My 2017 Oscar Picks

Ladies and gentlemen, the post you’ve all been waiting for. My picks to win the 89th Academy Awards. This year’s nominees gives us hope that the Academy has at least made some effort to look across the wonderful diversity that makes up the filmmaking community. The Academy released a list of 683 new members last year, which is a record. It’s encouraging to see 46% are female and 41% are nonwhite from 59 different countries. There were also a small number of members who were transferred to “emeritus” status. Without the further wasting of pixels, here are the picks.

Picture

lead_960

Hidden Figures is worthy for uncovering an amazing piece of history. It was important for NASA and for the history of on way in which African Americans have advanced our country. Throw in the fact that they’re women and you’ve got something very powerful. I wish the filmmakers had a bigger budget (estimate $25 million) that would have allowed them to up the production value and perhaps expand their impact.

Moonlight is the other film that should worry La La La Land, with it’s ground zero approach and quiet choices. The arc of this story is very long and the main character evolves across three different actors. The way this film is presented might look simplistic but simple it is not. This film takes it’s time for a reason and could sneak in.

Arrival is my favorite among the nominees. It’s a story of time, memory and language. The main character, Louise (Amy Adams) knows what’s going to happen in the future. Not everything but some things for sure. She uses her training in linguistics to communicate with beings who visit earth and the two become entwined in a fascinating personal story.

Fences is non-stop. A theatrical performance, but this time your vantage point is not Row E, Seat 17. We get to see inside these characters. What motivates them, enrages them, satisfies them. Once you have the script for a film like this, you need talent to deliver. Denzel Washington, who also directed, is a national treasure.

Hacksaw Ridge is the true story of WWII conscientious objector, Desmond Doss, who wound up in the bloody battle over the island of Okinawa. He selflessly saved over 70 men without ever touching a gun. The back story is business as usual, but the battle scenes are almost in a class on their own. We begin to understand at least a little, Doss’s vow and struggle to succeed.

Hell or High Water evokes many films and combines a number of genres but manages to carve out it’s own brand. Texas brothers need to pay off the ranch and set out to rob banks until they have enough to meet the reverse mortgage debt taken out by their mother. It’s smart and solid with a twist of sticking it to the banks.

Manchester by the Sea has so much to offer. Script, performances, humor, tragedy and yes hope. It starts where it ends, on the sea. A story about what draws people, the workings of their soul and what happens when those workings break.

Lion, another true story, tracks the life of a young Indian boy from the time he becomes misplaced by chance to a new and full life a continent away with adopted parents. Both the adopted family and the parents that lost him are on constant guard. One side always hoping, the other always wondering.

The La La Land factor may be too much for the other films to overcome. Good musicals are rare and beloved by the Academy. Mia and Sebastian have dreams, then they find each other. First by fate on a crowded Los Angeles freeway, then through relentless pursuit by each. Their relationship leads them to the dream they cannot achieve together.

Pick: La La Land

Actor in a Leading Role

caseyTough category. From a purely acting perspective I would rank them in the following order; Casey Affleck, Denzel Washington, Viggo Mortensen, Ryan Gosling and Andrew Garfield. Casey has a dark cloud over him offscreen which could cause a problem. Denzel’s performance is the powerful remaking of a stage play, beautifully transformed to fit the screen. Viggo is surrounded by a bunch of kids in the wild. A bit unorthodox but he has definitely reached back to his Aragon character for inspiration. Ryan, well he’s Ryan. Andrew is the story in the vehicle picture Hacksaw Ridge. I preferred him in Scorsese’s epic and overlooked picture Silence.

Pick: Casey Affleck

Actress in a Leading Role

emma-rightFirst I have to get something off my chest. The fact that Annette Bening didn’t receive a nomination for her amazing portrayal of Dorothea in the time capsule of a film 20th Century Women is at least a misdemeanorNow back to the post. Natalie Portman brought a new perspective to a subject that has been examined to no ends in Jackie. It was obvious she did her homework and was up to the courage it must have taken to play such an iconic persona. Great work. The picture Loving shares a high level theme with Hidden Figures, Fences and perhaps even Moonlight. Ruth Negga gives a tour de force performance as the wife of a white man who’s love is so strong it rises to the Supreme Court. Isabelle Huppert is delicious and mysterious and has been one of my favorites for many years. But the film is in French, so maybe not. Then there’s Meryl Streep. Nothing more needs to be said. But I don’t think it’s her year. That leaves us with a darling of the Academy, Emma Stone. In La La Land she showed more range and what sold me was her ability to be hopeful and defeated at the same time.

Pick: Emma Stone

Actor in a Supporting Role

maThis one is not so hard. Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water was great, but he was Jeff. He’s so good that I expect him to excel. Lucas Hedges as the lost teenager in Manchester by the Sea was asked to pull off a difficult character and did it beautifully. He was funny and desperate and, well a 16 year old. Dev Patel was amazing as the adult lost soul in Lion. But the real art performance was turned in by Mahershala Ali in Moonlight. Calm on the outside but you know he’s a steeping pot. Although his character took a few wrong turns, we see a coach and perhaps even a mentor in his surprisingly tender approach to a young boy. His choices are careful and measured, putting aside the chaos that surround his current profession and environment.

Pick: Mahershala Ali

Actress in a Supporting Role

oliviaNaome Harris in Moonlight. Amazing performance of a woman trapped in a personal prison without bars, but unable to escape. Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures. Smart, driven and won’t take no for an answer. When she had enough she took it to the next level and when at along last was given the stage, she owned it. Nicole Kidman in Lion as the mother who adopts two children from India and takes it all the way to the end once she finds out what her adopted first son really needed. Michelle Williams is the heartbroken wife in Manchester by the Sea. Despite her short screen time, Ms. Williams stands up to tragedy that could be beyond recovery and takes the next steps. Lastly Viola Davis is the wife in Fences. She stole the show in my opinion. In scene after scene she stands out with strength and valor. Pride is important, but her inner compass allows her to ensure her conscious and heart will forever be in order. She does all this without ever forgetting her responsibility as the pillar of the family.

Pick: Viloa Davis

Original Screenplay

When you decide to write a script you always start from scratch. Certainly life experiences and artistic influences provide inspiration, but in the end it’s the writer, alone, that chooses how to string together the words. All five of this year’s nominees for original screenplay are stand outs. The top two for their power and weight are 20th Century Women by Mike Mills and Manchester by the Sea by Kenneth Lonergan. Both weave numerous complex characters through a maze of personal emotions and cultural circumstances. Mr. Mills perfectly captures a time and place. A single mother in the ’70’s is bringing up a son at the same time the country is in the midst of cataclysmic shift on how it views women. Mr. Lonegran drops us into a family minefield. It’s full of seminal moments that never go away and we are always wondering how the characters will respond. Of course there’s La La Land by wunderkind Damien Chazelle. It’s less a script and more of a visual score with lyrics. An amazing piece or work that sets the entire experience in motion. Lastly we have Lobster, which I would categorize as a species unto itself.

Pick: Richard Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea

Adapted Screenplay

Arrival (Eric Heisserer based on a story by Ted Chiang) avoids the bent on destruction visiting aliens and instead turns it into an intergalactic story of compassion and a study of time that may hold the secret of our survival. Fences (August Wilson, based on his play) boils down a broad cultural macrocosm into a local microcosm of the lives of a family and the strong personas of a husband and wife. Hidden Figures (Allison Schroder and Theodore Melfi)  lets us in on a piece of history that reminds us how easy it is to cover things up. Lion (Luke Davies from the book by Saroo Brierley) spans two continents and beautifully exploring the powerful themes of choice, assimilation, chance and search. and Moonlight (Barry Jenkins from a story by Carell Alvin McCraney) outline the essentials of three acts in the lifetime of an African American growing up in the slums of Miami.

Pick: Barry Jenkins for Moonlight

Cinematography

silence-shore

The usual suspects are represented. Arrival, Fences, Hidden Figures and Lion. The fifth nominee is Silence, Martin Scorsese’s personal campaign into faith. The look of this picture is lush, textured with the quality of a fine oil painting. By far the best work done by Rodrigo Prieto out in the wilderness under stark weather and light conditions, this effort easily exceeds all others.

