro, an actor who in previous films has proven himself a worthy successor to Chaney. His performances as Fred Fenster in The Usual Suspects, Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Jackie Boy in Sin City are so larger than life the screen can barely contain them. The director and screenwriters of Wolfman keep Del Toro on a very short leash. He spends most of his screen time either hidden behind makeup or delivering monosyllabic lines. The filming of this movie must have been a very frustrating experience for him.

Inexplicably written by two of Hollywood’s most talented scribes – Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en) and David Self (Road to Perdition) – the script makes numerous alterations to the original film, none of them for the better. The girl the Wolf Man pursues is now the fiancée of his dead brother, a change that has exactly one effect: to make his character an insensitive douchebag. The new film also adds an origin story that’s no less absurd than, say, "The Honking" – the Futurama episode in which an evil “were-car” kills people because it has the left turn signal from Charles Manson’s VW.

The filmmakers have pulled off the seemingly impossible feat of making a werewolf movie with no subtext. In the original, the Wolf Man was a genuinely tragic figure, an essentially decent but aloof man who ignored the warnings of the villagers who told him “even a man who is pure in heart… may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms.” There’s real poignancy when Chaney says, “I can’t help myself.” The film uses the werewolf as a metaphor for “the good and evil in every man’s soul.”

Exactly what is this new Wolfman about? Beats me. The werewolf has given the horror genre some of its most thematically rich movies. Ginger Snaps is a brilliant werewolf movie that puts a terrifying spin on the adolescent “growth spurt”. Even a B-movie cheapie like I Was a Teenage Werewolf gives us something to think about, as Stephen King notes in his epic 1986 novel, It, when Richie Tozier goes to see it:

“…the kid who turned into the werewolf was full of anger and bad feelings. Richie found himself wondering if there were many people in the world hiding bad feelings like that.”

The Teenage Werewolf is Richie’s worst nightmare. I can’t imagine The Wolfman keeping Richie Tozier or anyone else up at night. It had the opposite effect on me: I fell asleep watching it at the theater.

The movie has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Makeup, thus proving once and for all that you don’t have to make a good film to qualify in one of the technical categories. Thanks to modern visual effects, we get to see the transformation of the Wolf Man in real time. But I actually prefer the use of dissolves in the original film; you don’t stop and think, “I’m looking at a special effect.” I’m rooting for Barney’s Version to win in this category, but Wolfman is the more obvious choice. Rick Baker has won six Oscars for Best Makeup, and I’m guessing he’ll be collecting his seventh.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Best Makeup: "The Way Back"

Peter Weir’s new World War II adventure movie, The Way Back, is being presented by National Geographic Entertainment. That seems appropriate, because the movie is loaded with awe-inspiring scenery. It has an all-star cast and an absorbing narrative, but it never fully engages our emotions.

Jim Sturgess, the gifted young British actor from Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe, plays Janusz, a Polish prisoner of war who’s convicted of espionage and sentenced to 20 years hard labor in a Soviet camp. There, he meets an American named Mr. Smith (Ed Harris) and a Russian hood named Valka (Colin Ferrell). The men escape and make a seemingly impossible journey through the snows of Siberia, over the Himalayas and into India. Did I mention they walk the whole way?

The movie is pictorially riveting, especially the early scenes in the labor camp. The men huddle together in the mines and in cramped living spaces, their shaved heads glimmering in the dark. The movie loses some of its spark during the initial stretch of the journey. Most cinematic odysseys (like Cold Mountain and Into the Wild) rely on the introduction of new characters, but the escaped inmates in The Way Back are walking from, uh, Siberia. Not a lot of people to meet out there (or so I’ve heard).

The story finally comes to life again when the men meet Irena (Saoirse Ronan), a spirited teenage runaway. “Don’t you talk to each other?” Irena asks her less-than-loquacious comrades. “In the camps,” Mr. Smith answers, “you learn to speak as little as possible.” While that’s probably true, it doesn’t make for very compelling characters. The script tends to sacrifice drama on the altar of realism.

