Friday, September 30, 2011

Talking Oscar

By Alex "The Savant" Heisman

© Paul Goldberg Productions
Caveat 1- Even as we head into October, it is still incredibly early to be talking about finalizing nominations and eventual winners as most of the big contenders haven’t even been seen yet, let alone analyzed.
 

Caveat 2- Being an online blogger, I am just one step above the bottom of the Oscar food chain, casual viewer, and one step below on-set caterer. Therefore, I have not seen most of these films and won’t until they are released wide in theaters around Christmas. My following overview reflects on my understanding of the race with regard to all the years I have been doing this
 


 As the month of September winds to a close, it is time to start taking a swing (sorry…that’ll be my only Moneyball pun) at predicting the movies and performances with a good chance of being nominated at the Academy Awards next February. Again, some of the bigger contenders are still sight-unseen at this point but, based on previous experience with the Academy’s preferences, they can be somewhat effectively factored in. Please just consider this (personal moment- Tess Higgins, this is for you!) my own individual prediction chart as of now. I know you’re all as excited as I am about this so I’m ending this introduction here. Without further ado, let’s get cracking:

(In alphabetical order)

The Artist

Dir: Michel Hazanavicius
This black-and-white silent film (Yes! Someone dared make a silent film at this juncture in modern cinema) has been making the festival rounds more successfully than anyone could have predicted. Not only that, but it’s a foreign production. All these factors usually send up major red flags in terms of Oscar prospects but this very-little-movie-that-could, with no major stars aside from small cameos by John Goodman and James Cromwell, is looking poised to sweep nominations across the board. With sentimentality on its side, look for this movie to possibly be your favorite this season.

The Descendants
Dir: Alexander Payne
George Clooney stars as a land baron in Hawaii whose wife has slipped into a coma after a boating accident. After it comes to light that she has been having an affair, Clooney must rearrange his life and determine his future path in dealing with his two children. This particular film, said to be the most mature and emotional work so far from both Academy friendly Clooney and beloved Payne, is, as of now, the one to beat for Best Picture. Frankly, and again, in not having seen it I can only speculate, after a disappointing trailer the stellar reviews are just too big to ignore. Look for Clooney to possibly finally back his Supporting Actor Oscar with one from the Lead category.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Dir: Stephen Daldry
Let’s do some math: Stephen Daldry (who has only directed three movies before this…excuse my private geek out moment…INCLUDING THE MARVELOUS THE HOURS…and has been nominated for Best Director for EVERY single film he has done), plus America’s favorite Tom Hanks, some same plus (I say an definitive minus) for woman of the hour Sandra Bullock, in a movie based on the beloved book about a boy’s journey of self-discovery after his father dies in the 9/11 attacks equals how could it possibly lose? Well, after being one of the biggest unseen prospects this season, the trailer finally dropped last night and it just looks…glossy. Glossy can be good but in this particular instance it appears too saccharine. Early word has been good with most of the attention going to the only once-nominated Max von Sydow, but no one knows yet what kind of impact it will make in the race.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Dir: David Fincher
This could literally go either way. Provided you have not been living under a rock for the past couple of years, you will know that this project is based off the international bestselling trilogy by Stieg Larsson, where an economist teams with an edgy private investigator to determine what actually happened in a disappearance case that is over 40 years old. Some pros: David Fincher is one of the most respected auteurs working right now and the Swedish source material has caught on like wildfire. Rooney Mara, in her performance of investigator Lisbeth Salander, is said to be a revelation. Cons, and how hard will they be to overcome?: this film arrives just two short years after native Sweden made a highly successful film trilogy based off the books. I’ve always assumed at least Fincher was above Americanizing foreign projects immediately after their native release. Plus, Fincher’s style is very cold and dark. That’s ultimately one of the main reasons his The Social Network lost Best Picture last year to the friendlier The King’s Speech.

