27 February 2014

First Impressions: The LEGO Movie

It's decently rare that a film will come along like The LEGO Movie (2014), that fires so well on so many multiple levels at once. It's a scathing critique on both commercial and cultural homogenization, as well as unfettered individualism. It owns a complex dual narrative between the fantasy of a child and the interactions within its meta-world. It blows up tropes while being a hilarious and smartly-written adventure flick. And all the while it really captures what it's like for kids to play with the source material - it's a fantastic advertisement for the LEGO brand. So, with plenty of SPOILERS to come here, let's talk about all these individual pieces. Wha-ho!

Even Taco Tuesday ends up having severe real-life
symbolism. This movie is incredible.
The first thing The LEGO Movie does is straddle this line between extolling the dangers of pure cultural homogenization through corporate control that stifles individual creative ideas as well as the unbridled danger of chaotic pure creative thought. The first few sequences admirably demonstrate that Emmett exists in this world of cultural control secretly mandated by the government who is also running the town's largest business, Octan. Through subliminal messages and pop culture control ("Everything is Awesome!"), the populace is simultaneously kept in line while feeling good about themselves and the choices they make, which exist in hyperbole of our own daily minutiae, such as overpriced Starbucks coffee and repetitive and denigrated sitcom fodder.

Into this is Emmett, voiced by Christ Pratt, who despite desperate attempts at the contrary, is amazingly average. He doesn't even really have friends or close relationships, despite appearing relatively stable, if not deluded towards his own social life and existential purpose. His brainwashed, homogenized state serves a higher purpose, though, when he begins to enter the world of the Master Builders.

The Master Builders are essentially all the weird LEGO bits with pre-ordained personalities like Batman, Gandalf, and Michaelangelo. It's first a statement of irony that the only individuals in the metanarrative capable of independent thought are those whose figures are already assigned cultural status based on the properties that inspire them. Cloud Cuckoo Land, as it is called (an unrealistically ideal state - thanks, Wiki, that I mostly knew from Banjo-Tooie) is this area where all these minds can gather and let their ideas flow without limit or contraction. This is ultimately an flawed state of mind as well, though, because with everyone creating their own plans and designs without communicating or working together, their individual contributions fail to create a complete whole. Only Emmett can represent the middle ground, the best of both worlds as you will, with his open mind towards both states of being.

That's the meatiest chunk of the core LEGO story, which is a fantastically rich philosophical drama amidst some of the best looking animation of any recent non-Frozen (2013) and a hilarious screenplay. The movie wisely restricts its animation scenes to only LEGO bricks, except for the "relics," of course. Everything, from the water to the clouds, to even smoke and explosions is LEGO. It's part of the creativity that makes this brand soar. There's also these really trippy moments and bright, passionate colors that just work.

The real heart of this film, though, is when it switches to the real world and reveals that this tension between bureaucratic micromanagement and free-flowing creative chaos is really just a metaphor for the tension between the LEGO playing styles of a strict father and a kid just, you know, wants to be a kid. The kid is projecting this anxiety on to his sets and seems to be the proverbial "god" of this world, even though the characters essentially act like they would as if they were actually characters within a child's imagination who are not aware they are such characters.

Emmett may still represent this balance though, as an independent arbiter. His ability to actually move in the real world suggests that the pieces do have some free will of their own, even though the kid, ostensibily a god, also seems to be controlling the story, although within the metanarrative, the character actions and motivations arise on their own accord. I might suggest a theory that while Lord Business is obviously Will Ferrell's real-life character, and most of the Master Builders symbolize the child's wishes, Emmett himself may just be Emmett as this character in-between who has a will of his own, even though still heavily under the influence of both Ferrell and the child.

One of cinema's greatest Batmans.
It ends up being a nice spin that much of the trope-busting is, within the metanarrative, due to the fact that the entire "story" is being dictated by a little kid. It's why the central theme song is the immature and reductive "Everything is Awesome." It's why Batman's personality is reduced to being a really cool but arbitrarily dark superhero. Just listen to his song. It's how a kid understands Nolan's Batman, which is how we should all understand him. DARK. BROODING. SELF-IMPORTANT. The LEGO Movie is leading the charge in New Sincerity.

You have names like Lord Business and reductions of other tropes to the surface like Bad Cop / Good Cop, which on its own at first seems like a simple parody of common film conventions, but is really just a regurgitation of how a kid's mind would interpret and display a short lifetime of pop culture understanding. Other elements like the "Middle Zealand" letters remaining in the sky work as both odd pop culture jokes, fun trope busting, and by the film's end, a rewarding metaphor for the father's separation of worlds.

As the song says, "everything is awesome," which really holds true to the cast of this thing. Even that song itself, performed by Teagan and Sara ft. The Lonely Island is a dream mash-up. The voice cast contains just about everyone from every good show on TV right now, including Parks and Recreation's Chris Pratt and Nick Offerman, Community's Alison Brie, Arrested Development's Will Arnett, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's Charlie Day and a slew of other big name voices like Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Elizabeth Banks, Shaq, and Will Ferrell. Not too mention a little 21 Jump Street (2012) reunion with Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill voicing Superman and Green Lantern respectively. Did we mention a couple original Star Wars actors? This is also the only movie ever where you'll see Batman hanging out with Lando Calrissian, Dumbledore with Gandalf, and William Shakespeare with the 2002 NBA All-Stars. It's also frankly probably the best Justice League film we're going to get in a while.

Added to all this is an intense showing by the brand LEGO itself. It plays with the two biggest LEGO conventions: building separate sets by way of the instruction manual or the fun of mixing everything up together to make something completely new. Along the way it's very knowing about its own history (was that Bionicle I saw?) and how people play with LEGOs (the child vs. father). My favorite reference was probably the 80s Space Guy who is of course pretty busted up and missing a visor. The thing is, not only does LEGO understand how people play with its sets now, but it understands nostalgia and how people used to play with their sets, and the collision of what used to be popular with current trends. It's a spectacular display of branding.

