Thursday, December 20, 2012


Peter Jackson’s superlative three-movie adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy set a high water mark for fantasy films and gave them some cachet.  Now, with a script he co-wrote with Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro, director Jackson returns to Tolkien’s well with his three-film adaptation of “The Hobbit,” the modest single-volume prelude to the epic trilogy.  This first installment, clocking in at nearly 3 hours, begins with wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) coercing hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) into joining a band of dwarves led by Thorin (Richard Armitage) on a quest to reclaim their ancestral home under the Lonely Mountain.  Many years ago the dragon Smaug desolated the kingdom and now sits on a vast horde of the dwarves’ wealth.  But do not expect more than a glimpse of Smaug before film’s end, because the road to the dragon must wind through three films.  The script captures every significant moment from the first third of its source material and adds more mythology than the simple story can take.  To compensate for the novel’s episodic structure, the writers devise a pursuit by a vengeful Orc bearing a genocidal grudge against dwarves.  They also spend a head-scratching amount of time with the dropping-covered wizard, Radagast (Sylvester McCoy), mentioned only in passing in the books.  And there are still three hungry trolls to encounter, not to mention a harrowing climb through the passes of the Misty Mountains during a stone giant battle, and a daring escape from the lair of the Great Goblin (Barry Humphries).  However, the trolls’ scene lacks charm, the stone giants sequence feels like a theme park ride, and the goblin battle strains credulity in its scope.  Only the fateful riddle contest between Bilbo and the duplicitous Gollum (a terrific Andy Serkis) feels confidently paced and vital, and makes room for some honest-to-goodness acting.  In the original trilogy Jackson moved the unwieldy material at an urgent clip with bracing visual shorthand, but here he gorges on excess.  Somewhere in this meticulously crafted bloat is a wonderful two-hour movie.  If only it could be found.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


British writer/director Terence Davies has much in common with Terrence Malick.  Like his American counterpart Davies makes films infrequently (only six features released in 24 years); they are gorgeously shot, deliberately paced, and feel more like tone poems than narratives.  Both filmmakers make very personal films, but Malick’s are often obtuse and frustrating while Davies’ are relatable if often too slow.  Davies’ meticulous adaptation of the 1952 play by Terence Rattigan has all these qualities, but its languor becomes an asset thanks to a mesmerizing lead performance.  Set in 1950 London the story takes place during one fateful day and opens with Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), alone in her shabby flat, writing to her beloved that she wants to die.  She attempts suicide, but her nosy landlady Mrs. Elton (Ann Mitchell) foils the attempt.  We learn of Hester’s past in pensive flashback.  Years ago she married Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale), a respected older judge with a domineering mother (the marvelous Barbara Jefford).  Hester cannot quietly acquiesce to her mother-in-law’s demands (or accept her husband’s passivity in the face of them) and feels stifled by the obligations of her elevated status.  She falls in love with Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), a former RAF pilot, who embraces excitement and flouts convention, and they begin a passionate affair.  Sir William discovers the infidelity and turns Hester out of the house, refusing to grant her the divorce she desires.  But Freddie, who suffers from what we now know as post-traumatic stress syndrome, also struggles under the yoke of expectation, both from society and Hester, leading to the crisis at hand.  Under Davies’ delicate direction Beale masks the dignified Sir William’s hurt with affection and kindness, while Hiddleston captures Freddie’s torment in civilian life and the burden of an all-consuming love.  But Weisz is revelatory, registering each of Hester’s contradictory emotions with crystal clarity.  As the post-World War II equivalent of Anna Karenina she carries the movie (and the audience) on sturdy shoulders through a quiet, harrowing heart of darkness.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Director Joe Wright breathed life into the often stale literary adaption with his lively 2005 film of Jane Austen’s PRIDE & PREJUDICE.  Sadly, this success was short-lived.  Two years later he turned Ian McEwan’s devastating drama ATONEMENT into a turgid, dreary affair, despite the occasional flourish.  Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard double down on flourish in their approach to Leo Tolstoy’s beloved novel, and the results are bracing.  Rather than attempt period realism throughout, the film stages most of its action within the world of the theatre.  Actors, at times changing costume as we watch, enter and exit scenes with theatrical relish, moving from onstage to offstage to backstage as the eager camera follows.  Wright’s film opens with Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley), wife of stalwart government official Karenin (Jude Law), as she travels from St. Petersburg to Moscow to see her brother Oblonsky (Matthew Macfadyen) and persuade sister-in-law Dolly (Kelly Macdonald) to forgive her husband’s latest dalliance.  While there Anna meets playboy military office Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who is expected to propose to young Kitty (Alicia Vikander).  Kitty has rejected the proposal of Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), a rural landowner who has loved her for years, so she takes offence when Vronsky ignores her and falls for Anna instead.  The soldier pursues the married woman both emotionally and physically until his passion ignites Anna’s own, and tragedy ensues.  The filmmaker’s daring conceptual gambit of equating mid-19th century Russian society with an audience watching a play pays off in spades.  Theatrical artifice makes the ill-fated lovers’ towering emotions, by comparison, less histrionic and more relatable.  At key moments it also beautifully captures Anna’s devastated psychological state.  During her greatest humiliation a spotlight isolates Anna as all actors turn to her and freeze.  Wright elicits fine performances throughout, especially an understated Law and the ebulliently caddish Macfadyen, and has fashioned a spiritually faithful literary adaptation that’s both brazenly theatrical and fiercely cinematic.

Thursday, December 6, 2012


In 1993 the town of West Memphis, Arkansas, was devastated by the grisly discovery of the beaten, drowned and mutilated bodies of three 8-year-old boys (Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore) in a nearby creek.  Without any obvious suspects, prosecutor John N. Fogelman latched on to the occult as motive and convinced a jury in 1994 that three teenagers (Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and mildly retarded Jessie Misskelley) were responsible.  The film quickly establishes that, absent any incriminating physical evidence, the prosecution relied heavily on Misskelley’s coerced confession to obtain the convictions.  This is not the first documentary to claim the innocence of the West Memphis 3, as they became known.  Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky made three films beginning with PARADISE LOST: THE CHILD MURDERS AT ROBIN HOOD HILLS (1996) to last year’s Oscar® nominated PARADISE LOST 3: PURGATORY.  But filmmaker Amy Berg focuses on the efforts of Lorri Davis (Echols’ wife, whom he met and married while on death row) to secure a new trial for her husband based on evidence obtained with the financial help and legal guidance of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, who took an interest in the case in 2005.  Thanks to new DNA technology available in 2007, the investigation discovers that none of the teenagers left any traces either on the bodies or at the crime scene.  They also unearth quite convincing evidence and testimony that indicate the real killer may be the stepfather of one of the murdered boys.  But the bigger obstacle becomes the perceived infallibility of the Arkansas judicial system and the reputation of the presiding judge and prosecutor in the original case, and the request for a new trial is refused.  Only once the State Supreme Court rules in Echols’ favor in 2011 does the District Attorney consider a compromise that could release the wrongfully convicted men.  Berg’s film is somewhat overlong, and its alternate suspect theory is undermined by borderline exploitative interviews with the suspect’s best friend, who provided an alibi, and the suspect’s troubled daughter.  It is nevertheless a fascinating, frustrating and compelling film.