Pick: Rodrigo Pireto for Silence

Score

Scores the year were a nice mix and I enjoyed listening to them well after I had seen the films. The soundtrack for Hollywood’s favorite, La La Land (Various Artists)is energetic, but mostly I only remember City of Stars. The work done for Jackie (Marci Levi) was deeply sonic and captured the gravity of those few weeks after the assassination of JFK. A personal, singular statement on the widow and mother. Passengers (Thomas Newman) is intriguing and helps the film hang onto it’s mysterious qualities. With no less than twenty-six tracks Mr. Newman tries to keep up with the speed of their spaceship Avalon. Moonlight (Nicholas Britell) draws on a collection of works in order to cover the significant passage of time, and like La La Land, the music is as much inside the movie as outside of it. Lion (Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka) add to this picture’s story in a very special way. It’s the closest to a classic score as we have this year and I think that without it the film would be significantly diminished. My pick is off book, but here goes.

Pick: Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka for Lion

Film Editing

This category is either obvious or too close to call. This year it’s the latter. Arrival (Joe Walker), Hell or High Water (Jake Roberts), La La Land (Tom cross), and Moonlight (Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders) are all so very well cut. Each required a different strategy to help the Director bring to the final vision. The one that stood out because of it’s sheer size and scope was Hacksaw Ridge (John Gilbert). The battle scenes alone was worth an individual achievement.

Pick: John Gilbert for Hacksaw Ridge

Costume Design

Space, WWII, the streets of African American neighborhoods in Miami, and an activist wizard from England visiting New York on his way to Arizona provided great challenges to the seamstress artists this year. My pick is made based on the need for variety, an adherence to an undefined period as well as making it all look really cool.

Pick: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Documentary Feature

This category doesn’t ever get much attention. The art of the documentary is lost on the majority of moviegoers in the United States. I fear that it might become more obscure as production costs drop and video technology becomes easier to use. That coupled with the rise of streaming services could marginalize this genre even further. I was riveted by Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America. A tale of culture that cuts through race, sports, fame and money. Worth a look from end to end despite it’s 467 minute running time.

Pick: O.J.: Made in America

Animated Feature

My favorite was Kubo and the Two Strings. Mystical, unique with just the right amount of peril. Moana is a close second. I always love the strong girl figures who hold their own against all odds. But I think this year they’re gonna give it to the bunnies.

Pick: Zootopia

Director

A film’s Director is it’s visionary. The steward, project manager, father, soul and so much more. Without him or her, there is no compelling story even if the village of people behind it do their jobs amazingly well. This year’s offerings tell subtle stories. Their narratives are in some cases based on truth but all are fresh tellings of the human condition.

The nominees are Damien Chazelle for La La Land. Mel Gibson, welcomed back into the tribe for Hacksaw Ridge. Barry Jenkins for Moonlight. Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester by the Sea and Denis Villeneuve for Arrival.

Pick: Damien Chazelle for La La Land

 

 

My Annual Oscar Picks – 2014

oscar-envelopeIt’s that time again. The Academy hands out their picks for best of every category. They can select 10 films for best picture, but apparently could find only nine worthy of the crown. The pictures span history, deep drama, AIDS, hijacking, swindle and a celestial exploration of the human spirit, untethered in space.

Observations. Although the themes are familiar and tightly bunched, the styles and settings are nicely varied. My overarching take is that Gravity overwhelmes all the others for technical achievement. I’m predicting a mini-sweep for Gravity in the technical categories and the film’s director for being able to successfully stitch it together. The softer, more artistic awards will be sprinkled across the vast field based on the individual effort and ultimate impact they contributed (screenplay, song, etc.) on the film as a complete work. Four of the nine best picture nominees have one word titles. with another two managing to use only two words. The Wolf of Wall Street has no chance.

A decade or more ago I was a whiz at picking these. I would have seen all of them in the theater, many twice. Read Variety each week and closely followed the pop discussions found in the likes of Entertainment Weekly. Much of that study time has been re-purposed by a busy career, fatherhood and being a husband. No complaints from me.

Since my extremely active involvement in film has been reduced, my record of wins has become uneven but that doesn’t deter me from making predictions. Let the annual ritual begin.

Picture: 12 Years a Slave

Director:  Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity

Actor:  Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club

Actress:  Amy Adams for American Hustle

Actor in a Supporting Role:  Barkhad Abdi for Captain Phillips

Actress in a Supporting Role: Lupita Nyong’o for 12 Years a Slave

Original Screenplay:  American Hustle

Adapted Screenplay:  12 Years a Slave

Cinematography:  Gravity

Animated Feature:  Frozen

Film Editing:  Gravity

Visual Effects:  Gravity

Sound Editing:  Captain Phillips

Production Design: The Great Gatsby

Original Score:  Alexandre Desplat for Philomena

Original Song:  Let it Go from Frozen

Costume Design:  The Great Gatsby

One more thing. Can we please stop complaining about how long the awards show runs?

The Wolf of Wall Street – Film Review

Leonardo-DiCaprio-in-The-Wolf-of-Wall-Street-+-585x389

Once again we find Martin Scorsese taking serious inspiration from his lifelong muse, New York. So much has happened in this Metropolis and continues to happen, and the material just never seems to run out. He returns to the underworld but not gangsters. This time he delves beneath the underworld; Wall Street, Mean Streets, what’s the difference? Perhaps less violence on Wall Street or is it just another category of violence? I must admit when I saw the trailer for this film over the summer I was quite surprised to see that it was a Martin Scorsese picture. The film is large format all around. The running time is three hours and it’s laced with foul language, morbid use of drugs and alcohol, is degrading to women, and props money up on the highest pedestal at any cost to anyone.

It’s Goodfellas meets Glengarry Glen Ross, meets Wall Street. Process that for a minute.

I approached this film with mixed feelings, as it deals with financial crimes and unethical goings on by stockbrokers and so called investment managers. A lot of people lost their retirement believing the frauds over the last few years. So why make this film? Scorsese has said he made it out of “frustration and a kind of anger.” In a recent Los Angeles Times interview Scorsese states.

When I was growing up, I don’t remember being told that America was created so that everyone could get rich. I remember being told it was about opportunity and the pursuit of happiness. Not happiness itself, but the pursuit. In the past 35 years the value has become rich at all costs.

Jordan Belfort was hooked on becoming a Master of the Universe on his first day on Wall Street. He was seduced by a greed that would permeate every aspect of his personal and professional life. Based on a real character and the book by Belfort, screenwriter Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire) hits the accelerator in the first scene and never lets up.

Leo DiCaprio plays Belfort and let’s animal persona off the leash. All he wants is more, and not just of money. His performance makes us laugh, gasp, shake our head and even cheer. But we are never afraid. Nor do we feel sorry for him even though he loses much more than he ever gained.

Black Monday was Belfort’s first day  as a bonafide stockbroker having passed his Series 7 exam. It was October 19, 1987 and the worldwide stock markets crashed along with the firm that gave him his first chance. This first lesson was not lost on Belfort.

He cobbled together a typical Scorsese band of characters who would eventually pledge their undying allegiance and yearn to unlock his secrets and live like Belfort. The group successfully traded Penny stocks from pink sheets to the middle class. He made money, but Belfort had higher aspirations. He created Stratton Oakmont, Inc. selected a lion as the firm’s symbol and wrote this mission statement; Stability, Integrity, Pride. They began targeting the top 1% of the population, sold them blue chips to get them comfortable, then make 50% commission on the crap. They made more money than they knew what to do with. It was brilliant, in a tragic sort of way.

From the screenplay The Wolf of Wall Street.

Script 1

Script 2

It’s one continuous party. The lines between the office and strip clubs or beach houses are blurred so badly no one knows if they are working or partying. Sex, drugs, drinking. Nothing was too much or off limits. Eventually Belfort meets Naomi (Margot Robbie) and his first marriage dissolves like a quaalude in bourbon. The wedding in Vegas cost Belfort $2 million and he didn’t bat an eye. From there things just get even more amped up as they take the women’s shoemaker, Steve Madden public in a very unorthodox and illegal manner.

