Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Cinematically Inclined: “Kimjongilia”

I couldn’t believe what I had heard. Apparently, at the 2010 Winter Olympics in my hometown, everyone in the athletes’ village had a wonderful time socializing, learning one another’s cultures, practicing speaking foreign languages, becoming intimate (hey, this was an enclosed gathering of super-fit and beautiful young people, what did you expect?) and making new friendships. What I heard, however, was that the sole and exclusive exception to this rule was the North Korean team. They were only allowed out of a special confined area of the village to practice, compete and eat. God forbid they should try to sightsee or even speak to another competitor. Apparently this practice was taken to preserve the integrity of the North Korean cultural experience, but I suspected that this was done so that no one could tell the team that their leader was a contemptible human being to the world at large. I thought about this anecdote while watching Kimjongilia, and wondering if those athletes and the population in that country wonder just how insular they really are.

The writer-director of Kimjongilia is N.C. Heikin, a thoughtful, eloquent woman who also runs a blog dedicated to exposing the ills of North Korea. She has been able to secure the confidence of numerous North Korean refugees, freedom fighters and escapees who successfully fled the closed country to share the horrors of daily life and prison camps. If you thought the gulags in Soviet Russia were a thing of the past, you’d be sadly mistaken to find that they are plentiful and active in North Korea, even at this moment. Perhaps most fascinating about the propaganda claiming that no such thing exists is that there are actual recent pictures of these places on Google Maps.

Although this is a film named after the flower created for the now-dead Dear Leader, the film itself doesn’t attempt to explore the cult of personality around him. It already assumes that the viewer is well-aware that his egomania, coupled with unrestrained power, has made him into one of the last supreme-overlord-type megalomaniacs on this earth (I often wondered why he never had a guy’s night out with Robert Mugabe). This is a man whose image has been plastered throughout the country as a symbol of reverence and akin to an non-Christian deity floating freely on earth. There are actual people who sincerely believe Kim doesn’t have normal bodily functions. No wonder thisvideo surfaced on YouTube and was viewed over five million times within the first five days of its being uploaded. Heikin instead focuses on the real-life horrors encountered first-hand by those lucky enough to have escaped and lived to tell the tale.

This is a film confirming the startling horrors in that country are under Kim Jong-Il. We find that foreign aid was offered to North Korea in 1994 due to mass starvation, only for Kim to siphon the funds to an unseen super-elite hidden upper class to him, as well as to building their nuclear weapon program. The work camps were not only akin to those of the Stalin era, they had built-in practices of measuring rations, and imprisoning and purging at least three generations of families to every offender who is taken to the prison camp.

Writer-director N.C. Heikin
Each interview subject is compelling and engaging. A world-class pianist was shocked to find out that there were other styles of music in the world outside of North Korea when he was first sent to Russia to study classical piano, and was reported to the authorities for playing a selection by Richard Clayderman and for even listening to anything non-Korean. If even the Soviets allowed their nationals to travel (relatively) unencumbered in the U.S. and listen to Michael Jackson, something’s unquestionably more draconian about your regime. A former singer was cast out of her promising career for sounding “too South Korean” and therefore “capitalist”: just how can someone’s singing voice sound capitalist, I ask you? There are accounts of escapes northward to China, where it is reported that over two million ethnic Koreans live, many of them escapees from the North. Unfortunately, life is not necessarily better outside of the Dear Leader’s reach, as human traffickers preyed on escapees and sold them into sexual and human slavery. Human grimness seems to trail even those who escaped in the form of Kim Jong-Il’s long shadow.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Modern Film Classics: “Little Women” (Christmas Edition)

Everyone has their annual Christmas movie rituals. Most people favour It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street. Less orthodox but equally worthy selections include Tim Burton’s the Nightmare Before Christmas, the riotous A Christmas Story, Die Hard (yes that is a Christmas movie and I will not argue with you otherwise) and two contemporary selections are Love, Actually and The Holiday. My choice has always been Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version of Little Women.

Filmed in and around Victoria, British Columbia, an afternoon’s ferry ride away from where I live, this version of Louisa May Alcott’s classic stars Winona Ryder in her career-best performance as Jo March. For all of the hoopla surrounding her status as the “It Girl” of the 90s, this was the one role that should have earned her an Academy Award (she received a Best Actress nomination). The magical cast includes Susan Sarandon as Marmee, Clare Danes as the ill-fated Beth, Trini Alvarado as prim-and-proper Meg, a very young Kirsten Dunst sharing the role of Amy with Samantha Mathis, Gabriel Byrne as Professor Friedrich, Eric Stoltz as the tutor Meg marries, the late comic actress Mary Wickes as Aunt March and Christian Bale as Laurie. There has, at no other time in history, been such a completely perfect cast assembled to deliver breath and life to Alcott’s beloved characters.

