Sunday, February 27, 2011

2011 Academy Awards Live Blog

Monday, February 21, 2011

Countdown To The 2011 Academy Awards: The Best Picture Dilemma

Award shows have no bearing on the quality of my life. The actual award will only impact the very small circle of people who actively surround the winner. The yearly award circuit is simply a chance for the entire industry to get dressed up, pat each other on the back for a job well done, and pretend the night's events are as important as Guiliana Rancic tells us they are. Yet despite my (hugely) cynical take on the matter, I spend an awful lot of time trying to pick the winners and view the actual festivities as they unfold on TV. Why do I put so much thought and care into something that will not affect me in the slightest? The answer is quite simple, I like seeing things that I enjoy get recognized. I assume (though to a much lesser degree) it's similar to the excitement fans get when their favorite team wins the championship at season's end. As a fan, we feel connected to each other and so when we see our thing (whether it be a movie, musical artist, or football team) recognized as the current "best", we have the urge to celebrate alongside the people who actually did the hard work to earn the award (or pay for it). Yet this connection can go both ways, and so when the thing/person/team that we are rooting for loses to something we consider inferior, it causes an irrational collective misery as we feel our side was cheated out of victory.

It seems every year there is at least one race where I fear I will experience such irrational hatred towards a winner. This year, nothing sums that anxiety up more than the possibility of The King's Speech winning the Oscar for Best Picture. Did I hate The King's Speech? Not at all! I thought it was a well made film but not much else. It is a safely made film and while it may have caused me to applaud it (metaphorically) in my head as I left the theater, it also failed to leave me with much else to chew on past that. To me, The King's Speech is the child that gets raised very strictly by parents who will expect nothing short of perfection. So the child grows up to be immensely successful and exactly what it was supposed to be, yet is severely lacking in both uniqueness and any aspect of fun. I'm not saying The King's Speech as a movie lacked charisma because it had many entertaining scenes, it was just that the idea even behind those scenes had no spark or cool sense of danger. The King's Speech feels like a film bred for awards and thus it seems far too blandly predictable to hear it's name called as the final prize of the night.

This year's Academy Awards will feature the 83rd movie to be awarded as the year's best. For a film to be considered a part of such a small set, it should have to achieve a lot more than simply being a well made film. I understand the Best Picture award does not have the best track record (Citizen Kane, Suspicion, and The Maltese Falcon all lost in 1941 to How Green Was My Valley) but I am arguing for the future instead of a justification to go back to the "good old days" or some other type of false nostalgia. I want the award to go to a film that dared to accomplish something new in cinema and pushed the boundaries of entertainment. I want the award to go to a film that can balance being a snapshot of our current culture yet also be timeless enough for all generations (both past and present) to enjoy and relate to. I want the award to go to The Social Network.

This year's nominees are an exceptional bunch. (Make note, I have no problem with The King's Speech actual nomination.) But perhaps the fact that there are ten nominees will hinder the ability for a more "daring" film to actually take the prize. Let's say there are two types of Academy Award voters, those that go for something traditional and those that go for something more exciting and new. The traditional voters will go for The King's Speech as it is far and away the film in this category that best exemplifies that type of voting strategy. On the other hand, someone looking to honor a less traditional film has far too many options. While it's great that smaller films like Winter's Bone and 127 Hours get nominated now that the field has expanded from 5 to 10 nominees*, I feel it also lessens the chances of the more high profile underdog film to actually achieve an upset. It's the Raph Nadar effect. Add some fringe nominees and the people who would normally go for something like The Social Network will throw their weight behind Winter's Bone to support it, knowing full well it has no chance of winning.

Let's say my instincts are correct and The King's Speech wins. Shouldn't I simply be happy that the film I thought deserved to win was at least nominated? Logically the answer would be yes but my frustration stems more from The King's Speech's potential win than The Social Network's potential loss. In fact, if a film like The Fighter or True Grit squeezed out a surprise upset, I'd be just as happy than if The Social Network took the prize. To me, it all comes down to allowing a film to be recognized for trying something new and succeeding over a film that may have been exceptionally made, didn't do much for the legacy of film. It won't cause quite as much damage as when Crash won in 2005, but having The King's Speech take home the top prize this Sunday night will only further prove how meaningless the award really is. Either way, I'm just glad none of it matters to me.

You're Welcome, 

*I'm fully aware Best Picture used to be 10 nominees at the beginning, but it hasn't been that way since 1943. I am not sure as to the reason behind the change in 1944, but I support it and would gladly consider these past two years a failed experiment.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Movie Review: Blue Valentine and Rabbit Hole (by Dave Machado)

Blue Valentine and Rabbit Hole are two movies that are made to be difficult to sit through. Both deal with the destruction of a once stable relationship that will leave the viewer emotionally drained. Yet despite this broad similarity, the movies themselves could not be more different from each other. Blue Valentine tends to revel in the uncomfortable pain of a loveless relationship, while Rabbit Hole becomes the more uplifting of the two, showing what happens when two people don't fall out of love, but have a stake driven through their hearts that potentially leaves little room for love to regrow. Both are anchored by exceptionally strong performances that will be hard to shake, but in the end, Blue Valentine has far too many "on the nose" moments that cause it to seem like the lesser of the two from a dramatic standpoint.

Blue Valentine stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a married couple entering their 30s with the realization that they are not as happy as they once were. The unhappiness isn't due to drugs or violence, but more to the most dangerous element in any long lasting relationship, time. It's only been 5 years since the couple first met but in the present day, that seems like a lifetime ago. We are given glimpses into their past throughout the film as it hops back and forth between their courtship and their current struggles to keep the marriage alive along with raising a child. The most striking part of the film is actually seeing how well Gosling and Williams essentially play two different characters. Seeing them go from youthfully energetic to defeated and depressed is sad in its own right. Knowing it all happened in the span of only 5 years makes it painfully heartbreaking.

While I'll admit the jumping between periods seemed refreshing at first, I began to notice far too many glaring instances where the film tries too hard to maintain a form of parallelism. I understand they want each scene to have an "opposite version" to play off of the clichés of falling in and out of love, but to use such blatant examples left a sour taste in my mouth. The biggest offender begins with the couple's trip to a sleazy motel as a last ditch attempt to reignite that spark that deep down they know is gone forever. (They are staying in the "Future Room", which already set off my subtly flag.) At one point, Gosling's character attempts to make love to Williams on the floor of the motel, but she repeatedly shoves off his advances, not being in the mood. She reluctantly gives in but after a short while, changes her mind and wants him to stop. She begins beating him away, leading him to angrily ask what her problem is and what he can do to make her happy. The film then jumps back to their first sexual encounter, which at one point literally has Williams playfully beating him away as he climbs on top of her.

Similar to the failing relationship portrayed in the movie, it's not big issues I have with the film that causes me to find it lackluster, it's the culmination of all the little annoyances that build up over time. I prefer movies that have mirroring scenes or ideas to use a more subtle approach than simply changing the context of the actions we previously saw. For example, if one were to really analyze the beginnings of their relationship they would realize that the entire theme of the movie is represented in the failed sex scene, thus causing the extra playful scene that follows it to be redundant. Their whole relationship is based on repeated advances by Gosling's character until he finally not so much wins her over, but almost convinces her that the only way to get him to stop is to actually go on a date with him. Only after some time, she slowly realizes she may have settled for something she wasn't really looking for and decides to be the one to try and force the whole situation to stop, leaving Gosling confused and angrily asking what he needs to do to get things back on track.

There is still a lot left in Blue Valentine to chew over (Gosling's speech about women not marrying out of love, the revelation that Williams was a fairly method actor in college, etc.) to make it worth seeing and ponder for days to come. It's the type of movie, for better or worse, that sticks with you long after the final (eye-rolling) scene. I have no qualms with the attention the movie has been getting this award season because I believe all of the acting nominations are just. Others may find my complaints unwarranted and it may be possible I am being too harsh on the film despite what it has to offer. Needless to say, it's still a movie worth seeing, though the question of the film's importance in the current cycle of films is still undecided.

While Blue Valentine is made to question the validity of love and what it means to want to be with somebody, Rabbit Hole is more about the importance of overcoming a tragedy you share with the one you love most. The film (adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his own play) stars Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart as a married couple trying to come to terms with the sudden death of their only son, who was killed when he was struck by a car at the age of 4. With this type of setup, it would be easy for the film to fall into the same "Sadness Porn" trap that bogged down Blue Valentine but the movie is surprisingly sweet and even has a unique sense of humor (albeit an extremely black one). Rabbit Hole does a great job of not turning to the usual clichés of grief movies and features characters that feel real instead of embodied characteristics acting out some morbid morality tale. 

What I found so interesting about the film is that it's not about people who cannot cope with tragedy, but about how different people handle grief in their own way. The film does a great job of never really condemning certain kinds of grief but instead shows how each person's reaction can be both healthy and unhealthy at the same time. The movie isn't interested in the "black and white" take on how to deal with grief but in the shady grey areas that are a lot harder to both disapprove of and rationalize at the same time. I was extremely pleased to see the movie never fall into the typical "spiritual" formula that these types of movies always seem to be tailored towards. Instead, the film plays out like an agnostic's or atheist's take on how to  overcome grief, which is something I found infinitely refreshing.

While Kidman and Eckhart are both fantastic in the movie, to me the real star is Diane Wiest, playing the role of Kidman's mother. Wiest's character also lost a son (to a heroin overdose when he was 30) so she has her own take on grief that is constantly causing friction between her and Kidman's character (specifically Kidman's frustration at her mother constantly comparing the loss of a 30 year old man to drugs with the loss of a 4 year old boy to a car accident). Later on in the movie, Wiest gives a powerful monologue about how one continues on after such a terrible loss. To me, it's the key moment of the film and is delivered perfectly by Wiest. She takes a scene that could have had the subtly of a hammer to the face and underplays it so well that it becomes the most poignant part of the movie. It's a great performance and I was disappointed to see that she is not getting much credit for the role this awards season.

There are a few moments that come dangerously close to continuing boring clichés often seen in adult dramas. Luckily the film has the smarts to constantly pull back just when you think it's going to go too far down that road. Getting so close to the brink of possible failure only to shock you with a new take on these scenarios makes the film seem all the more successful at what it is trying to do. I cannot recommend this film enough to people who want to experience a mature movie that doesn't succumb to saccharine solutions as an easy way out of a horrible situation. I'd place Rabbit Hole in the top tier of movies from 2010 and I look forward to seeing how people respond the the themes that are tackled in the movie in the months to come.

The bridging question asked in both Blue Valentine and Rabbit Hole seems to be "Is love doomed to fail when put up against seemingly indestructible obstacles?" Both movies can technically be described as having both an "uplifting" and "depressing" answer, depending on your own baggage you bring to the movie. I guess where you stand on that question will dictate which movie you relate to (and therefore enjoy) more. Blue Valentine wonders if true love can be forced, and if so, how easy does it break under the weight of time. Rabbit Hole on the other hand is interested in discovering how much trauma true love can handle until it begins to crack at the foundation. While I applaud both movies for the ideas behind them, I feel Rabbit Hole is the more successful of the two. But take my advice, give some time between both movies, because seeing them as a double feature is simply a bit too much to take.

You're Welcome,

Sunday, February 13, 2011

2011 Grammy Awards Live Chat

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Movie Review: 127 Hours (by Dave Machado)

127 Hours tells the true story of Aron Ralston, (played by James Franco) an American mountain climber who in April 2003 was forced to amputate his arm after being pinned by a boulder deep within Utah's Blue John Canyon for days. Similar to Buried, 127 Hours is mostly a one man show as the majority of the film takes place deep in the canyon as Ralston struggles to keep his mind on one idea only, survival. The film strives for accuracy and according to Ralston himself, is the closest they could get to making a Documentary without actually using footage of him inside the canyon. While Franco's performance is excellent and the editing is some of the best I've seen all year (second only to Scott Pilgrim), something about the latter half of the movie just didn't click with me. 127 Hours, while deeply inspirational and told with a refreshing energy, ended up having far too many stylistic choices that clashed with my expectations, causing the movie to lose too much steam to be considered a true classic.

It's hard to judge a film harshly when you know everything that is on screen really happened. Knowing they had Ralston's help and approval the whole way through only solidifies that fact even more. But it's not the story that bugged me most about 127 Hours, it was the way it was told. As the hours in the canyon pass and Ralston becomes more delusional due to thirst, cold, isolation, and fear of death, the movie makes the choice to really dive into his mind. Scenes of hallucinations are played out as if the camera itself has fused with the warped mind of the man trapped below. The movie then becomes more unhinged as you are not sure if what you are seeing is real, a memory, or neither of those two. I understand it is supposed to make you feel the same frustration that Ralston himself felt deep below the mountains, but I simply would have preferred a more distant/clinical study of his ordeal.

That issue aside, I really did enjoy the film. The opening credit sequence was one of the more exciting openings to a film I've seen in quite some time. The fast paced editing and multiple frames on screen gave everything an urgent feel and really dragged me into the film. Sometimes it takes far too long to get into the groove of a movie (The King's Speech) so it's always good to see one that you are on board with from the first frame. Obviously this level of energy is not kept up for the entire movie but that would have been a nearly impossible feat. That being said, it's important to note just how well of a job Danny Boyle did at making sure a movie about a man at the bottom of a canyon never gets dull. I may not have liked the stylistic choices he made during the middle of the movie, but it still never bored me.

A lot has been said about the actual amputation scene in the film. I believe talks of people fainting have been greatly exaggerated, though I will say that if you are typically not a fan of gore, you may get a bit squeamish during the scene. I've seen enough gorefests now that I've become so desensitized to on screen violence that I simply watched, hand on chin, admiring the attention to detail as he systematically cuts away using a blade far too dull for such a gruesome task. It's a great scene and was also where I really regained my confidence in the film. I was happy to see that a movie with such a great lift off but a fairly bumpy ride was able to steady itself and stick the landing in a beautiful manner.

I was surprised to see that 127 Hours had made such a small amount during it's first run in theaters late last year. I hope all the award season buzz that Franco is getting for his performance will allow the movie to reach a larger audience during its second run. While I may have had my own problems with the movie, I can at least appreciate that it was one of the better made (and better sounding, as the score is fantastic) films of 2010 and rightfully deserves a spot in the Best Picture race. Danny Boyle proves he is one of the most exciting Directors working today and James Franco gets to show just how good of an actor he really is. Just make sure you leave a note saying where you've gone before seeing the film.

You're Welcome,