Inhibiting this difference in playing style is the Piece of Resistance, which is really the cap to the Kragle (Krazy Glue), which both heals the relationship between father and son, and presents an end to gluing LEGOs together, which from a brand perspective is fundamentally flawed. It is also detrimental, though, to an in-world society perspective, and a creative kid's playing perspective, and provides the strongest symbol for healing the relationship between father and son. Thus, in one package, The LEGO Movie sums up all three of its theses - the core family rift is healed, the central conflict in its marvelous adventure story is resolved, and LEGO makes a bold statement about how its products should be used - to be broken, re-distributed and played with, rather than frozen in display. It may be the most significant problem of the movie that with all its philosophical cultural free-thinking debate, twisting metaphoric plotlines, and spot on humour and character development, it ultimately lands on only one central conceit - that playing with LEGOs is awesome.

But that's true, so it's hard to fault them. There is a reason why this thing has cleaned up at the Box Office three weeks in a row - Everything is Awesome.

25 February 2014

A Closer Look at the 2014 Academy Award Best Picture Nominees

With the biggest night in Hollywood less than a week away now, it's time to examine the only award that really matters - the Best Motion Picture of the Year. According to Academy voters. And no one else, really. This year is actually way more exciting than years past, even with some stretched out neck-and-neck finishes for movies like Argo (2012) and Lincoln (2012) last year and The King's Speech (2010) vs. The Social Network (2010) a bit before that. Every precursor award has been all over the place, and the most promising indicator, the PGA Best Picture award was an unprecedented tie. Let's get busy!

Best Picture of the Year


It's PHILO-MANIA time, baby! No, not really. This is the kind of obscure family drama film that caters to a very narrow section of the population but is full of enough prestige to make the Academy look really classy for selecting it as a nominee. In the 80s, these things were everywhere and some like Ordinary People (1980) or Terms of Endearment (1983) won the whole thing. Other recent flicks like this that no one saw and bottomed out include Amour (2012), An Education (2009), or The Reader (2008). Philomena may have done well on its home turf at the BAFTAs, but it'll bomb here.


This isn't quite an Alexander Payne film like Sideways (2004) or The Descendants (2011), but like those films, it'll also be left in the dust. Going back to Amour, there may be some desire to honour ancient actors like Bruce Dern and June Squibb, but it's tough to imagine a Will Forte vehicle getting best picture. Even if MacGruber (2010) was robbed. Not that this is really a Forte film (do those exist yet?), and he has a surprisingly nuanced turn here, but Nebraska's quirky kind-of-comedy, kind-of-existential-family drama schtick isn't wetting anybody's pants.

Dallas Buyers Club

With a good amount of support in the acting categories for Leto and McConaughey, you'd think this may have an outside chance at taking home the big prize. After all, the acting branch of the Academy has the most votes to pull from. Analogies are hard to come by. You've got dramas highlighting gay social issues in Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Milk (2008), but neither really dealt with the AIDS crisis like DBC does. Other overt black social dramas like Precious (2009), The Blind Side (2009), and The Help (2011) didn't really do well, but none of these, particularly the latter two, dealt with their subject matter with such intense revelation of the struggle as DBC does. Despite not really having history to go on, it's relatively safe to say that the buzz isn't really there for Best Picture like it is for the Male Best Acting Awards.


Her is a tricky minx. It's slowly gaining some steam and recognition after everyone joked off is really laughable premise, and Scarlett Johannson's voice work is enough to create this urge for recognition, despite defying the ability to secure any conventional nomination. It's been largely written off, yet it's pulled through with some unexpected screenwriting wins at the Golden Globes and WGAs. It's now transitioned from a dark horse to a lock in those categories, but it's a bit too much of an oddball film to win Best Picture. I might compare it to Midnight in Paris (2011) or Up in the Air (2009), which were sly romantic comedies (kind of) that did well in screenplay awards (at Oscar and BAFTA, respectively), but Best Picture eluded them.

Captain Phillips

It's been twenty years since our boy Tommy was last in a Best Picture Winner. Captain Phillips is a bit of an enigma, to be honest. It seems to be a pretty well liked film without a lot of critical buzz, everyone agrees that Hanks is great it in, but no one respects him to win Best Actor, and the only award of the night it's looking to have a good shot at is limo driver / first time actor / Minnesota-Somalian Barkhad Abdi for Best Supporting Actor. It wouldn't be a total total shock if this thing went all the way, but people seem to be too divisive over it. Will the other favoured nominees break up the voting and pave a route for it to win? I don't really think so. But it's conceivable.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Through this whole Oscar Zone, I've chastised this film for being far too ridiculous and profane for the stuffy tastes of the mild mannered Academy. This is of course, an Academy that honoured, in a four-year span, the equally rude-languaged and violent Scorsese companion piece, The Departed (2006), the nihilistic and brutal No Country for Old Men (2007), the British-Indian out-there Bollywood homage Slumdog Millionaire (2008), and the army-mentality patronizing anti-blockbuster The Hurt Locker (2009). There are some differences between all these relatively gutsy choices and The Wolf of Wall Street, though - none showed as many boobs. Or had the associated controversy over their subject matter. I still think this is the best film of the year though, and while I'd be disappointed my predictions were off, it's always delightful when Marty pulls down the statue.

American Hustle

Here's where we start to find some serious contenders for the throne. All three of the following films have some significant clout and precursor awards that all may point to a Best Picture Win. American Hustle, David O. Russell's third Best Picture nominee in four years, may have the most significant run up. It won the Best Comedy or Musical Motion Picture at the Golden Globes, as well as the Best Cast Award at the SAGs. This ought to indicate a ton of interest in giving this flick the goods, although it's not really leading in any major category right now. It would be surprising if it didn't come away with any awards, much less any acting awards, but it's an underdog in all four categories, as well as Best Screenplay with Her gaining steam. This all points to a miss for Best Picture. Or it's given as a consolation prize. Best Picture can't be a consolation, though, right? I think it could be - but not for this.


