Tuesday, December 13, 2011

FAST FIVE (2011)

Let me preface this review of the latest FAST AND THE FURIOUS entry by admitting that this is my first F&F movie.  So there is a good chance I have missed subtle character development begun in a previous installment or failed to grasp the significance of some revelatory moment or scene.  F&F completists may justifiably complain about my limited knowledge of the film series’ mythology.  To them I say:  whatever, just shut up and drive.  Before the opening title Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker) and squeeze Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster) stage a prison break by spectacularly overturning a bus full of inmates on an open highway (a TV news report is careful to note that there were no casualties!?).  One of those inmates is Mia’s brother Dominic (Vin Diesel), and the trio meets in Rio de Janeiro to join Vince (Matt Schulze) in a daring train heist to fill their empty coffers.  But the heist goes wrong when hired thugs of local criminal overlord Hernan Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida) betray our team of honorable thieves and kill some federal agents in the process.  This brings Dominic and company to the attention of relentless agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson fka The Rock), who arrives in Rio with his team to stop them.  Despite being caught between a Rock (sorry) and a hard place, Dominic hatches a plan to steal all of Reyes’ money.  To achieve this he calls into action several characters (I assume) from previous films, including Roman Pierce (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej Parker (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), among others.  Director Justin Lin and screenwriter Chris Morgan are on solid ground when their characters are behind the wheel.  The train heist and the film’s final half hour are action-packed – imaginative, exciting, and gloriously ridiculous.  However, the filmmakers have B-grade OCEAN’S 11 ambitions, and the middle hour sags as actors, whose abilities range from adequate to awful, are asked to be witty, charming and engaging.  These sides of beef are better served in fast cars, driving furiously.  Because when they are, this movie is tons of fun.  When they’re not, it’s a drag.  Just shut up and drive.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) ghost writes a popular series of young adult novels about the trials and tribulations of a popular high school girl with whom she relates completely.  When she receives the birth announcement of her former beau’s child, she becomes obsessed with returning to her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota, to win Buddy (Patrick Wilson) back.  So Mavis packs her car and leaves the city to reclaim a youth she never really abandoned.  At the local watering hole she runs into Matt (Patton Oswalt), a geeky former classmate best known as the kid beaten up and crippled because he was mistakenly thought to be gay.  He attempts to dissuade her from her sociopathic pursuit of Buddy, but Mavis ignores him.  However, she comes to rely on him as a sounding board and to appreciate his home distillery.  Buddy either misreads Mavis’ insinuations or decides they are innocuous and invites her home to meet wife Beth (Elizabeth Reaser) and baby.  Mavis, in turn, projects her unhappiness onto Buddy and pursues him insidiously to rescue him from his miserable life.  Writer Diablo Cody reteams with her JUNO director Jason Reitman, and their collaboration has clearly matured.  Here Cody’s dialogue sounds less mannered, and her characters feel like real people, albeit not necessarily ones with whom we’d want to spend quality time.  Reitman captures the look and feel of suburban Minnesota and succeeds in making even remote and guarded characters approachable if not wholly accessible.  And the performances here are first rate.  Theron allows Mavis to be funny, delusional and mean, but never sentimental.  Wilson makes Buddy opaque enough so that anything can be read into his inscrutable features.  Oswalt, however, nearly steals the movie from Theron, masking his emotional wounds behind glib sarcasm.  Cody and Reitman struggle to find a satisfying ending, but, since their subject is a woman who refuses to change, perhaps they should be forgiven.  This bracing comedy about an unwillingness to confront uncomfortable truths may be the most socially relevant movie of the year.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

HUGO (2011)

Martin Scorsese loves the movies.  You see it in every frame of his films:  from the ultraviolent gangster picture GOODFELLAS to his overrated period piece THE AGE OF INNOCENCE to his underrated nightmare comedy AFTER HOURS (one of my favorites).  This is his love letter to moving pictures.  Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives in the walls of a Paris train station circa 1930.  The orphan has kept the station clocks running ever since his drunk Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) failed to return to the job.  When he isn’t scurrying around inner workings or hiding from the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), Hugo pilfers gears and small parts from a grumpy toy seller named Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley).  With the help of a notebook created by his late father (an affecting Jude Law, seen in flashback) Hugo has been using these items to repair an automaton that he believes holds the key to a mystery.  After Méliès confiscates the notebook, Hugo befriends the proprietor’s goddaughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz) to help get the precious papers back.  With the guidance of Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee), a keeper of books, and historian Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg), the children discover Méliès’ hidden past as a magician and fabulist filmmaker.  Scorsese directs John Logan’s screenplay, based on the children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, with a leisurely European tempo and atmosphere.  Hugo spends much of the film’s first half observing train station denizens through clock faces.  He watches Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths) tentatively woo Madame Emilie (Frances de la Tour).  Meanwhile the self-conscious Station Inspector, whose leg was crippled in WWI, struggles to approach flower seller Lisette (Emily Mortimer).  Robert Richardson’s marvelous cinematography and Dante Ferretti’s gorgeous production design add to the film’s lush look, and Butterfield’s expressive face says much with little dialogue.  While Logan’s script introduces plot threads that lead nowhere and Scorsese, like an indulgent lover, allows his film to ramble on too long, movie buffs will find this cinematic confection irresistible.  (Scorsese uses the 3-D process beautifully, but I would have preferred to see the film in the standard format.)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


The final film precursor to Joss Whedon’s highly anticipated adaptation of THE AVENGERS (due out next year) is an art deco-infused entertainment set during World War II that hits its arbitrary marks but feels as flat as its superhero’s back story.  Chris Evans (who provided what little spark THE FANTASTIC FOUR had) stars as Steve Rogers, a proverbial 98-pound weakling whose desire to shoot Nazis is considerably bigger than his biceps.  The patriotic fellow courts repeated rejection from military recruiters until Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) plucks him from the ranks for a controversial treatment.  Despite doubt from leggy Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and derision from Colonel Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), Erskine and inventor Howard Stark (father of Tony, played by Dominic Cooper) turn our diminutive hero into Captain America, complete with bulging pectorals.  The new physique captures the attention of Peggy but Phillips remains skeptical, leaving Rogers to peddle war bonds for jingoistic politicians.  Meanwhile rogue Nazi Johan Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), with the help of Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), hunts for magical items to create super weapons to arm his Hydra army.  Schmidt, revealed to be Red Skull, captures Rogers’ friend “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and his division.  Captain America must disobey orders to rescue his friend and thwart Red Skull’s diabolical plan to take over the world (auf natürliche!).  Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely’s script, based on the comic books by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, covers a lot of ground but does so so superficially that by film’s end Captain America feels like a construct rather than a character.  Director Joe Johnston maintains a brisk pace but he has neither the finesse nor the patience to nurture his actors.  Despite the best efforts of pros like Tucci, Weaving, and the Joneses, the performances fail to engage.  Fans of the comic may be able to fill in the gaps, but the rest of us remain in the dark.  While its period look is gorgeous and its visual effects impressive, the film’s best moment is the teaser for THE AVENGERS.  Help us, Joss Whedon!  You’re our only hope.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