One of Australia’s most acclaimed filmmakers, Weir has made movies that have basically haunted me all my life (Picnic at Hanging Rock, Dead Poets Society, Fearless, The Truman Show). He failed to move me with this one. His previous effort, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, showed a similar flair for exacting verisimilitude. But it also gave us a captivating human drama to get caught up in, bringing Captain Jack Aubrey and his naturalist friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin, to vivid life.

Admittedly, I have a bias against these kinds of Westernized international pictures. They always feature nonsensical performances like the one by Colin Farrell, an Irish actor playing a Russian criminal speaking in broken English (“I know about survive – all my life”). There’s only so much slack you can give to a movie like this.

The movie’s sole Oscar nomination is for Best Makeup. Hair and makeup artists Edouard F. Henriques, Gregory Funk and Yolanda Toussieng do a remarkable job of showing us the physical effects of the journey, in the form of chapped lips, swollen feet and bruised faces. Henriques and Toussieng were nominated for Master and Commander but lost to The Return of the King. I think this year’s winner will also be a movie in the sci-fi & fantasy genre. I’ll discuss it in my next post.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Best Makeup: "Barney's Version"

This is the first in a series of posts about the 83rd Academy Awards; the winners will be announced Feb. 27.

In addition to my Oscar predictions, I thought it might be fun to review each of the nominees in a particular category. I’m too lazy to review all 10 Best Picture nominees (or all five Best Actor nominees, for that matter). That leaves Best Animated Feature and Best Makeup; each category honors three movies. Frankly, I’m too upset that Tangled didn’t get nominated to even look at Best Animated Feature, so Best Makeup it is.

An American Werewolf in London won the first Best Makeup Oscar in 1981. Since then, some extraordinary films have been honored: Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask, David Cronenberg’s The Fly, and Eddie Murphy’s Norbit. Okay, some are more extraordinary than others. Like costume designers and FX wizards, makeup artists can be like Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the G.I. Joe movie, spinning gold from lousy material.

The 2010 nominees for Best Makeup are (drum roll, please): Barney’s Version, The Way Back and The Wolfman. My personal favorite is Barney’s Version. It stars Paul Giamatti as Barney Panofsky, the producer of a ridiculous Canadian soap opera called Constable O’Malley of the North. The movie’s storyline spans 25 years, covering relationships with friends and family, as well as a drunken fight that may or may not have ended in Barney killing a guy.

Like nominees in previous years (Amadeus, A Beautiful Mind, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), this is one of those movies where actors age through cosmetics. We see Barney and friends when they were all young and beautiful and living in Rome, and later when he’s stricken with Alzheimer’s disease. Makeup supervisor Adrien Morot does a fantastic job; Giamatti’s transformation is especially convincing.

I’m rooting for Barney’s Version to win this year’s Academy Award for Best Makeup because it tells the best story, and Morot’s make-up work enriches the storytelling. Without cosmetic enhancement, the final scene between Barney and his dad (played to wry perfection by Dustin Hoffman) wouldn’t have quite the same impact. It’s one of the truest, funniest, most heartbreaking scenes I’ve seen in a movie theater in the past year.

I’ll review the other nominees for Best Makeup in my next two posts.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


Like District 9, Gareth Edwards’ Monsters is a monster movie that takes place several years after aliens have landed on Earth. District 9 had a budget of $30 million; Monsters cost a fraction of that ($500,000), but you wouldn’t know by looking at it. The movie is a masterpiece of economy filmmaking and a prime example of just how much a resourceful independent filmmaker can accomplish these days.

The movie takes place in a speculative near-future, when the entire northern part of Mexico has been quarantined and the U.S.-Mexico border has been sealed with a fortified wall to keep out extraterrestrial “creatures”. A war photographer (Scoot McNairy) is paid a hefty sum to escort a wealthy American expatriate (Whitney Able) from Central America back to the States. To complete the journey, they must travel through the Infected Zone, where alien behemoths that look like elephants crossed with squids roam freely.

Like Robert Rodriguez, Edwards is a multi-hyphenate filmmaker. Traveling with his two lead actors and a 5-man crew, he shot the movie himself in Costa Rica, Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. He filmed in flooded areas and disasters zones, including a neighborhood in Galveston, Texas, that had been destroyed by Hurricane Ike. Like the great documentarians, Edwards knows how to make the most of his surroundings. The landscape looks like it’s been ravaged by alien invaders, but no, the filmmakers simply shot on location in areas that suited their purposes.

