Sunday, January 29, 2012

Oscar 2012: SAG Award Winners

Let me get this out of the way: Octavia Spencer and Christopher Plummer will win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor, respectively. They just won in their respective categories at the Screen Actors Guild Awards tonight, having also swept through the Critics Choice and Golden Globe Awards and each winning a packet of critics’ notices. The die has been cast, those races are officially over. Now let’s turn out attention to the three big winners and see if we can read the Oscar tea leaves from them.

Best Ensemble: The Help. Six years ago, a small independent film premiered at a major film festival, where it won top honours. It then played at major festivals in the fall, swept through the critics prizes, was named Best Picture at the Golden Globes and also won the Producers and Directors Guild of America awards. This was in spite of (or maybe because of) the film’s high concept that drew critics and very enthusiastic fans. Darkening the then clear-waters, however, was a SAG Ensemble win to its chief rival for the Best Picture Oscar, a racially-charged drama featuring a big cast, some good critical notices and some controversy about the film’s point of view and how accurate / enlightening / patronizing it allegedly is. The small independent darling was Brokeback Mountain, and the racial drama that was named Best Picture was Crash.

Flash-forward to today, and you’ll see a parallel if you substitute Brokeback Mountain for The Artist and Crash for The Help. Do you see a possible upset in the Best Picture Oscar race?

But then you point out: Crash had wider support due to its corresponding nominations for Best Director, Screenplay and Film Editing, none of which The Help has despite its many acting citations. This is true, but what The Help has is insane popularity among audiences and the guild. This is important because the Academy is 1) largely comprised of actors, and 2) love to honour a big box office hit. While I’m not saying that The Help will win Best Picture, it certainly made a very strong case by sweeping Best Ensemble and both Actress awards at SAG. The last film to do so was Chicago, which swept through the 2002 Oscars and danced away with six prizes including Best Picture. This is not to say that The Artist will not win Best Picture, either. This is simply to point out that if The Help is named the year’s best film, there is precedent for it.

Best Actor: Jean Dujardin in The Artist

This is not to say that the incredibly-reviewed silent French comedy will walk away without a major Oscar. It’s the front-runner for Best Director, with its helmer Michel Hazanavicius taking the Directors Guild of America prize just last night, and its star’s unexpected triumph at SAG over the likes of George Clooney and Brad Pitt just turned this category from a match-up between the two megastars into a genuine three-way race. Dujardin already has a Golden Globe and Cannes Best Actor notice, and a win here could forecast an upset in Best Actor. This was supposed to have been a slam-dunk for Clooney’s work in The Descendants, but this is no longer the case.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Great Scot: Tilda Swinton in Viktor & Rolf

“If I ever get a chance to meet Joyce DeWitt … I will thank her, for while she may have looked like a Liza Minnelli doll that was damaged in a fire, at least she didn’t look like everyone else.” – Tina Fey, Bossypants

What Fey was referring to was that when she was growing up in the 1970s, the standard of beauty was largely Nordic-influenced, and was best represented in pop culture by Farrah Fawcett. In the same vein, the standard of beauty has been widened and defined so broadly these days that it has room for the entire gender spectrum, including that great androgynous thespian beauty, Tilda Swinton.

Those who may think she looks “too weird”, or “too much like an alien”, or just define beauty by whether or not you would “tap that” should not be reading my column. Off you go, now, while I spend more time preaching to the converted.

They say that great art cannot come into being without the presence of a muse, a being who inspires one to creative apotheosis. The fashion designers Viktor & Rolf clearly understood this and took as inspiration for their fall 2003 / spring 2004 collection Swinton’s androgynous beauty. With her high cheekbones, shock of red hair, alabaster skin, regal composure, stature and rich voice, it was no surprise that they would consider her such a striking figure, a face that could launch a thousand outfits if not ships. They devoted the look of their fall/winter runway show to Swinton’s aesthetic, and made up all of the models to look like her. There is no greater flattery than imitation done out of admiration. At the very least, she didn’t – and still doesn’t – look like anyone else. You would never mistake her for more conventional notions of beauty embodied by one of the Kardashians or Sienna Miller. She is unmistakably Tilda Swinton, and that is her greatest gift to fashion.

Clearly, neither Viktor & Rolf nor I am in the minority on this. The lovely Heather and Jessica at Go Fug Yourself affectionately mock and admire her aesthetic, particularly her strange sartorial choices (they refer to her simply as “SWINTON” and every time she appears on a red carpet, they get Tweeted with simply her name in block capitals and a lot of exclamation marks as a shout of approval). At Lainey Gossip, the consensus is that Swinton could wear a garbage bag unmistakably designed just for her, and make it look interesting and fashionable, even if it’s not conventionally “pretty”. “Pretty” does not do Swinton justice, and to call her so would reduce her to ordinary levels of beauty when she is anything but. And there’s the remarkable blog called F-Yeah Tilda Swinton!, dedicated solely to the portraits she has done for magazine photo shoots, publicity shots, fashion spreads and other artistic endeavours. It is not wonder that Sally Potter chose her to star in Orlando, for only she in the world could convincingly portray an Elizabeth lord who transitions into a contemporary woman, relying on her body language and voice to make the change subtle but believable. Plus, she looks remarkable in all the impossibly elaborate attire on display.