RANGO (2011)

Gore Verbinski, director of the first three PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies, makes his feature-length animation debut with this visually stylish mash-up of HIGH NOON and CHINATOWN.  The film’s story, however, which he co-wrote with James Ward Byrkit and screenwriter John Logan, fails to match the film’s arresting look.  The writers pack in many iconic western moments, and Verbinski plays myriad visual homage to classic movies, but the film fails to engage beyond Name That Reference.  When our hero, the Lizard With No Name (Johnny Depp), becomes stranded along a desert freeway, a mystic armadillo (Alfred Molina) points him to Dirt, a remote frontier town populated by rats, turtles, snakes, and other desert creatures.  The lizard dons the moniker Rango and presents himself as a peerless gunman who can take out multiple targets with one bullet.  After accidentally killing a hawk that has been terrorizing the town, Rango is made sheriff by the Mayor (Ned Beatty channeling John Huston).  Dirt uses water as currency (it is even stored in a bank) but suffers from drought.  For this reason most landowners have left, leaving the struggling Beans (Isla Fisher) one of the few to remain.  Though Rango’s first task is to protect the dwindling water supply, the bank is robbed.  So the newly minted lawman must lead a posse into the desert to salvage his reputation.  The voiceover work is journeyman, and Fisher’s head-scratching accent often unintelligible.  Beatty comes off best, as does Ray Winstone as Bad Bill, while Bill Nighy barely registers as villainous Rattlesnake Jake.  The confusing lead character, however, is the film’s central problem.  If Rango is essentially a good-hearted oaf in over his head, why does he misrepresent himself to the townsfolk from the outset?  Are we to view him as we would the delusional Inspector Clouseau and laugh at his self-made misfortunes?  If that’s the case, the choice fails to play out.  Rango is so incompetent that the characters around him seem simple-minded in their inability to see through him, leaving no one for whom to root.  In their frantic quest to pay tribute to cinema classics, Verbinski and company have crafted a film that falls far short of the moniker classic.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


In ELECTION (arguably his best film) and CITIZEN RUTH (an overlooked gem) director/co-writer Alexander Payne achieved merciless satire without sacrificing the deeply flawed characters’ humanity.  And while SIDEWAYS lacked a satirical tone, it cut its characters little slack yet remained compassionate.  Following this evolutionary path, Payne’s latest film (adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel by Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash) retains its humanistic tendencies but lets its characters off the hook.  George Clooney stars as Matt King, a Honolulu real estate lawyer and absentee husband and father who acts as trustee to his family’s pristine acres on Kauai which must be sold off by law.  As various cousins gather to vote on which developer will purchase the land, Matt gets a wake-up call when his wife Elizabeth lands in a coma after a boating accident.  Because the prognosis is negative and both spouses have a do not resuscitate clause in their living will, Matt must become full-time father to precocious 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and troubled teen Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) while preparing family and friends for the worst.  So the news that Elizabeth had been having an affair in the months leading up to her accident only adds to Matt’s burden.  His search for the adulterer leads him to Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), a realtor who could gain from the sale of the King family land.  The film’s voiceover exposition is off-putting, but Payne soon finds his storytelling rhythm and allows his fine cast breathing room.  Clooney gives a relaxed, understated performance, while Robert Forster makes a welcome return to the big screen as Elizabeth’s gruff father.  Judy Greer is terrific as Speer’s guileless wife, and Woodley shows exceptional nuance in what could have been a single-note role.  Still one can’t help but feel that Payne has given Matt a pass.  Though Matt acknowledges his shortcomings in voiceover, his comatose wife never gets the opportunity to confront him or to defend herself.  And while this allows for a happier ending, the film’s final family portrait does not ring true.  Perhaps Payne has gone soft.  I hope not.  I miss the Payne who practices tough love.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


We first meet defense attorney Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey) on his way to consult with one of his repeat offenders while bail bondsman Val Valenzuela (John Leguizamo) pitches Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) as a wealthy potential client who’s been charged with assault.  Money talks to our Mr. Haller.  And though Roulet already has a lawyer (Bob Gunton) and an overprotective mother (Frances Fisher), Haller takes the case, convinced that his new client has been framed despite evidence gathered by prosecutor Ted Minton (Josh Lucas).  But he and investigator Frank Levin (William H. Macy) soon discover that Roulet is not as innocent as he claims and may be implicated in a murder that Haller persuaded incarcerated former client Jesus Martinez (Michael Peña) to plead years back.  Further complicating matters, Haller becomes the target of a fresh murder investigation headed by grizzled Detective Lankford (Bryan Cranston).  Marisa Tomei (still underused but better served here than in CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE.) rounds out the cast as a prosecuting attorney and Haller’s ex-wife.  Michael Connelly’s novel gets a crackerjack adaptation by John Romano, who gives even minor characters rich textures and sharp dialogue to relish.  The plot is smart without being convoluted and never resorts to tired heroics or manipulative melodrama.  Brad Furman’s direction displays a vitality and verve reminiscent of the American film renaissance of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s (with able assistance from cinematographer Lukas Ettlin and composer Cliff Martinez).  The casting is near perfect.  Pretty boy Phillippe has never displayed much range, but when used well (as he was in Robert Altman’s superlative GOSFORD PARK) you can forgive much.  Here Phillippe’s inability to act works to the film’s benefit.  McConaughey, on the other hand, has held promise since Richard Linklater’s DAZED AND CONFUSED.  With this performance as a lawyer with his own slippery version of ethics, he has found a film and a role that delivers on that promise.  This sharp, modest thriller will surprise you with its reliance on the old-fashioned virtue of crisp storytelling.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

SHAME (2011)