The Help
Dir: Tate Taylor
Well……………..how about that. Like the rest of America, I actually have seen this movie, and personally found it to be passable but just a little manipulative. After surprising by making over $150 million at the box office, this summer release has to be considered a contender by that fact alone. Based on the popular novel, The Help tells the story of the African-American community of maids in the 1960’s south who tell the “real” story of working for the White folks to the one White socialite who dares to let their story be heard. In that description alone I’ve highlighted the factors which make this film too big to ignore: oppressed Black community being saved by the Whites, period piece, southern accents, and such. Aside from a phenomenal performance by the great Viola Davis, let’s be honest, this film, if eventually nominated, will occupy “The Blind Side Spot”. The Help follows the same formula as that popular Sandra Bullock starrer…even with the racial differences between Blacks and Whites. “The Blind Side Spot” refers to a movie that is not up to par in many respects but is the feel-good choice of the year so it sneaks its way into the final lineup.

The Ides of March
Dir: George Clooney
Hello again, Mr. Clooney! The Academy seems to love him even more when he steps behind the camera and in this instance he has delivered a taut thriller based on the play Farragut North. The story follows Clooney as a presidential candidate embroiled in scandal and a member of his campaign (Ryan Gosling) who must choose sides when push comes to shove. While early reviews, it must be noted overseas, have been mixed towards this movie about American politics, the cast is too big to ignore. Alongside Clooney and Gosling, you have Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright, Max Minghella, and Evan Rachel Wood as one of the best cast ensembles I have ever seen. Unless this film makes amazing numbers at the box office though, don’t expect it to go too far in the long run.

J. Edgar

Dir: Clint Eastwood
Once upon a time, a Clint Eastwood film automatically meant box office gold and Oscars across the board. In recent years, however, his last four or five movies have been chalked up as disappointments and have not made any splash in either department. He returns with a biopic of the controversial head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio). Rounding out the cast are his secretary (Naomi Watts), mother (Judi Dench), Charles Lindbergh (Josh Lucas), and Hoover’s “friend” and confidant (Armie Hammer). No one has actually seen this movie yet, but based off the trailer, it runs the risk of walking the line into schmaltz. The makeup job on DiCaprio is horrendous and distracts attention from everything else in the scene. Also of note, DiCaprio’s accent fades in and out from scene to scene. Those are my only two points as the trailer is all we have to go from. I would love to give this project the benefit of the doubt, however, as three-hour biopics are films at which Clint Eastwood excels.

Midnight in Paris
Dir: Woody Allen
Talk about the little movie that could! Released way back in May, this has become the highest grosser of Woody Allen’s career. Apparently after all these months it has remained fresh and beloved in viewers’ minds as it continues to reserve its place in the discussion for Best Picture. Owen Wilson stars as another incarnation of the neurotic Woody Allen, playing a failing Hollywood screenwriter who travels to Paris for a break. Eventually, he finds a transport back to 1920’s Paris, and with the help of some literary friends like Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway, begins to see the flaws in not only his work, but his life. This certainly won’t actually win the big ones or anything like that, but it is an excellent film that hopefully does not fly under the radar.

Moneyball
Dir: Bennett Miller
If this movie fails blame it on the marketing. Before its release last week, Moneyball was presented as a movie simply about baseball and money and nothing much deeper than that. Of course, having Brad Pitt doesn’t hurt in the long run, but it wasn’t expected to go much farther than the sports fanbase. After word quickly got out that it was actually something revelatory, many flocked to theaters and found it to be surprisingly pleasant. Brad Pitt stands a decent chance at a nomination for what is said to be the best performance of his career by far, yet, in my opinion after Oscar watching for nine years now, this movie does not appear to have the legs to stand on when it comes to the big leagues (alright, that was my second Moneyball pun of the article. So sue me.) It just appears too light, and combined with the fact that there was such low expectations from poor marketing from the outset, many will forget this in time. If I am wrong, however, I will admit defeat and eat my words!