I’ve attached the preview to Viktor & Rolf fashion show below, and am also including the link to a detailed article on the show with complete video here. If you can’t get enough of her, keep in mind that you can see her role in the challenging drama We Need to Talk About Kevin, for which she was not nominated for an Academy Award (boo), in limited release now and in wider release on February 3.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Oscar 2012: Nominations Analysis

Jennifer Lawrence and AMPAS President Tom Sherak
announce this year's nominees

After hours – nay, weeks – of sitting through awards shows, following up on critics groups’ prizes and the likes, here are my thoughts on what went down with this morning’s Academy Award nominations announcements:

Stephen Daldry should be called “the Oscar whisperer”. Why? Because he now has a 100% strike rate of his films being nominated for major Academy Awards. Following Billy Elliott, The Hours and The Reader, his Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close sat on the benches at the Critics Choice Awards and received no citations from other critics or industry groups. The film has also opened to soft box office. Now the biggest group of them all has bestowed surprise nominations for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor (for Max von Sydow) on the film. This is also a testament to Scott Rudin’s powers as a producer. Together, they got the right people into the seats to watch the film, got the intended reaction, and these two big noms are the reward. Extremely Loud is still a long shot to win any awards, but this was the biggest surprise call of the morning.

The leader, with 11 nominations: Hugo
There is no such thing as a “done deal”. Sometimes this happens, as when Slumdog Millionaire, Schindler’s List and Gandhi marched to victory. Every so often though, a “done deal” was not meant to be: cf. Brokeback Mountain and Saving Private Ryan. However, the fact that there is a large diaspora of nominations to different films means that there are several “camps” of support, so to speak, supporting each of the major nominees. You have the popular consensus with The Help, the Terence Malick fans for The Tree of Life, cineastes for Hugo and The Artist, but with so many different choices for Best Picture and no clear front-runner, the question then becomes: is there a film that is well-liked enough by the many different groups that can produce a consensus winner? While nominees are chosen by a weighted preferential ballot, the winners are selected simply by ticking one name in each category. What will be the one film that everyone chooses? If there are passionate supporters in each group, but a larger number of more indifferent voters, then it’s entirely possible that a film that pleases everyone but isn’t considered “The One to Beat” might scoop up the big prize. This is why I would keep my eye out on Midnightin Paris. Its major noms in writing and directing to back up its Picture citation might indicate stronger support for the film that one might think. Also consider that with nine Best Picture finalists, in theory, all split votes being equal, a film may only need about 11.2% of the electorate to win.

There is no such thing as a “lock” for a nomination. The snub list this year includes some heavily-decorated critical favourites and respected talent. Who didn’t make the list but who was expected to? Try Tilda Swinton, as We Need to Talk About Kevin was completely shut out despite her winning critical prizes, working the talk show circuit and appearing at different awards groups at which she was a nominee. Perhaps the Academy just didn’t want her to show up in a designer frock that no one understands, again, or perhaps they just couldn’t bring themselves to watch such a bleak film? Either way, Swinton already has an Oscar and is one of those types who would laugh off the slight. The same could be applied to Charlize Theron in Diablo Cody’s critically-adored Young Adult. Also missing is Albert Brooks, the main challenger to Christopher Plummer in Supporting Actor, who just might have clinched a win with the absence of his chief rival for the prize. Michael Fassbender, with such an amazing breakthrough year, couldn’t translate one of his revered performances in Shame, Jane Eyre or even X-Men: First Class into a Best Actor nomination. Leonardo DiCaprio proved he wasn’t as popular as everyone thought, as J. Edgar also came up empty despite numerous precursor nominations. And although many had considered her a sure thing as part of The Descendants’ campaign, Shailene Woodley’s excellent work in that film was not recognized.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Artist at Work: Meryl Streep’s “Theater of War”

In the summer of 2006, while The Devil Wears Prada was playing to packed movie houses across the country and Meryl Streep was enjoying the first true wave of her recent popularity that lasts to this day. It was a strange time as ever for her to appear in The Public Theater’s production of Bertolt Bercht’s epic pacifist play Mother Courage and Her Children in Central Park. Given that the play is considered a classic of German theatre, politically charged, lengthy and difficult, no less a marquee name than Ms. Streep could have compelled audiences to sit through this on a summer night when they could have been at an air-conditioned multiplex instead. Given the recent discussion and awards show presence of the delightful Streep for her current triumph in the otherwise undistinguished motion picture The Iron Lady, it’s an opportune time to see a true artist at work.