Michael Fassbender gives a fearless, riveting performance as Brandon, a sex addict in New York City.  We first meet Brandon between various anonymous sexual encounters as he wanders naked through his fastidious apartment pursued by a recurring female voice on his answering machine.  We initially believe the voice to be a spurned paramour but learn it belongs to his sister Sissy (a marvelous Carey Mulligan), who turns up in his shower uninvited.  Despite clear discomfort at the proposition, Brandon agrees to let her stay on the couch until she finds her own place.  And his workplace provides little solace as Brandon learns his laptop has been taken away to remove a virus.  When he asks out co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie) and finds he respects her, he is unable to perform sexually because he has never associated sex with respect.  While Brandon uses sex to avoid real intimacy, Sissy mistakes sex for real intimacy and drives away her suitors as effectively as her brother’s detachment.  Brandon’s philandering married boss David (James Badge Dale) seduces Sissy and returns her to the apartment for consummation.  Soon Brandon’s boundaries begin to collapse, leading him on a night of self-destructive debauchery that earns the film its NC-17 rating.  Director Steve McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan do not make judgments, they merely observe.  The only character to make a moral judgment in fact is sleazy boss David when he comments that Brandon’s virus-infested laptop is “filthy.”  Nor do the filmmakers delve into the siblings’ history, though it’s clear their childhood was an emotional train wreck to judge by the toxic codependence.  The writers’ only stumble is in overplaying Brandon’s night of degradation by including an out-of-character homosexual encounter.  Otherwise McQueen’s touch is artful and restrained, and he elicits top-drawer, award-worthy performances from both Fassbender and Mulligan.  One can only hope the more prestigious award organizations see past the strong subject matter to honor two brave, unflinching portrayals.

Monday, October 17, 2011


In the past director David Frankel has proved himself an adept cinematic journeyman who crafts solid entertainments with heart.  In THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA he had the riveting Meryl Streep to energize the proceedings, and with MARLEY & ME he had, well, an adorable dog.  So the pleasures should be threefold with Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson headlining THE BIG YEAR.  Sadly, that is far from the case.  The film follows a trio of avid bird watchers (or birders, as they prefer to be called) during the course of a Big Year, a calendar year in which birders catalogue on the honor system every species of bird they spot or hear.  Martin plays Stu, a business owner escaping the rigors of his demanding job.  Office drone Brad (Black) seeks meaning in breaking the Big Year record.  His unfocused career reaps financial support from his mother (the delightful Dianne Wiest) and skepticism from his father (the gruff Brian Dennehy).  Meanwhile Bostick (Wilson), a competitive birder who holds the elusive record, works as a contractor when he isn’t abandoning his wife Jessica (an appealing Rosamund Pike) for his ornithological obsession.  Black is completely miscast, and Brad’s perfunctory romance with fellow birder Ellie (Rashida Jones) is as convenient and as it is unlikely.  But for his few scenes with the underused JoBeth Williams, a better-cast Martin comes off as preoccupied rather than present.  The amiable Wilson fares best, but even he seems constrained.  Frankel’s pacing is brisk but devoid of energy, like the condensed version of a film that lacks detail and color.  However, if all things avian fascinate you, Howard Franklin’s genial, risk-averse script (inspired by Mark Obmascik’s non-fiction book) may provide 90 minutes of diversion.  The rest of us, however, will watch the unfolding film dissipate like morning mist until there’s no memory of what was just seen.  We feel neither offense nor engagement, merely a sense of befuddlement and lethargy.

Thursday, September 29, 2011


Bennett Miller’s first feature since the superlative CAPOTE looks and feels like a great game of baseball:  elegant, leisurely paced, with flashes of excitement and splashes of nostalgia.  How apt that the film’s subject is America’s favorite pastime, specifically General Manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) and his Oakland Athletics’ rebuilding season of 2002 after their top players depart for richer free agent pastures.  As team scouts bandy about names for replacements, Beane questions their approach, arguing that the A’s meager budget can’t compete with that of large-market teams like the Yankees.  He discovers his muse in competing consultant Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), an economics major who champions a statistical formula to help determine a player’s value.  Beane promptly hires him.  They implement this new system for recruiting, derisively dubbed “moneyball”, and meet stiff resistance from their scouts and Manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin based their richly observed screenplay on the book by Michael Lewis (who also wrote the book upon which THE BLIND SIDE was based) and a story by Stan Chervin.  The dialogue snaps, and the actors savor each word.  Pitt has rarely appeared so comfortable in a character’s skin, with an easy grace reminiscent of vintage Redford or Newman.  After establishing himself as the amusing oddball kid in crass comedies, Hill matures his stock character before our very eyes, revealing warmth and humanity behind the numbers cruncher.  Hoffman provides solid support, as does Robin Wright as Beane’s estranged wife, while Kerris Dorsey has an unaffected charm as Beane's 12-year-old daughter.  With only three films to his credit (the documentary THE CRUISE being the other) director Miller has reached the first ranks of filmmakers.  He understands the romance of baseball and of film and fuses them gorgeously here (with the help of unfussy cinematography by Wally Pfister).  The end result is the baseball movie equivalent of nirvana, and I, for one, never wanted to leave.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Director Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns transform the infectious disease thriller from overwrought melodrama (see 1995’s OUTBREAK as an egregious example) into a tense kaleidoscope of the global society’s reaction to a pandemic, focusing primarily on the CDC’s efforts to find and implement a vaccine and the emotional fallout in patient zero’s immediate family.  Shortly before Thanksgiving Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns from a Hong Kong business trip via Chicago (and a brief affair with an old flame) to husband Mitch (Matt Damon) in Minneapolis, while carrying a deadly virus along with her baggage.  After Beth collapses in seizures, dying shortly thereafter, head of CDC Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) sends colleague Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) to the scene to contain the virus’ spread.  But people start dropping in Hong Kong, Chicago and across the northern hemisphere at an alarming rate, and panic soon begins to spread, thanks in no small part to paranoid, muckraking blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law).  While WHO agent Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard) searches for the pandemic’s source in Hong Kong and CDC’s Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) works tirelessly on a vaccine, the military and the Department of Homeland Security entertain the notion that this may be a terrorist attack.  In contrast to the film’s large scale, both in geography and character, Burns’ script remains economical and controlled.  Soderbergh mutes the hysterics throughout, finding small, quiet moments that hit hard despite (perhaps because of) this restraint.  His frequent collaborator, editor Stephen Mirrione, maintains a relentless pace but never sacrifices speed for clarity.  The assembled all-star cast is a true ensemble and hit their physical and emotional marks with precision, but Winslet, Damon, Fishburne and Ehle are standouts.  Soderbergh has been categorized, sometimes justifiably, as a cool, detached filmmaker.  But here his objective tone works, and the film insidiously gets under the skin.  Those hoping for a hyperbolic entertainment may be disappointed, but the rest of us will likely be washing our hands obsessively for days afterward.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