Friday, November 30, 2012

LINCOLN (2012)

Feature films about historical figures often make the dramatically deadly error of hewing too closely to a standard biographical format, forcing the audience to experience its subject from birth to death with all significant moments in between.  Steven Spielberg’s latest prestige picture avoids that pitfall by focusing on a few weeks in early 1865.  Shortly after re-election (as the Civil War began to wind painfully down and before the newly elected legislature takes office) President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) works behind the scenes to scrounge up votes in the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment, which will formally abolish slavery in the United States.  This task, which Lincoln assigns to Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) who delegates same to brokers W.N. Bilbo (James Spader), Robert Latham (John Hawkes) and Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson), is fraught with perils both political and physical.  Not the least of these comes from within Lincoln’s own fractured Republican Party.  Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), the ostensible head of the conservative wing, assures the President that his caucus will deliver provided Lincoln negotiate terms with a Southern delegation that includes Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley), Vice President of the Confederate States.  The radical wing of the party, headed by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), has a less codified agenda and would react with despair to any peace negotiations prior to the amendment’s passage.  Tony Kushner based his cogent, verbose script in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” and fashions these convoluted machinations into rollicking and moving political theatre.  The usually manipulative Spielberg shows admirable restraint and has assembled one of the finest ensembles in recent memory, with Sally Field giving the much-maligned Mary Todd Lincoln a refreshing dose of humanity.  But the film belongs to the triumphant Day-Lewis.  He makes the revered, near mythical, figure so relatable and human, you could easily forget you’re watching a performance.

Thursday, November 29, 2012


In a dystopian future set in the totalitarian state of Panem, a girl and boy between the ages of 12 and 18 are chosen by lottery from each of its twelve districts to fight to the death on national television.  This annual ritual (called a reaping) came about because of a failed rebellion years ago.  The conflict’s victors reside comfortably in the Capitol and are an elite, oddly-dressed bunch.  President Snow (Donald Sutherland) uses the reaping as both punishment and entertainment, but its primary purpose is to quash further rebellion.  These most dangerous games are overseen by Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) who uses computer-generated perils to manipulate and, on occasion, to finish off unruly participants.  16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in District 12 and spends much of her time in the woods hunting food for her family with bow and arrow.  When her younger sister Primrose is chosen in the lottery by ditzy Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), Katniss volunteers to take her place.  She and the male tribute from her district, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), head to the Capitol to be trained by former game winner Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and primped by Cinna (Lenny Kravitz).  Because winning is as much about popularity as survival skills, the tributes suffer through televised interviews conducted by the obsequious Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) before being thrown to the proverbial lions.  The script by director Gary Ross and Suzanne Collins (upon whose novel this is based) and Billy Ray comes off as both faithful and paper-thin.  The film takes nearly half its running time to get to the games, yet its world and inhabitants feel artificial and incompletely realized.  Director Ross, who lacks the conceptual and visual rigor to pull off successful world building, must shoulder much of the blame.  Tucci gives his quirky character plenty of verve, and Kravitz displays surprising charisma.  The other performances, however, are standard issue.  Nevertheless Lawrence and Hutcherson have good chemistry together – enough at least to keep the film engaging, if less than enthralling.

Monday, November 26, 2012

FLIGHT (2012)

Director Robert Zemeckis makes his first live action feature film since CAST AWAY, after an artistically disastrous foray into motion-capture animation, with mixed results.  We first meet pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) in a hotel room with Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez), one of his flight attendants, the morning after a nightlong bender and only hours before he will captain (and she crew) a commercial jet to Atlanta.  There is a mechanical failure in flight and Whip must perform a daring maneuver, to the abject horror of co-pilot Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty), but manages to crash the disabled plane in a field with only six souls lost (including Katerina).  The media hail him as a hero.  When Whip regains consciousness in the hospital, however, he learns from pilots’ union rep Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) and attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) that he (Whip) is being investigated for flying under the influence.  Meanwhile, on the ground in Atlanta, Nicole (Kelly Reilly) has bought a high-powered narcotic and returned to her shabby apartment only to overdose on the drug.  She and Whip meet cute in a hospital stairwell and share an illicit smoke.  Before long the two addicts seek shelter and solace with each other.  As Whip spirals into drunkenness, Nicole tries to guide him to an AA meeting while Anderson and Lang struggle to keep him sober for the federal crash investigation.  John Gatins’ script has lofty ambitions but succumbs about thirty minutes in to the faulty mechanics of familiarity and narrative convenience.  Washington gives a towering performance, but it never soars due to the clumsy, unconvincing character arc.  Greenwood and Cheadle do admirably well with underwritten roles, as does Geraghty.  Melissa Leo is completely wasted as Ellen Block, the chief federal investigator, and John Goodman, as Whip’s dealer Harlan Mays, is ill served in two scenes played for queasy laughs.  After reaching his zenith with the charming time travel comedy BACK TO THE FUTURE, Zemeckis lost his interest in character and became obsessed with technology.  Here he has made a technical marvel with no soul.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

ARGO (2012)

On November 4, 1979, Iranian revolutionaries overran the U.S. embassy in Tehran.  They took over 60 Americans hostage, held them for 444 days and garnered constant media attention during the international crisis.  Director Ben Affleck’s terrific new film tells the less well-known story of six State Department employees who escape the attack and the joint effort of the CIA and Canadian government to get them safely out of Iran.  Chris Terrio based his crisply paced yet textured script on Joshuah Bearman’s article “Escape from Tehran”, and he wastes little time before plunging us into the action.  The six escapees take shelter in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber), but their days are numbered as agents of the Ayatollah Khomeini conduct house-to-house searches for spies.  Enter CIA agent Tony Mendez (Affleck), who obtains approval from boss Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) for a daring rescue operation (or, as O’Donnell deadpans, “the best bad idea we have”).  Mendez will enter Iran posing as a film producer on a location scout for a non-existent science fiction movie called ARGO and leave with the hostages as his film crew.  To create a convincing cover Mendez enlists makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) who brings on crusty producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to make the enterprise look legitimate.  Although Hollywood buys the ruse, now Mendez must convince Iranian officials that this is real and six terrified Americans that this will work.  Adding to his impressive work in GONE BABY GONE and THE TOWN, Affleck confirms he is a directorial force with which to be reckoned.  He keeps his touch light and unobtrusive while maintaining near constant suspense and, just when needed, puncturing the tension with unexpected humor.  Most of the film’s laughs are generated by the duo of Goodman and Arkin, who clearly relish their roles.  Cranston is wonderful, and Affleck’s performance is appropriately low key and devoid of ego.  The final suspense sequence goes a little overboard for my taste, but it’s easy to forgive.  That’s Hollywood, after all.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