Adapted from German to English by the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning playwright Tony Kushner, the production assembles a dream team to bring Brecht’s vision to life. Not only is Streep the lead, whose presence guaranteed capacity crowds to a nearly four-hour pacifist play in the notorious New York summer, but the production is directed by George C. Wolfe. All three talents are tied in by Kushner’s seminal play and miniseries Angels in America, and their pedigree shows. Brecht isn’t exactly a big crowd draw like Steven Spielberg, but his name in the theatre is amongst the biggest, alongside Shakespeare, Beckett, Marlowe and Bizet. The mounting of the 2006 production was captured in the documentary Theater of War.

The documentary appears from the poster to be an intimate portrait of how Streep prepares for her role, one of the most notoriously difficult to perform on the stage. This is a role you grow into, one you earn, one in which you must have complete mastery of your craft to inhabit the role. To give you an idea of the challenge in playing Mother Courage, it’s the female equivalent of playing King Lear for male actors. What’s striking is that although we see her in rehearsal, in performance and in some interviews, and whenever she’s on stage in the production she carries the whole weight of it on her shoulders, she’s just one part of the enterprise. When asked about the collaborative and building process, she likens it to the plumbing and underlay of a building that has yet to be complete: you may want to show off how pristine it is and it will ultimately hold up the structure, but you don’t necessarily need to see the darn thing. Word.

Mother Courage and Her Children explores the psychology of the war profiteer from the inside-out, while making statements about the urge to battle in the modern era. This is what Brecht intended: to explore contemporary themes in artificial settings years removed from the present day, and drawing parallels and conclusions on his philosophical questions in the present day. Mother Courage travels through Germany during the Thirty Years’ War and makes her living selling necessities of life such as food and clothing from a covered cart. She takes along her three children – Eilif, Swiss Cheese and mute Kattrin – on her quest to profit from the war, and she welcomes it.

Brecht’s thesis, of course, is that there is no such thing as easy money and everyone must pay from the spoils of war. Indeed, Mother Courage loses all three of her children but she herself survives. It’s a long treatise, Kushner states, on how the world has nothing to offer the young and that life is a lesson in “how to eat shit and learning to pretend you like it”. This is a grim play. The reason it’s such a difficult role to play is that Mother Courage is almost never offstage for the entire three to four hours of the performance. She sings several songs about how to eat that figurative shit (the one that comes in every job or “out of your ass” as the play states), delivers long and vulgar speeches on survivalist instincts, and must somehow win the audience over before they bolt for the exit when they realize that Mother Courage and Miranda Priestly might have Ms. Streep in common, but the latter character has better accoutrements and a Park Avenue townhome.

And yet Theater of War so fully immerses you in the milieu of creating a production that the experience of creating art is never less than enthralling. There’s considerable discussion of Brecht’s history and anti-Nazi sentiments, which drove him out of Hitler’s Germany through Europe and Asia, and into the United States, where he was investigated by the House Un-American Activities for producing “radical” literature. This is truly how one learns to make a statement: not by throwing tantrums in dressing rooms, or the odious rider clauses certain “diva” singers allegedly have when they’re on tour, but by eating, living, breathing the playwright’s vision and making an artistic statement through a performance, not through one’s declaration of being an artist.

Theater of War is available to view on Netflix.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Oscar 2012: Nominations Predictions

For all of the campaigning, money and crystal-ball gazing, Oscar nominations predictions still seems to be an ineffective science. Anyone who’s been watching the precursor awards or at least keeping up understand that an alchemy of popularity, critical consensus and campaigning will somehow land a performer, writer, director or film a nod for the big prize. No one will truly know who gets nominated except for the Academy’s accounting team.

Without further ado, here are my predictions for who receives Oscar nominations in major categories. Keep in mind that these are by no means slam-dunk nods and we could be completely surprised. I threw out the playbook a couple of times when I thought Cold Mountain and About Schmidt would both float in on waves of nods (oops) and underestimated the popularity of Seabiscuit and The Pianist, respectively, in those years. I’m also listing one or two alternates per category, and including mentions in “should be here” to denote personal favourites that I don’t think have a shot at getting into the big dance (which I will call the “wishful thinking” category).

Best Picture: 

Mara for Best Actress? Possibly.
The Artist, The Descendants, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, War Horse

Alternates: Drive, The Ides of March

Should be here: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, The Tree of Life, Melancholia

I have to state that this is a bit of an asterisk, as the Academy will nominate somewhere from 5 to 10 films this year for Best Picture. The exact number is unknown, so I’m going with a middle of the road approach and predict 8 slots. This could be as little as 5 or as many as 10 this year!

Best Director: 
A bride, but not a Bridesmaid: Lars von Trier's Melancholia 

David Fincher (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist), Alexander Payne (The Descendants), Martin Scorsese (Hugo), Steven Spielberg (War Horse)

Alternate: Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life)

Should be here: Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris), Lars von Trier (Melancholia)

Malick’s film has won over critics groups, and he can’t be ignored entirely. However, his being snubbed by even the Directors Guild of America does not bode well.