Gravity is the kind of film that just about everyone can get behind. It's high concept sci-fi stuff, but more grounded than something insane like Man of Steel (2013), but it's also this really articulate film that viewers and critics can assign a lot of prestige to. It's this year's Inception (2010). Big blockbuster filmmaking with a mind and heart that far outweighs other genre films. Despite its technical proficiency though, which ought to run the train on the Oscar Ceremony, really big prizes have eluded the film. It's wrapped up DGA and PGA awards, but the latter was shared with 12 Years a Slave, which has beaten it elsewhere. Gravity was a really significant film - it was genuinely best experienced at a premium 3D IMAX price, which provided the fullest thrillride possible. With that under its belt, it also made Hollywood a ridiculous amount of money. It's very possible the Academy shines on that, but it's more likely that the large sections of writers and actors don't shine as hard on this flick.

Predicted Winner: 12 Years a Slave

Okay, so if the writers and actors go for Hustle and the directors and producers go for Gravity, how does 12 Years a Slave bring home the gold? It's possible that 12 Years only wins Best Picture, which would be the first film to do so since Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). It will likely win at least one more, though, despite stiff competition. It's won the Best Drama Motion Picture Golden Globe, as well as the big BAFTA and PGA awards without much else to spare. The safe bet is that the trend continues this Sunday - it stays cold all night until that final envelope is opened.

Which flick is your pick for Best Pic?

18 February 2014

Because it's on TV: Why The Walking Dead is Television's Best Worst Show

As far as television watching goes, The Walking Dead is an enigma. It consists solely of niche genre material, but it's massively popular. It swings between moments of horror, gore, flighty drama, and unintentional uproarious laughter. Lately for me, it's been mostly the latter. Ever since this moment, these singular six seconds, I haven't been able to take this show seriously. This past Sunday night, for the first time in the long time I didn't watch the episode when it was on. Okay, I caught like, the last twenty minutes. It's still the best show to hate on television.

After its rousing first season, The Walking Dead found itself in a unique predicament among its genre - where the hell to go? Most bits of zombie fiction find ground in serial form, not episodic. After all, everyone has to die eventually. The world collapses and is screwed (Dawn of the Dead [2004], 28 Days Later [2003]), sometimes maybe it gets better (World War Z, Warm Bodies [2013]), but there's not a whole lot out there that deal with getting on with daily life after the event. You've got your Day of the Dead (1985) bunker party, and sure, the romping fun of Zombieland (2009), but these are still movies. Singular looks at a time in the lives of these characters, sure it's a post-apocalyptic time, but sooner or later, you've got to think that death is going to catch up. Maybe not for Tallahassee, but how much can you do in the face of complete societal annihilation?

Apparently one first season and like, four, maybe five Governor episodes. I'm not sure why the comic book version of The Walking Dead was so palatable while the TV version lost sense of its characters so quickly. Maybe it's because Robert Kirkman only has to deal with Robert Kirkman and not the ebb and flow of actors moving on to other projects, a string of good and bad showrunners, or just the trickiness inherent to the adaptation of any fiction to a medium that doesn't quite support its storytelling process as neatly. Needless to say, the following will include a hefty dose of recapping plot and character events of the past few seasons, in particular the abysmal last halfsie we just got, so catch up now. We'll wait.

Let me tell you about this guy we used to have named T-Dog...

For whatever reason, the show has lost a good deal of traction of its characters, or just any kind of motivation that makes sense for anybody. I think my breaking point for this kind of stupidity was "Indifference" (S4;E4), which features a constant stream of frustrating moments. On multiple occasions, Tyreese just kind of gives up while fighting walkers for no real reason other than to create tension, because he's such a badass that nothing should really pose a threat to him. He's the Optimus Prime of The Walking Dead. He's kind of bummed about Karen being killed (yeah, I had to look up her name. There was never  reason to care about her or remember her. She's basically a fridge chick), but it's not like he's so bummed that he can't fight eventually. Daryl doesn't save him or anything, he's just apathetic until he's about to die. All the while he actually has a really good reason for once to be an angry black stereotype, which he never has been.

To this we can add Carol's suddenly growing insanity, from raising a child army to being the one that actually did kill Karen. There are also these constantly shifting dichotomies between Rick and Herschel, and then even Rick and Carl, that never really have a lot of background. The Walking Dead has just such an immense need for plot, it finds itself lurching forward constantly and forcing all these dramatic issues that aren't really there. Why, at the apex of his power, after crawling back from nothing, and with both sides in agreement, does The Governor make Herschel into a pez dispenser? Because he's crazy for the sake of craziness, and apparently without redemption, even though the smarter ploy for him and his manipulative character, if he really hated Rick, would be to absorb himself into the society and break it down from within.

So the show just spins its wheels and creates these artificial moments of drama. It no longer has any real story but simply the continued survival of the characters. In stark contrast to Zombie cinema, where almost everyone eventually succumbs to virus and death, or maybe it ends with some vague "hope" like I Am Legend (2007) or the film adaptation of World War Z (2013), but things always need to end. The Walking Dead, solely because of its medium, is instead concerned with survival. Which, despite the relatively egregious lack of character shields, makes it a less interesting show.

Because of The Walking Dead, or perhaps in spite of it, there have been a handful of other horror shows popping up on mainstream television, most notably FX's American Horror Story and Fox's Sleepy Hollow. Unlike The Walking Dead, however, these shows don't concern themselves with melodrama or try to build up these moments of sincerity that the show so desperately tries. AHS and Sleepy Hollow wear their insane camp on their sleeves and deliver some of the most entertaining, if not batshit crazy programming on television.

AHS also gets around The Walking Dead's peculiar survival problem by billing itself as a mini-series and recycling the cast each year into a new location and time period. Even though Coven had one of the roughest crash and burns after starting out with some hefty promise, it's had a ton more fun than the overly self-serious Walking Dead. Especially with its big fake "Awww, Nooo!" moments. And Sleepy Hollow just fucks logic in the ass without abandon. It's awesome.
I would have been okay with
an entire Plissken season.