If you were left dispirited (as I was) by the cynically sentimental SUPER 8, you will find reason to rejoice in this lean, nifty “B” horror movie from writer/director Joe Cornish.  Set in present day South London, the film introduces a gang of teen hooligans led by Moses (John Boyega) as they rob nursing graduate Sam (Jodie Whittaker) of her purse and jewelry.  A crashing meteorite that contains an outer space alien interrupts the robbery.  Armed with knives and bats the boys attack and kill the creature (it’s the size of a large chimpanzee) and carry the corpse back to Wyndham Towers, a large tenement building where they each reside (along with, as we soon find out, Sam).  In the penthouse flat of local weed-grower Ron (Nick Frost) the gang discusses where to sell their trophy.  The reverie is interrupted by a shower of meteorites around the block, portending a fresh batch of invaders.  Emboldened, the boys storm down but discover instead a pack of black-furred aliens the size of Saint Bernards with sharp, glowing teeth and bad tempers.  Cowed, they retreat to the Towers, doggedly pursued by the monsters.  Director Cornish playfully toys with genre conventions -- at times honoring them, at other times turning them slyly on their head -- while writer Cornish shows genuine affection for his not-so-wholesome teen characters.  His clever script acknowledges their faults without judging or absolving and provides subtle social commentary that could have been written by George Romero in a more lighthearted mood.  Thanks to an engaging cast, we, too, become fond of this ragtag band of underage thugs, which raises the emotional stakes once the monsters start biting.  Resembling a teenage Denzel Washington, Boyega has a soulful gravitas that commands attention.  He, along with the appealing Whittaker, ground the often-chaotic proceedings.  Meanwhile Alex Esmail, as the aptly named Pest, and Luke Treadaway, as perpetually stoned amateur zoologist Brewis, provide the film’s largest helpings of comic relief, a task normally delegated to Frost (whose performance here is subdued).  In his promising first feature Cornish ably delivers ample scares and generous laughs.  I look forward to his next film.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


This romantic comedy written by Dan Fogelman (CARS) and directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (the writers responsible for the gleefully offensive BAD SANTA) lurches uneasily between bittersweet and quirky before settling, tragically, for emotional uplift.  Jacob (a charismatic Ryan Gosling) avoids commitment but knows how to seduce women.  Meanwhile Cal (Steve Carell) adjusts to single life after Emily (a wonderful Julianne Moore), his wife of 25 years, admits she’s been having an affair with co-worker David (Kevin Bacon).  After spotting the sad sack at his local pick up spot, Jacob tutors Cal in the fine art of fashion and facileness, which leads to improved confidence and a spirited one-night stand with Kate (Marisa Tomei).  However, Jacob meets his match when spunky law student Hannah (a charming Emma Stone) tells him no.  Amidst all these romantic machinations, Cal’s 13-year-old son Robbie (Jonah Bobo) nurses a crush on his 17-year-old babysitter Jessica (Analeigh Tipton) who in turn pines for Cal.  Fogelman’s superficial, uneven screenplay meanders, introducing a promising storyline or engaging character only to abandon it.  The marvelous Tomei captivates every time she’s on screen, but the filmmakers hang her out to dry.  The scenes with Gosling and Stone crackle, thanks primarily to the performers’ chemistry.  But Fogelman’s script cheats the audience out of significant information to facilitate a surprise twist near the film’s end.  And, despite a fearless performance by Tipton, the babysitter story turns queasily unfunny, with characters responding to mortifying situations as if they were appearing on the Disney Channel.  Ficarra and Requa elicit strong performances from their cast but alternate between pedestrian camera shots and self-conscious visual flourishes that undermine coherent storytelling.  The filmmakers back away from any meaningful portrait of modern romance and settle, literally, for the insipid platitudes of an 8th grade graduation speech in which dishonesty masquerades as profundity.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


Forget the clunky Tim Burton “reimagining” if you can.  In this entertaining prequel to the PLANET OF THE APES film series, scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) has developed a brain-enhancing drug for Gen-Sys, a San Francisco-based pharmaceutical company.  After successful results on chimpanzee Bright Eyes, Will pitches the idea of human tests to the corporate board.  But his prize subject runs amok, and the project is shut down.  Too late Will discovers that Bright Eyes had been protecting her newborn child and that her rampage was not a drug side effect.  He adopts the orphaned baby chimp (whom he names Caesar) and raises him in the house he shares with his father Charles (John Lithgow), a concert pianist gradually succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease.  Will soon discovers that Caesar (played by a motion-captured Andy Serkis) has inherited his mother’s enhanced cognitive capabilities, and they begin communicating through sign language.  But after Caesar violently defends ailing Charles against an antagonistic neighbor, the courts order the grown chimp moved to an animal shelter.  There Caesar engages with his simian peers and foments revolt against the oppressive jailers.  Unlike prequels of yesteryear (and I’m looking at you STAR WARS: EPISODES 1-3) this film keeps the exposition brisk and the tone surprisingly upbeat.  Though we know where the story will lead, Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver’s screenplay (suggested by Pierre Boulle’s novel La Planete des Singes) surprises just enough while making clever (and mostly subtle) references to earlier APES movies.  And while director Rupert Wyatt displays a canny visual flair, he never lets the CG effects or the action overwhelm the story, deftly balancing scenes both large and small.  Franco anchors the film with his steady, irony-free performance, and Lithgow proves that less is more in his welcome return to the big screen.  But the movie belongs to the remarkable Serkis, who creates a full-blooded simian character that we believe in as much as, if not more than, its human counterparts.

Thursday, August 4, 2011


In this stellar adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story “Adjustment Team”, Matt Damon stars as David Norris, an up-and-coming New York congressman running for senate.  While practicing his concession speech in a hotel bathroom, David discovers dancer Elise (Emily Blunt) hiding from security after crashing a wedding reception.  Sparks fly, but they are separated before exchanging digits.  This seemingly chance meeting alters David’s speech and changes the trajectory of his career.  Three years later on a bus to an important meeting he runs into Elise again.  But David was never supposed to catch that bus or ever see Elise after their first encounter, as he soon learns when shadowy men in fedoras waylay him.  These men are adjusters, controllers of fate.  They reside in a parallel universe and step in when the human race goes “off plan”.  But adjusters Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) and Thompson (Terence Stamp) underestimate the lengths David will go to forge his own future.  A little science fiction, some thriller thrown in, and (at its best) a generous helping of romance, this crazy recipe of genres shouldn’t work.  But director George Nolfi (who also wrote the script) seamlessly blends his two stars’ screen personas with their characters, and Damon and Blunt’s potent chemistry electrifies the film.  From their first meeting we want David and Elise to be together, whatever the odds, and silly concerns like plot contrivances and murky rules for adjuster travel between worlds become inconsequential each time Damon and Blunt appear on screen.  Over the years Damon has grown into a favorite actor, whose appeal (if not his range) continues to impress.  And after her supporting splash in THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA Blunt has finally found a movie and role that fulfills her promise of five years ago.  Though a sequel seems superfluous, I can only hope that fate (or the adjusters) will grant us another Damon/Blunt movie pairing in the near future.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