Scorsese turns the camera directly on DiCaprio who addresses the audience first person. It’s fitting. We need someone to remind us we are not looking at a dream, but real life and the people who are acting it out know it’s wrong but can no longer tell right from wrong. Only rich from poor.

As the FBI closes in Belfort gets a bit more serious. He hatches a plan to move cash to a Swiss bank and turns his attention to blocking the investigation. No matter how much the heat gets turned up, nothing can stop Belfort and his lieutenant, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) from getting messed up. Donnie comes across a long lost bottle of Lemmon 714 quaalude pills give to him by a pharmacist client. The Lemmon 714 is the mother the Quaaludes. The scene that follows their taking of several of these potent pills is hysterical. I have not laughed that hard in the theatre since Three Weddings and a Funeral.

We need to be careful not to forget that activities of Stratton Oakmont are not victimless crimes. We don’t see the victims, and in fact almost never hear the voices on the other end of the telephones. But they are real and the damage done is serious and life-destroying in some instances. Belfort crashed so many things. A helicopter, expensive car, 170 foot yacht and countless lives. He never gets a scratch and always falls up, landing on his feet.

leo-580

DiCaprio also played Gatsby in Baz Luhrman’s interpretation of Fitzgerald’s novel released earlier this year. Both Gatsby and Belfort came from humble, poor beginnings. Both had aspirations and through a quirk of fate were able to gainfully apply their individual gifts to achieve great wealth. Gatsby built his empire out of the love for Daisy. Belfort accumulated his fortune out of the love for greed. Gatsby had an unfulfilled heart and Nick Carraway as his compass of good. Belfort lacked a heart and had Donnie Azoff as his enabler. Someone always willing to open the next door to excess.

Americans spend less that 20 minutes per year really studying their finances. I’m not talking bills, but real finances. College funds, retirement, real estate. Don’t be taken in. Do more work on your own financial state. Scorsese reminds us that finance underpins so much of our daily life and it can vanish in an instant.

Photo Credits:  Paramount Pictures

Download the The Wolf of Wall Street script legally here.

Zero Dark Thirty – Film Review

Zero Dark Thirty Poster2012 will be remembered as the year the movies took back their time slot. The year the industry remembered they have a super power; making big, ambitious, thought-provoking pictures and damn the running time or who might be protesting. Six major feature films released in the fall/winter season topped the two hour twenty minute mark. That’s right, cinema is for adults again, serious filmgoers, and it’s about time.

Kathryn Bigelow gave us The Hurt Locker, now she revisits the post 9/11 world on the ground again. Her mission, to tell an even more complex and messy story. The decade long manhunt to find and kill Osama bin Laden. The film has come under significant criticism from many about the graphic nature of the scenes depicting prisoner interrogations. The complaints state that the intelligence the CIA uncovered to kill UBL was not linked to information gathered during these types of sessions. We will never know for sure.

This is another fascinating aspect of this past year’s film season that really excites me. Filmmakers with a purpose. Willing to take a risk because it matters. All of a sudden if feels like movies are re-determined to push the envelope. Argo used declassified documents and first hand accounts to weave a dramatic account of the Iran prisoner episode. Lincoln was unabashed about telling the story of slavery and the Civil War and most importantly what really goes on inside the capitol dome with all those politicians. Oliver Stone was the pioneer in this arena and others have come forward to update it and shape it for today.

Bigelow partners once again with her writer colleague Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker) who has given us an on the “edge of your seat” script. He has a variety of factions to write for and a daunting task to pull the thousands of details together in a way that is interesting, dramatic and clear. He succeeds.

Maya 5

Jessica Chastain plays Maya an obsessed and driven (aren’t they all) CIA operative recruited into the intelligence machine directly out of high school. At first Ms.Chastain seems an unlikely choice for this role with her glowing reddish hair, porcelain skin and slight build. But this is Ms. Bigelow’s world and it’s chocked full of powerful women. Maya’s first in country experience places her in an interrogation session run by Dan (Jason Clarke). It gets ugly fast and Maya is clearly uncomfortable. She cringes at some of Dan’s tactics, but very quickly reloads her nerve endings for a second go. This is an important moment for her. She now knows what it will take.

At first it was an assignment to track down UBL. But after a suicide bomber kills several of her fellow operatives at a military camp, a clear set-up, her purpose is transformed into a  personal vendetta. Like anyone who is singularly focused, everything becomes heightened. Yes, I thought about Carrie Mathison from Homeland, but without the bi-polar issue. Maya wears t-shirts when everyone else in the CIA station comes to work in business attire. She never backs down and it’s her insistence that gets her what she needs to discover the compound in Abbottabad. Maya is 100% convinced UBL is living there. There is no question in her mind.

We know what’s coming in the end but Bigelow and Boal unpack the story so skillfully that we are in no hurry to get there.The picture spans more than a decade of events so the filmmakers make liberal use of onscreen way markers, displaying dates and places so we can more easily follow the narrative. We are kept unhinged, helpless, as we watch one explosion after another. Some we know are coming, like the London bombings. Others are more of a surprise, the Marriott Hotel in Pakistan bombing, because they are in the deeper recesses of our memory. As a result we become hyper-sensitized, expecting a bomb to go off at any moment, bringing us closer to what things were really like for these operatives.

Maya reminded me of an updated Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) from the first two Terminator films. Involved at a young age. Didn’t really ask for the assignment, but was more than up to the task. Maya is Sarah in so many ways but without the muscles or military training. In Terminator 2: Judgement Day Connor is sitting in a room of doctors who are trying to pin a diagnosis on her when she explains what’s about to happen. “Anybody not wearing two million sunblock is gonna have a really bad day, get it?” Maya’s parallel is her daily storming to the office window of her boss and scribbling the number of days that nothing has happened since they found the compound.

Maya and Sarah

Maya and Sarah Connor

Ms. Bigelow employs actors we don’t easily recognize. It’s a crafty move to keep the audience focused on the scent of information the players so desperately need to keep alive in order to capture their target. If these parts were played by movie stars it would be distracting and less effective. There is one actor that stands out, James Gandolfini plays the CIA Director.

At the two hour mark we arrive at the mission scene. Cinematographer Greig Fraser gives us breathtaking shots of the choppers weaving through narrow canyons toward the compound and the target. The sequences are skillfully executed and align with the military precision used by the Navy Seals to execute the operation. Most of these scenes are filmed through night goggles, tuning everything an unpleasant green. The film crew shot the mission sequences twice to be sure the got every angle necessary for the editors. The Navy Seals got one chance, the filmmakers had the luxury of being able to go to take two.

Alexandre Desplat’s score performed by the London Symphony Orchestra is moody and at times electronic. The sound design for the film is spectacular and the dialogue is so important the filmmakers use the music sparingly. When it does take the spotlight it is eerie how well it meshes with the visuals. We sometimes hear a middle-eastern influence, but mostly it’s written to increase the suspense. It does. Mr. Desplat also wrote the score for Argo, which means he’s responsible for the music in 20% of the Oscar nominated pictures of 2012. Impressive. He has a deep respect for what’s on screen and does not overpower, simply support. He works in the background, almost inconspicuously, to prop up the narrative and make a point.

Highly recommended. The official film web site is yet another attempt to be interactive. I found it lacking in additional, interesting information. Nominated for 5 Academy Awards. Jessica Chastain won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a drama.

Photo credits: Columbia Pictures

Les Miserables Close-up

JackmanLes Misérables has been told countless times since Victor Hugo gave us his enormous novel. I uncovered over 50 small and large screen versions with only modest effort. Even Orson Welles tackled it on radio in 1937. Les Misérables is probably best known in contemporary times as a musical that began onstage in Paris in 1978. Within two years it opened in London and then became a fixture of the American musical where it still plays over two decades later. I saw it in 1987 in New York.

It was written as a novel, not a musical. So how did it transform into a musical? The soaring score of Claude-Michel Schönberg and powerful lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer — with contributions by James Fenton — sealed the fate of Les Misérables as a musical possibly forever. And so Tom Hooper the Director of The King’s Speech has taken up the challenge; again as a musical.