Even more astonishing is what Edwards achieved during post-production. Using readily available computer programs like Photoshop and Adobe After Effects, he painted in helicopters, road signs, mountains and a towering border fence. In an amazing nighttime scene, a sea creature pulls a downed plane beneath the surface; the effects in that scene were accomplished in the director’s bathtub using a toy plane and a Mag-Lite. The design of the creatures is jaw-dropping. Whereas Steven Spielberg delayed showing the monster in Jaws because he thought the shark looked fake, Edwards shows the creatures right away, in a stunning roadside attack that opens the film. Monsters shows how far visuals effects technology has advanced in the 35 years since Spielberg’s creature-feature blockbuster.

Able and McNairy have good chemistry (they’re married in real life), but the real star is Edwards. No wonder why he’s been hired to direct the new big-budget reboot of Godzilla. His low-budget indie can be viewed as a straight monster movie or as an allegory for immigration and the devastating effects of natural disasters in the Third World’s most vulnerable areas. It’s no big surprise that the “monsters” to which the title refers turn out to be entirely human.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Quote of the day, 02/16/2011

Agent: Fact of the matter, Muley, after what them dusters done to the land, the tenant system don't work no more. You don't even break even, much less show a profit. Why, one man and a tractor can handle 12 or 14 of these places. You just pay him a wage and take all the crop.
Muley: Yeah, but we couldn't do on any less than what our share is now. The children ain't gettin' enough to eat as it is, and they're so ragged. We'd be ashamed if everybody else's children wasn't the same way.
Agent: I can't help that. All I know is, I got my orders. They told me to tell you to get off, and that's what I'm tellin' ya.
Muley: You mean get off of my own land?
Agent: Now don't go to blamin' me! It ain't my fault.
Muley's son: Whose fault is it?
Agent: You know who owns the land. The Shawnee Land and Cattle Company.
Muley: And who's the Shawnee Land and Cattle Company?
Agent: It ain't nobody. It's a company.
Muley's son: They got a president, ain't they? They got somebody who knows what a shotgun's for, ain't they?
Agent: Oh son, it ain't his fault, because the bank tells him what to do.
Muley's son: All right, where's the bank?
Agent: Tulsa. What's the use of pickin' on him? He ain't nothin' but the manager. And he's half-crazy hisself tryin' to keep up with his orders from the East.
Muley: Then who do we shoot?
Agent: Brother, I don't know. If I did, I'd tell ya. I just don't know who's to blame.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

House of 1000 Remakes: "A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop"

I’m cheating a bit here because I said this series would be about horror remakes. The Coen Brothers haven’t made a horror movie yet, though their debut film, the twisted little caper Blood Simple, certainly has horror elements. Rumor has it their next film might be a horror movie. According to Ethan, “We’re working on a couple of scripts now, one of which it would be fair to call a full-on horror movie. Frances McDormand is the monster.” Take from that what you will.

Chinese director Zhang Yimou is a huge Coen Brothers fan, and I was stoked when he announced his intentions to remake Blood Simple. Zhang is responsible for some of the most beautiful films in world cinema over the last decade. Hero, House of Flying Daggers, The Curse of the Golden Flower – these movies are why God invented Blu-ray. He also gave us the spectacular opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics, the one that made Eric Cartman and Stephen Colbert so fearful of the Chinese.

Zhang’s new Blood Simple remake, A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop, is a notable oddity at best. The director claims the Coen Brothers wrote to him to say they enjoyed it, and I think they were being entirely too nice. It’s arguably his worst movie.

A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop tells the same basic story as Blood Simple, but it’s been transplanted from Texas to a small desert town in China. Even though the plot involves shocking domestic violence, Zhang directs in slapstick style. This makes for some jarring tone problems. The characters look and act like they belong in a wacky comedy, but Blood Simple is no O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Zhang’s choices have a tendency to sap the story of its inherent drama. Take the famous live burial from the original, quite possibly the most horrifying scene the Coens have ever directed. In the new film, the husband is shot dead before his grave is completely filled in with dirt. Where’s the fun in that?