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Dir: Tomas Alfredson
Based on the popular novel by John Le Carre, the never nominated Gary Oldman leads an ensemble cast (including last year’s winner Colin Firth in his first movie post-win) as a high-ranking official in MI6 trying to determine who among their ranks is a mole. Early word has been beyond excellent with many commenting on the outstanding period elements of 1960’s Britain and the normally frantic Oldman in a subdued performance. Look for this to be not only the cerebral thinking man’s choice, but to gain votes from across the pond as the Brits’ only strong shot at a nomination this year.

The Tree of Life
Dir: Terrence Malick
Expectations were high for this project when it premiered at Cannes back in May as the incredibly elusive and publicity shy Terrence Malick delivered his latest piece. Malick works so infrequently, taking 20 years off between pictures at one point for instance, that The Tree of Life was bound to raise excitement among the film community, and that it certainly did. This very long film combines sometimes forty-minute pieces of nature shots on the beginning of the world with the story of a young boy (played as an adult by Sean Penn) under the strict domination of his father (Brad Pitt) in 1950’s Texas. This is a perfect example of a love-it or hate-it piece. Those who enjoyed it to the max admired the massive ethereal spectacle Malick undertook, while conversely, the detractors claimed it to be overwrought and egotistical. Walkouts have been reported and most theater chains refused to refund money to those dissatisfied with the film. Strangely, I personally found the nature sequences to be some of the most amazingly and stunningly shot scenes I have ever seen in film. For that, it will surely win the Cinematography Oscar this year. However, I found the family dynamic to be simply unbearable and narcissistic of Malick. This movie, while guaranteed nominations in the technical categories, may strike out elsewhere due to the fractured, divisive response from the public.

War Horse
Dir: Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg returns to the director’s chair for the first time in three years to bring this epic book to the big screen. Interestingly, the Broadway production of War Horse won the Tony for Best Play just this year. War Horse is the story, told from the POV of the horse, of a young man who gets separated from his adored horse in WWI England and goes to any lengths to recover the animal. This is perhaps the biggest sight-unseen contender of the season. Marketing has been productive yet no one has actually seen the film. Therein lies the biggest question Oscar strategists face: the film appears unbelievably schmaltzy. Not that Spielberg has anything to prove or even made this film to win Oscars, but we all know his style. With the glossy cinematography, simple narrative, and somewhat overdone score, will this succeed or disappoint? The magic on the stage lay with the spectacle of massive puppets creating horses, so will casting an actual horse diminish the visual display for the movie?


Hopefully this overview provides you with some interesting choices to keep a look out for at the cinema. Of course, even if these movies do not succeed with Oscar, they still may be excellent movies on their own and deserving of attention. In the upcoming months, I will continue to create more Oscar wrap-up pieces reflecting on the ever-evolving state of the race at the time.

Some further notable contenders whose film may not be in the discussion for Best Picture yet are worth mentioning: A Dangerous Method’s Viggo Mortensen and Keira Knightley, Albert Nobbs’ Glenn Close and Janet McTeer, Beginners’ Christopher Plummer, Vanessa Redgrave in Coriolanus and Albert Brooks in Drive stand a decent chance at winning the Supporting Acting categories, the fabulous, stellar, marvelous, wonderful, excellent Meryl Streep as controversial figure Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, Martha Marcy May Marlene’s Elizabeth Olsen (I still can’t believe the younger sister of the Olsen twins has a good shot at an Oscar nomination!), Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh in My Week with Marilyn, Michael Fassbender in Shame, Charlize Theron in Young Adult, and the brilliant Tilda Swinton in the emotionally searing We Need to Talk About Kevin.

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Sunday, September 25, 2011

What Makes a Good Movie "Good"?

By Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg

Think about your favorite movies.  Just the top few, maybe.  Now, why do you like these movies so much? 

So first of all, I think it’s important to set aside movies you like for purely accidental of coincidental reasons; like “it’s OUR movie”, or “it’s the movie my grandma used to show me before she died”.  Those kinds of movies aren’t good on their own merits.  But so think about the purely great movies you’ve seen.