The Walking Dead does have these really exceptional moments, though, when it slows things down and explores what's left of humanity and how we got there in these little vignettes, sometimes through entire episodes like "Clear" (S3;E12). It's best at experimentation and following these little moments, like just about all of the episodes centering around The Governor at the tail end of last season (before you know, his needless descent into poor decision making, and his beaux's inability to watch her on child you know, during the ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE going on). This is despite all these really obvious metaphors like the Governor and his chess set. Yeah, he's the king, everyone else is his pawn, we get it. I've wondered more and more if this show is so popular because it makes people feel smarter for having understood the fabulously simple symbolism that runs through it.

The one hope I have is that so far, this latter halfsie of Season Four looks to be separating and breaking down its characters more and giving them a chance to grow without the overbearing pressures of sudden plot. It's The Empire Strikes Back (1980) - split everyone up, beat them to shit, and let's actually grow some characters with a little more focus. It's "Clear" again. Which is a good thing.

And while we're here, before we go this is a great time to chat about The Talking Dead, which could be the worst show to ever hit television. It's just a sort of awkward recap show that mostly offers fan service rather than any real criticism or critical insight. Chris Hardwick is insufferable as this anointed representative of geeks who is the worst kind of geek, who exists only to regurgitate pop culture while being sponsored by the pop culture he's regurgitating. It's rough.

The Walking Dead comes around again this Sunday at 9 pm on AMC. I haven't really decided on if I'm watching it or not. Are you?

17 February 2014

A Closer Look at the 2014 Academy Award Directing Nominees

We're within two weeks of the Academy Awards ceremony and on the heels of the BAFTAs this past weekend, it's time to dig into who might take home the statue for Best Director. Director usually goes along with Best Picture - after all, the director has a huge influence over the final product, especially with the kind of passion pieces that are up for big awards like this. Last year, however, Ben Affleck wasn't even nominated in this category despite his film, Argo (2012) winning Best Picture. We won't see anything that crazy this year, but it is looking more and more like a split. Let's dig in:

Best Director

Alexander Payne, Nebraska

Nebraska may be a really solid dark horse in a few categories, even though it's not really favoured in anything. It has plenty of nominations and there are plenty of critics slyly loving this film, even if it really hasn't caught on with mainstream audiences. Payne has two previous nominations, for Sideways (2004) and The Descendents (2011), and even though those are two really great flicks, he's not really owed anything, especially since both those movies nabbed him a statue for writing. There's just nothing completely outstanding about his direction here in comparison with every other nominee to justify a win.

David O. Russell, American Hustle

David O is another director like Payne who has had a lot of success with the Academy lately, possibly because he's been recently more geared towards making more Academy-friendly films. It's a tough call what people think of him these days - he's getting to be more liked by actors after getting a slew of nominations for those starring in his flicks, including a second batch of running every category after Silver Linings Playbook (2012) did the same last year. Like Payne, though, is there anything about Hustle's directing that is really that unique besides the egregious amounts of flair and style? I'm not sure a director can win on tone alone, although that's all Hustle has going for it and it's admittedly a tough nut to crack.

Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

Marty somehow has only one win across seven previous nominations, which still doesn't feel like enough. Another notch here would bring nothing but smiles to just about everyone watching, but the Academy has regularly shitted on the man in any non-Departed (2006) year. Despite being one of our greatest living filmmakers, who is still at the top of his game, as well as making great strides in other crazy areas like film preservation and awareness, documentary features, and glasses fashion, his flicks tend to be a little too violent and out there for the Academy crowd. Are they really going to reward a film with 506 F-bombs? Especially when that's its most moral attribute? If you're playing the odds, despite exerting one of the stronger directorial influences this year, Marty goes home empty-handed.

Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave

In many ways the Academy is still really backwards in its thinking. How did they not honour a woman director until 2009's The Hurt Locker? How have they never honoured a black director? Steve McQueen is still fighting to be recognized over Bullitt, and despite his impressive oeuvre for his young career, the mainstream acceptance is far from there yet. He's still putting up the biggest fight against Cuarón, though, and if the Academy doesn't feel like splitting up its Picture and Director Awards again, McQueen will be the one to nab it. Like the Globes and the BAFTAs, though, I bet taht 12 Years doesn't win anything (ecept for Nyong'o) until it takes home the big prize at the end.

Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity

Even thought it'd be nice to finally see a black Best Director winner, it's hard to have a problem with Cuarón earning this. Many people love him for Y Tu Mamá También (2001), but I still just think he gave us the best Harry Potter film, The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004). Gravity is his baby, though, and the astounding amount of effort that went into its creation, from pioneering new visual effects and filming techniques to simply creating a  movie that gave people a legitimately thrilling reason to go to a theater again, this is well-deserved. With a Golden Globe, DGA Award, and BAFTA under his belt, it's looking pretty strong in his favour, too. He may also go home with a Best Editor statue, making him a rare double winner. March 2nd will be good to Alfonso.

How will these predictions turn out? Come back next week and watch us dissect the Best Picture nominees, as well as the night of the Ceremony when we live blog about how bad our predictions have been.

11 February 2014

A Closer Look at the 2014 Academy Award Acting Nominees

We're a few short weeks away from the Academy Award Ceremony and it's time to munch or jaws into the meatiest of all the categories - the acting. Oscar wins can make a career, or what is more usual, not really do anything for them, like Jean Dujardin. If all goes well this year though, we'll end up with a  lot of validation, career acknowledgement, deserving debut praise, and just random as hell moments. Let's dive in:

Best Actor 

Bruce Dern, Nebraska

This could wind up being a nice acknowledgement for an actor who apparently has had a long and storied career. I had no idea who Bruce Dern was before Nebraska, besides a vague understanding that he's Ellie Sattler's father, which is obviously important to the young dinosaur lover in me. There is some love here, but Dern and Nebraska itself are way farther under the radar than they ought to be. Ol' Bruce, it's a pleasure just to be nominated.

Christian Bale, American Hustle

Considering how much respect Christian Bale holds by the acting community, the fans, and most importantly, for himself, he has a surprising dearth of Academy Award nominations. To be fair, he is 1 for 1 in Supporting Actor wins for The Fighter (2010), but that's really about it. I can't believe they didn't acknowledge his work for Reign of Fire (2002). Anyway, Bale isn't really the presence in Hustle he needs to be, despite his commitment to looking terrible. It would be nice to compare his weight in both this and in The Fighter. He's just all over the place.