My advice is to stick with Blood Simple. Zhang is a master director, and I’m sure he’ll knock The 13 Women of Nanjing (starring soon-to-be Oscar winner Christian Bale) out of the park. It's not like he’s the only great filmmaker who’s failed to live up to the original. The original Ladykillers is way better than the Coen Brothers’ Ladykillers.

Friday, February 11, 2011

"The Only Good Indian"

“The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
–Gen. Philip Sheridan

This is going to be a rave review, so I should state from the outset that I know some of the filmmakers involved. The director, Kevin Willmott, taught a few film classes I took as a grad student at the University of Kansas. And the cinematographers, Matthew Jacobson and Jeremy Osbern, appeared on a radio show I used to host for KJHK-90.7 FM, which is only the greatest college radio station in the world.

At KU, Willmott teaches History of African-American Images in Film. His students learn the five major black stereotypes: the coon, the mulatto, the mammy, the tom and the buck. Taking the class is an eye-opening experience to say the least. The same could be said of Willmott’s new film, The Only Good Indian. It’s a terrific American Western, offering an unapologetically clear-eyed view of history and featuring very powerful performances.

Willmott has said he wanted to make the anti-Searchers. Appropriately enough, his film opens and closes with a shot lifted from John Ford’s 1956 masterpiece, showing a silhouetted figure through a doorway and framed against a background of endless prairie. The Only Good Indian and The Searchers tell similar stories, with a key difference: the roles of victim and aggressor have been reversed. In Willmott’s film, an Indian youth is kidnapped from his family by white Christians, and the boy’s quest to return home forms the basis of the story. The movie also brings to mind the 2002 Australian film Rabbit-Proof Fence, in which three Aboriginal girls are plucked from their homes.

In a remarkable screen debut, Winter Fox Frank stars as Charlie, a member of the Kansas Kickapoo Tribe who is abducted from his home and put on a train to Lawrence. There, he’s forced to attend a boarding school for Native American children. He’s prohibited from using his native language and made to dress like whites and say Christian prayers.

Charlie has no intention of giving up his heritage without a fight, so he’s subjected to daily beatings and made to eat soap for refusing to speak English. He manages to escape this terrifying ordeal, but not before snatching a copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula off a shelf. Reading about Europeans “without heart or conscience, preying on the souls of those we love best,” Charlie naturally assumes his oppressors must be vampires.

The film co-stars Wes Studi (The Last of the Mohicans, Avatar) in the role of a lifetime. He plays Sam Franklin, a bounty hunter who captures Charlie and attempts to return him to the school. An assimilated Cherokee, Sam is the film’s most complex character. (A close second is Sheriff Henry McCoy, a veteran of the Indian wars who considers the schools even “crueler than anything I ever done.” He's played by J. Kenneth Campbell.)

In a very moving scene, Sam reveals how he’s rationalized the decimation of his people when he tells Charlie, “Their god is stronger than ours. And it’s just meant for them. It’s written in their book. They keep comin’ and comin’ and comin’ and they don’t stop until they get what they want. THAT’S the white man.” There’s a lot of humor in this role, too, which Studi plays beautifully. Sam wants to join the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, and plans to “out-white man the goddamn white man.”

Filmed in part at the Old Cowtown Museum of Wichita, the movie is an impressive recreation of the period. Willmott has said one of his goals as a filmmaker is to “stay Kansas,” and here he’s found a way to do that without compromising the material. CSA: The Confederate States of America, his other great revisionist movie, is a mockumentary in which the South wins the Civil War. He’s the rare independent filmmaker who has something to say, and I for one hope he’ll continue opening eyes inside and outside of the classroom.

The Only Good Indian is available to watch instantly on Netflix.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Children of the corn

The Wichita Eagle recently published two terrific articles about famous actors born in my home state, Kansas. I already knew that most of the performers on the list were Kansas natives, like Buster Keaton (the movie theater in my hometown sometimes shows a retrospective of his work from the silent era), Annette Bening (up for an Oscar this year for The Kids Are All Right), and the recently departed Dennis Hopper. There’s also Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel, self-described “fat actress” Kirstie Alley, the mom from E.T. (Dee Wallace Stone) and the loud-mouthed, ill-fated drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket (R. Lee Ermey). Others were complete surprises, though, like Billy Drago.