Here are a few commonly given reasons:

1)      It’s entertaining.  The movie is purely fun/thrilling/enjoyable to watch.
2)      It’s relatable.  There is something about the movie that was very easy to identify with.
3)      It’s profound.  It makes you think about something in a new way, or it just says something so true and tough-to-articulate about life.
4)      It’s amazing to look at.  The movie was visually stunning.

 Of course, there are more, and these categories could be broken out into a million subcategories (which it’s a critic’s job to do), but I think these are the main ones which we can now unpack.

Here’s my take:
 
If a movie is entertaining, but that’s about it, then it’s something that I may enjoy watching once, but likely never again.  A movie’s really gotta have something enduring about it, or it won’t stick with me and give me a reason to go back to it.  For instance, I was watching “Source Code” (directed by Duncan Jones, starring Jake Gyllennhaal) tonight, which was genuinely fun and compelling to watch, but that was it.  There was very little depth or ingenuity, the characters weren’t very empathetic or complex, and there were what seemed like a million things that broke the rules of logic or science, or just flat-out left stuff unexplained.  So while it gave me an hour and a half of amusement, I’d never watch it again.

On the other hand, though, there are some movies that seem like fricking social treatises, and are boring as hell to watch.  So being profound or intelligent isn’t enough.  “The Seventh Seal” (directed by Ingmar Bergman, starring Max von Sydow) is about the most brilliant film I’ve seen in my life, and although it’s still mostly interesting to watch, there are times when it can be just too dry.

At the other end of the spectrum are tired, cliché movies.  If any film is too-filled with hackneyed, trite moments that seem false and calculated, like a politician’s worst slogan (most romantic comedies[1] or slasher-horrors fall into this category), then I know I’ll roll my eyes in disgust.  A movie’s got to have the integrity and ingenuity to venture out on its own ideas if it wants any sort of substantial respect.

 Of course the worst cliché movies are the ones that think they’re so absolutely brilliant and earth-shatteringly profound, when in reality, they’re just one more load of already-been-said BS.  “Revolutionary Road” (directed by Sam Mendes, starring Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) comes to mind, as does pretty much anything written by Charlie Kaufman.

Being relatable means more than “I could identify with the main character”.  It actually is more along the lines of, “Could I suspend my disbelief?”  Any movie can be as fantastical as it wants, can break any Earth-bound laws of nature that it wants, as long as it’s true to the rules it sets up for itself.  Think “Harry Potter”, for instance.  Sure, none of us can relate to really being in a wizarding world with magic spells and cloaks and wands and such.  It’s not real, and as far as we know, it’s not possible.  But the reason “Harry Potter” still works for us is that it follows its own rules.  The way that things work in the world of “Harry Potter” is logical and consistent; every character casts spells the same way, and flies the same way, etc.  If a movie consistently breaks its own rules (e.g. If Harry could fly like Superman and cast spells out of his hands in one scene, when in the scene before he flew on his broomstick and pointed his wand) then our spell of “suspended disbelief” will be broken.   We’ll see the falseness behind the contrived, fantastical world. 

Another thing having to do a movie’s relatability is whether it has the courage to follow through with the course it’s been taking; does a movie that seems really sad and tragic bail itself out with a Disney-esque happy ending?  For instance, think about how in “The Adjustment Bureau” (directed by George Nolfi, starring Matt Damon), even though the point of the whole movie is that this secret organization that runs the universe won’t let Matt Damon and Emily Blunt get together, in the very end, just when the two of them should get caught and separated forever, the evil organization magically says ‘Oh, well, we can see you guys really love each other, so it’s ok.  You can be together now.’  See, crap like that just doesn’t fly.  Even though we all like happy endings, if a director appears to contrive a happy ending just because he wants one, or wants to appease his audience, I’ll resent it.  I can’t relate to it, because in life, magical happy endings just don’t happen.  Yes, Billy Costigan really did get shot at the end of “The Departed”.