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street

It's hard to believe that Leo would end his career without ever securing an Oscar statue, and considering this may be his greatest role ever, it's even a bit tougher to see him miss it. He'll miss it though. Considering he's 0 for 3, that may be a good bet this year, anyway. I'll still contend that Wolf was far too crazy and in particular, Leo was way outside the norm for the Academy to shine politely on him, but it's always possible. He secured the Golden Globe, after all.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave 

This is the most credible threat to McConaughey, and Ejiofor has built up a steady stream of great supporting roles until he really hit his career defining role in 12 Years a Slave, but March 2nd won't be his night. Although he carries this flick on his back and the acting section of the Academy certainly heaped some love on this one, support is just too strong for McConaughey. That said, if any of these dudes were to pull an upset, it's Chiwetel.

Predicted Winner: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club 

So, not only is this a perfect Oscar bait Best Actor performance - the huge body change / biography / social issue film, but it's also a brilliant cap on the recent resurgence of Matt McConaughey who has managed what would seem impossible - leverage his dumbass, shirtless, good ol' boy persona into an actually credible career. Everyone loves this guy, even those who hate him and think he's weird as shit (he is). His bizarre acceptance speeches recently that tend to both not acknowledge the AIDS crisis and demonstrate his obscene drawl may serve to tip this towards Ejiofor, but it's basically a lock.

Best Actress 

Sandra Bullock, Gravity 

Sandra has one of these from The Blind Side already, and even though she was really the crux of that movie, along with its condensing of complex socio-racial issues, she's not the crux of Gravity. It's notable that she even got a nomination here, which is a testament to how much people really love Sandra Bullock. It's an accomplished performance for sure, mostly solo and harrowing. Still, while this cleans up the technical awards, it isn't actor-friendly enough with dialogue and other human interaction to gain that section of the Academy's attention.

Judi Dench, Philomena

Judi Dench has a lot of love from just about everyone, but only one win for Shakespeare in Love (1998), and that's getting to be a while ago. Do we honour M one more time after her departure in Skyfall (2012)? Philomena isn't much without Dame Dench, although it isn't really the kind of sexy movie that's capture the heart of the masses this year. It's more of a splash than a tidal wave of acting.

Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

It seems like it's another year, another Streep nomination, right? She's our latest winner here, having last locked it up for The Iron Lady (2011). August: Osage County was somewhat surprisingly overlooked for its acting, at least for Julia Roberts. To some extent you can never count Meryl out, but she does only have a 17% win percentage (3 wins out of 18 nominations). That is still pretty crazy, but this isn't her year. Again.

Amy Adams, American Hustle 

Amy Adams has a ridiculous five nominations, three in the past four years, and absolutely no wins. This is her first nomination for a Leading Role, though, and maybe she'll finally break through. If anyone is going to bring down Cate, it'll be Amy this year, and it's hard to think that with a nomination in every category, American Hustle comes away without a single trophy. She is crazy talented, deserves the recognition already, and is also the only actress in this category without a previous win. Can it all come together for her? It'd be nice, but she's not the favorite right now.

Predicted Winner: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Cate already has a Supporting Actress Statue on her mantle for her work in The Aviator (2004), and it's almost surprising she's never gotten another one. The major thing stopping her right now is the weirdly timed resurgence of Woody Allen pedophilia accusations that may give some voters pause to vote anything for his latest flick, Blue Jasmine. Of course, it's just an accusation, it's twenty years old, and who really knows what to make of it. If people steer clear of Cate, somewhat unfortunately, because of it, this goes to Amy, if not, Cate gets her first Best Actress Oscar.

Best Supporting Actor 

Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips

I'm still a little astounded that Abdi got a nomination where Tom Hanks didn't, after the latter is both such a powerful presence in the film as well as one of the most honoured actors in Hollywood. That being said, it's great that Abdi is recognized here. He made it out of Mogadishu and worked as a limo driver before debuting in Captain Phillips, which is his first acting experience. It would be an incredible success story if he won. He won't.

Bradley Cooper, American Hustle

So, welcome to the prestigious versions of Bradley Cooper and Jonah Hill after years of trash. Enjoyable comedic trash, but trash nonetheless. Cooper's Hustle role isn't really as multifaceted as his work in Silver Linings Playbook, which also wasn't that multifaceted. He wears the hell out of a Jheri curl, though, which is good to know.

Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street

I actually think that Jonah gave the performance of the year in this role. His chemistry with Leo is perfect (somehow), that Quaalude scene was the most manic, tragic, and hilarious of the year, and he's also representative on film as everything horrible and unredeeming about everyone in that film. Whether or not voters judge that concept as one that actually matters ought to inform whether or not Jonah wins. With some other performances in this category a little more redemptive and uplifting, that may not be the case. The Academy gave a statue to Joe Pesci in Goodfellas (1990) for the same shit. Maybe they do it here.

Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave 

Speaking of redemption...no, no, there is no redemption here. It's tough to say that this may have been Fassbender's best role in his young and fiery career so far, but dammit if he didn't seem to be wrapping this Award up back in October. Villains have tended to be big winners in this category, from Javier Bardem to Heath Ledger to Christoph Waltz in recent years. If that trend continues at all, we can look to the Man Shark's first Golden Prize.

Predicted Winner: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

I don't really give a shit about Jared Leto. He hasn't had the kind of film career that anyone else here has had, he plays for kind of a crappy band, and he's so far appeared fairly insensitive towards the kind of people he mimicked in order to pull off this transgendered role. Still, he's the odds on favourite right now for the same reason McConaughey is - a tremendous body changed portrayal of a biographical figure in a socially conscious and relevant film. There's nothing really wrong with him winning, but it seems to me like the least exciting winner for this category. Except maybe Bradley.