Born in the small southeastern Kansas town of Hugoton in 1948, Drago is best known for playing Frank Nitti, the sadistic henchman in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. He’s in two of the film’s most memorable scenes: when Nitti kills Malone (Sean Connery) with a tommy gun; and later when Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) throws Nitti off a roof. Since The Untouchables, Drago has appeared mostly in low-budget horror and science-fiction fare like Tremors 4: The Legend Begins and Cyborg 2. Two highlights of his career: Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin and the Takashi Miike episode of Masters of Horror, Imprint. Drago appeared briefly in Mysterious Skin as one of Neil McCormick’s “johns”, while he had the starring role in Imprint (famously banned from cable broadcast for its shocking violence). Both roles offered Drago the rare opportunity to demonstrate his soft-spoken, often menacing screen presence in an artistically satisfying film.

Imprint is available to watch instantly on Netflix. You can read the Eagle stories about Kansas actors here and here. In what may or not be a related story, Gov. Sam Brownback signed an order today eliminating the Kansas Arts Commission; you can read about that here.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Movie within a Movie: "Vanishing Point"

In the new Green Hornet movie, Seth Rogen makes a joke about the considerable age difference between his character and Cameron Diaz’s. You look “kinda Cocoon,” he says.

Today’s movies are filled with this kind of stuff – movies talking about movies. It’s become so prevalent that IMDb devotes an entire section to “movie connections,” while TV shows like Family Guy are basically nothing but pop culture references. I thought the whole movie-reference game might be a fun way to write about classic/underground films. The rules are simple: I’ll take a fairly recent movie (released in the last 10 years or so), and then write about whichever classic film is being referenced. Appropriately enough, I’ll start with a filmmaker who thrives on this sort of thing…

Set in Lebanon, Tennessee, the second half of Quentin Tarantino’s underrated Death Proof covers a fateful day in the life of Zoë (Zoë Bell) and three of her friends. A Kiwi stuntwoman, Zoë believes “there’s no reason to be in America if you can’t drive a Detroit muscle car.” She wants to test drive a 1970 Dodge Challenger with a white paint job. Her friend Kim (Tracie Thoms), a fellow gearhead, recognizes the car from the 1971 cult classic, Vanishing Point; the other two friends, up-and-coming actress Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and makeup artist Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), have never even heard of the movie. (“Actually, Zoë, most girls wouldn’t know Vanishing Point,” Kim explains.) The girls eventually get to test drive the Challenger, culminating in a show stopping high-speed chase with Zoë riding on the hood of the car while a madman batters them with his “death proof” Chevy Nova.

Like Lee and Abernathy, I’d never heard of Vanishing Point before I watched Death Proof. While I’m not sure I agree with Zoë’s assessment that it’s one of the best American movies ever made, Vanishing Point is a standout among muscle car movies and an indispensable time capsule of the post-Woodstock era.

In his career-defining role, Barry Newman stars as Kowalski, a car delivery driver who plans on driving a 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in record time. His motivation for doing this is left unexplained, and indeed we don’t really get to know a whole lot about Kowalski. This allows the filmmakers to portray him as a mythic figure: “the last American hero, the electric centaur, the demigod.” With its romantic outlaw hero, spectacular police chases and fuck-the-pigs mentality, the movie is an obvious descendent of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. But Vanishing Point also brings to mind Terrence Malick’s Badlands, which combined an unmotivated crime plot with beautiful, contemplative scenes of rural life in the American Southwest.

By the end of the movie, Kowalski has achieved almost total freedom, literally smiling in the face of death. (Tarantino quotes this shot at the end of Death Proof, when Abernathy watches in awe as Zoë plays “Ship’s Mast” on the hood of the Challenger.) The film’s idyllic depiction of the flower child generation – there’s a shot of a beautiful woman riding naked on a motorcycle that today would look out of place almost anywhere but at Burning Man – makes you pine for that brief moment in American history when total freedom seemed within reach. Too bad the filmmakers’ vision of utopia doesn’t extend to the gay community; a totally unnecessary scene where Kowalski encounters two limp-wristed stickup artists is the only serious flaw in the movie’s otherwise gleaming exterior.