I will not recount the details of the story involving Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and the diligent Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) set during the French Revolution. All I’ll say is take my advice and never steal from a French bakery.

For me the most interesting aspects of this year’s Les Misérables is how the filmmakers and cast went about making it and how the studios marketed it. The script contains hardly twenty lines of spoken dialogue. The rest is all to be sung, no matter what character opens their mouth. This introduced new challenges for the actors as well as the film crew. Mr. Hooper wanted to combine singing with acting and so had the actors sing their parts live as they were being filmed. They wore invisible earbuds during their performance, listening to a pianist playing their musical pieces. Usually musicals are recorded ahead of time then the actors are filmed on set, lip-synching to their previous recording. The process used here is much more powerful and personal. It’s particularly effective during dialogue exchanges or when three actors sing their own parts individually and are cut into a weave of narrative by the editors. The sword fight, actually a sword and a long stick, between Javert and Valjean in the hospital after Fantine’s death is amazing. Two Australian stars singing snark talk as Frenchmen in Paris while doing bitter battle.

Javert

All actors turn in smashing performances with the most tears being shed during Fantine’s (Anne Hathaway) solo I Dreamed a Dream. Not a dry eye in the house as they say. Hugh Jackman puts his musical talents on display tackling the most difficult part as Valjean, while Russell Crowe, who played in the stage version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in Australia is the determined Javert, who has a very specific way of looking at the world. Evil is one thing and good is another and they are fixed that way forever. Oh, a couple more observations about Javert. He has the best costumes and has a thing for walking on the edge of buildings many stories above the streets of Paris.

The camera takes wide sweeping runs at the massive sets, but when it comes to the songs, the camera moves right in on top of the actor’s faces. Extreme close-up. I believe they were so wrapped up in how they were filming, the overwhelming material and terrific interpretation by the stars, that they just couldn’t help themselves. Be prepared to see everyone’s face thirty feet tall most of the time. Despite the 2 hour and 38 minute running time I frequently felt the pacing was a bit jagged. When I wanted the images to slow down so I could take them in, they were cut off. When I was ready to move along to the next frame, the camera lingered.

The studios knew they had a challenge getting American audiences out to see their epic. The musical genre is always a risk for studios when it comes to box office take. The number one grossing musical since 1974 earned only $188 Million and was released in 1978 (Grease). Even Chicago is well behind that in second place. At the writing of this blog Les Misérables places eleventh with $66.7 Million. It should get a Golden Globe and Oscar bump in a few weeks.

The studios began their marketing in May with a teaser trailer which was upgraded to an extended version in September. They focused on the star talent and on the way in which the film would be made using live singing. They of course leveraged Social Media with Facebook, You Tube and Twitter, and placed one to two minute clips on cable operators networks like Comcast/Xfinity on demand for free.

Fans of the musical will likely flock to the cinema to see this and be very satisfied. Probably moved. Not everyone lives a few miles from quality live musical theater and can’t get to or can’t afford that experience. This film makes this amazing story accessible to millions more people.

Will the future ever arrive? … Should we continue to look upwards? Is the light we can see in the sky one of those which will presently be extinguished? The ideal is terrifying to behold, lost as it is in the depths, small isolated, a pin-point, brilliant but threatened on all sides by the dark forces that surround it; nevertheless, no more in danger than a star in the jaws of the clouds. — Victor Hugo

Front and back of Original Playbill, Broadway Theatre, 1987 (Steve A Furman Archives)

Les Mis Ticket Stub

Ticket stub from the musical  Les Misérables (Steve A Furman Archives)

Interesting Fact:

Colm Wilkinson who made his mark as the original Jean Valjean in London and New York (He was the Valjean I saw) returns to this picture to play the empathetic Bishop who gives Jackman’s Valjean a second chance.

Official Web Site:

The official movie web site is more interesting than most. Cast, crew, story, gallery of course. And they don’t launch music when you hit the site. Thank you. If you want details on the background of how the film came together read the Production Notes. There are also links to the free Companion Movie Book for iPad, similar to what was done with Lincoln. I don’t have the numbers on these companion book downloads, but I believe publishing them and making them free for iPads and tablets is a much better way to promote a film. Web sites of these pictures are so uninspired these days. Of course they link to the soundtrack. It’s billed as “highlights” because the entire film is the soundtrack. Some of my favorites were on their in their complete form, but others were truncated. A bit disappointed at that. They have some cool wallpapers and icons formatted for desktop and iPad.

Infographic Les Miz

Excellent use of  info graphics telling the broader story of  Les Misérables

Photo credit unless otherwise noted: Courtesy of Universal Studios, Working Title Films and Cameron Mackintosh Limited.

My Oscar Picks for 2011

This Sunday, February 27, 2011 will be the 83rd annual Oscar awards presentation. An art form with a storied past, and I believe a bright future. Although India churns out many more pictures than the U.S. each year, the art of the film and the studio are uniquely American. I’m still getting used to having 10 films in the Best Picture category, and was somewhat upset when they went to that format. But I’ve grown to understand that this change was a good one.

Despite my yearning for the past decades of real film, I mean no CGI, there does seem to be more pictures worthy of the Best Picture nomination. The expansion has allowed smaller, independent films to have their time in the sun, as well as animated efforts, which are becoming quite good. I thoroughly enjoyed Toy Story 3, the past year’s box office leader with over $415 million in ticket sales, as well as How to Train Your Dragon. Overall 2010 was flat for ticket sales compared to 2009, which might sound good given the economic climate. But Hollywood pumped a lot more into production thanks to 3D, which requires a hefty premium on ticket price. The verdict is still out on 3D on two fronts, is it a viable new economic model and does it add to the artistic value. All that aside, we can sit back and enjoy the broadcast. Here are my picks in the most followed categories.

Best Picture: It’s a dead heat between The King’s Speech and True Grit. The Social Network, despite all the buzz, is out because it’s too trendy and beyond the world most of us live in. Black Swan is dark and undefined, and the others are not substantial enough. My heart wants True Grit to win (see why here), but I believe The King’s Speech will triumph. Read my review of it here.

Best Actor: There are three levels of acting maturity in this category in 2010. Experienced in Jeff Bridges and Colin Firth. Up and coming with Jesse Eisenberg and James Franco and established in Javier Bardem. Bridges won last year and the Academy doesn’t repeat lightly. The winner will be Colin Firth for his stunning portrayal of King George VI.

Best Actress: These women are all amazing and star in smaller, more niche films. A dark horse in the race is Jennifer Lawrence from Winter’s Bone, but I have to go with Natalie Portman. The early part of her career found her in strong roles, then she drifted into softer, more animated parts. Now she’s back in a serious role. One in which she had to alter her body type to make it work. The Oscar crew loves that.

Adapted Screenplay: All of the nominated writers are deserving of recognition. Since The Social Network will not take many statues home on Sunday, I believe the Academy will award the Oscar to Aaron Sorkin for crafting this story in a manner that allows it to play as a documentary or a drama. Very difficult to pull off.

Original Screenplay: The winner here will be David Seidler for The King’s Speech. The Academy likes to recognize behind the scenes stories that places the powerful and the ordinary on equal footing. Plus, it’s a fantastic piece of writing and pairs nicely with it’s Best Picture win.

Direction: This one is tough because of the wide variety of pictures this year. Each one required a unique approach and style to bring them to life. But in this instance form follows function and so the Oscar will go to Tom Hooper for his brilliant work as director of The King’s Speech.

I’m looking forward to the broadcast. Visit the official Oscar site here. The Oscar iPhone app is a great idea, but guys, simplify the interface. Too much tapping. Not a bad first attempt though.

True Grit – Film Review

The Coens open True Grit at night with a slow zoom in on a slain man lying just off a softly lit porch, being blanketed by snowfall. The voice-over is Mattie Ross, speaking to the audience from nearly three decades in the future. She describes how her father was shot by Tom Chaney and fled off with her father’s horse and two California gold pieces. She was determined to see Mr. Chaney pay for his cold-blooded act. Her voice is monotone but her passion to extract revenge is beyond vivid.