KILL LIST (2012)

Director Ben Wheatley’s previous low budget feature, the comedic crime drama DOWN TERRACE, opens like a Mike Leigh working class film featuring low-level British thugs before it evolves into something more twisted and funny.  Wheatley opens his new film, which he co-wrote with Amy Jump, as suburbanites Jay (Neil Maskell) and Shel (MyAnna Buring) scream about money troubles within earshot of their young son Sam (Harry Simpson).  Jay has been out of work for eight months after an “incident” in Kiev.  What this incident was or what Jay does for a living is not yet clear.  During a small dinner party Jay tells Fiona (Emma Fryer), the new girlfriend of his best chum Gal (Michael Smiley), that he works in IT.  As it turns out both Jay and Gal are hired killers by profession, and Gal has received an intriguing offer from a man known only as The Client (Struan Rodger).  The two accept the blood contract and its accompanying kill list, and from the outset the job becomes increasingly bizarre as they progress through the list.  Their first target is a parish priest strangely accepting of his fate.  Their second target, a “librarian” of pornographic films, confesses to Jay in a private moment before death that he’s honored to have met him.  This sends the hired killer on a rampage that gives us a clue as to what the Kiev incident might have entailed.  As Jay rapidly descends into madness, the film accelerates from grisly crime thriller into hardcore horror film.  Time and again Wheatley plays into and then undermines audience expectations, and the effect is disorienting and terrifying.  This would feel like a cheat but for the pervasive sense of dread that accompanies each scene and for the fearless performance by Maskell, who is always compelling but rarely sympathetic.  Smiley gives strong support as the compassionate Gal, Buring makes for a resourceful wife, and Fryer unsettles as the girlfriend who’s more than she seems.  Wheatley’s film is not for the weak of heart or constitution and manages a rare achievement.  It is a movie that, like Jay, loses its mind and leaves audience members questioning their own sanity.

Friday, October 26, 2012


Based on his first three films and the characters he wrote for each, you can easily surmise that Whit Stillman is an odd, though articulate, duck.  His latest writing and directing effort will do nothing to dissuade you.  The film opens with the arrival of Lily (Analeigh Tipton) at Seven Oaks College.  She is taken under the wing of Violet (Greta Gerwig), the leader of a clique of girls that includes Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke).  The clique’s primary mission seems to be running a campus suicide prevention center and providing cultural enlightenment to the buffoonish fraternity boys they date out of pity.  But Lily has an unrequited crush on a longtime friend, the intellectual Xavier (Hugo Becker), and ignores the clique’s dating philosophy.  While helping Priss (Caitlin Fitzgerald) recover from a broken heart, Violet inadvertently leads the girl into the arms of her own thickheaded beau Frank (Ryan Metcalf), which causes the usually upbeat Violet to fall into what she calls a tailspin (she doesn’t like the word depressed).  After spending the night in a nearby motel she discovers the therapeutic power of its bar soap and returns to campus with renewed purpose.  Meanwhile, Xavier turns to Lily for non-platonic comfort after his live-in girlfriend leaves him.  Oh, yes, and Violet is determined to invent a new dance craze called the Sambola.  Stillman’s script is episodic to the point of distraction, and those hoping for narrative discipline will be disappointed.  Yet he has found a perfect muse in Gerwig, who gives Violet’s whimsical goals more substance than they deserve.  Every moment she’s on screen, you’re happy to be in her company.  Tipton has the film’s straight role and holds her own opposite Gerwig.  The remainder of the cast, however, is a mixed bag, with the exception of Echikunwoke, who acts like she wandered in from a different movie and refused to leave.  Stillman’s characters feel like they belong in a bygone era, and that conceit worked for his earlier films like METROPOLITAN and the superlative BARCELONA.  Here they are an anachronism in search of a good home.

Monday, October 22, 2012


In his latest animated feature Tim Burton tells a very personal story.  Unlike most young boys growing up in suburban New Holland, Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) forgoes sports.  He prefers instead to make 8mm films in the back yard or to conduct science experiments in the attic.  His constant companion in these endeavors is his irrepressible dog and best friend, Sparky.  Concerned about their introverted son, Mr. and Mrs. Frankenstein (Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara) persuade a reluctant Victor to join the school baseball team.  During a game Sparky gets struck by a car while chasing a ball that Victor hit.  Lonely and guilt-ridden the bereft boy digs up his beloved dog and resurrects him during a lightning storm.  Victor tries to hide Sparky in the attic, but the impetuous fellow escapes the house and wreaks havoc in the neighborhood.  Weird classmate Edgar “E” Gore (Atticus Shaffer) confronts Victor about his experiment and enlists him as his partner in the school science fair competition.  But Edgar can’t keep a secret from the other competitors, and soon everyone is attempting to reanimate dead pets and other creatures.  Before you can say “It’s alive!” chaos reigns in sleepy New Holland, and only Victor and Sparky can save the town.  Based on Burton’s 1984 live-action short film, the screenplay by John August spends less time with the Frankenstein family and adds a cadre of eccentric, multi-ethnic classmates.  This gives Burton the opportunity to pay myriad homages to the James Whales’ FRANKENSTEIN pictures and other classic and not-so-classic monster movies, such as GODZILLA, THE MUMMY and GREMLINS, to name a few.  Rather than being weighed down by this overstuffed collection of film references, Burton’s film is buoyed by movie love and real affection for his characters.  The voice work is solid, with a particularly amusing cameo by Martin Landau as the voice of science teacher Mr. Rzykruski.  Parents should note that the film does have a few mildly scary moments.  And the death of Sparky could upset children with beloved pet dogs.


Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson is always ambitious, usually idiosyncratic, visually dynamic, occasionally obtuse, and endlessly fascinating.  His strongest films are BOOGIE NIGHTS, about the denizens of the ‘70s and ‘80s San Fernando Valley porn industry, and THERE WILL BE BLOOD, about a ruthless California oil baron during the late 19th and early 20th century.  Anderson excels at immersing viewers in the period while populating the screen with vibrant, tangible characters.  He also puzzles and perplexes (see the rain of frogs at the end of MAGNOLIA).  Here Anderson follows Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II vet suffering from alcoholism and post-traumatic stress syndrome.  After several attempts to fit into post-war society, Freddie stows away aboard a yacht chartered by charismatic guru Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  Drawn to the troubled young man, Dodd takes Freddie under his wing and initiates him into The Cause, a system of exercises that uncover past trauma by seeking out remembered lives.  Likewise Freddie clings to his new mentor and his program like a life raft.  Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams) mistrusts the new follower yet nevertheless assists her husband in the indoctrination.  But soon Dodd’s rote response to polite challenges turns hostile, fracturing the calm façade of the organization.  The acting is exceptional.  Hoffman gives Dodd the outward veneer of fatherly charm, with startling fissures of petty childishness when questioned too closely.  Adams channels Lady Macbeth as Dodd’s most faithful believer.  Phoenix’s performance is fearless; however, he too often resembles an actor exploring a role rather than embodying it.  Writer/director Anderson loosely based Dodd on the late L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, and his interests lie in exploring how rational and, in Freddie’s case, irrational people are swayed, and often let down, by charismatic, messianic figures.  Anderson refuses to provide pat answers or resolution, making this film less satisfying than his best, but the journey is still bracing and a must see for Anderson fans.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Although better known for blockbuster screenplays such as JURASSIC PARK and SPIDER-MAN, David Koepp directed the sparkling and sophisticated 2008 romantic comedy GHOST TOWN, which he co-wrote with John Kamps.  He and Kamps reunite here for his next directorial effort -- a fleet, modest thriller that never overstays its welcome.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Wilee, a New York City bicycle messenger who believes in speed but forgoes brakes and gears, to the chagrin of girlfriend and fellow delivery agent, Vanessa (Dania Ramirez).  His dispatcher sends Wilee on a “premium rush” assignment, and thus the film’s clock starts ticking.  His pick up is from Vanessa’s roommate Nima (Jamie Chung), and the visibly distressed young woman implores Wilee to deliver her envelope only to Sister Chen.  Before Wilee gets on his bike, a suit named Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon) intercepts him, claims a mistake has been made, and asks for the package back.  But there are rules in the delivery business, and Wilee takes off with Monday in hot pursuit.  We find out in flashback that Monday has a serious gambling problem and owes many dangerous people.  His best hope is to confiscate Wilee’s envelope, which contains a ticket that he can exchange for sufficient cash to pay off his creditors.  Wilee must use all his resources and skills to outsmart and outmaneuver Monday.  Filled with clever plot twists and exciting bicycle stunts, Koepp and Kamps’ cat and mouse caper also gives its characters sufficient quirks and shading to elevate a charming, low-tech action picture into something a cut above.  And Koepp has a reliable cast to deliver the goods.  Gordon-Levitt is the perfect everyday hero as the reckless but honorable Wilee.  We easily believe both his abilities (he does a number of his own stunts) and his fallibility.  Likewise Shannon makes for a relatable yet reprehensible villain.  We feel for him even as we root against him.  Koepp keeps the film moving at breakneck speed -- breezing past occasional plot contrivances and self-conscious conceits -- to deliver all that he promised and more.

Friday, September 7, 2012


Director Benoit Jacquot’s atmospheric, intimate film begins on July 14, 1789, the day Parisians stormed the Bastille and commenced a violent uprising that rippled throughout France and engulfed the monarchy and aristocracy.  The horrors of that day are never seen, but the news travels in terrified (and occasionally graphic) whispers to the estate in Versailles where Louis XVI (Xavier Beauvois) and Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) reside with their attendant nobles.  That day begins like most others for Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux).  She scurries to the royal apartments, is scolded by lady-in-waiting Mme Campan (Noémie Lvovsky), and reads to her self-absorbed queen.  The young woman covets her access to Marie Antoinette and suspects that her benefactor may secretly desire more from her.  Sidonie’s fantasy has some basis, since rumors swirl linking the queen romantically to married friend Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen).  This inappropriate behavior is but one item in a long list of grievances against the queen and the government.  After their success at the Bastille, the rebels circulate a death list upon which the names of the royals and many of the resident aristocracy, including M de Polignac, reside.  Sidonie learns this inside information from archivist Jacob Nicolas Moreau (Michel Robin), a confidante also marked for death.  This world of which Sidonie so desperately wants to be a part has begun to crumble.  The screenplay by Gilles Taurand and Jacquot (from the novel by Chantal Thomas) takes Sidonie’s point of view, and therefore our understanding of the dire situation often feels incomplete.  Yet this only adds to the anxiety and dread.  Like the sheltered aristocrats whose names have been listed, we feel confused, blindsided and left helpless by outside events.  Jacquot never excuses the nobility’s vacuity but quietly reveals the humanity lurking beneath the surface.  Seydoux and, particularly, Lvovsky are wonderful.  But Kruger’s performance towers above all others and offers a compelling glimpse of the shrewd, passionate woman trapped within the perfectly coiffed exterior.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


When last we saw Batman (Christian Bale) he had accepted blame for Harvey Dent’s crimes, allowing Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) to use the late District Attorney’s reputation to clean up Gotham’s streets.  Today corruption seethes beneath the city’s clean surface.  Gordon feels guilt pangs, Bruce Wayne remains recluse, and Batman has disappeared.  After League of Shadows alum Bane (Tom Hardy), a masked fascist with a cult-like following, initiates a series of attacks, Batman comes out of retirement.  Cat burglar Selina (Anne Hathaway) steals Wayne’s fingerprints, leading to a fiscally fatal stock trade that bankrupts Wayne Enterprises.  Meanwhile Bane mines Gotham with explosives to bring the populace to its knees.  This brutal assault leaves Batman broken at the bottom of a pit, Gordon in the hospital, and much of the police force either trapped under the city or in hiding.  Only newly-promoted detective Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) remains free to lead a counterinsurgency.  In this final film of his Batman trilogy director Christopher Nolan (who wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan) continues to explore post-9/11 themes in a thought-provoking and thrilling entertainment.  THE DARK KNIGHT showed us society’s response to chaos and terror in the guise of The Joker, while this film asks us to ponder a choice between authority and anarchy.  In sync with Nolan’s singular vision Bale delivers another complex, compelling performance, while regulars Michael Caine (as Wayne’s loyal butler, Alfred) and Morgan Freeman (as Wayne’s technological guru, Fox) provide top-notch support.  Hathaway works well as the amoral Catwoman, and Gordon-Levitt succeeds as the film’s relatable moral compass.  Marion Cotillard gets too little screen time as Miranda, a board member who shields Wayne Enterprises from takeover, and Hardy creates an indelible villain in spite (perhaps because) of his hidden face.  Despite its often bleak worldview Nolan’s film ends on a hopeful note and hints at a continuing story.  Though Nolan claims this is his last Batman film, I can’t imagine anyone but him duplicating this impressive achievement.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.  Orphaned teen Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) lives with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field).  Shy, awkward Peter, both science whiz and amateur photographer, pines for classmate Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone).  During a field trip to Oscorp he meets his late father’s former partner Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), an amputee working on a technology to regenerate severed limbs.  While off on an unauthorized detour, Peter stumbles across a lab swarming with test spiders.  He’s bitten by one and soon discovers that he now has superhuman, spider-like skills, which he enlists to humiliate the class bully and impress Gwen.  After an armed robber kills Uncle Ben, Peter designs a special suit with web-shooting apparatus and uses these skills to track the killer while cleaning up the streets in the process.  His vigilante justice brings unwanted police attention from Captain Stacy (Denis Leary), Gwen’s father.  Meanwhile Dr. Connors caves to pressure from a shadowy benefactor and uses himself as a test subject for the regeneration serum.  His severed arm grows back, but he suffers the unexpected side effect of turning into a giant, rampaging lizard man.  Peter will need all his skills and courage (and the help of Gwen and her father) to stop Connor a/k/a The Lizard.  To remake the Spider-Man origin story a mere ten years after Sam Raimi’s blockbuster (and five years after the last SPIDER-MAN film) is a risky gambit, and one that periodically pays off.  The screenplay by James Vanderbilt and Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves feels less episodic than its predecessor and has stronger character arcs.  Director Marc Webb takes a decade’s worth of special effect technology and creates a seamless, sophisticated visual style.  Ifans makes for a sympathetic villain, while Stone gives Gwen ample resourcefulness and courage.  Garfield, though, lacks the screen charisma of a Tobey Maguire, and his overreliance on teen angst becomes tedious.  The film’s biggest obstacle, however, is familiarity, which, despite many improvements over the Raimi original, this film never fully overcomes.