Best Actor: 

George Clooney (The Descendants), Jean Dujardin (The Artist), Michael Fassbender (Shame), Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Brad Pitt (Moneyball)

Alternate: Woody Harrelson (Rampart)

Should be here: Leonardo DiCaprio (J. Edgar), Owen Wilson (Midnight in Paris)

I am going waaaaaay out on a limb here for Harrelson, but for those of you who think he’s still Woody Boyd from Cheers, may I remind you he’s been nominated twice for an Oscar before, including once in this category? Otherwise, I think this is a solid bunch, and I doubt that DiCaprio’s excellent work in the otherwise undistinguished J. Edgar can make it.

Wishful thinking: Alan Rickman
Best Actress: 

Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs), Viola Davis (The Help), Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady), Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin), Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn)

Alternate: Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)

Should be here: Kirsten Dunst or Charlotte Gainsbourg for Melancholia, Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids), Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene)

There’s plenty of competition for these five slots this year. At one point Olsen, Dunst and even Charlize Theron of Young Adult entered the conversation. If Dragon Tattoo sweeps into the nominations, look for Mara to displace Close, who should be receiving a second (if not single consolation) nod in Original Song.

Won't you nominate Hemingway
(Corey Stoll)?
Best Supporting Actor: 

Kenneth Branagh (My Week with Marilyn), Albert Brooks (Drive), Jonah Hill (Moneyball), Nick Nolte (Warrior), Christopher Plummer (Beginners)

Alternate: Armie Hammer (J. Edgar)

Should be here: Alan Rickman (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2), Corey Stoll (Midnight in Paris), Seth Rogen (Take This Waltz)

The vulnerable fifth slot goes to Nolte in the little-seen Warrior vs. Hammer in the reviled J. Edgar, but either has a solid shot at the slot. Rickman has never been nominated and Stoll is a revelation, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on either or both getting in. Again: wishful thinking. And Take This Waltz is a film festival favourite but didn't qualify for the Oscars this year. Maybe next year?

Best Supporting Actress: 

Bérénice Bejo (The Artist), Jessica Chastain (The Help), Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids), Octavia Spencer (The Help), Shailene Woodley (The Descendants)

Alternate: Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs)

Should be here: Carey Mulligan (Shame)

Chastain could have populated this category entirely on her own given her other supporting performances this year in The Tree of Life, Texas Killing Field, Coriolanus and Take Shelter. Mulligan received a surprise BAFTA nomination for Drive, but I don’t see that performance translating here for the showier Shame. The one on the verge is Woodley.

No guts, no glory: A Separation for Best Screenplay?
Best Original Screenplay: 

50/50, The Artist, Bridesmaids, Midnight in Paris, A Separation

Alternate: Win-Win

Should be here: Circumstance, Abel

I’ve been speculating that the twists and turns will get the script for A Separation nominated, and I’m sticking by it in a no-guts-no-glory call.

Best Adapted Screenplay: 

The Descendants, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Help, Hugo, Moneyball

Alternate: The Ides of March

Should be here: Jane Eyre, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Tate Taylor’s like for The Help should make up for him not getting a director nod. If Ides gets Clooney a writing nomination, you know he’s the lock for Best Actor because he’s that popular.

Did I miss your favourite? Will the Academy miss yours? Tune in tomorrow for the nominations.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Oscar 2012: BAFTA Nominations

Think that the Oscar campaigning only occurs in L.A. and New York? There’s usually one trans-Atlantic trip required in the season and that’s to London for the annual British Academy of Film and Television, or BAFTA, Awards.

Long thought of as an afterthought to the more prestigious Oscars, the BAFTAs took on new life once they moved their awards ceremony to late February starting in 2001, and with the truncated Oscar schedule in 2004, they moved it up to a scant two weeks before the actual Oscar ceremony. The effect was felt immediately, as the BAFTAs became an important, if not always accurate, indicator of how the Academy might vote and may influence last-minute voters. Most interestingly, the BAFTAs correctly forecast in the last few years some surprise Oscar winners, including Marion Cotillard, Tilda Swinton and Cate Blanchett, and allowed them to pull away from the pack of other frontrunners. This is why the BAFTAs have, in the last decade, proven to be an influential, if not always reliable indicator of who wins the Academy Awards.

The BAFTAs tend to favour homegrown product. This is why films that did not receive much love from the Academy, such as Girl with a Pearl Earring and Cold Mountain, tend to fare better at these awards. Having said that, there is often a strong overlap between what the Academy eventually nominates and the BAFTAs.