When last we saw Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) in Part 1 of this final installment, he, Hermione (the marvelous Emma Watson) and Ron (the likable Rupert Grint) had barely escaped the clutches of Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter); and Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) had defiled Dumbledore’s (Michael Gambon) grave to retrieve the all-powerful Elder Wand (one of the titular Deathly Hallows).  The three young wizards had abandoned Hogwarts to find and destroy horcruxes (significant items that contain a piece of Voldemort’s soul) which will make the Dark Lord vulnerable to death.  Harry’s quest now requires him and his friends to break into the vaults of Gringotts with the help of devious goblin Griphook (Warwick Davis), and eventually leads them back to Hogwarts where nemesis and former teacher Snape (Alan Rickman) runs the school as a prison.  Screenwriter Steve Kloves and director David Yates have streamlined the second half of J.K. Rowling’s problematic final novel into a swiftly moving package, leading inexorably to the devastating confrontation between Voldemort and Harry.  The filmmakers smartly hit their paces but sideline many beloved characters in the process.  Remus Lupin (David Thewlis), Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith) and Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane), to name a few, make little more than cameo appearances.  And even Ron and Hermione have scant screen time.  This is Harry’s film; however, and Radcliffe gives an affecting, if at times labored, performance.  Fiennes plays his villainous one note to perfection, and Rickman presents a master class in acting as the film gives Snape his full due.  Fans of the book series (and I’m one) can breathe a sigh of relief.  The film delivers an emotional, satisfying finale (though I could do without the cloying epilogue – a flaw found in the book).  The first two leaden adaptations notwithstanding, the Harry Potter film series has been remarkably consistent in remaining faithful to its source while finding its cinematic voice.  No small feat, for which the filmmakers deserve our thanks.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


Woody Allen’s latest comic confection follows Hollywood screenwriter turned would-be novelist Gil (an appealing Owen Wilson) as he and fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) soak up the Parisian atmosphere (as do we, thanks to gorgeous cinematography by Darius Khondji) during a pre-wedding trip.  Like the protagonist of his novel-in-progress, Gil romanticizes the past and waxes rhapsodic about the artistic community of 1920s Paris.  Inez, meanwhile, fixates on more pragmatic matters related to the impending marriage.  Late one night Gil becomes lost wandering the streets and, as the clock strikes midnight, obtains a ride from revelers in a vintage car.  They arrive at a party in full swing, and Gil discovers he has been whisked back in time by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston) and his wife, Zelda (Alison Pill).  Soon he is hobnobbing with Ernest Hemingway (a very funny Corey Stoll), who expresses an interest in Gil’s novel.  But when he leaves the party to get the manuscript, Gil finds himself back in present day.  Each night Gil returns to the midnight spot, and each night the car returns him to his writer’s utopia.  There he meets illustrious figures from the day -- Salvador Dali (a manic Adrien Brody) and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), among others – and falls for a costume designer and sometime model named Adriana (Marion Cotillard).  Meanwhile the distance between Gil and Inez grows.  In this film writer/director Allen whimsically exposes our need to idealize the past at the expense of enjoying the present (a variation of a theme he pursued in THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO).  But Allen himself also indulges.  The scenes set in the past are so bursting with passion and the performances so joyous, like Gil we long to return to them.  And Allen stacks the deck against the present.  McAdams has rarely been this unlikeable as the self-absorbed Inez, Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy bristle as her shallow, suspicious parents, and Michael Sheen perfectly plays the boorish know-it-all Paul, who acts as Paris tour guide to the engaged couple.  And while the film never reaches the heights of an ANNIE HALL or MANHATTAN, I would be a hypocrite indeed if I failed to admit that I savored its many pleasures.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

SUPER 8 (2011)

With this film writer/director J.J. Abrams (who directed the engaging STAR TREK reboot) aspires to make the ultimate Steven Spielberg movie from the 1970s and early 1980s.  A feat that Spielberg (who produced and seemingly approved of this two-hour tribute) hasn’t achieved since JURASSIC PARK (1993).  But what felt fresh 20-some years ago feels calculated now.  Instead of fashioning a story that showcases Spielberg’s signature style from that era, Abrams has chosen to ape the style at the expense of coherent story, using an aesthetic akin to a television clip show episode.  Call it Spielberg’s greatest hits without the charm, wit, or sense of wonder.  Set in 1979 the film follows young Midwest teen Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) whose mother has died in a factory accident and whose father, local deputy Jackson (Kyle Chandler), blames town drunk and fellow factory worker Louis Dainard (Ron Eldard) for her death.  Dainard has a pretty daughter named Alice (Elle Fanning) upon whom Joe has a crush.  When Joe’s friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) casts Alice in his 8mm zombie movie Joe takes a renewed interest in helping his friend with makeup and model building.  While shooting a night scene at the local train station, the kids witness a truly spectacular derailment (a set piece which strains credulity beyond the breaking point even for a summer popcorn picture).  The disaster looses both a literal monster in the form of a CG alien, and a figurative one in the form of the military, led by the menacing Colonel Nelec (Noah Emmerich).  Sadly Abrams can’t decide whether he’s making a horror/adventure movie (like JAWS) or a coming-of-age story (like E.T.) or a first contact film (like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS), and none gets sufficient screen time to engage.  Worse, he telegraphs every meaningful moment with on-the-nose dialogue and cloying reaction shots.  The actors, young and old, do the best they can with the ham-fisted material, but only Fanning is able to rise above the syrupy morass.  This cynical exercise in faux nostalgia could, at a stretch, be considered a success.  Abrams has indeed made a Spielberg movie; just not a good one.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


At a Nazi concentration camp young magnetic mutant Erik Lehnsherr witnesses Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) gun his mother down after the boy fails to move metal objects upon demand.  Two decades later mind-reading Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) plays foster brother to shape-shifting Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and lectures about genetic mutations, while Erik/Magneto (now played by Michael Fassbender) hunts for the elusive Shaw to exact his revenge.  In the meantime Shaw has gathered an army of mutants around him, including the icy Emma Frost (January Jones).  He aspires to world domination by initiating nuclear war between the U.S. and Soviet Union during the Cuban missile crisis.  CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) stumbles upon this plot and enlists Charles’ help.  Charles and Erik join forces and gather their own army of mutants, including the nerdy Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult).  The film’s story by Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer has potential.  However, screenwriters Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz and Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn squander it with clunky, clichéd dialogue and too many scenes that lack dramatic tension.  The most egregious example relates to Professor X and Magneto’s eventual philosophical split over coexisting with humans.  Though a foregone conclusion, director Vaughn and the writers make the mistake of treating it as such from the outset and kill any potential drama.  Vaughn’s action scenes are artless and incoherent, and he does a huge disservice to most of his actors.  Bacon feels miscast and self-conscious, while McAvoy, Jones and Lawrence are subdued and lifeless.  Byrne shows some spunk and spark, while Hoult’s Hank manages some geeky charm before being transformed into the wooden Beast.  The remaining mutant characters, however, aside from their specific abilities, are generic and barely register.  But the same cannot be said for Fassbender, who mesmerizes as the vengeful and mistrustful Magneto.  He deserves a much better film.