Thursday, August 9, 2012


Within Wes Anderson’s tightly controlled frame anything can happen and often does, which results in either head-scratching perplexity (as in the first ten minutes of THE LIFE ACQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, after which I had to abandon ship) or in giddy exhilaration (as in RUSHMORE, his best film to date).  The writer/director’s latest effort (which he co-wrote with Roman Coppola) lands more in the latter camp and follows two social misfits who fall in love as completely as 12-year-olds can.  In the dog days of summer on a remote island off the eastern seaboard, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) meet at a performance of Benjamin Britten’s opera “Noye’s Fludde”.  He’s a wayward Khaki Scout, and she’s a Raven in the production.  Both have been labeled as problem children:  she by parents Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand); he by his foster parents (his real parents are long gone).  She spent her summer in the confines of her family home, watching the world through binoculars.  He spent his summer antagonizing (unwittingly) his fellow scouts while impressing Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) with his survival skills.  Suzy and Sam take off into the wild, which causes panic among the adults because a large storm is due to hit the island any day.  Meanwhile sad sack Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) forms a search party to track down the wayward youths.  Anderson presents childhood as we remember it – filled with high adventure, chaste romance, and selfless heroics.  He contrasts this with the melancholy grown-ups who seem worn down by the cares of adult life.  We understand why Sam and Suzy seek to escape the adulthood set before them, and we suspect that those who label them troubled do so because they can’t bear this reminder of their lost idealism.  The performances are uniformly excellent.  Hayward and Gilman are winning and charmingly idiosyncratic, while a vulnerable Willis and a guileless Norton are an unexpected treat.  Anderson is often criticized for his detached tone, but he transcends this here with a final shot that positively glows with warm affection.

Monday, July 9, 2012


When we first meet 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) in the ramshackle environs of the Bathtub (a fictitious shanty town on the delta outside New Orleans’ levies) she’s draped in ragged clothing, chasing chickens, listening to the heartbeat of pigs, and keeping a cautious distance from her surly father Wink (Dwight Henry) who lives in a shack mere shouting distance from her own.  Years earlier her mother disappeared, and the girl converses with a distant lighthouse as proxy when she needs maternal advice and comfort.  She also uses the inside of a cardboard box as a sanctuary, and on the sides of which she draws her brief history.  The denizens of the Bathtub live outside civilized society and distrust it, but many abandon their homes as Hurricane Katrina approaches.  Hushpuppy and Wink stubbornly remain throughout the harrowing, torrential onslaught, as do several others.  The surviving residents wake to a world covered in saltwater and must adapt yet again.  But after this high-profile natural disaster, society can no longer ignore the Bathtub.  Director Benh Zeitlin and his co-writer Lucy Alibar (upon whose stage play “Juicy and Delicious” this is loosely based) immerse the audience in an alien yet fully realized world from the film’s opening frames.  With the exception of Hushpuppy’s simple yet poetic voiceover, the characters have little time for introspection.  They spend each moment preoccupied with survival.  Zeitlin and Alibar allow us to experience this world through Hushpuppy’s eyes and, like her, we feel under attack when outsiders begin to intrude.  The filmmakers indulge the girl’s childish flights of imagination, which provide a sheen of magical realism, all the while refusing to romanticize her hardscrabble life.  Zeitlin coaxes a natural, often heartbreaking performance from the young Wallis, who carries this film on her narrow yet sturdy shoulders.  She is matched by Henry’s unsentimental work as her father, whose tough love resembles recklessness at best and borders on child endangerment at worst.  Zeitlin’s film is transporting, with haunting images and captivating characters likely to remain with you for days afterward.

Friday, July 6, 2012


Author Seth Grahame-Smith, who adapted his novel of the same name, specializes in adding the supernatural and horrific to revered literature (as he did in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and revered historical figures, as he has done here.  If we are to believe this alternate history, Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) spent his formative years learning how to hunt and kill vampires from the mysterious Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper).  As a boy Lincoln witnessed slaver and vampire Jack Barts (Marton Csokas) draining his sleeping mother and vows revenge.  In Grahame-Smith’s universe, vampires walk in daylight and have the ability to disappear and reappear (usually right behind you).  Also, and this is important, they are unable to attack each other.  Only a human being can attack and kill a vampire.  Got that?  The northern vampire population begins to dwindle thanks to Lincoln, and this brings him to the attention of Adam (Rufus Sewell), a southern plantation and slave owner and, not coincidentally, the father of vampires.  Love and politics sidetrack Lincoln, and he marries Mary Todd (a wasted Mary Elizabeth Winstead) before being elected president.  But vampires are not so easily ignored, and Lincoln will need the help of shopkeeper Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson) and friend Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie) to fend off a nationwide attack.  For much of the film’s first half director Timur Bekmambetov and Grahame-Smith focus on Lincoln’s vendetta and maintain a mostly irreverent tone.  But once slavery and the Civil War become pivotal to the action, what began as a diverting but tasteless exercise nosedives into the patently offensive.  Did you know that the Southern army initially did so well at the battle of Gettysburg because they had undead fighting with them?  Or that, in addition to slaves, the Underground Railroad smuggled silver north to help the Union fight vampire soldiers?  But I digress.  Sewell’s presence is welcome if undistinguished, while Cooper is charismatic and engaging.  Walker, however, is stiff and uninteresting, which matches the overall dreariness of this video game disguised as a movie.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