This True Grit is not a remake of the 1969 John Wayne picture, but a new cinematic interpretation of the novel by Charles Portis. It was the language in the book that drew the Coens to this project. Their love of words was the catalyst and it combines wonderfully with their ability to bring their unusual brand of “theater of the mind” to celluloid. The Coens benefited from sticking with Portis’ classic story line and carefully crafted scenes. Some Coen films take us over speed bumps as they climax, oftentimes ending abruptly after having been so carefully paced, leaving us perplexed, even unsatisfied. Not the case here. The finished product works so well on so many levels and it will be a force to be reckoned with come Oscar night.

After the opening set-up the rest of the picture is placed squarely on the shoulders of 14 year old Mattie Ross, played with spunk and determination by newcomer Haillee Steinfeld. “She” is the real True Grit in this story. On errand to reclaim her father’s body, she inquires about who she might hire to bring Chaney to justice. She is drawn to Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, played by a gravelly and comical Jeff Bridges. A deal is struck and the journey into the Choctaw Nation begins. Matt Damon as Texas Ranger LeBoeuf (pronounced La Beef) has been trying to catch Chaney for some time and joins the makeshift posse. Seems Chaney is wanted in Texas and a substantial reward awaits. It’s a simple story really, but the telling of it is what makes True Grit special.

It’s full of symbolism and subtle foreshadowing—rope and snakes—in classic western style, but subtly updated both visually and sonically. It’s shot on a broad canvas, but the traveling transitions employ a liberal use of dissolves that crisscross the screen, trampling on the cinematographer’s sacred “line.” The set design and locations combined with thoughtful camera choices enables us to go beyond peering into this past time toward living in it with them. All that is incredible, but the language and how the actors deliver it is nothing short of astonishing. Artful diction (Bridges excluded) coupled with precise timing make this experience. Everyone from the main characters, including the bandits, to a stable boy speaks with eloquence and wit. There’s lots of humor, but only the audience laughs. And it’s clean language. I counted only 8 instances of swear words.

The Portis-Coen west is surprisingly polite, not as well policed as it should be, but it definitely had a code of justice, and there was law. This is explored twice. First in a courtroom scene where Cogburn is giving testimony, and in a triple hanging, both expose a desentizization to violence that must have been all too common in those days.

The journey brings them across a hanged man, a dentist dressed in a bear skin, including the head (the Coens only real quirk) and frequent exchanges between Cogburn and LaBoeuf. Damon’s character was official and formal. He didn’t have Cogburn’s patience or experience and their styles clashed, but they ended up working together well as a team, once the crucial moment appeared. The writing is the dominant element and I can assure you it will win the Oscar for screenplay based on another medium. (Update post Oscar: Wrong again.)

Crackling campfire. It is raining. The campfire is roughly canopied by a hide draped at a cant over a pair of tree branches. Mattie pours hot water from a kettle into a large tin cup holding a corn dodger. She takes a fork and starts mashing the dodger into mush. LaBoeuf sits before the fire, coat over his head, one hand on his jaw, which is swollen.

LABOEUF: Cogburn does not want me eating out of his store.

MATTIE: That is silly. You have not eaten the whole day, and it is my store, not his.

ROOSTER: Let him starve!

Rooster, bellicose, stumbles to the fire with a few thin branches. As he leans in toward the fire the water draining off the low edge of the canopy drums onto his neck. He waves a hand back at it like a man swatting flies.

He does not track! He does not shoot — except at foodstuffs! —

LABOEUF: That wazh your idea.

ROOSTER: — He does not contribute! Millstone, with opinions! He is a man who walks in front of bullets!

Rooster sits heavily, a stretching leg kicking away an empty bottle. Rain patters on his hat.

He is a drag-brake for horses!

MATTIE: Mr. LeBoeuf drew single-handed upon the Lucky Ned Pepper Gang while we fired safely from cover, like a band of sly Injuns!

ROOSTER: We?

MATTIE: It is unfair to indict a man when his jaw is swollen and tongue mangled and who is therefore unable to rise to his own defense!

LABOEUF: I can thpeak for mythelf. I am hardly obliged to anther the ravingth of a drunkard. It ith beneath me.

He rises and starts gathering his things.

… I shall make my own camp elthwhere. It ith you who have nothing to offer, Khoghburn. A shad picture indeed. Thish izh no longer a manhunt, it izh a debauch. The Texath ranger preththeth on alone.

ROOSTER: Take the girl! I bow out!

LABOEUF: A fine thing to deshide once you have brought her into the middle of the Choctaw Nation.

ROOSTER: I bow out! I wash my hands!

MATTIE: Gentlemen, we cannot fall out in this fashion, so close to our goal, with Tom Chaney nearly in hand!

Rooster erupts:

ROOSTER: In hand?! If he is not in a shallow grave, somewhere between here and Fort Smith, he is gone! Long gone! Thanks to Mr. LaBoeuf, we missed our shot! We have barked, and the birds have flown! Gone, gone, gone! Lucky Ned and his cohort, gone! Your $50, gone! Gone, the whiskey seized in evidence! The trail is cold, if ever there was one! I am a foolish old man who has been drawn into a wild goose chase by a harpy in trousers — and a nincompoop! Well, Mr. LaBoeuf can wander the Choctaw Nation for as long as he likes; perhaps the local Indians will take him in and honor his gibberings by making him chief! You, sister, may go where you like! I return home! Our engagement is terminated! I bow out!

Eventually they are granted their wish and encounter Chaney (Josh Brolin) who is traveling with Lucky Ned Pepper’s gang. The Chaney character turns out to be a weasel and blabbers on about how he’s a victim of his environment. Pathetic. Hell, I wanted to shoot him. We see both good and evil come out of nowhere in a quick turn of events that allows Mattie to have her opportunity at punishment. But the choice she makes comes with a stiff price that she forever pays, every day of her life both physically and psychologically.

The sturdy, reliable western landscape painted for us up until now is suddenly transformed as Cogburn rushes Mattie to a doctor aboard her horse Little Blackie. The soft daylight dissolves are erased by the blackness of the night, lit by a sea of stars only visible “out there.” Reuben pushes the horse to the limit to save Mattie. Yet another character with grit.

As the visuals build, so do does Carter Burwell’s spiritual score. It’s simple music actually, but triples in complexity when paired with Roger Deakins’ striking lens. In the liner notes for the score, Burwell writes:

Ethan and Joel and I had the same idea. A score rooted in 19th-century hymns. The songs Mattie would sing if she had time for such frivolity. Our model was the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” composed in 1888 by Anthony Showalter, an elder of the First Presbyterian Church in Dalton, Georgia, and used memorably in the film The Night of the Hunter. This together with other hymns of the period, forms the backbone of the score, which grows from church piano to orchestra as Mattie gets farther and farther from home.

We don’t know if Mattie ever enjoyed her life or got the satisfaction she so desperately sought from Chaney’s fate. I guess it doesn’t really matter. Highly recommended.

The official True Grit web site can be visited here. I have no opinion on it as none of the links worked for me on my Safari browser.

Update January 23, 2011

In today’s New York Times (Opinion section from January 23, 2011), Frank Rich wrote an insightful piece about why True Grit is so successful at the box office. As usual he is at the crossroads of art and culture. Fascinating reading, The One-Eyed Man is King.

Updated January 26, 2011

I downloaded a True Grit app yesterday for my iPad. It’s contains 63 photos taken by Jeff Bridges during the filming of the movie. He scribes personal notes below some of the photos. A nice way to see behind the camera from the point of view of the lead actor. Also links out to find tickets and showtimes. Go to the iTunes store and search on True Grit. It’s FREE.

Graphics courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Screenplay excerpt belongs to Joel and Ethan Coen, copied from The New York Times

Movie Studios Try to Reinvent Themselves in 3D

3dglassesU.S. film studios enjoyed a lock on the moving picture experience for many years before television invited itself to the party. Movie moguls were afraid that television was replicating the movie house experience so they completely changed the format from a standard 4:3 aspect ratio screen to a much wider screen. This helped them differentiate the experience in hopes of continuing to attract the public to paid showings. It was for the most part a successful strategy. But home theater has advanced significantly over the last 15 years and now many consumers have wide screen TVs that display beautiful high definition pictures. Blu-ray HD DVDs are coming close to replicating the visual acuity of the theater experience without the expensive ticket price and even more outrageous prices for tubs of popcorn and soft drinks.