Monday, June 6, 2011


There are few filmmakers as ambitious or as frustrating as Terrence Malick.  His latest cinematic tone poem moves back and forth in time, exploring life, faith and forgiveness.  We begin with the middle-aged Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) in their beautiful, empty home as they learn that one of their teenage sons is dead.  It is never made clear how the son died (though I had the impression he had killed himself).  We only know that the mother is bereft and the father nagged by vague guilt.  Next we flash forward to present day where surviving son Jack (Sean Penn) still grapples with grief for his brother and anger at his father.  Then it’s back to the Big Bang and the arrival of the dinosaurs (I’m not kidding) until we finally return to the O’Briens in the 1950s as they start their family.  There the story, such as it is, becomes more linear, and we follow the O’Briens from the birth of their three sons through the boys’ childhood.  While Mrs. O’Brien shows her children the way of grace and creates a warm, nurturing environment, Mr. O’Brien teaches his children the way of nature and comes down hardest on Jack (now played by Hunter McCracken) in relaying life’s hardscrabble lessons.  Gorgeously shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, Malick’s film, in its best moments, feels like captured communal memory.  The wonder of seeing the world through childlike eyes has rarely been more effectively conveyed.  And Malick elicits remarkably natural performances from novice actors McCracken and the beatific Laramie Eppler, who plays younger brother R.L.  Pitt works hard at being the hyper-achieving father who takes his personal frustrations out on his family, and Penn broods through his brief moments in the film.  Chastain, however, effortlessly registers every subtle shade of emotion through her delicate features and tethers us to this ephemeral movie.  Writer/director Malick tackles big philosophical issues with a lyrical, ludicrous commitment but has no new answers.  And while the end result is admirable, it is far from satisfying.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


Writers Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig and director Paul Feig have struck a rich, raucous vein with this raunchy yet heartfelt comedy about a maid-of-honor on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  Annie (co-writer Wiig) is teetering on the emotional and fiscal edge.  Her failed baking business has forced her to share an apartment with creepy British siblings, and she’s physically involved with a self-absorbed jerk (the uncredited Jon Hamm).  But when her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) announces she’s just become engaged and wants Annie to be her maid-of-honor, Annie agrees with barely concealed panic.  As a further complication fellow bridesmaid Helen (Rose Byrne) begins competing with Annie and taking over the wedding plans.  Mumolo & Wiig’s generous script gives its stellar ensemble ample comedic breathing room and allows each scene’s humor to play out in full, while director Feig shows perfect restraint during the movie’s outrageous set pieces.  At the risk of giving too much away, the bridal party dress fitting, the flight to Las Vegas, and the bridal shower meltdown may be the most painfully funny scenes you’ll see in a film this year.  Playing against expectation Rudolph’s bride is the warm seeming calm around which the higher-strung bridesmaids spin, while Byrne masks Helen’s insecurity with passive-aggressive overcompensation.  Wendi McLendon-Covey, as a marriage- and child-weary matron, and Ellie Kemper, as an anxious newlywed, make the most of their smaller roles, while Chris O’Dowd nicely underplays Annie’s potential romantic interest.  As the crass and aggressive bridesmaid Megan, however, Melissa McCarthy steals nearly every scene she’s in.  Her character is one that could have gone wrong in so many ways, but McCarthy’s fearless commitment delivers huge laughs.  But in the end this is Annie’s movie, and the luminous Wiig channels Lucille Ball in her prime, balancing physical comedy with understated vulnerability.

Friday, May 6, 2011

THOR (2011)

In the realm of Asgard aging king Odin (Anthony Hopkins) intends to install warrior son Thor (Chris Hemsworth) as his successor, which does not sit well with other son Loki (Tom Hiddleston).  The ceremony is interrupted when frost giants from the realm of Jotunheim, Asgard’s longtime enemy, attempt to steal an item of power.  Against his father’s command, the arrogant Thor travels to Jotunheim and breaks the uneasy truce.  As punishment the furious Odin banishes Thor to the realm of Earth where he falls, literally, into the hands of stargazing scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her team (Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings).  Meanwhile back in Asgard, Odin becomes ill and Loki conspires with the fire giants to control the realm and kill his brother.  Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the psychologically rich and thematically complex Christopher Nolan BATMAN reboots.  I was certainly conned by Robert Downey, Jr.’s quirky charms in the first IRONMAN movie, which this new Marvel franchise seems eager to emulate.  THOR, however, has neither the ambition of the former nor the charisma of the latter.  The script, credited to Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz and Don Payne from a story by J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich, feels thin and lacks engagement with character or story.  Relationships and motivations are reduced to off-hand lines, and obstacles are all-to-easily overcome.  Director Kenneth Branagh exacerbates these failings by adopting a visual style alternating between the derivative and the self-conscious.  His action scenes are lifeless, and he elicits tepid performances from an otherwise solid cast.  Hopkins sleepwalks through the role even in the few scenes when his character is upright.  Skarsgard seems apologetic with every line he utters.  Hemsworth is all beefcake and no sizzle, with his best moments and biggest laughs in the all-too-few scenes where the hapless warrior adjusts to mundane life on Earth.  Portman is unconvincing both as a scientist and a romantic lead, and the chemistry between Jane and Thor is nonexistent.  Any notion that audiences will be clamoring for future sparks is laughable.  Dennings, in the obligatory comedic sidekick role, and Hiddleston, bringing a modicum of depth to his conniving villain, glimmer in a film that otherwise comes off as a 3D wet blanket.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

SCREAM 4 (2011)