You can access the full list of nominees on the BAFTA website and on the Hollywood Reporter’s list.  Here are some of the major nominees:

11 nominations including Best Film
Best Film: The Artist, The Descendants, Drive, The Help, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Best British Film: My Week with Marilyn, Senna, Shame, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, We Need to Talk About Kevin

Best Director: Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist), Nicholas Winding Refn (Drive), Martin Scorsese (Hugo), Tomas Alfredson (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin)

Best Actor: George Clooney (The Descendants), Jean Dujardin (The Artist), Michael Fassbender (Shame), Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Brad Pitt (Moneyball)

Best Actress: Berenice Bejo (The Artist), Viola Davis (The Help), Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady), Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin), Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn)

Best Supporting Actor: Kenneth Branagh (My Week with Marilyn), Jim Broadbent (The Iron Lady), Jonah Hill (Moneyball), Phillip Seymour Hoffman (The Ides of March), Christopher Plummer (Beginners)

Best Supporting Actress: Jessica Chastain (The Help), Judi Dench (My Week with Marilyn), Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids), Carey Mulligan (Drive), Octavia Spencer (The Help)

Best Original Screenplay: The Artist, Bridesmaids, The Guard, The Iron Lady, Midnight in Paris

Best Adapted Screenplay: The Descendants, The Help, The Ides of March, Moneyball, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The Brits are talking about Kevin
Overall, the nominations haven’t substantively changed the status quo, as the likes of The Artist (with a leading 12 nominations), The Descendants and Moneyball still put them front-and-center in the Oscar race. However, it did give certain British films an opportunity to earn more love than they might have at the Academy. Chief among these are three films starring Best Actress nominees that bagged multiple citations: My Week with Marilyn, We Need to Talk About Kevin, and The Iron Lady. None of these are in the conversation for the Best Picture Oscar, but their presence indicates that these projects are indeed strong female-centered vehicles. It should also be noted that the BAFTAs also tend to honour their own, and each major category often produces a left-field nominee who just happens to be British. This year, they include names that haven’t figured into this year’s Oscar race yet, such as Judi Dench, Lynne Ramsay, and Abi Morgan for her otherwise much-criticized script for The Iron Lady. Similar beneficiaries include Senna, The Guard and Coriolanus.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Oscar 2012: Golden Globe and Critics Choice Winners

In continuing awards season coverage, let’s take the pulse of the Oscar race following the Critics Choice and Golden Globes Awards.

Mr. Popular: Clooney wins Globes and Critics' Choice Awards
The big winner of these two groups is the silent comedy that could, Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist. Sweeping four prizes including film and directing honours at Critics Choice, combined with three top awards including film and lead actor at the Globes, just elevated it to the very top of the heap, after it topped New York and Boston. And why wouldn’t it be? Critics love it, it made the rounds to rapturous applause at film festivals everywhere, and the industry is clearly enjoying its homage to the golden age of Hollywood. However, it’s also very French, it’s silent, and the film has made a rather puny $8 million in domestic box office receipts. In other words, the Academy might enjoy it enough to nominate it for a bunch of awards, but they might not consider it to have the weight of important subject matter. Plus, Best Picture winners tend to be out-and-out box office winners, but the likes of Crash and The Hurt Locker have proven otherwise. Perhaps The Artist will win out of sheer excellence, and it’s still too early to call it a done deal.

"Love, and a bit with a dog." - The Artist is named Best Film
Tonight was a chance for Hollywood to know who is top dog, and by George it was, er, George … Clooney, that is. Getting Best Actor citations at both Critics Choice and Globes for The Descendants has made him the candidate to beat for the Oscar, ahead of his close friend and likely fellow nominee Brad Pitt. Arriving at the Globe stage with a cane, Clooney clearly was lapping up the attention. He is the consummate leading man of the moment, with acting chops, the passion to take on humanitarian endeavours, and the energy to direct a well-received work like the multi-Globe nominated The Ides of March. Let’s not forget that although he has an Oscar, it was in Best Supporting Actor, and a star of his stature necessarily requires a lead acting Oscar for his mantelpiece. Unless Pitt draws even with him by winning the Screen Actors Guild Award in two weeks’ time, call Clooney to take home the Oscar.

Michelle Williams needed the Globe, in addition to her long string of smaller awards, including the Boston and Washington prizes and nominations for the Critics Choice and SAG, to make her presence greater felt, and she got it. It’s a bit contested as to whether or not My Week with Marilyn is a “comedy” per se, but the marketing team chose well to place her there, and her win officially cut off Charlize Theron’s and Kristen Wiig’s chances at getting into the final five for Oscar. It should be noted that every year, Harvey Weinstein champions a single Best Actress potential nominee and he has personally helped shape the campaign to get her the big win. This has proven successful for the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Winslet in the past, and with Viola Davis and Meryl Streep still at the forefront of the race, he will undoubtedly put Williams front-and-centre in the campaign.