Personally, whether or not a movie is visually stunning really doesn’t matter much to me.  If a movie is pretty, but its story sucks and so does everything else about it, then I’ll still think it’s awful.  Take “Avatar” (directed by James Cameron, starring Sam Worthington); the effects, and some of the shots are just breathtaking.  But the unbelievably clichéd storyline, the wooden dialogue, the 1-dimensional characters still overwhelmingly, in my opinion, make it a mediocre and forgettable movie, despite the visuals.  Still, when attached to an already decent film, spectacular visuals can make a movie that much more enduring.

 So I suppose, what makes a movie good is having one, or maybe two of the traits listed above in moderate degree.  But what makes a movie really great is when it has multiple of these traits, to a high degree.







[1] Or “Rom-Coms”, according to my pal Heisman.


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Sunday, September 18, 2011

"Drive" Really Takes You Places

By Alex "The Savant" Heisman
The Savant's Rating: 4/5 Stars

Copyright 2011 orlandosentinal.com

 Anyone who knows me can attest that one of my favorite things to say after a crazy situation is the name of the crazy-in-its-own-right O.A.R. song, “That Was a Crazy Game of Poker.” After heading out to the theater to see Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s new movie "Drive", I couldn’t help but loudly exclaim that what I had just experienced was the craziest game of poker yet!

The Driver (Ryan Gosling) runs stunt car chases for the movies by day and moonlights as a getaway driver for robbers in actual car chases by night. This sullen hero eventually falls in love with his next-door neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), whose husband (Oscar Isaac) has just been released from prison. Needless to say, Irene’s husband gets mixed up in criminal activities once more and needs the Drivers help. After the Driver becomes involved the proverbial you-know-what hits the fan and he has to extricate himself from some sticky situations while being chased by ruthless gangsters (Ron Perlman and a stellar Albert Brooks). Also present are the Driver’s fatherly friend and garage owner (the seemingly everywhere Bryan Cranston…seriously wasn’t he just in Contagion which we reviewed last week) and extended cameos from Christina Hendricks and Russ Tamblyn (which provides a special trip down memory lane as Paul and I starred in West Side Story once, while Tamblyn cleverly played Riff in the movie version).

The movie pleasantly surprised me but buyer beware, this is not for the squeamish. The highly intense violence sneaks up on the viewer in such a way that there have been reports of sick individuals and even a few walk-outs from those who weren’t expecting this level of intensity.

Special mention MUST be paid to the man-of-the-hour Albert Brooks. Brooks, known predominantly as a hilarious comedian, delivers his first live-action performance in eight years as a brutal and merciless gangster. It is a complete change of pace from the slightly neurotic characters he usually plays, and for the few scenes he is on screen you cannot take your eyes off him…just be sure to keep all blades away from his dirtied hands. In terms of Oscar chances, calling it now, expect Albert Brooks to earn his well-deserved second nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category…he’s really THAT good.

All in all, if you can handle intensity at the movies, I’d recommend this be your next choice to see. It is a beautifully shot and put together movie that will get your brains working and stomachs churning. But just remember, and so sorry O.A.R., when you’re sitting there reflecting on what just happened, calm yourself down by repeating that it’s not real and was only a crazy game of poker.



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Monday, September 12, 2011

09/11/2011-Contagion

Our first review, of Soderbergh's "Contagion".  Hope you guys enjoy!

Alex's Rating: 3/5 Stars
Paul's Rating: 3/5 Stars

video
Consensus: Despite underdeveloped, extraneous characters and untied plot threads, Steven Soderbergh's "Contagion" is engaging and focused around a well-developed main plot.  Special props to Laurence "Morpheus" Fishburne and Matt "Team America's Hero" Damon for standout performances.

Also*: In the video we mention that our blog's address is "2halfjewsreviews.wordpress.com".  This is, of course, untrue.  We were thinking about Wordpress, but it's come to our attention that it sucks, so we've switched to Blogger.  Our actual address is www.2halfjewsreviews.blogspot.com.

Oh, and Mr. Heisman: when I talked about your strange opinions in music, I was only referring to your unfounded dislike of Bruce "The Boss" Springsteen.  (I mean, c'mon; how can you not like Bruce?) --Paul


Posted by Alex Heisman and Paul Goldberg

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