Like it or not the original SCREAM set the gold standard for self-referential horror-comedy.  The underappreciated SCREAM 2 kept the franchise moving at a brisk clip by taking itself less seriously.  On the other hand, the justly maligned SCREAM 3 felt tired and lumbered to its foregone conclusion.  Like horror franchises of the past, this one appeared dead and buried.  But true to genre conventions, appearances often are not what they seem.  In this series reboot Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) returns to Woodsboro (on the anniversary of the horrific Ghostface killings – naturally!) along with her publicist (a callously funny Alison Brie) to promote her new book.  Meanwhile former journalist Gale Weathers-Riley (Courtney Cox) fights writer’s block and struggles in her marriage with now police chief Dewey (David Arquette).  Soon Ghostface is terrorizing a new generation of fresh-faced teens and clueless adults who happen to get in the way.  Among the cast of potential victims and/or suspects are Sidney’s cousin Jill (Emma Roberts), spunky best friend Kirby (Hayden Panettiere), creepy ex-boyfriend Trevor (Nico Tortorella), geeky horror aficionados Erik (Robbie Mercer) and Charlie (Rory Culkin), and overenthusiastic deputy Judy (Marley Shelton).  The body count increases as the suspect list dwindles until the bloody dénouement, in which motives are revealed and loose ends torturously wrapped up.  Despite the efforts of director Wes Craven and original screenwriter Kevin Williamson, the end results are a mixed bag.  On the plus side, returning (read: surviving) cast members Campbell, Cox and Arquette feel like old friends you’re happy to see, and you genuinely fear for their characters’ safety.  In general the same cannot be said for the new blood.  Except for Panettiere and Culkin the pretty teens in harm’s way barely register enough to raise blood pressure beyond the visual machinations of Craven and plot devices of Williamson.  More to the point, this precociously clever series has swallowed its own tail.  And though fans of the genre (and I’m one) could easily spend their money on worse fare, I sincerely hope that this time the franchise is really and truly dead.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


If you approach Duncan Jones’ new film as a conventional ticking clock thriller, either you will be disappointed or, like me, pleasantly surprised by the existential preoccupations of the director and screenwriter Ben Ripley.  On a Chicago-bound commuter train we meet a disoriented Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) perplexed that a pretty woman sitting across from him named Christina (Michelle Monaghan) keeps flirting and calling him “Sean”, because he knows himself as a helicopter pilot stationed in Afghanistan.  But before Stevens can orient himself the train explodes and he awakes in a capsule to questions via video remote from military officer Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) and Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright).  Stevens gradually learns that he has been reassigned to the “Source Code” project in which he is projected via quantum mechanics into the mind/memory/body of Sean, one of the victims of a terrorist attack earlier in the day.  His mission is not to stop the bomb (since the explosion already occurred) but to identify the bomber so that a future dirty bomb attack in Chicago may be prevented.  The catch is that in each trip back Stevens only has an eight-minute window before the bomb explodes again, sending him back to base with whatever information he was able to obtain.  Call it GROUNDHOG DAY meets TV’s Quantum Leap.  Upon close examination the science behind the movie’s premise is nonsense.  But the filmmakers have little interest in it, using the premise as a modern day MacGuffin.  Instead they focus on Stevens and his growing realization of his true part in this military project and in the world at large.  Gyllenhaal, with his soulful eyes and hangdog expression, makes a compelling protagonist in this unconventional action movie.  Monaghan, on whom I’ve had a crush since the underrated KISS KISS BANG BANG, is endlessly appealing and deserves to carry a movie on her own.  Farmiga is marvelous and understated, and Wright nicely embodies the single-minded scientist.  Fans of Jones’ previous feature MOON can feel vindicated.  I, meanwhile, intend to rent that movie the next time I visit my local video store to confirm what I now suspect:  that Jones is a talent worth following.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

WIN WIN (2011)

What Paul Giamatti may lack in range (see THE ILLUSIONIST, however, for the best example of an exception) he makes up for with rich, humanistic shadings.  In director/screenwriter Tom McCarthy’s latest offbeat dramatic comedy, Giamatti plays Mike Flaherty, a New Jersey lawyer with a thinning practice who moonlights as a high school wrestling coach.  To help pay bills Flaherty becomes guardian to Leo Poplar (Burt Young), an elderly client declared legally incompetent.  But rather than maintain Poplar’s household as stipulated by the court, the overstretched Flaherty puts his client in a retirement home and collects the monthly guardian stipend.  Kyle (Alex Shaffer), the teenage son of Poplar’s estranged daughter, turns up hoping to live with his grandfather.  Flaherty and his no-nonsense wife Jackie (the wonderful Amy Ryan) take Kyle in to their home until they track down the boy’s mother.  Flaherty discovers that Kyle has exceptional skill as a wrestler and enlists him on his ragtag wrestling squad.  Kyle begins to thrive and Flaherty starts to feel his life turning around.  And then Cindy (Melanie Lynskey), Poplar’s ne’er-do-well daughter and Kyle’s mother, arrives hoping to reconcile with her son and take over her father’s guardianship and its monthly stipend.  Director McCarthy never overplays a scene nor goes for easy resolution, and he has a gifted cast that makes the most of this directorial strength.  Like filmmaking peer Alexander Payne, McCarthy chronicles the trials and tribulations of the middle class but with more warmth and less bite.  And the muted tone of the film rings true.  The underused Jeffrey Tambor and overused Bobby Cannavale round out the strong supporting cast.  Giamatti and Ryan are pitch-perfect, and Lynskey does much with an underwritten role.  However, the real find here is Shaffer, whose performance as the monosyllabic Kyle is unaffected, at times opaque, and always recognizable as a teenager.

Saturday, February 26, 2011


Every year yours truly matches wits with (or at least tries to think like) members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  And if you enter an Oscar® pool or play along at home, you’re doing the same.  So below are my wishes and predictions for Hollywood’s most glamorous night of 2011:

Best Picture

For some time now Conventional Wisdom (“CW”) has held that THE SOCIAL NETWORK was a lock for the evening’s big prize.  Not any more.  With the Directors Guild and Producers Guild unexpectedly crowning THE KING’S SPEECH, the Best Picture award is in play.  I have a feeling this is going to be one of those SAVING PRIVATE RYAN vs. SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE evenings.  I’m going to side with the monarchy this year.

Should Win:  WINTER’S BONE

Best Director

After the head-scratching decision of the Directors Guild, I fear Tom Hooper could win for THE KING’S SPEECH.  Of the Best Director nominees he’s my least favorite (I felt his and the cinematographer’s framing choices were self-conscious and distracting).  David Fincher’s attention to detail is stamped into every frame of THE SOCIAL NETWORK, but he never calls attention to his craft.  This year I think (hope) the Academy is going to split the big prizes.

Should and Will Win:  David Fincher, THE SOCIAL NETWORK

Best Actress

This contest comes down to veteran Annette Bening in THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT and upstart Natalie Portman in BLACK SWAN, if we hold with CW.  Which we do.  Before seeing TKAAR I would have put money on Bening.  After seeing the film, and how her role is closer to a supporting than lead performance, I’m switching to the hardworking Portman, who is in almost every frame.