The Critics' Choice: Viola Davis for The Help
Speaking of Davis and Streep, both just made real and substantive cases for them to take home the Oscar, in terms of precursor groups’ wins. Davis won Critics Choice and did a double whammy by taking home the ensemble prize for The Help as well. She hasn’t won any of the other major prizes for her role, and almost everyone agrees that she is the very best thing in the whole film. The Critics Choice trophy put her neck-and-neck with Williams. Streep, with The Iron lady opening to respectable modest business in platform release and win her eighth(!!) Golden Globe, positioned herself further as the frontrunner by just a smidgen in the race for the Oscar. It’s not a slam-dunk yet, as she herself was out by a hair’s breadth two years ago and still lost for Julie and Julia, but she’s definitely one of the three co-favourites with Davis and Williams. And with her gracious speech at the Globes proving to be yet another charming performance, wherein she praised the talents of her fellow nominees, Academy voters should take note. In other words, the Best Actress race is a real race.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Cinematically Inclined: “The Iron Lady”

Would it be predictable to say that the marvelous Meryl Streep has delivered a terrific performance once again? Of course, for that is par for the course and quite frankly not a revelation. It is often said that Streep can elevate even sub-par material such as Julie and Julia and One True Thing with her great work. There's nothing she's crap at, as this recent tribute to her at the Kennedy Center Honors attests. Sadly, The Iron Lady, for all of the preliminary publicity and high expectations, is one of those occasions. This is not something I wanted to write, given how excited I have been for months about this project since it was first announced.

Phyllida Lloyd’s much-awaited and controversial biopic on Margaret Thatcher, The Iron Lady, arrives with considerable fanfare and a lot of support from The Weinstein Company. Streep has long been touted as being overdue to win a third Academy Award and once again, she is in the thick of an awards season campaign armed with a clutch of prizes for her revered work, including the New York Film Critics Circle Best Actress Award and nominations for the SAG and Golden Globe Awards.

Let’s discuss how deeply committed Streep is to the role. All of Thatcher’s mannerisms are here: the distinctive authoritative voice, the slight cock of the chin upward, the indomitable spark behind her eyes when she is about to flay an opponent politically. I attended the advanced screening with a British friend well-versed in all things Thatcherite, and he said flat-out that the voice was spot-on. Indeed, in her body language, communicated via subtle shifts as well as grander gestures, it was as if Thatcher had died and inhabited Streep’s body as the next vessel.

The film is framed around the present day. We see Thatcher being kept almost prisoner in her home, where guards at her posh Kensington flat are ordered to prevent her from going out. “Are they keeping out the riff-raff or are they holding you in?” asks her husband, the ever-patient Denis Thatcher. Jim Broadbent, as Denis, has played the long-suffering / supportive husband type of an accomplished woman before, most notably in his quietly heartbreaking Oscar-winning work in Iris. Here, Denis functions as a Greek chorus, commenting on the events as they happen and also in the present day, as Thatcher recalls her political past and we hurtle forward and backward in time without so much as a title card to at least give viewers greater context, especially those who may not have been fully immersed in Thatcher-era British politics and its place on the global stage. The catch, of course, is that Denis has been dead for several years, and his presence simultaneously soothes and tortures her, as she comes face-to-face with political challenges she overcame and considers the long-term consequences of her often controversial decisions.

British playwright and screenwriter Abi Morgan is no stranger to writing challenging material. In addition to The Iron Lady, she co-wrote Steve McQueen’s blistering Shame which is also currently in cinemas. Morgan’s previous work also includes the multi-BAFTA-winning miniseries Sex Traffic. While it’s artistically risky for Morgan to frame the film within the context of Thatcher’s dementia, the focus on her state of being unfortunately leaves out a lot of the political drama that made Thatcher such a riveting historical figure, regardless of what you thought of her political stance.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Bad Art: “Heil Honey I’m Home!”

You know how sometimes, a really bad idea can be really, really good? I often think of this whenever I think of bacon-covered jelly donuts. And then there’s the idea of the Holocaust being funny, which at first I found hideous until I saw Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful.

And then there’s the idea of a sitcom starring Adolf Hitler.

In 1990, the British Satellite Broadcasting system had the bright idea to turn Hitler and Ava Braun into a 1950s-style tag-team comedy called Heil Honey I’m Home!. Ava sported a New Yorker accent and was constantly harping on Adolf not being home to have dinner in their stylish Berlin apartment because he’s too busy hobnobbing with members of the Gestapo and plotting to take over Czechoslovakia. Feeling neglected and wanting more time with Adolf, and possibly relishing being in the spotlight itself, this ill-fated comedy was clearly based on I Love Lucy and even had a pair of nosy neighbours-cum-best-friends to match. What’s that, you ask? Is it a good idea to make them Jewish and call them Arvy and Rosa Goldenstein? No, but the makers of this sitcom made them so, anyway. And they banter and kvetch and all of those good things with each other and even with the Hitlers, who aren’t portrayed as being anti-Semitic but as competitive neighbours. Will hilarity ensue?