Call the neighbours! Spreading Christmas cheer
The tale of young girls growing into adulthood is a well-known one. The March family’s father is a general and often away at the front lines, fighting for the North in the Civil War. Money is tight in those days, and having sausages and tangerines at Christmastime were luxuries. Without career prospects available to women in that era, the March daughters bravely take on odd jobs, watch the home, attend school and eventually take on unorthodox but enterprising ventures for themselves in that era. None of the March girls sit around waiting for husbands, for they are too busy staging plays for their own entertainment, writing short stories for publication (this is Jo’s vocation), making do with what they have in terms of wartime supplies in the house, and generally supporting one another. Seeing the way the actors interact, one could imagine that this was the template in contemporary fiction for the concept of “sisterhood” (and that doesn’t include mani-pedis or shopping detox).

Bale (Laurie) and Ryder (Jo)
There’s a strong feminist undercurrent flowing throughout the film. Jo is played with the right amount of feistiness and enterprise by Ryder, the result being a pre-feminist hero doesn’t suffer fools, but who trusts herself thoroughly and able to take constructive criticism, no matter how headstrong she might be at times. When the film was released at Christmas 1994, critics complained that it was somewhat anachronistic due to the lessons Marmee imparts to her daughters. I always got the sense that it was mostly the male critics who were too busy worshipping Tarantino’s then-new Pulp Fiction and dismissing this version as being too much like Murphy Brown. What was wrong with imparting wisdom such as the now oft-quoted Dr. Seuss truism about never minding the people who don’t matter? I could always tell in some of the less flattering reviews that none of these critics have actually read Alcott’s original novel, or if they did, they dismissed it as “girls’ stuff”. In a recent interview with 60 Minutes on playing Margaret Thatcher, Meryl Streep remarked that her female characters are always described as being “strong-minded”, and yet this adjective never applied to male actors. Using that same logic, I deduce that perhaps contemporary critics when Little Women was released felt the same urge to use that descriptor needlessly and mistakenly assumed it was “anachronistically feminist” or some such nonsense. Perhaps Alcott herself was somewhat progressive to begin with, did you ever think about that?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Book of the Year: “Bossypants” by Tina Fey

I have officially given up writing my memoirs. I have thrown out all electronic drafts, random pieces of paper with quotes, notebooks half-filled with remembrances and deleted the backups. I have done this because no matter how much I try to conjure a hilarious, wise but pointed and still very true memoir, I just know that mine will nowhere nearly match the wit, humanity and genius of Tina Fey’s Bossypants, my favourite book of 2011.

Fey charts the course of her life from her humble beginnings in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Since her mother had her at 40, when it was a rare occurrence in 1970, she was referred to as “Mrs. Fey and her change-of-life-baby!” We follow her in high school summer theatre camps, which she said was not intended to be a training ground for future gay theatre nerds, but of which she says “you know how sometimes squirrels eat out of a bird feeder?” There are hilarious memories of her first period (“Modess! It’s coming for you!, it hissed at me!”); her first out-of-college job at the Boystown YMCA in Chicago (“the centre of all human grimness”); her days traveling throughout the country performing Improv for $75 a show; her arrival at Saturday Night Live and her first meeting with Lorne Michael (a friendship which evolved anywhere from Annie / Daddy Warbucks to Mr. and Mrs. Michael Jackson and back again); the creation of 30 Rock (“an experiment to confuse your grandparents”); the 2008 presidential election and Sarah Palin impression, motherhood and her hopes and dreams for her daughter. You are probably already well-aware with the gloriously brief chapter “A Mother’s Prayer for Its Daughter”, which is likely posted on your fridge or on at least one co-worker’s cubicle at your office. And you’ll love her description of what it’s like to be on a magazine cover photo shoot (“With the wind blowing in your long extensions you feel like Beyoncé. The moment the wind machine stops you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror and wonder, ‘Why is the mother from Coal Miner’s Daughter here?’”).