In a top secret underground installation S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Nick Fury (a hammy Samuel L. Jackson) attempt to turn the tesseract (the much-prized glowing cube from CAPTAIN AMERICA) into a weapon.  Before this can happen THOR villain Loki (Tom Hiddleston) steals the prize and turns scientist Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and Clint Barton aka Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) into unwitting minions.  Fury asks Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to enlist Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans), and reclusive Bruce Banner aka The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to locate Loki before he uses the tesseract to open a wormhole and allow an alien army to invade Earth.  The mighty Thor (Chris Hemsworth) shows up to help wrangle his errant brother, and soon superhero bickering and banter ensue along with requisite infighting before this unwieldy bunch joins forces for a final climactic fight.  If you did not see the myriad (and mostly frustrating) precursor films, it may take time to get your bearings.  Writer Joss Whedon wastes no time with back-story, though his busy script has plenty of snappy dialogue and satisfying character moments.  Meanwhile director Whedon never allows you to ponder the film’s logic too closely.  After seeming constrained in the disappointing IRON MAN sequel Downey, Jr. is looser here.  Likewise Evans finds fun in his square character, perhaps because he’s not required to carry the film.  Renner is fine but remains ill at ease as an action hero (see last year’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE), and Hemsworth feels oddly shackled in his role.  This is not the case, however, with the marvelous Hiddleston, the smoldering Johansson, and the understated Ruffalo, who make each of their comic book characters both relatable and idiosyncratic.  But for the final, overblown battle sequence in which much of Manhattan is laid waste, Whedon attains a successful balance between action and character throughout and delivers that which most action directors can only dream – an almost perfect popcorn picture.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

THE GREY (2012)

On a desolate oil field in the barren arctic tundra, Ottway (Liam Neeson) works as a hired killer, shooting wolves and other predators that threaten the coarse, hard-bitten workers as they go about the company’s business.  The workmen board a plane (for where and why, it’s never clear) that subsequently crashes in the Alaskan wasteland, leaving only a handful of survivors, including resourceful Ottway, rebellious Diaz (Frank Grillo), quiet Talget (Dermot Mulroney), thoughtful Hendrick (Dallas Roberts), and motor mouth Flannery (Joe Anderson).  They build a fire and take stock of provisions, but discover more immediate danger from an aggressive pack of wolves that, Ottway believes, may be protecting a nearby den.  The men journey in the direction of what they hope is civilization while pursued by the persistent and lethal wolf pack.  Director Joe Carnahan, best known for such high-octane action films as THE A-TEAM and SMOKIN’ ACES, announces a more contemplative intent from the outset.  The night before the fateful flight Ottway writes a soul-searching letter to his estranged wife, then contemplates suicide, and is only brought to his senses by the mournful howl of a wolf in the distance.  In the aftermath of the crash Ottway gently coaxes a dying man to let go.  For much of its first half the film has many trappings of the action and horror genre – men isolated in the wild, stalking monsters (wolves in this case), sudden and gruesome death.  But around its midpoint the script by Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (from Jeffers’ short story “Ghost Walker”) begins revealing more of the men’s hopes and fears as they ponder life, death, and their uncertain future.  In trifling films such as TAKEN Neeson’s presence has given implausible action more gravitas than it would otherwise deserve.  Here the action, while often no less implausible, is buttressed further by strong support from Grillo, Mulroney and Roberts.  Just as last year’s SOURCE CODE used its genre conventions to explore a more cerebral theme, Carnahan’s stark tale of adventure delivers suspense, thrills and a thoughtful meditation on survival.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Provocateur actor/writer Sacha Baron Cohen specializes in off-putting, offensive comedy through personas such as Borat, Bruno, and Ali G.  He uses these agents of chaos to expose the closeted sociopaths we in civilized society pretend not to be.  Cohen’s first feature BORAT used an ingenious mixture of candid and staged footage that provoked laughter and gasps of social horror, usually at the same time.  He keenly targeted the funny bone and hit nerves with such accuracy that Cohen’s film spent years fighting lawsuits from irate subjects who felt betrayed, despite having signed releases.  His latest uncivilized comedy is a completely scripted affair and, as such, aims lower but hits its mark more often than it misses.  Cohen stars as Admiral General Aladeen, the despot-in-chief of a fictional, oil-rich country called Wadiya.  Aladeen rules with an iron fist of sorts, routinely ordering the execution of cabinet members and citizens for the most innocuous of offenses, but regularly paying movie starlets (Megan Fox has a funny cameo) to have a Polaroid taken with him the morning after.  When the U.N. Security Council demands Aladeen clarify his country’s nuclear intentions, the general and his advisor, uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley), travel to New York where Tamir attempts to assassinate his nephew and replace him with lookalike Efawadh (Cohen again).  For reasons better seen than explained the assassination fails and an unrecognizable Aladeen is set loose in NYC.  He becomes an employee at activist Zoey’s (Anna Faris) food co-op and schemes to reveal his uncle’s deception and be returned to power.  The screenplay by Cohen & Alec Berg & David Mandel & Jeff Schaffer has something to offend everyone, even poking fun at post-9/11 terrorist fears; and Larry Charles, a frequent Cohen collaborator, provides serviceable if slapdash direction.  The delightful Faris feels subdued here, while Kingsley and John C. O’Reilly (as a treacherous American agent) are game but used too little.  Cohen’s earlier films invited audiences to laugh at those taken in by his ruse.  Here everyone is in on the joke, so the humor has less bite.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


In 1979 a horror film set in the far reaches of space, modestly called ALIEN and directed by the unknown Ridley Scott, opened in theaters and became a sensation.  In 1982 Scott gave us BLADE RUNNER, securing his reputation as a visionary filmmaker.  Now thirty years later he returns to the milieu that made him.  This time, rather than a mining ship responding to a distress call, a team of scientists travel on the good ship Prometheus to a planet light-years from Earth where, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) believe, an alien species created the human race.  Mysterious tycoon Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) has funded the trip posthumously (he’s seen in hologram) to the tune of trillions.  The ship’s crew consists of no-nonsense Captain Janek (Idris Elba), an android named David (Michael Fassbender) who has uncertain loyalties, the icy Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) representing the interests of the dead Weyland, and several redshirts (read: alien fodder).  The film begins with promise – a sacrifice on a barren planet; David preparing himself and the ship for arrival.  But once the shipmates wake from their forced sleep and begin speaking lines by screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, that promise deflates like a balloon with a slow leak.  Rather than evoke well-paid professionals on an astronomically expensive (not to mention important) mission, the demeanor of many of our space travelers more closely resembles that of fraternity pledges duped into a journey that, had they been sober the night before, they would have refused.  So it should come as no surprise that much of the impending carnage can be attributed to stupid, reckless or self-serving behavior.  Arthur Max’s production design and Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography dazzle, but the performances and story remain inert.  Rapace seems miscast, Marshall-Green is annoying, Elba and Theron are underused, while Fassbender makes the only lasting impression.  Too often Scott and the writers make oblique reference to seminal moments in earlier movies, so that we long to view them again and forget this disappointment as quickly as possible.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

HAYWIRE (2012)