Lasting but a single episode that aired on September 30, 1990, this forgotten comedy has a bit of life on YouTube as a testament to all things regrettable. The pilot focused on Ava flitting about in a dizzy with Rosa over a star coming to dinner. In this case, that would be Neville Chamberlain (what, was Wallis Simpson not available?). Ava, being a show-off, slips this secret dinner guest to Rosa just to show how high up in the world she’s climbed, and they proceed to do jumpy claps like teenage girls on opening night of the last Twilight movie. Rosa tries to set up her young niece with Neville, who is given to corny, hammy little quips.

The comedy is unfortunately forced as if to wring as much irony and comedy out of the film’s high concept. The acting across the board is so over-the-top, it’s no wonder the actors in it were never heard from again. Neil McCaul, as Hitler, sounds like he’s channeling Cliff Claven on Cheers (that better not be John Ratzenberger in disguise). Denica Fairman, as Ava, plays her like a bored 50s hausfrau (never thought I’d use that term literally) who wants to just throw good house parties, dammit! (Is she auditioning for a Real Housewives of Berlin series?)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Oscar 2012: National Society of Film Critics Awards

Always with a reputation for being headstrong, the National Society of Film Critics (or the “NSFC”) isn’t really “national” in the sense that they represent a broad cross-section of American cineastes. Rather, the group has a heavy overlap with the New York Film Critics and thus their choices tend to match in their annual awards-giving. They are unapologetically tony and, if there was ever a group that was accused of being snobbish in its choices, this is it.

Best Film: Melancholia
One quirk this group has is that since they have access to every film ever released in the United States, their choices can become head-scratching and extremely obscure. Past winners of their acting prizes include Sylvie, Marilia Pera, Per Oscarsson, Emily Lloyd, Alison Steadman, Yolande Moreau and last year’s winner, Giovanna Mezzogiorno. They tend to favour character actors rather than going with the consensus. Having said that, they have also been innovative enough to recognize emerging talent such as Emily Watson, Chloe Sevigny, Amy Adams and Javier Bardem, each of which earned Oscar nominations on the strength of their victories with the NSFC.

Best Actor: Pitt
This year’s winners are:

Best Film: Melancholia
Best Director: Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life)
Best Actor: Brad Pitt (Moneyball)
Best Actress: Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia)
Best Supporting Actor: Albert Brooks (Drive)
Best Supporting Actress: Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life, Take Shelter, The Help)
Best Screenplay: A Separation
Best Foreign Film: A Separation
Best Cinematography: The Tree of Life

Best Supporting Actress: Chastain
The status quo appears to be the same with Brooks and Chastain, who are both on romp, nearly sweeping their categories in the run-up to Oscar nominations. The Tree of Life now seems guaranteed for nominations in cinematography and directing, although it might still be too divisive to earn a spot in Best Picture. Pitt gains further strength in the lead actor race, which should now put him head-to-head with good buddy George Clooney. And I had previously indicated that A Separation might earn a writing nomination in addition to foreign language film. Its screenplay victory here, combined with the same prize from the LA Film Critics, means it’s no fluke. So many critics and festival audiences mentioned that the film starts off as one thing but is an entirely different creature, and said that the twists and turns were what made the film so memorable. This win here, despite the lack of a Writers’ Guild of America nomination (its writer is not a member of the WGA), plants it firmly in that category and the sheer critical momentum might propel it to a surprise Best Picture nomination.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Cinematically Inclined: "Shame"

James Franco: “This movie will never be released because my performance would be deemed ‘too provocative for America’.”

Jenna Maloney (Jane Krakowski): “I wish I lived in France!”

(from 30 Rock)

A friend recently disclosed his reluctance to see the new Steve McQueen film Shame. He bases his decision on his unequivocal belief that sex addiction is mythical. I told him “then consider it a work of science fiction”. And indeed Shame might as well be about a space alien who seems to have crash-landed on Earth, as we follow around a man who seems able to simulate human behaviour without actually being one himself.

This alien-like creature is Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender), a handsome, accomplished 30-something New Yorker who lives in a stylish but cold apartment in a high-rise within a short walk of Madison Square Garden. His daily routine involves waking up to masturbate in the shower, surfing for Internet pornography at the office, retreating to the men’s room to commit the Sin of Onan several more times, having casual encounters after work, participating in online sex, having casual encounters and even hiring escorts late at night. On occasion he goes on runs around his posh neighbourhood, but it’s only when he has no other form of release. The next day, he repeats his cycle.

Into this life parachutes his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who seems to have escaped or been released from an institution of some kind. When we first see her, she’s wearing a hospital bracelet. Where did she come from? Filmmaker Steve McQueen doesn’t give this away, and Brandon couldn’t care less. In fact, the screenplay he devised with British playwright Abi Morgan is deliberately sketchy on the details of Brandon’s and Sissy’s lives before this latest encounter. Sissy, who clearly has boundary issues, moves into the apartment and occasionally performs as a lounge singer. Mulligan delivers the single most joyless version of “New York, New York” you will ever hear, in five uninterrupted minutes of pure heartbreak and desperation. She is neediness incarnate, and Brandon refuses to have that near him, because it would require him to engage emotionally with another human being outside of a carnal exchange. They share a dark past that is only hinted at, but McQueen isn’t interested in exploring that. It would have taken away from seeing the world through Brandon’s haunted eyes.