I told my friend Mark Ainley at The Piano Files recently that Bossypants is my choice of book of the year and that I intended to blog about it. I read aloud from the section where Fey thanked Joyce DeWitt for “not looking like everyone else” (and not just like “a Liza Minnelli doll damaged in a fire”) in the 1970s, when the era of Suzanne Somers and Farrah Fawcett set the beauty standard for everyone else (“Do you remember a time when pop culture was so white that Jaclyn Smith was the chocolate?!”). Mark put it simply to me: “the funniest people see the most clearly”. And it’s true. Everything Fey puts in her hilarious memoir is not the recycled product of numerous remembrances from instantly-made celebrities on reality TV series. What she brings to the page are her insights from years of struggle and hard work, shaped into perfect sense by perspective. No one will come away from Bossypants with easy catchphrases or delusions of going on spiritual quests (remember that Eat Pray Love was as much a marketing concept as it was a spiritual awakening for its author). Fey didn’t grow up thinking she was “special” or felt entitled to anything. She is not a self-proclaimed “artist” who excuses bad behaviour or poor judgment with that easy label. Fey is just a really funny person who liked to write, perform and share that love with everyone. She didn’t get famous for being on a reality show. Tina Fey got to where she is now through sheer hard work behind the scenes. This includes but is not limited to years of working in summer theatre, university acting seminars, night classes, writing on SNL and putting in 16-hour days on set before she traded that in for another 14-hour-a-day-gig running 30 Rock.

And she’s not even done yet. What keeps Fey going on 30 Rock is not just her love for her work, but also all of its attendant and necessary responsibilities. She realized that if she were to have quit the show a year or two into it that she would have royally corn-holed her entire staff. She admits that not everyone working on the show is at their dream job, and they had mortgages to pay, just like she does. This perspective keeps Fey from pulling any diva-like antics and sticking to the work at hand. She did, however, hint that the show might end before too long, as she indicated that “it was time to start looking for parachutes again” after the show’s low-rated yet long, critically acclaimed and culturally relevant run, but you don’t get the sense that she would end the show on a whim. She’s above that.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Classic TV: House Hunters International

Escapist TV has now reached the point where “house porn” is one of the newest forms of stealth soft-core erotica.

The original House Hunters on Home & Garden TV focuses on prospective buyers in the United States looking to upgrade or downsize into new homes. A global spin-off the series emerged in 2009, when HGTV decided that it was a good idea to show the challenge of buying or renting a home outside America. Given the terrible economic state and the startlingly high number of foreclosures in the U.S. within the last few years, it seems perverse to watch people get into debt while trying to find the perfect home. But the fact is that in our new economy, talent is moving globally and these people must all live somewhere. We move for love, for money, for a change of pace in life. This show might seem fantastical today, but it really shows that the dream of picking up and starting a new life isn’t out of reach.

House Hunters International (which I’m calling “HHI” since that’s a long title) follows, in each 30-minute episode, people who are moving entire countries, usually to take new jobs and / or be close to family, or for love or retirement. The prospective buyers or renters could be from anywhere. The show has followed a Canadian national moving home to her birthplace of Tel Aviv, a former Olympic skier from Edmonton who bought a rental mansion in Punta Cana, circus performers from Cirque du Soleil buying a country home in France, Brits buying vacation homes in Andalucia, two brothers returning to Singapore from Australia and Manhattan to start a business, and an Irishman who moves to Bulgaria to be with the woman he loves while she’s finishing university. HHI has gone to Turin, Nairobi, Sydney, Vanuatu, Hong Kong, Mumbai and Marrakesh. The show even follows, to my great surprise, a student from my university days who worked in the office across the hall from me in the student union building buying an apartment to make his stay in Tokyo permanent!

Dream home? Looking in St. Maartens
Some of the buyers are rather entitled and complain that they aren’t getting enough “bang” for their buck. Some are looking purely to acquire properties in areas that they always know to be “tourist-friendly” but who somehow seem to conveniently overlook kidnapping epidemics where they plan to settle as foreign nationals. Some pack up the whole family and simply think they can buy a residence in the centre of the city for a family of ten without paying a lot of money for it. This makes for unintentional comedy.

Perhaps what’s most interesting about HHI is not just entertainment value, but the living works of art they plan to move into. The homes are absolutely amazing in some episodes, given the size of the budget for purchase or rental. We are treated to palatial villas in Mexico right on the beach, six-bedroom three-level Cliffside homes with infinity pools in Kuala Lumpur, state-of-the-art condos in Zurich with private elevators, and brand-new lofts in the centre of Berlin that has more room for less money than you’d pay in New York, London or Vancouver. You can also find quaint homes such as tiny 300-square-foot pied-a-terres in Montmartre, seaside apartments in Slovenia that all overlook the Riviera, and historic but spacious attic spaces in Buenos Aires. Each home has the potential to be a work of art, and HHI shows the before-and-after once the buyer or renter moves in.