The latest thriller from director Steven Soderberg is cool and brutally efficient, very much like its black ops protagonist Mallory Kane (played by mixed martial arts fighter turned actor, Gina Carano).  When we first meet Mallory she’s on the run, taking shelter in a remote diner where an unwelcome Aaron (Channing Tatum) soon finds her.  At first we suspect the sullen fellow is an estranged husband or boyfriend.  But when the fists start flying and the gun comes out, we know these two are something else entirely.  With the help of a fellow patron (and said patron’s car) Mallory escapes at high speed while relaying to her civilian benefactor the convoluted series of events that brought her to this point.  The screenplay’s expository contrivance makes little sense, but the film’s brisk pace allows little time for contemplation.  We learn that Mallory and Aaron worked on an extraction job in Barcelona set up by her handler (and former lover) Kenneth (Ewan McGregor) at the behest of shady U.S. government official Coblenz (Michael Douglas) for the benefit of slippery Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas).  After the job Mallory attempts to sever business ties with Kenneth, but he persuades her to pose as the wife of British operative Paul (Michael Fassbender) for a “babysitting” job in Dublin.  The job is a double cross, so she must escape hired killers, clear her name, and exact satisfying revenge.  Screenwriter Lem Dobbs spends all his energy on the complicated plot and elaborate fights but leaves little room for character shading or moral ambiguity.  This plays to Carano’s strength; clearly she is more comfortable (and better at) fighting than talking.  Likewise the veteran actors around her provide solid, serviceable performances, with Bill Paxton making a welcome appearance as Mallory’s ex-Marine father.  The exception is the exceptional Fassbender, who hints at depths where the script offers none and raises the stakes in the film’s most harrowing sequence.  In his best films (like OUT OF SIGHT) Soderbergh juggles locales and timelines with practiced ease but maintains strong emotional underpinnings.  Here he gets the heart pumping but rarely engages it.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


London solicitor Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) lost his wife four years earlier during the birth of son Joseph.  Clearly grief has affected his work since his boss sends him to the isolated village of Crythin Gifford to handle the Eel Marsh House estate with the stern admonition that Kipps prove his dedication to the firm by pouring through each document in the house.  He leaves behind son and nanny and trundles via locomotive (it is the early 1900s after all) to regions remote.  En route Kipps meets Daily (Ciaran Hinds), a kindly Crythin Gifford resident who offers him a ride to his lodgings in the pouring rain.  This is the only kindness he receives once in town.  The innkeeper claims to have no rooms available, the town solicitor offers Kipps an unsolicited ride back to the station, and the locals cast wary glances and lock their doors.  This reception does not deter our Mr. Kipps, as he makes his way to the abandoned estate.  His research unearths a tragic history (a son drowned in the marsh) and stirs a vengeful spirit in the form of a woman in black, whose appearance portends the death of village children.  Jane Goldman based her screenplay on the novel by Susan Hill, but the film’s plot and characters feel tissue-paper thin.  The script presents little of Kipps’ history, aside from his widower status, and never offers a plausible reason for him staying overnight in an abandoned estate haunted by a malevolent spirit – except to provide increasingly cheap shocks at regular intervals.  Director James Watkins revels in these atmospheric scares but fails to create a context that resonates beyond superficial shudders.  Rather than having a charismatic actor like the underused Hinds offer insight into local history and superstition, in example, Goldman and Watkins present information in snippets from stale documents with all the drama of a library orientation.  Janet McTeer has some touching moments as Daily’s unstable wife, but the miscast Radcliffe never convinces as a father or lawyer.  He can’t shake the Harry Potter stigma and comes off as a boy wizard playacting the grown up.  Although there are some genuinely creepy moments, they are few and far between.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

THE RAVEN (2012)

The latest thriller from director James McTeigue boasts a promising conceit -- Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) assists a Baltimore detective in the hunt for a serial killer who’s using his (Poe’s) stories as inspiration.  Sadly that promise remains unfulfilled as the film devolves into showy, anachronistic action and horror that bears little resemblance to the genre or author that it claims as inspiration.  After the brutal murder of a mother and daughter in a locked room (from which the killer vanishes under the noses of surrounding policemen) Detective Fields (Luke Evans) notices a similarity between the circumstances of that crime and a plot device in a Poe story.  Fields brings in the gaunt writer for questioning, initially as a suspect, but they soon form an alliance after another grisly murder – one that should have exceeded the bounds of the film’s R rating.  As is the case with nihilistic narcissists, the murderer taunts the police and Poe with clues that only the most lunkheaded profiler could misinterpret.  The barely cryptic messages lead them to a lavish costume ball hosted by wealthy Captain Hamilton (Brendan Gleeson).  But the stable of lawmen is unable to prevent said psychopath from absconding with Hamilton’s daughter Emily (Alice Eve), who happens to be Poe’s paramour.  Now Poe must race against time while matching wits with a murderous fanatic to save his beloved.  The screenplay by Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare creaks and lurches as it spoon-feeds every twist and turn of its painfully predictable plot and forgoes any sense of time and place.  Only a dash of Poe’s poetry here and myriad character and place references sprinkled throughout remind audiences of the film’s 1849 setting.  Likewise McTeigue jettisons any pretext of period atmosphere as he ramps up actor intensity to the point of absurdity and gives his superfluous action scenes all the delicate ambience of a violent video game.  The cast seems adrift, and the normally reliable Cusack and Gleeson fail to rise above playacting.  Even rabid fans of the genre should take the titular character’s advice and see this film nevermore.

Saturday, February 25, 2012


This year’s Oscar® telecast promises to be steeped in nostalgia.  Let’s face it, this year’s Best Picture nominees scream nostalgia – from the age of silent film in THE ARTIST to father of cinema Georges Méliès in HUGO to 1920s Paris in MIDNIGHT IN PARIS to a winning A's season in MONEYBALL to segregated bathrooms in THE HELP to World War I in WAR HORSE or to 9/11 in EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE.  I could go on, but I’m confident I’ve already crossed the boundaries of good taste.

Despite all the feel-good nostalgia, this year’s Oscar® race lacks a sense of urgency.  But nostalgia will do that to you.  There is no one film that everyone is excited about, wants to talk about, wants to see win.  This year’s Oscar® broadcast has the potential to be a little crazy (like in 1992 when THE PIANIST had upset wins in some major categories) or a complete snooze (like in 2004 when THE RETURN OF THE KING made a clean sweep).  Even though it will mess up my Oscar® pool, I’m rooting for some upsets.  Fingers crossed.

As promised, below are my Oscar® predictions for the categories you care about (at least as much as you can this year).  I'm not too terribly confident in them this year.  In fact, the only thing I am confident in predicting is that thanks to the preponderance of nostalgia films, this year’s Oscar telecast (with the possible exception of host Billy Crystal) will be mostly insufferable.

Here we go.