Brandon reminds me strongly of Fellini’s 1976 version of Casanova. That free-flowing film has a lewd lovemaking contest and is dedicated to the exploits of its title character in loving detail. The strongest image that came to mind while watching Shame is the sequence where Casanova falls in love with, and makes love to, a mechanical doll come to life and dressed as a woman. There’s a strong correlation between Brandon and this scene, in that the sex is mechanical (literally for Casanova) and love cannot be returned or reciprocated. The difference is that in all of his sexual exploits, Brandon is the doll, the unfeeling outline of a human being serving a function but devoid of emotional maturity or attachment. He can’t even recognize normal human calls for help. Watch his reaction to his voicemails and the disastrous aftermath of his failed attempt to pick up a woman who was at a shady bar with her equally shady boyfriend. It tells you a lot about Brandon.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Guilty Pleasure: “Zuiikin English”

I don’t know who exercises to those morning TV shows anymore. In the 80s they had those Jane Fonda videos. Local stations still put on those programs where you do simple things like do 45-minute runs to warm up, then a bunch of exercises. Fair enough. But who would have had the gumption to combine exercise with other forms of daily exercises, as in language exercises? The good folks at Fuji Television in Japan, that’s who.

But let us heed the words of Tina Fey, who gave us this bit of wisdom on the dangers of combining two good things at once. In her phenomenal autobiography Bossypants, she said:

“It’s the same reason I don’t get Hooters. Why do we need to enjoy chicken wings and boobies at the same time? Yes, they are a natural and beautiful part of the human experience. And so are boobies. But why at the same time?”

Created twenty years ago in 1992, Zuiikin English debuted to absolutely no fanfare on early morning TV. The purpose of the show was simple and twofold: get your morning exercise in, and learn English at the same time. The program consisted of three women in skimpy exercise wear performing stretching activities while reciting English sentences that have nothing to do with the activity in progress. In an effort to combine two activities, the purpose of both seems to have been defeated because the phrases are not often used in daily conversation, and no one explains how to perform the exercises. This is the danger of multi-tasking in TV: you can’t go about it half-assed, because you won’t succeed at it.

To give you an idea of the rather useless sentences that the women leading the exercises chant in a happy monotone (if such a thing exists), here are a few choice clips:

“I have a bad case of diarrhea.”

“How dare you say such a thing to me!”/ “I can’t stand the sight of you!”

“Take anything you want!” / “Spare me my life!”

“Lovely golf weather today!”

More clips after the jump.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Art on Ice: Sarah Meier

Because I wanted to open the New Year with an inspirational post to help you, dear reader, with your New Year’s Resolutions…

When Sarah Meier was growing up, it had been nearly twenty years since her native Switzerland produced a champion figure skater. That would be Denise Bielmann, who had the eponymous spin named after her and who captured the world championship in 1981. The country had produced dozens of world-class skiers and dominated the snow, but not the ice.

Meier at the 2002 Olympics
Enter Meier. At the age of 10 she was doing double jumps and was able to complete triples by age 13. (For reference, when I was 13, I was busy trying to point out the cultural references in the then-new sketch-com series In Living Color. I may not be young, or that athletically inclined as a child.) Coached by her aunt Eve Fehr, her career received ample support from her family and her skating federation. Meier subsequently captured the national figure skating title several times and went onto the junior figure skating ranks, where she performed respectably and medaled in several events.

By age 17, she had competed in her first Olympics and placed 13th. Her career started to peak in 2006, when she finished 8th in the Olympics, 6th at the world championships and captured the bronze medal at the prestigious Grand Prix Final, behind the future Olympic gold and silver medalists Yuna Kim of South Korea and Mao Asada of Japan, both of whom were making their senior debuts after years of conquering the junior ranks. In the next two years, Meier went on to win the silver medal at the European Figure Skating Championships and was a fixture on the international competitive scene.

Meier at the 2010 Olympics
By 2008, things started to unravel. A series of injuries kept Meier from reaching her potential and forced her to withdraw in several events. It didn’t help that the likes of Kim and Asada were soon joined by the likes of Miki Ando, Haruka Imai, Mirai Nagasu and other notable young skaters making splashy debuts on the world stage. By the 2010 Olympics, she had posted a 15th place finish and had sunk to 26th at the worlds just a month later. The long series of injuries took their toll and nearly brought an inglorious end to a once-promising career.

Meier persevered for just one more competitive season, vowing to end her career by winning the Europeans, which were set to take place in January 2011 in Bern, Switzerland. Meier decided it was appropriate to end her career where it began, on home soil, and make it a farewell performance. You can see her performance and the end result after the jump: