Sunday, September 30, 2012

"The Avengers" and the Academy Awards

Should The Avengers get nominated at the Oscars come next year?  It's a simple question, and one that I feel is worth exploring.  The Avengers is the best film of the year so far, and if I gave away any awards at this point, it'd sweep.  It's a fantastic film, one that I think will become a classic, and while there is still a lot of year to go, and many, many more movies, I know that The Avengers will still remain in my tops for the year, no matter what comes out.  Of course, I am not the Academy, and they have their own minds when it comes to blockbusters getting nominated.

The Academy Awards have always had a strange relationship with blockbuster filmmaking, a fact that has in many cases led to snubs like The Dark Knight not even getting nominated for Best Picture four years ago.  One reason may be the snobbery of the Academy, not thinking such material is serious enough to warrant consideration, I mean having explosions mixed with emotion and thought is such a terrible combination (note the sarcasm).  Another reason I've always heard is that these blockbusters are just so popular already, they don't need the exposure that the Academy Award lends to a smaller film, but there and again, if the institution desires to truly honor the best in film for a given year, the size of its scale and its budget should not dictate its Oscar chances.  If a big blockbuster truly is the most moving, most thoughtful, and most enjoyable experience of that year -- like The Avengers has been for this year -- then doesn't it deserve the honor of being crowned Best Picture for that individual year?

Now, let's take a step back.  We've just explored all of the reasons why it will be an uphill battle for The Avengers to get nominated for the Oscars, and the aim here isn't to talk about if it even could get nominated, but rather explore why it should.

The Avengers truly is a groundbreaking film.  In this era of franchise filmmaking, where Hollywood wants to create as many sequels as possible off of a pre-existing brand, what The Avengers has done is astonishing.  Not only did The Avengers successfully bring together four different film franchises -- Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, and Thor -- but it also helped redefine what a film franchise can be.

What Marvel has been working toward ever since they started producing their own movies with the first Iron Man, was to create a shared cinematic universe for the Marvel characters.  Like in the comics, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) would feature great solo stories, while also creating the possibility for familiar characters to crossover between movies.  Like in the comics where some characters, say Nick Fury and SHIELD, will show up in Iron Man the same month they show up in Thor.  What this allowed Marvel to do was to shoot for the stars and say, "We really could make an Avengers movie and bring all of these characters that you already know and love onscreen together," and that is exactly what they did.

Now, something that is often forgotten about the Oscars is that Best Picture is honoring the producer of a film.  The entire cast and crew doesn't receive a gold statue, not even the director, the producer is the only one who gets the Best Picture statue, and no producer deserves to be recognized for his vision more than Kevin Feige.  He is the glue that has held the MCU together.  Some credit Robert Downey, Jr., others will even just credit Marvel and the comics themselves, but Kevin Feige is the only constant for all six of the Marvel Studios' movies.  He produced each and every film, it was Feige who had the initial vision to create a Marvel Universe on film that would allow a film such as The Avengers to exist, and The Avengers is the film that bore all of the fruit of his hard work.  You can say that Marvel has been doing the crossover for four years now with little cameos in one another's movies, but The Avengers is the main event, and in many ways, honoring The Avengers would not just honor Feige for that one movie, but honor him for all six Marvel Studios' movies.

All of the Marvel Studios' movies are fun, entertaining, and exceptionally well made, while some have been slightly better than others, there has not been a genuine stinker of the bunch.  The thing is, if one of those movies had not worked, say Iron Man just flat-out flopped, then there would be no The Avengers.  The fact is, there is The Avengers, and it is because all of the Marvel Studios' movies have been great movies, and when there is a consistency of quality, then someone did something right, and that someone was Feige.  An Oscar for a film has never been more deserved, and I don't think there will be another movie this year that is more deserving when taking into account how awesome and groundbreaking The Avengers was.  Now, what about the rest of the fields at the Oscars?

Technical categories such as Special Effects, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing, will more than likely go their way, but things such as Editing, Production Design, Cinematography, and Original Score, wont, and nor do I think it should.  Neither one of these areas were showy enough in The Avengers from other, similar films, to get it in there, even if it is all solid and well done.  Same goes for directing, even though Joss Whedon did a terrific job.  As for acting, a SAG Best Ensemble award would definitely be warranted, but there is no individual performance that stands out, which is all the Oscars honor, so it wont and I don't think should happen.  The only other place I feel The Avengers truly deserves Academy recognition is in the writing.

Best Adapted Screenplay should go to The Avengers.  This is where Joss Whedon really shines and stands out, with his showy, distinguished writing.  First off, to take four different characters that have proven they can be the sole protagonist of their own movies and put them all in one movie, is a challenge.  It's a balancing act to try and give each character equal screen time.  Then, take into account how well Whedon did this, while also retaining the comic book personalities of each character, and I don't think anyone could make a better case as to why The Avengers shouldn't get nominated for Adapted Screenplay.  It's a smart, witty script that is a master class of how these big blockbuster films should be written.  It dots all of the i's and crosses all of the t's of the traditional three-act structure, and yet it still feels fresh and original, due to the marvelous dialogue and characterizations.

Can The Avengers possibly score these nominations?  I am not sure.  Marvel Studios will have to really work at it, spending tons of money to get it to the Academy's attention with screeners and for your consideration ads to let them know that they are taking it seriously and want to get nominated.  From my experience in watching the Oscars, if you don't campaign for it and let the Academy know that you want it, you wont get in, and that is what Marvel must do if The Avengers is to get nominated.  However, the matter as to whether or not The Avengers should get nominated and be considered one of the best films of 2012 is inarguable, there hasn't been a movie thus far this year that is more worthy of the Best Picture crown.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Movie Review: "Looper"

What happens in the future when the Mob wants to get rid of people?  Well, they send them back in time of course.  To a point in time where no one is looking for them.  Standing in wait are these assassins named Loopers, who kill these time travelers on the spot and then incinerate the bodies.  Of course, what happens when a future version of yourself is sent back and you must kill him, failing in the process?  Well, now you're being hunted down while trying to set things right and kill yourself, I mean, your future self.  Still with me?  Because if you are, and you think that sounds cool, then you'll like the movie Looper.

In the film, Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrays a young Bruce Willis with eerie accuracy, in a large part thanks to some excellent prosthetic makeup.  What's so enjoyable about this film though, is that it's just original.  At every turn, writer/director Rian Johnson is turning your usual expectations for a sci-fi film on its head.  The future is not full of flying cars and robots, but it's a more gritty, realistic idea, where only the rich have hover bikes, and the poor still drive wheeled vehicles.  As well, things like telekinesis and time travel are treated as everyday things.  There is some social commentary here, but that's not the real meat of Johnson's story.  The real questions he proposes, is the age old question -- Can you change the future?

While Looper bogs down in it's latter half, as Gordon-Levitt finds himself holed up at a farm with a single mother and her child (who could give Damien from The Omen a run for his money in terms of creepiness), Johnson manages to hold the film together and deliver an emotional ending.  So it isn't perfect, but Looper is one of the more daringly original sci-fi films in a long while.  Featuring stellar action, good performances, and plenty of food for thought, Looper is a worthy sci-fi successor in the Kubrickian-fashion.

I give Looper a B+

Friday, September 21, 2012

Movie Review: "The Master"

I still don't know what The Master is about -- sure, on face value it's a 1950's set story of a drifter who becomes enraptured by a charismatic religious leader, who has shades of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, but what was this entire film about?  In the film, writer/director, Paul Thomas Anderson, does not try to dissect Scientology, it's not even called Scientology in the film, but the Cause.  If it was a film trying to make a case, either for or against the religion, it might have made more sense, but the religion is merely the impetus for the two primary characters, Dodd, the L. Ron Hubbard-impersonator played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the violent and unpredictable drifter, Freddie, portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix.

The performances are real strong, in particular that of Phoenix, who has an animalistic quality to his Freddie Quell that is both frightening, and pitiful, as well, the 70mm cinematography is stunning, but the film makes little sense.  Here's the problem with the film, too much of it is introspective, and not enough of it is clarified for the audience to even know what is truly going on.  Why does Freddie see every woman naked in one scene?  Sure, some introspection is great in a film, leaving certain things up to audience interpretation, but when the entirety of the film's story is open to interpretation as to why we sat through it for nearly 2 and a 1/2 hours, that's when I lose interest.

Perhaps I am not scholarly enough to understand, which is why I don't like The Master.  It's a well made film that is simply there.  It did nothing for me.

I give The Master an F

Friday, September 14, 2012

Movie Review: "Liberal Arts"

Liberal Arts is the second feature film written and directed by How I Met Your Mother star, Josh Radnor, further proving he has a great cinematic eye, an unparalleled knack for writing great dialogue, and an amazing directorial ability.

The film follows Radnor portraying thirty-five-year-old college admissions officer Jesse, a romantic who misses the romantic days of college back in Ohio.  When Jesse is asked to return to his alma mater to speak about his favorite professor, now retiring, Jesse meets nineteen-year-old college student, Zibby, played brilliantly by Elizabeth Olsen, who he quickly falls for.

Thematically, Liberal Arts is such a strong film.  One of the things that makes it so strong is it requires genuine thinking upon seeing it.  You ask yourself, "What was the purpose of this scene, or this character?"  And when you start to fill everything out, you realize how beautifully orchestrated Radnor's script is.  Almost every single scene, every single character plays towards the concept of romanticism, and whether or not it's a naive pursuit, or how romantic ideas can come crashing down around you, as they do for Jesse once he realizes how vastly different Zibby truly is from him.  From Zac Efron's modern day hippy, Nat, who just hangs around the campus, spouting off romantic ideas, to Zibby's old-fashioned love of classical music and hand-written letters, each character works toward the central theme of the film.  On top of all that, the film is quite funny, with most of the humor portrayed realistically rather than in a sitcom-like fashion.  What makes the moments funny though, isn't the actors hamming them up, but it's Radnor's script and his smart characters, making sarcastic and realistic comments like normal people would in everyday life.

To say that I loved this film would be an understatement, I feel it is one of the best written films to come along in a while, and I feel that Radnor shows himself as an Indie director with promise, especially in the montage scenes where Jesse and Zibby are communicating through hand-written letters and listening to classical music.  Radnor shows so much confidence in the camera movements, and in the way that he directs the viewer's attention, often showing up many directors who have more experience than he does.

Liberal Arts is just a magnificent film that is worth seeing.  The acting performances are all super strong, in particular a scene stealing performance from Richard Jenkins as Jesse's old college professor, who realizes the romantic idea of retirement isn't what he thought it would be.  This is just one of those films that will stick in your memory for a while upon seeing it.

I give Liberal Arts an A

Monday, September 10, 2012

Hidden Gems: "The Painted Veil"

Lavish period pieces are in some ways a dying breed.  It is very rare for a period piece to emerge as a serious box office contender in the modern cinematic landscape dominated by big explosions, superheroes, and robots.  While I love all of those things I just mentioned, I also love a good period piece.  These films cost so much money to produce, and with a declining audience for them, most of these films have to be independent, but these films aren't like modern day indie dramas or comedies that can be made for a million or less, most of these films require studio budgets, or a seriously deep pocket, so one can see why there are so few made nowadays.  With all of that said, it makes The Painted Veil an all more impressive cinematic achievement and a genuine hidden gem.

Released in 2006 and starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton, this adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's novel by no means breaks new ground.  It's a straightforward story following a British doctor in 1920's China, who after discovering his wife in an affair, moves both him and his wife to a cholera infested village in the middle of the Chinese countryside to work at their hospital there, seeing this as punishment for his wife.  Over time, the two reconnect and form a deeper bond than ever before.

It's fairly standard fare of old Hollywood storytelling, but this is not an old Hollywood film.  This was an independently financed, exceptionally well made, and brilliantly acted film that arose out of the modern day film industry, when these types of films aren't being made, and that's what makes all of the difference.

During the '30s or '40s, a film like this starring major Hollywood players was a dime a dozen, but by this film being made now, you aren't seeing Garbo and Herbert Marshall, but rather Naomi Watts and Edward Norton, two of the best actors of this current generation.  It's not common to see Norton or Watts in such an old-fashioned, period film, and that is a joy in-and-of itself.  Then take in the fact that this film, unlike a film from the '30s or '40s, is now able to include some of the more salacious material from the novel, being able to depict an affair or the effects of cholera in a more visual way than most films in the Golden Age of Hollywood were able to do.  All of these factors add up to make this a unique film for this generation.

Edward Norton and Naomi Watts both deliver one of the finer performances of their careers.  Imposing their wonderful performances with some beautiful cinematography of the Chinese countryside, director John Curran does nothing fancy, he just tells the story and lets the emotions bubble underneath the surface.  The film ultimately makes you believe that love can be found again after it's been lost, and that is an accomplishment that Curran, Watts, Norton, and the rest of the cast and crew should be extremely proud of.

This is just a fine film that grossed only $8 million, and it deserves to be seen.  If you like period romances, fine acting, and good storytelling, then The Painted Veil is worth you're seeking out to find it.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Movie Review: "The Words"

In the film, The Words, actor Bradley Cooper portrays a struggling writer who finds an old manuscript in a briefcase he bought in Paris and publishes it as if it was his own work.  What is most intriguing about this film is it's thematic focus on one's past decisions and how that not only affects our future, but how it also affects our internal views of ourselves.  The performances are real strong, in particular Jeremy Irons as the original writer of the manuscript.  Where the film slows down is when it deals with the storyline of Dennis Quaid's character, a writer who wrote the story of Cooper's character as a novel.  Honestly though, the film is so emotionally resonant overall it overcomes its own shortcomings.

I give The Words a B+