Best Supporting Actress 

Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine

Here we have all of the aforementioned Woody Allen controversy covered in our chat about Cate Blanchett, but with none of the good buzz for Sally Hawkins. There were a good amount of family drama films with nominations this year, which haven't always guaranteed a statue in recent years, Blanchett's favourite and Kate Winslett's The Reader win a few years back notwithstanding.

June Squibb, Nebraska

Despite having the best name of any male or female nominee this year, Squibb is less on anyone's radar than Bruce Dern is. She's not a tremendous presence in the film, which mostly focuses on the Dern-man and his son, the surprisingly nuanced and unrecognised turn by MacGruber himself, Will Forte. Despite a long and storied career, Squibbward will go home empty handed.

Julia Roberts, August: Osage County

Julia's single win for Erin Brockovich (2000) is getting to be a while ago now, and she's certainly still popular enough to pull this one off, even if this flick is more The Meryl Streep Show than a showcase for Roberts. Still, she's acting a bit outside type and the challenging role gives her a little more to chew on than she's had in recent years. It could be a nice win, but there's some fresher buzz for the next two actresses.

Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle

Does Lawrence go two for two in consecutive years? I've got the same theory here as for Amy Adams - despite not being favoured in any race, it's hard to believe that with nominations in every acting category, Hustle goes home with nothing, and this is certainly the most likely one to upset. Everyone loves J-Law, mostly because she's so loveable. I'm wondering if she goes Meryl Streep-like: early wins then thirty years of just being nominated before striking again. Or can she only play flighty tortured young person roles and no one will care about her by the time she's thirty? I don't know. At least she has an entirely separate film persona cranking out blockbusters to keep her going.

Predicted Winner: Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave

It's kind of crazy that Nyong'o could be the one to end up winning an acting statue for 12 Years despite terrific performances from Chiwetel and Fassbender. Nyong'o was totally raw and brutal, though and heartily deserving of the Oscar. She should get some comparison to Barkhad Abdi - from the acting inexperience, the breakout role, and the nigh-unpronounceable name. Lupita has won everything she's needed to to nearly ensure a lock in this category, barring some sudden surge in loving white girls again. It would be nice if this award could for once go to a black girl for a performance that could only be achieved by an objectified black girl in a racially driven film.

So, will these predictions hold or will the upsets creep in where I predicted? Who knows - tune in March 2nd and keep reading for more of this crap.

07 February 2014

Reconsidering Our Top Films From 2009 - 2012

I realized something important when perusing through all the films of 2013 while making my obligatory "Best Of" list this year - looking back on some of my selections filled me full of rage and shame. It's the tricky thing about lacking the benefit of hindsight - some films even from just a few years ago haven't held up, and others that I thought were trash have grown on me. So I decided to do some revisionist history here. I went back the past four years and looked at my Top 10 Lists from 2009 - 2012. Now, it may just be the fact that it hasn't really grown on me yet, but 2012 still looks pretty good. I may not be changing that too much. But you had better believe I'm scrapping the rest.

Here, with the benefit of digesting and discussing each film for a little while longer, are the new rankings:

Original 2009 List:

#9: Observe and Report
#8: I Love You, Man
#7: The Great Buck Howard
#6: Up in the Air
#5: Funny People 
#4: Zombieland 
#3: A Serious Man
#2: Inglourious Basterds 
#1: District 9

This isn't altogether awful, and one reason I'm pumped for looking back at these things is remembering films such as The Great Buck Howard. That certainly isn't a flick though that I've really seen or thought about in four years. I can't even understand why AVABAR is here at all, I suppose that, even though I only placed it at #10, I was somewhat swept up in the sheer spectacle of its release, like literally, billions of other people worldwide. Four years on, though, I can judge it for how hollow it really is. So, here's my revised list:

Updated 2009 List:

#10: Where the Wild Things Are
#9: UP
#8: Observe and Report
#7: The Road
#6: Funny People
#5: The Hangover
#4: Adventureland
#3: The Hurt Locker
#2: A Serious Man
#1: Inglourious Basterds 
The good ninja wears white, of course

I was tempted to include other flicks like G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, which is actually turned out to be one of the most enjoyable and re-watchable Sunday afternoon movies of the past five years. I just still couldn't really add it, though. I did add the most depressing film of all time, The Road, which I still think about, and Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are, which really frustrated me by not meeting my expectations the first time I saw it, but also made me think a lot to figure it out. There were also some films whose greatness I didn't buy into in December, 2009 like The Hurt Locker and UP. Finally, the original installment of The Hangover deserves its place as one of the more tightly written comedies of the past decade, as well as one of the most debaucherous and influential.

Even though I think I Love You, Man did have some staying power, it's been overshadowed a bit by superior Paul Rudd buddy movies like Role Models (2008) and Dinner for Schmucks (2010). Even though I still love Zombieland, I do think that continued permutations of the zombie genre have lessened the tremendously fresh impact it had on me. Finally I scrapped my #1 pick, District 9 just because, ultimately four and a half years on, I don't really care about it other than the fact that at the time it was an astoundingly new movie. Maybe Elysium (2013) drained the appreciation of its unique aesthetics out of me.

Original 2010 List:

#10: Exit Through the Gift Shop
#9: Toy Story 3
#8: Cyrus
#7: True Grit
#6: Hot Tub Time Machine
#5: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
#4: Black Swan
#3: MacGruber 
#2: Inception
#1: The Social Network

Updated 2010 List:

#10: Exit Through the Gift Shop
#9: Black Swan
#8: Get Low
#7: Jackass 3D
#6: The Other Guys
#5: Get Him to the Greek
#4: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
#3: Hot Tub Time Machine
#2: Inception
#1: The Social Network
Featuring Grammy Award-winning robots

My horrible blockbuster that I actually think is pretty decent now is going to be Tron: Legacy. I can also watch that just about any time of the year. Looking back on it now, I'm surprised how many great comedies came out of 2010. Even though I did really dig MacGruber, it definitely didn't stay with me as much as Get Him to the Greek or The Other Guys did. I was tempted to also throw in Dinner for Schmucks, but I think that has some years to go before it overtakes anyone. I also don't think anyone cares about Cyrus, and even though it was pretty epic, I've found I haven't really cared about Toy Story 3 since that summer three years ago, which isn't really true for other Pixar films like UP or Brave (2012).