And the nominees for Best Picture are:


You know it’s a weak year for the Oscars® when only one Best Picture nominee makes it onto your Top 10 list.  So it should come as no surprise that MONEYBALL is the movie I’d most like to see win.  But that won’t happen.  If we go by total number of nominations, your best bets are either THE ARTIST or HUGO.  But don’t discount such Oscar® bait as THE DECENDENTS, THE HELP and MIDNIGHT IN PARIS.  Only choose one of the remaining nominees if you get great odds.  THE ARTIST stands out in more significant ways than any other nominated movie (i.e., black and white, silent, made by a Frenchman), and I would put even money on it taking home the gold.  My pick for an overlooked movie that should have made the list is TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY.  See it if you haven’t.  It puts most of these nominees to shame.

Should Win:  MONEYBALL
And the nominees for Best Director are:

Michel Hazanavicius, THE ARTIST
Terrence Malick, THE TREE OF LIFE
Alexander Payne, THE DESCENDENTS
Martin Scorsese, HUGO

I look at this list and think, “Seriously, was this really the best you could come up with?”  None of these guys deserve the gold this year.  Okay, you could give points to Terrence Malick for ambition but, seriously, dinosaurs?  And although Martin Scorsese salvaged a mess of a script, the pace was soooo sloooooow.  The best director this year was Tomas Alfredson from TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, followed closely by Mike Mills from BEGINNERS and Asghar Farhadi from A SEPARATION.  But if forced to choose from the actual list I’d give it to Alexander Payne, whose own choices still surprise me even when they show up in a subpar movie.  However, if asked to put money behind my choice, I’d go with Michel Hazanavicius, because the Academy does like its novelty acts.

Should Win:  Alexander Payne, THE DESCENDANTS
Will Win:  Michel Hazanavicius, THE ARTIST
Overlooked:  Tomas Alfredson, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY

And the nominees for Best Actress are:

Viola Davis, THE HELP
Meryl Streep, THE IRON LADY
Michelle Williams, MY WEEK WITH MARILYN

I only saw three of the nominated actress performances this year and, of those, Michelle Williams was my favorite.  The Academy won’t honor her, convinced that her time will come some years down the road.  What a great idea.  Heath Ledger, anyone?  The same could be said of Rooney Mara, but her role (not to mention the movie) was too unsavory to clinch anything beyond a nomination.  In any other year, Glenn Close might walk away with the gold to honor her career achievements.  Not this year.  It comes down to Streep and the marvelous Viola Davis.  I think Davis will win, but I would argue that her role is more supporting than lead.  Because Tilda Swinton won a supporting actress Oscar® a couple years back, the Academy chose to ignore her amazing work in WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN.  That’s a shame.

Should Win:  Michelle Williams, MY WEEK WITH MARILYN
Will Win:  Viola Davis, THE HELP
Overlooked:  Tilda Swinton, WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN

And the nominees for Best Actor are:

Demian Bichir, A BETTER LIFE
Jean Dujardin, THE ARTIST

I’ve seen all but Demian Bichir’s performance.  The same can probably be said of the Academy.  Of the remaining, I would be thrilled to see Gary Oldman win but must confess my heart resides with Brad Pitt.  This may be his one and only chance to go home with the gold and I, for one, would give it to him.  As to who will win, you’re looking at either George Clooney or Jean Dujardin.  I’m going with Dujardin, because he has an accent and Clooney won supporting actor not too long ago.  Michael Fassbender gave some fantastic performances this year, and none better than in SHAME.  I guess the NC-17 rating gave the Academy pause as well.

Should Win:  Brad Pitt, MONEYBALL
Will Win:  Jean Dujardin, THE ARTIST
Overlooked:  Michael Fassbender, SHAME

And the nominees for Best Supporting Actress are:

Bérénice Bejo, THE ARTIST
Jessica Chastain, THE HELP
Melissa McCarthy, BRIDESMAIDS
Octavia Spencer, THE HELP

This may be the strongest overall category.  Of the performances I’ve seen (sorry, Janet McTeer) my favorite is that of Melissa McCarthy, who steals every scene she’s in.  If she were to win, it would be a huge upset.  But I feel confident that Octavia Spencer will walk away with the statuette.  And that will be fine, too.  Though it would be hard to choose which nominee to drop, Carey Mulligan should have been recognized for a fearless performance in SHAME.

Should Win:  Melissa McCarthy, BRIDESMAIDS
Will Win:  Octavia Spencer, THE HELP
Overlooked:  Carey Mulligan, SHAME

And the nominees for Best Supporting Actor are:

Nick Nolte, WARRIOR
Christopher Plummer, BEGINNERS

This is another strong category.  And once again I haven’t seen one of the nominees -- Max von Sydow, for a reason that begins with Stephen and ends with Daldry.  I wouldn’t mind at all if Nick Nolte were to pull an upset, but Christopher Plummer has the momentum and, truth be told, deserves the award.  If we could have squeezed in a sixth nominee, Patton Oswalt deserved at least a nod for his underrated work in YOUNG ADULT.

Should and Will Win:  Christopher Plummer, BEGINNERS
Overlooked:  Patton Oswalt, YOUNG ADULT

And the nominees for Best Adapted Screenplay are:

George Clooney & Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, THE IDES OF MARCH
John Logan, HUGO
Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY
Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, THE DESCENDENTS
Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, Stan Chervin, MONEYBALL

This is a very weak category (see the On The Page Oscar® podcast posted on my blog and Facebook pages last week for a more complete discussion).  The only writers who deserve a win are Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan and Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin and Stan Chervin.  Of those two I like O’Connor & Straughan best.  As to who will win, I’m sorry to say that the most likely recipient will be Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash.  That’s better than the other two scripts, which were both messes.  And while Pilar Alessandra (On The Page) may disagree with me, I would have preferred John Romano’s adaptation of THE LINCOLN LAWYER to at least three of the nominated scripts.

Should Win:  Bridget O’Connor & Peter Straughan, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY
Will Win:  Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, THE DESCENDENTS
Overlooked:  John Romano, THE LINCOLN LAWYER

And the nominees for Best Original Screenplay are:

Asghar Farhadi, A SEPARATION
Michel Hazanavicius, THE ARTIST
Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig, BRIDESMAIDS

Although stronger than the adapted category (again see the On The Page Oscar® podcast for a more comprehensive discussion), there are only two truly worthy scripts:  Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig’s hilarious female-driven comedy and Asghar Farhadi’s riveting domestic drama.  If forced to choose I would have to go with Farhadi, but if Mumolo & Wiig were to accept the prize, I would be equally thrilled.  Sadly, this is unlikely to be the case.  Although there’s an outside chance that screenwriter Hazanavicius will benefit from a potential sweep by THE ARTIST, I consider it more likely that Allen gets the consolation prize.  The Academy’s biggest oversight this year may be Mike Mills and his lovely script for BEGINNERS.

Should Win:  Asghar Farhadi, A SEPARATION
Will Win:  Woody Allen, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
Overlooked:  Mike Mills, BEGINNERS

This wraps up The Pope's Picks for 2011.  Thanks for reading this far, and we'll see you in 2012.