The studios are working hard on 3D. Not a cheesy version usually reserved for blood bucket, low budget pics, but one that is much more refined and ready for grown-up subject matter. This potential evolution might seem radical, but these are desperate times, so anything goes. Studios think they can charge significantly more for a ticket to a 3D version of a film vs. the standard version, perhaps as much as $25 per seat. When you couple the increased profits with a unique experience and throw in world class filmmakers like James Cameron, it’s a tempting proposition for investors.

There is one minor glitch. The film houses are not ready for the switch to 3D. Exhibitors must upgrade the technology to be able to project the new format, which can cost up to $100,000 per screen. The studios hoped the exhibitors would pick up the tab, as their part of the investment, since the studios would bear the additional production expenses (shooting in 3D can add up to $15 million to a film) as well as the need to also produce and distribute a regular version of the film for the foreseeable future.Unfortunately the credit markets are a bit frozen right now, so the technology upgrade money is not available.

Of the approximately 40,000 screens in North America, only 1,300 of them are ready with the 3D technology. The story is much bleaker oversees, which is important to note, as well north of half of a film’s grosses come from that market. But Fox is readying James Cameron’s Avatar for a prime December release date. Many other major studios have numerous 3D projects in the pipeline, including Pixar, putting even more pressure on the system.

It’s an interesting problem that studios find themselves in. The entertainment world expanded so quickly and there was is much pressure to produce profits, that simply making great films hasn’t been enough for a long while. Franchises like Batman and Spiderman have helped studios stay viable. They have launched web sites that promote films using social media functionality as an accelerant to their astronomical marketing budgets. Other owned media properties are leveraged to promote and sometimes even re-purpose material for the home screen.

We have seen the television networks completely give up on drama and turn their slates over to the reality format for the last few years. The cable networks like HBO and most recently with AMC’s Mad Men are leading the way with serious subject matter that is garnering critical acclaim and engaged viewers. The movie studios must guard against over-betting on the potential promise of 3D profits only to find themselves in a creative wasteland.

movie-theaterObviously not ever project will work in 3D, and ultimately the consumer will decide if 3D is a great new format, or simply a trick to squeeze more money out of each ticket. But there is another major consideration. If it does work the studios could ruin their home video distribution channel by not being able to at least approximate the 3D experience. If someone loved it in 3D but can’t have that same experience at home for repeat viewings, will they just pass on renting or adding that film to their collection? There are firms working on 3D TV, but it’s not ready for prime time yet.

My advice to the system is be cautious and think through the life-cycle of the product. Hollywood needs more sources of value, not less. Theatrical box office revenues will not make up for lost home video sales. The infrastructure is simply not there and films have such a short shelf life in the cineplex. And above all, don’t leave the serious film projects behind.

YouTube and the recently launched MeHype site are giving rise to personal production companies. It certainly is no threat to the craftsmen in Hollywood, but consumers don’t seem to mind lower production values as long as they can be entertained. Netflix is moving quickly on their streaming concepts and partnering with LG for OEM tests. A TV is not a PC, at least not now. I will be watching this space closely.

Settling the Screen Actors Guild Dispute: A Proposal

The Screen Actor’s Guild is on the verge a strike, much like the writers last year. At issue is the amount of compensation actors receive from digital/internet medium revenues collected by the studios. Standard contracts were written before the internet was a mass medium and the actors want the terms adjusted. They feel the studios earn an unfair percentage of these revenues. It’s not an unreasonable request and both sides should address it quickly and resolve it without a work stoppage if at all possible. Although there is not much money coming in right now from the digital world, it will likely grow and so the actors are trying to get ahead of the curve.

sag-hollywood
A unique opportunity for partnership

Instead of dividing the spoils, I ask both sides to stop and consider a completely different path. One that looks out at the horizon and nurtures both talent and audiences for decades to come. Here’s my proposed solution.

  • Negotiate the digital performance rate that is fair for both sides
  • Begin tracking the new rate at an agreed upon time (June 1, 2009 for instance)
  • Place the incremental funds into a holding/investment account (not run by Bernie Madoff)
  • Use this money to fund an emerging film artist education program
  • Establish a panel of members made up of studio personnel and actors to set guidelines and award the funds
  • All the funds would go to supporting this new program
  • At the end of 3 years, 50% of the incremental revenues would then begin going to the actors
  • At the end of 6 years, the program would be dissolved and 100% of the royalties would then be awarded to the actors ongoing

Like so many things we face right now, it’s an opportunity to completely reshape the industry for the future. Schools and universities are struggling to keep art programs alive as funding becomes more difficult in this economic environment. Keeping young people interested in acting and film is incredibly important for the future and health of the industry. This new source of money could establish serious filmmaking and acting programs at the high school level, something I think is non existent right now. It could also help prop up college departments as well as inject new energy into local civic programs. The discretionary time consumers have is steadily moving away from viewing films and more to other forms of entertainment.

I would suggest a focus on dramatic acting and more classic filmmaking, moving away from video game vehicles and more toward the golden age of cinema we saw in the 1970’s and is rapidly fading away as a genre of movies.

I call on the Screen Actors Guild and the Hollywood Studios to seize on this opportunity to enrich the future of the entire industry. It’s a long term view, something I believe we need a lot more of these days.

Paul Newman – Icon of the Screen is Dead at 83

Paul Newman

My earliest memory of Paul Newman was in 1967 when my family was on our annual summer vacation at my Uncle’s lake house in Michigan. It was a small city that had only one movie theater. They were screening Cool Hand Luke that July, and I remember it well, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Like all movies Mr. Newman appeared in, he stole the camera’s eye. No matter how good the actors were that played opposite him, and there were many, he commanded your attention first whenever he appeared on screen. At a later date, I was able to con my mother into letting me stay up to watch him in The Hustler on TV. My father loved that film and I was right behind him. A stunning performance in a film that at times felt like a western, with the top two gunfighters trying to wear down the other into making the first mistake.

His pairing with Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and then a few years later in The Sting are probably the two films that stick in the minds of most people. The roles he chose were primarily serious drama, and he was a serious actor, but he could garner a fast laugh with a deadpan tone and great timing.

The system was much different during the height of his career with more time given to rehearsals and preparation. The camera actually filmed the actors for nearly the entire time. Today much of the final product comes from computers or staging actors in front of a blue screen.

He’s a great example of someone who was born at exactly the right time. Had he appeared three or more decades later, it’s possible he may never have been an actor. Obviously he had the physical gifts, but would he have had the patience for the way movies are churned out? Mr. Newman remained first and foremost an actor throughout the span of his career, and he never used his silver screen looks as an excuse to phone in a performance.

As Doc Hudson in Cars

When you heard that Paul Newman was in the film, you knew it would be worth the price of admission. He was a craftsman of the highest order, and kept his edge and commitment to his profession for 50 years. We last saw, or rather heard, him as Doc Hudson in the Pixar movie Cars. My four year old son has seen that movie probably 25 times and of course me at least 20. Turns out that’s the Paul Newman performance I’ve seen more than any other. He was definitely on the decline, his voice cracking and fragile. But it was a great part for him; an older man who was at one time a racing king.

Nominated for an Academy Award ten times, he won for The Color of Money (another billiards picture). Paul Newman is dead at 83.

Under the Same Moon – Film Review

Patricia Riggen’s Under the Same Moon is a sweet and surprisingly powerful film that disguises a complex study of Mexican immigration within a simple story of a mother’s love for her son.

Rosario (Kate Del Castillo) is a young mother without a husband. She crossed the boarder four years earlier and lives in Los Angeles in search of a better life. Rosario left behind her now nine year old son Carlos, also know as Carlitos (Adrian Alonso), who is being cared for by his sick grandmother. There is a weekly phone call from Rosario to Carlos Sundays at 10 am. This is their opportunity to converse about the mundane as well as more serious issues in their lives. Carlos has never met his father and never sees his mother. He is bright and sensitive and begins to get the feeling that his mother may not return or send for him. Their conversations are heart-wrenching for Rosario, as her son keeps asking her when they will see each other again. He makes her describe in great detail the location of the phone booth and what surrounds it. This visual device proves crucial to the story.

Carlos works for a seasoned businesswoman, Dona Carmen (Carmen Salinas) who arranges border crossings. This is how he meets a young brother (Jesse Garcia) and sister (America Ferrera) who are legal U.S. citizens, and want to earn money for eduction by smuggling babies to the U.S. Their offer is rejected by Ms. Carmen on the grounds of their inexperience. Carlos saves his money from the job as well as money his mother sends each month

The film keeps a brisk pace cross-cutting between Rosario in LA and Carlos in Mexico. But most of the plot turns are predictable. There are no surprises on how the characters act or change as the story advances. All pretty stock. As expected, the grandmother dies and Carlos decides to cross the border to find his mother in LA. He connects with the brother and sister and hires them to smuggle him into the U.S. His goal is to get there before the usual Sunday call, so she won’t worry that he doesn’t answer the phone.

Along the way he crosses paths with the usual suspects. A junkie tries to sell him for a fix, but many characters turn out to be good Samaritans for Carlos as well as Rosario. Eventually Carlos and Enrique (Eugenio Derbez), a gruff illegal, are thrown together. They develop a love-hate relationship that carries through the rest of the picture. During a short stay in Tucson, Enrique helps Carlos meet his father. The scene with his father, Oscar, is ineffective and seems to have been only inserted to get Enrique and Carlos onto a bus to LA. It’s probably the only wrong turn in the film.

Pics strength can be found in the performances. The players that have not yet made it have edges they keep razor sharp. The characters that are established in the U.S. are calm and steady. It’s this contrast that gives the film energy and hope. Kate Del Castillo is excellent in her portrayal of the mother who is determined to succeed, but is overcome by the emotional longing for her son. So much so she almost makes a huge error. Adrian Alonso is bright and tough, a natural on screen, and the catalyst for everyone around him. Supporting cast performances on both sides of the border are solid.

There is effective use of native music as well as talk radio that provides the undercurrent of the realities of Mexicans trying to understand where they are positioned in the American caste system. It’s a difficult and trying topic. Ms. Riggen’s camera is fluid and she passes it across a collection of visual clues that ties everything together in the end. Effective editing can also be credited for breathing life into a solid and inspirational script by Ligiah Villalobos.

Director Patricia Riggen and Adrian Alonso on the set

Under the Same Moon (subtitled) is a wonderful break from the Hollywood fare we are bombarded with week after week. It tackles a real issue and is successful in humanizing the suffering connected with it. Recommended. Visit the official web site here.

Photos: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Digg!

Academy Splits Oscar into 13 Pieces

kodaktheater.jpg
Photo Credit: The New York Times

The 80th annual Academy Awards ceremony aired last night, hosted for the second time by Jon Stewart. It was more informal and well down on the energy scale than in years past. Mr. Stewart did a great job at bringing his signature lines and delivery to the telecast, while being mindful to not step over the line. But the shows’ planners may have over-prepared for the potential of having to go on without the writers, then decided to keep it all in the show. There were many more prerecorded clips of past Oscar moments than usual. Oddly enough, I liked seeing most of them having always felt the writing, especially for the presenters, was trite and and not in keeping with the sophistication of the night. But they either went by too quickly, or were repeated too often. I think I saw Cher accepting her Moonstruck award three times! Note to the Academy. Here’s a new best practice. Don’t let the writers write so much. Less writing = shorter telecast.

coens.jpg
Joel and Ethan Coen Photo Credit: The New York Times

No film dominated, as the awards were handed out quite evenly across the board. Looking back at the year, that felt right to me. My personal favorite No Country for old Men, won the three big ones; picture (Scott Rudin producer), director and adapted screenplay (both by Joel and Ethan Coen). The film had only one actor nomination and won it. Javier Bardem’s supporting role in his portrayal of Anton Chigurh. Not a character you ever want to encounter, friend-O.

Rounding out the other acting awards were, Daniel-Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood (no brainer), Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton (somewhat of a surprise) and Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose (the long shot comes in).

The Bourne Ultimatum won three technical awards (editing, sound editing and sound mixing), while There Will be Blood snagged the cinematography statue (Robert Elswit). Juno took the Oscar for original screenplay (Diablo Cody). Atonement walked away with only one, original score. Best song went to Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova for Falling Slowly from the film Once (the Menken/Schwartz days may be over).

A good, not great year for film. The same can be said for the awards show.

Digg!

My Oscar Picks on My 50th Post

This my 50th post! I started this blog last October as an experiment in social computing. Since I work in the Internet space, I thought it would be good research as we look at launching community for our brand. I’m really into it now.

It’s very early Sunday morning February 24th, 2008, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are scant hours away from bestowing their highest honors on the very best in filmmaking. While I’m writing this post there are only two men who know for sure who will take home the Oscar. They are Brad Oltmanns and Rick Rosashey, partners at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

pwc.gif

Mr. Oltmanns, Mr. Rosashey and approximately 12 other PWC employees steal off to an undisclosed location to count the 6,000 ballots by hand. The process is designed so no one except Brad and Rick know the final tally and they personally stuff the presenter envelopes. Four sets of winner cards are preprinted for all the nominees, and the leftovers are discarded. Do they still handcuff the briefcase to their wrists?

80bestpics.jpg

Here are my picks (guesses) in the major categories:

  • Actor Daniel-Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood
  • Actress Julie Christie in Away from Her
  • Supporting Actor Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men
  • Supporting Actress Saoirse Ronan in Atonement
  • Animated Feature Ratatouille
  • Cinematography There Will Be Blood
  • Film Editing Roderick Jaynes for No Country for Old Men
  • Original Screenplay Tony Gilroy for Michael Clayton
  • Adapted Screenplay Joel and Ethan Coen for No Country for Old Men
  • Music Score James Newton Howard for Michael Clayton
  • Direction Joel and Ethan Coen for No Country for Old Men
  • Picture No Country for Old Men

As you can see, I’m a keen on No Country for Old Men. I believe it to be the best film of the year by a long shot for so many reasons. You can follow the links to read my reviews.

No I’m not in an office pool. I won’t be hosting or attending an Oscar party. I will do what I always do. Have a savory dinner at home, pour a nice red and watch the ceremony. I never complain about it running past three hours, or grumble because one of my favorites didn’t win (by the way that only recently stopped since Marty finally won last year). I will enjoy, and marvel, and wish I was part of this magical art form called film.

Digg!

Michael Clayton – Film Review

What struck me most about Michael Clayton is how all the players on this project came together as an ensemble, and took this film to a much higher level than might otherwise have been achieved. This is an extreme example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. When you look at the foundational pieces that make up this film, they are nothing special for the slick productions we have come to expect from Hollywood. By foundational I mean the story/script, music, art direction, costume and make-up. Certainly there are brilliant moments in the dialog, and score, But the entire film has been elevated several levels by the amazing performances of the actors. Each and every thespian turns in a performance perfectly pitched for the story. Credit of course goes to the casting, but it continues through to the director (Tony Gilroy) strategically placing his pieces on the chess board in a stunning gambit. Those accomplishments have been acknowledged with 3 Academy Award nominations for acting, as well as 4 others; direction, music, original screenplay and picture.

clooney.jpg

However, the real stand out, the thing that pulls it all together in my mind, is the editing (by John Gilroy, the director’s brother). It’s his work that builds importance and power through the opening pre-minutes, then seamlessly splices together a patchwork story into the final film that earned a Best Picture nomination. In an unfortunate oversight, his name is missing from this year’s Oscar nomination list; I can see how it might have been overlooked when you look at the competition. But I posit, without Mr. Gilroy’s skill, Michael Clayton would not be on the Best Picture roster.

The story has been told many times before. Big conglomerate prioritizes greed above ethics and humans suffer. Hires a powerful law firm to defend it against a class action law suit, and an insider finally gets fed up and decides to expose the company for what it really is. Good triumphs and confidence is somewhat restored in the system.