I had this really odd debate within myself whether to include Get Low or Easy A. They really couldn't be farther apart. Ultimately thought I think it may be a pretty good movie, Easy A just went down too easy for me. Eh. So I threw in Jackass 3D, because it's still one of the best 3D experiences I've ever had at the multiplex (how many blogs use that terminology), and one of the finest uses of slow motion technology ever. You'll note that my #1 and #2 selections haven't changed. I still think those are the tits.

Original 2011 List:

#11: A Dangerous Method

#10: Hugo
#9: The Rise of the Planet of the Apes
#8: The Descendants
#7: The Artist
#6: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 
#5: Bridesmaids
#4: Attack the Block
#3: Rango
#2: Drive
#1: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Updated 2011 List:

#11: X-Men: First Class
#10: Bridesmaids
#9: Fast Five
#8: The Tree of Life
#7: The Descendants
#6: The Rise of the Planet of the Apes
#5: Moneyball
#4: Attack the Block
#3: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
#2: The Muppets
#1: Rango
Mostly because I can't get over
the name, Imogen Poots.

There were a lot of great films in 2011 as I'm looking back on it, now. My rainy day film is the vastly underrated Fright Night, while we wait for underappreciated comedies like Hall PassThe Sitter, and Our Idiot Brother to mature. I also remember really digging Johnny Depp in The Rum Diary at the time, but I can't say I've really thought about it since. Let me also hit you quick with Cedar RapidsMidnight in Paris, and Contagion that all really tied for the #11 spot, but haven't really been relevant since. So, I've thrown out a lot of the overhyped Oscar-bait muck here and added some of the finest blockbusters that have emerged in the past couple years, including Fast Five and X-Men: First Class.

I'm not so sure about The Tree of Life, but I still think it's worth noting, even if some of its fire may have dissipated. I still love everything on here, and as Jonah Hill's brand gets stronger, so does Moneyball. And yes, I ranked The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo right next to The Muppets. There's no accounting for my taste in film.

Original 2012 List:

#10: Haywire

#9: Silver Linings Playbook
#8: The Grey
#7: Argo
#6: Looper
#5: Lincoln
#4: 21 Jump Street
#3: The Cabin in the Woods
#2: Django Unchained
#1: The Master

Updated 2012 List:

#10: The Grey
#9: Ruby Sparks
#8: The Dark Knight Rises
#7: Dredd
#6: Zero Dark Thirty
#5: Seven Psychopaths
#4: 21 Jump Street
#3: Goon
#2: Django Unchained 
#1: The Master
Escape from Space!

My total underrated good time romp is clearly Guy Pearce having the time of his life in Lockout, which is as 80s throwback as you're going to get. This year wasn't as strong for immortal comedies, although I might contend that The Campaign does its part. So I swapped out a bunch of those Oscar Winners that I don't care about any more for some that seemed more prescient - Zero Dark Thirty and Dredd, of course. And even though The Cabin in the Woods was a game-changer and remains one of my favorite films of the year, I couldn't see myself watching it again after knowing the twist. That being said, I have replayed the twist's dire aftereffects countless times on YouTube. To be honest, the same goes for Looper. It was an incredible movie, but do we care in 2014?

Goon ended up being my favorite movie of the year, and it's a delight to watch every hockey season. Alongside fare like The Grey, I added the intricate, surprising romantic comedy Ruby Sparks. I was tempted to add Moonrise Kingdom, but it's a bit too much like The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders. Finally, with all this other nonsense, I thought The Dark Knight Rises proved itself to be at the top of the superhero game and deserves that recognition here. Bane was a bigger threat than the Joker in a better movie. Deal with that.

A Closer Look at the 2014 Academy Award Screenwriting Nominees

The Academy Awards Ceremony is less than a month away now, so every week leading up to that we're conducting a more in-depth analysis of some of the categories. Not the crappy Sound Mixing ones, folks, just the important awards. C'mon - name the last five winners of Sound Mixing and then the last five for Best Actor. Today we talk about writing, the core, first ideas that made any great film. For the Academy Awards, this comes in Original and Adapted categories.

Best Original Screenplay

Blue Jasmine: Woody Allen

Two years ago Allen nabbed this award for Midnight in Paris (2011), becoming the most nominated screenwriter in history, along with the oldest winner. With two additional awards in this category underneath his belt, it's tough to completely rule him out, but Blue Jasmine hasn't had as much non-Cate Blanchett-related buzz as some of his other works. He was also a non-presence at the Golden Globes despite being honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award. It's as if Woody doesn't even care if Woody wins this. There's almost no chance this happens.

Nebraska: Bob Nelson

Director, Alexander Payne has a pair of awards for the Adapted Screenplay Category for Sideways (2004) and The Descendants (2011), but Bob Nelson isn't known for much else. There is a lot of kindly "aw shucks" goodwill towards this odd film, but it doesn't really have momentum in this category.

Dallas Buyers Club: Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack

Here is another film where the acting tends to overshadow the writing. Both McConaughey and Leto are virtual locks at both their acting categories for good reason, but the writing isn't elevated tremendously above the typical biography-as-conduit-to-examining-social-issues trope.

American Hustle: David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer

Here is where we really start to dig into some competition. I originally picked American Hustle as the winner here as a consolation for its Best Picture loss to either 12 Years a Slave (2013) or Gravity (2013), but it hasn't quite racked up the amount of  precursor awards to really justify even that prediction any more. Will the Academy turn around to the ultimate hollowness of the Hustle experience? Or are they taken in by the flash? Is that the whole point? Did Russell hustle with Hustle? We'll find out.

Predicted Winner: Her: Spike Jonze
So it's about a man in love with his phone?
Why does anyone think this movie is far-fetched?