Should Win:  Jennifer Lawrence, WINTER’S BONE
Will Win:  Natalie Portman, BLACK SWAN

Best Actor

Set aside the fact that Bardem and Bridges have both won already, and that Eisenberg and Franco have years ahead of them to rack up awards.  Set all that aside, because Colin Firth’s performance as George VI in THE KING’S SPEECH is the year’s best, bar none.  Long may he reign.

Should and Will Win:  Colin Firth, THE KING’S SPEECH

Best Supporting Actress

If there’s going to be a major upset, it will be in this category.  You have Amy Adams and Melissa Leo, equally good in THE FIGHTER.  You have the marvelous Hailee Steinfeld (who should have been nominated as lead actress) in TRUE GRIT.  And you have the mesmerizing Helena Bonham Carter in THE KING’S SPEECH.  (I haven’t forgotten Jacki Weaver in ANIMAL KINGDOM, though the Academy already has.)  This will be the voting equivalent of a catfight, and I believe the Queen Mother will outlast them.  But, then again, I could be wrong.

Should Win:  Hailee Steinfeld, TRUE GRIT
Will Win:  Helena Bonham Carter, THE KING’S SPEECH

Best Supporting Actor

CW has this one as a lock.  And I would agree.  (Though I would add that this is the strongest overall acting category.)  Christian Bale’s performance is showy but never sentimental, and it always feels organic.  He deserves the prize, though I wouldn’t mind if he shared it with the understated John Hawkes.

Should Win:  Christian Bale, THE FIGHTER and John Hawkes, WINTER’S BONE
Will Win:  Christian Bale, THE FIGHTER

Best Adapted Screenplay

Again, CW gave this to Aaron Sorkin and THE SOCIAL NETWORK a long time ago.  And I see no reason to alter that opinion.  The Coen Brothers and Boyle & Beaufoy have each won recently, and I don’t see an animated movie (even one as deserving as TOY STORY 3) winning a writing award.

Should Win:  Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini, WINTER’S BONE
Will Win:  Aaron Sorkin, THE SOCIAL NETWORK

Best Original Screenplay

With the clear momentum of THE KING’S SPEECH, you would be foolish to vote against David Seidler.

Should Win:  Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson, Keith Dorrington, THE FIGHTER
Will Win:  David Seidler, THE KING’S SPEECH

Best Animated Film

Don’t get me wrong.  I wanted to see the Pixar folks fall flat on their face with a third TOY STORY installment released 10 years too late.  But it was the happiest crow I ever ate.

Should Win and Will Win:  TOY STORY 3

Best Foreign Language Film

I haven’t seen any of these nominees.  Despite the presence of Javier Bardem, I wouldn’t see BIUTIFUL if it was the last movie on earth.  Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is pretentious.  Suffering through BABEL and 21 GRAMS was enough.  I read about the nominated films and made an educated guess.


Best Documentary Feature

I didn’t see these either.  (Sue me.  I’ve been busy.)  I heard good things about EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP, and it would tickle me if it won.  But I suspect INSIDE JOB’s timely dissection of the financial crisis will carry the day.


Best Cinematography

Roger Deakins is long overdue for this award, and TRUE GRIT looks fantastic.  I think he will win.  But don’t count out Wally Pfister for INCEPTION.  He’s been nominated for almost every Chris Nolan movie over the past several years, and could be seen by the Academy as equally deserving.

Should Win and Will Win:  Roger Deakins, TRUE GRIT

Best Film Editing

I love how Pamela Martin cut together THE FIGHTER.  But I think that this award will go to one of the front-runners of the evening, either THE KING’S SPEECH or THE SOCIAL NETWORK.

Should Win:  Pamela Martin, THE FIGHTER
Will Win:  Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter, THE SOCIAL NETWORK

Best Costume Design

When in doubt on the costume design award, go for the period piece.  If you have a choice between period pieces, go with a Best Picture front-runner.  In this case, either TRUE GRIT or THE KING’S SPEECH.

Should Win:  Mary Zophres, TRUE GRIT
Will Win:  Jenny Beavan, THE KING’S SPEECH

Best Art Direction

The rules for the art direction award are little different from but similar to the costume design rules.  Period pieces or fantasy films are popular with the academy in this category.  Choose those first.  But, again, it will most likely come down to front-running films.  So that leaves INCEPTION, THE KING’S SPEECH or TRUE GRIT.

Should Win:  TRUE GRIT

Best Original Score

We can take A.R. Rahman out, since he won for SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE.  John Powell and Hans Zimmer are likely placeholders so the composers of the two top films can slug it out.  Alexandre Desplat should have been nominated for THE GHOST WRITER and not THE KING’S SPEECH, and the Academy has been testing their street cred lately.  I’m going with the hipper choice this year.

Should Win and Will Win:  Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, THE SOCIAL NETWORK

Best Original Song

I have always detested this category.  I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times there was a song deserving of a nomination, let alone a win.  This year I’m ambivalent.  A.R. Rahman and Randy Newman have won recently.  A country song won last year.  That leaves one choice.

Should Win:  “We Belong Together”, Randy Newman, TOY STORY 3
Will Win:  “I See the Light”, Alan Menken, Glenn Slater, TANGLED

Best Sound Mixing

The rule for this category is to go with a musical or a film about a musician, if available.  Absent that, look for an epic action movie or one of the front-runners.  That takes SALT off the table.  I sense that THE KING’S SPEECH and TRUE GRIT are considered less technically sophisticated than THE SOCIAL NETWORK.  I suspect it will come down to that or INCEPTION.  The outcome will depend on TSN’s momentum.

Should Win and Will Win:  THE SOCIAL NETWORK

Best Sound Editing

The placeholders in this category are TRON: LEGACY and UNSTOPPABLE.  If TRUE GRIT had a serious chance of winning Best Picture, I’d go with that.  But it doesn’t, sadly.  I would focus on INCEPTION and TOY STORY 3.  It could go either way.

Should Win and Will Win:  INCEPTION

Best Visual Effects

This one’s a gimme.

Should Win and Will Win:  INCEPTION

Best Makeup

Did anyone see any of these movies?  I sure didn’t.  THE WOLFMAN was the only one I noticed in theaters, and I would rather transform into a wolf and back on a continuous loop than see that Joe Johnston disaster.  Oh, the winner.  This one’s a tough call.  If there were period makeup, I’d go with that.  No.  The Academy likes fantasy makeup and aging makeup.  Who cares?  I’ll go with the fantasy makeup.


Best Documentary Short Subject

I read an article by someone who saw the movies.  This one sounded good.

Will Win:  SUN COME UP

Best Animated Short Subject

I read an article by someone who saw the movies.  This sounded like a title the voters would like.


Best Live Action Short Subject

Do I really need to again admit I have no clue?

Will Win:  GOD OF LOVE