That insider is Artur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) the law firm’s star litigator who has been willing to stay with this case for the firm and their client, U North. Arthur has a chemical imbalance, stops taking his meds and creates a scene by removing his clothes in a deposition hearing, then chases the witness into the parking lot wearing nothing more than his socks. Mr. Wilkinson’s rants remind me of Howard Beale (Peter Finch) from Network. Middle aged, reliable, brilliant, willing to do anything he’s asked, and slightly left of center. Edens teeters back and forth between mad professor, and adolescent boy looking for a way to beat the bullies and get back a small part his lost youth.

tilda.jpg

U North has just promoted Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) to head legal counsel, and sends her to Minnesota to straighten out the Edens predicament. Meanwhile the law firm dispatches their “fixer” Michael Clayton (George Clooney) to do the same. Clayton has been with the firm for years and his talent is swooping in when there is a mess, or about to be one, and making things seem normal again. Clayton’s life is in turmoil, as usual the shoemaker has no shoes. His marriage has dissolved, he sees his son regularly, but doesn’t really connect, he has a gambling problem, and a recent business venture with his brother has gone bust, leaving him with a large financial problem. Clayton is a steeping pot waiting for someone or something to uncork the kettle. Mr. Clooney plays it Clooney cool, but allows us a glimpse into the tortured side of his character as he struggles to piece together family and career. It’s touching and very real.

Crowder is calculating, neurotic, and will do anything to further her position. Ms. Swinton captures it beautifully, taking us inside her character’s head. We see her rehearsing her speech while carefully laying out the big meeting’s wardrobe to show us how comfortable she is inside the friendly confines of the law office. These rituals have served her well. But when the fight moves to the street she is in way over her head.

gilroyclooney.jpg
Director Tony Gilroy and George Clooney

Pic technical aspects are first rate. Strong direction and photography are right on for the complex thriller genre. It helps us forget sometimes that the story is a retread. But the script has numerous holes, and is in such a hurry to get to the end that it misses some rich opportunities along the way. Still, I would recommend this for its acting quality, doesn’t get much better, and the way the filmmakers assemble the elements into a fast-moving entertaining couple of hours.

Digg!

Oscars Go Bleak – Love It

The best picture category nominations are as follows. No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood (eight each). Michael Clayton, Atonement (each with seven), and Juno (four). This list of serious and dark films is a reflection of what we have been living this past year. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan droning on, the sub-prime housing bust shaking the economy (no lessons learned there), a critical presidential election now in full swing, and global warming pushing uncomfortably into our protected cocoon; it’s no wonder we’re feeling a little down. The entertainment business can add one more to that list, the Writers Guild of America strike.

oscarsmorphing.jpg

But the news isn’t all bad. Depends on your perspective. This slate of pictures is top shelf. Great acting, strong writing, meaningful stories, even an Independent in the bunch. Drama has made a comeback and pushed special effects to the side. Hooray! As a film enthusiast there’s lots to chew on here, and I continue to maintain that the darker side is so much more interesting.

The big question is will the Writer’s strike be settled in time? If not, will they work out a way for the Writers to actually write the show while on strike? The lead in banter given the presenters is trite enough when written by actual writers. Can you imagine what we might have to endure if amateurs are brought in? But we’ve got Jon Stewart as host, so it will be entertaining.Go here to get a printer friendly version of all the nominations. Visit the official Oscar site.

Directors Settle on New Media, Sets Script for Writers

I’m a little nervous. The Writers Guild of America has been on strike for over two months. If it goes much longer the studios will be shooting their version of Fear Factor for the big screen, and I won’t get my fall film fix. By the way, Television has become even more of a wasteland (if that’s possible), but who cares. Make it all stop!

The Writers want a cut of the digital rights wealth currently being horded by the moguls. Don’t you just love the juxtaposition? An old school Union technique being played by the Writers to force the hands of the studios and networks over New Media. You couldn’t write this stuff.

wga.jpg

My father was a Union member, and as a child I can recall when he once went out on what’s known as a Wildcat Strike. It was tough. Walking picket lines in the Midwest in January is a little harder than doing it in LA. There were nights we didn’t eat, and once my dad took me down to the picket line. There were fights with those who crossed the line, and a family closeness between those who stuck it out in the trenches. The Writers have tried this in the past and quickly folded. But this time they have got some moxie. Good for them.

dga.jpg

But it may have just gotten a little tougher for the Writers as the Directors Guild of America reached a 3 year deal with the AMPTP. The moguls obviously knew that it would be really bad to have the Directors strike while the Writers were already on the picket line. In only six days of talks the two sides closed a deal. Here are highlights of the settlement.

  • Royalties will be paid to the Directors based on grosses vs. earnings
  • The DGA will have some say over Internet productions
  • Internet download residual rates will double and include ads and clips displayed online

Get the facts direct from the DGA here.

griffinmill.jpg


Griffin Mill actually killed a writer, and Larry Levi felt he really didn’t need them. No one wants it to end up like that. So Writers. Act now. Get down to business and close this thing. We want our Fall 2008 film slate without fatalities.

Hollywood Movies Rest In Peace, Long Live Film

Theatrical box office ticket sales for 2007 were slightly up (4%) over the previous year, but attendance was not. Hollywood is still addicted to the franchise sequel formula, which gets riskier with each year and will eventually wear thin. The box office winner was Spider-Man 3, followed by Shrek the Third, both of which produced healthy ticket sales even as a third installment in a series. Rounding out the top ten were, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, The Bourne Ultimatum, I Am Legend, 300, Ratatouille and The Simpsons Movie. Clearly Americans love fantasy/science fiction stories, with animated feature length movies having earned their place along side live action pictures some time ago. With so many tickets being sold on sequels, audiences seem to prefer familiar characters.

chartboa.jpg

Source: Media by Numbers Chart: The New York Times

But the high water mark for ticket sales in a single year was back in 2002. Why has Hollywood been unable to grow their market share? Certainly we know there is competition for leisure time, particularly among the young. A significant amount of time is being soaked up by online usage. Each year more and more resource is being poured into an ever-shrinking number of pictures. The stakes get higher and higher for fewer and fewer films. Marketing budgets are huge now and are boosted even further by support from campaigns launched by secondary products, such as books, toys and video games. The studios are also pouring millions into stand alone Internet sites to promote film releases. The viral components of these interactive sites are beginning to crack open a new marketing avenue, which should help.

Hollywood shoulders most of the blame, but the exhibitors are also at fault, as the overall show going experience has deteriorated over time. When you enter a multiplex (no longer called a theater) you are immediately bombarded by repackaged television promotions and product commercials. Then there is the parade of public service announcements. Pleas for the audience to silence their cell phones and leave the talking to the actors. That’s how far we’ve veered from a respectful theatrical experience. No one takes watching movies seriously. It’s become like television. Acceptable to answer the phone, talk, get up to get snacks, etc. I long for the day when exhibitors publish the actual movie start time, so I can calculate my entrance accordingly. Generally I am fine with trailers, but those have become formulaic as well (will save that for another post). Compare what I just described to the pre-event atmosphere you find while waiting for a dramatic play, or a classical music performance to begin. Miles apart!

But I posit that there is a fundamental flaw in the final product being produced by Hollywood. There is very little pure film DNA found in today’s movies. If Hollywood doesn’t turn it around soon, they will find even fewer butts in their seats over the next few years. Now I’m not all doom here. There are still serious films being financed, shot and released. But the money will dry up for those real cinema films. The current Writer’s Guild strike has yet to be a factor for Hollywood, due to lead times, but if it drags out much longer it will be a big problem. I submit the following observations about film.

film_1.jpg

Film is an art form that has been perfected and refined by masters of cinema past and present. Individuals that were/are students of a revered craft, and contributors to its ongoing aesthetic.

filmcovers.jpg

Compared to the recycled content we see today, which I refer to as strictly a movie.

movie.jpg

There is still time to make a change. The question is, does Hollywood have the courage, business creativity, and ability to identify the talent necessary to pull it off? I hope so. In the meantime, I am hopelessly passionate about film and will continue to buy tickets while watching for signs of change. One thing is for sure. When I do see great work, I appreciate it so much more. Then there is always my home film collection available to me whenever I want. That’s what really keeps me going.