After winning both the Golden Globe and the WGA top award, Her seems really to rock on March 2nd. More and more this film is getting over its seemingly absurd premise and people are starting to think that it's more prescient of our times rather than an egregiously goofy premise. Plus, Spike Jonze does deserve an Oscar for a career made from weird roles in movies from Three Kings (1999) to The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), fun in old age makeup in Jackass movies, and some great directorial efforts in underrated flicks from Being John Malkovich (1999) to Where the Wild Things Are (2009).

Best Adapted Screenplay

Philomena: Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope

The rise of Philomena, or Philomania, as the trend is called, would be a pretty hearty upset. There's an interesting story here about Judy Dench trying to find her son and the wacky adventures she gets into with Steve Coogan, but no one's really expecting much out of this small-scope tale. And please don't go see this movie because I said it was a wacky Steve Coogan adventure. IT is not.

Before Midnight: Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater

There is this contingent of fans who love these movies, including Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004). Will this be the indie equivalent to Return of the King (2003), that nabs what would basically be an honorary Oscar for the good work done on behalf of the entire trilogy? Methinks not, although the stretched out dialogue scenes that form most of this film do deserve some hefty praise for their authenticity and natural feel - and the flick has racked up a handful of critics' circle awards for its writing already. A hearty upset could be brewing here.

Captain Phillips: Billy Ray

I keep getting stuck wanting to add a "Cyrus" to the end of that name, but there is a strong amount of goodwill towards this Somalian Pirates Tom Hanks vehicle. Even if I can't get "Somalian Pirates We" out of my head every time I think of it. Anyway, Captain Phillips is a decent movie, but not really a great one, and its praise has been more focused on its acting and direction anyway.

The Wolf of Wall Street: Terence Winter

There really wasn't a snappier film this year, and both Terence and Marty deserve a lot of credit for creating a three-hour film that doesn't drag for a single scene. It's a whizzing yarn that toys with its narrator, fourth wall, and offers a rich intertexuality with its audience and inspirations ranging from Wall Street (1987) to Goodfellas (1990). But yeah, it's also far too divisive and insane to lock this one down.

Predicted Winner: 12 Years a Slave: John Ridley
Also known as "Chiwetel Ejiofor Looks Sad for Two Hours"

For most of the night, 12 Years a Slave's main competition ought to be American Hustle and Gravity, neither of which are represented here. In addition to that simple math, 12 Years offered us one of the best screenplays of the year; an authentic adaptation of Solomon Northrup's original 1853 tale of his horrifying experience. As a film, the writing lets the characters grow and change on their own (often fending off or descending into hopelessness) while trimming any scene that is unnecessary, offering a brisk pace (despite McQueen's lingering camera) that contributes to the emotionally raw experience. This all feeds into the whole point of the movie, which showcases the brutality of the peculiar institution. It's the kind of wholesale coherence in theme, tone, and objective that makes a great film, even if you're not queuing it up on Netflix to relax on a snow day a few years from now.

05 February 2014

Broad City is the "Young Broke Girls in New York City" Show We Need Right Now

It took television a couple tries to get it right. First came 2 Broke Girls on CBS, a demonically sitcom-friendly show created by Michael Patrick King and Whitney Cummings. Then we got HBO's Girls, featuring Lena Dunham, in certain terms brilliant, but far too easy of a target to ridicule. Finally, television nailed a growing trope with Comedy Central's latest late night effort, Broad City.

What does Broad City do that 2 Broke Girls or Girls doesn't? All three shows feature millennials living in New York City who are severely underemployed. Each show, even with pretenses of comedy, does really different things with this premise. Girls wears its patheticness on its sleeve. It's all weeping ennui and to some extent a righteous anger for the shoddy lot many talented members of this generation have received. The parts that are spot on cause Lena to be showered in praise. As the show lurches onward though, just like the generation it depicts, there is a strong urge to yell "shut up and get it together, already."

2 Broke Girls skews in the other direction. It's a torrid show, by all means, the existence of many of its side characters solely as forced stereotypes precludes its blatant racism, and the cadence of the joke set-ups are some of the most typical on television. In parlance to its eponymous girls, however, the show also strikes that line of useless, underemployed ladies trying to make their way in an unforgiving city.

Broad City, though, employs the trope but completely disregards the negativity that would seem inherent to being broke. It lacks the pathos and shame of 2 Broke Girls or the neurotic malaise of Girls. Featuring internet performers, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, as self-described pothead Jewesses, the show is devoid of the idea that being a broke girl is a bad thing. This simple idea liberates the show, at least in the first two episodes that have already aired, to have fun with the patheticness of its female leads like no other Young-Broke-NYC-Girl show before it.

Regarding men, the show is also delightfully dismissive of anything with a penis. Typical guys  in the show are dumb, video game-playing or gym-working asexual entities. The ones that are potential sex interests to the ladies are either objectified as unobtainable hotties or reduced to Hannibal Burress' mumbling serious-dater who will always come up short taming Ilana, who is basically the Joe Pesci of this show. No, Robin Thicke, you aren't domesticating anyone here. It's almost a shame that we tend to call media that effortlessly switches heteronormative gender roles brilliant (see also: The Heat [2013]), but Broad City is fiercely feminist, by really not being overtly feminist at all. It makes sense that Amy Poehler was attracted to it enough to give it the executive producer credentials that allowed it to get on the air in the first place.

But again, what Broad City does best is its lack of regrets. Its characters aren't bummed out or angry at the world that they aren't fulfilling the "life they were meant to have." If anything, they admit they got it too good for what shitty workers they are. It also showcases two of the more human girl characters on cable television right now, which shouldn't deserve praise, but be a basic tenet of any show. The fact that it's on a channel that only a few short years ago featured the insanely misogynistic Secret Girlfriend (Yes, I also wrote a post on that years ago, I watch far too many trashy Comedy Central shows), and basically constantly caters to a rape-friendly frat boy demographic is even more refreshing.

Broad City comes on tonight at 10:30 EST, after Workaholics. I've written about that, too. I've got a problem. I am curious to keep my eye on this show for more than the two episodes that have aired so far and see if I am actually right that this becomes one of the more zeitgeist-y shows out there. Stay tuned, true believers.
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