Move-in ready: planned community in Abu Dabi
It’s also a bit of wish fulfillment. I had mentioned how it was a dream to move for love, for a change of pace in life, or for a promising international career. It’s also surprisingly demure in tone for a reality series, with little sensationalism and no one throws up or has a hissy fit, not even during the home shopping phase. HHI is accompanied by a soothing voiceover that calmly makes the home-hunting process a relaxed experience. That sense of security and safety makes the show excellent comfort viewing, and for those of us who are cautious about moving out of the country to start anew, it’s also a revealing glimpse into local conveyancing practices. Who knew that Bulgaria doesn’t allow foreign nationals to own property, unless you do it through a locally-incorporated business you own or start up? In most of South America, the method of payment is cash-and-carry, meaning that you’ll have to get to the country with cash in hand, in a safe, and arrange to deliver the deposit in a money belt attached to your torso. You’ll also occasionally catch a glimpse into just how expensive cities such as London or Paris really are, and what you might expect to get at certain price points. (In case you’re wondering, they break down the price per square foot.)

It might be a stretch to consider HHI as “classic” television, but in fifty years’ time, this will be a time capsule showing how the global community moved in this time and place. Perhaps by that point we’ll have abandoned Earth and have moved to the Moon, perhaps we’ll all have gone underwater, perhaps international movement will become commonplace and it would be strange for someone to not have a career that takes them out of the country at least once in their lives. For now and for those of us who aren’t moving anytime soon (or plan on it), HHI is the kind of somewhat realistic escapist entertainment that doesn’t involve celebrity weddings, puking on the beach, or the initials “g”, “t” and “l” in that order.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Sweetie, Darling! The Return of “Absolutely Fabulous”

Christmas has come early to a lot of us who love Jennifer Saunders’s thoroughly subversive celebrity industry comedy Absolutely Fabulous. Originally premiering in the spring of 1992, the British series focused on trend-obsessed PR firm owner Edina “Eddy” Monsoon (Saunders) and her need to continually stay current on fashion trends and celebrity. This involves copious amounts of embarrassment to her straight-laced daughter Saffron (Julia Sawalha), who instead aspired to be a civil servant or work in the public sector, much to Eddy’s chagrin. Eddy’s best friend, magazine editor (now “lifestyle coordinator”) Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley) is continuously drugged up, drunk or at odds with Saffron while egging Eddy to take the worst possible course of action if it meant that they could skip out of work and have lunch at Harvey Nichols. Also hanging around are Eddy’s bizarre assistant Bubble (Jane Horrocks), ex-husbands (one gay, one straight), Saffron’s babydaddy and Eddy’s senile but lovingly deadpan mother (June Whitfield).

Over the years, Eddy’s home has been continually upgraded, especially the kitchen in which the action occurs. Despite the current vogue for shooting comedy series as single-camera productions on film, AbFab (as it is affectionately known to diehard fans like me) is still shot multi-camera, in front of a studio audience. And yet it doesn’t remain antiquated or like a product of its times. It’s probably because the bad behaviour, in a reversal of the conventional parent-child relationship, remains one of the most hideously funny dynamics in comedy history.

AbFab returns for only its seventh proper series, not counting the odd Christmas special, this year on Christmas Day. Perhaps this is the key to AbFab’s success, and why they show it at Christmastime every year in the UK: because it’s like the worst family reunion, happening all the time, and it’s pushed beyond the boundaries of proper decorum and sometimes borders on what constitutes human decency, yet it’s strangely accurate in its understanding of dynamics. And at its heart, despite the sick twisted emotional f***withal / buggery (not the literal sense) going on, there’s real love amongst family and friends. Plus, who wouldn’t want to see a middle-aged woman try to desperately appear young, current and hip if she just surrounds herself with the latest trends, music, fashion, etc.? (It’s no coincidence that Eddy worships Madonna, who may not be getting any younger but can stay current better than Eddy possibly can.) The show has a rabid following in the UK and also has an ardent gay following, given that is bitchery remains unmatched on contemporary television.

The brand-new AbFab series promises more pointed British comedy from its creator. Consider that since the series started, the world begat Facebook, Twitter and iPhones. There is a plethora of new material to mine, to confuse and befuddle the entire cast and showcase the insane manners in which Eddy and her PR firm try to keep up. The creators remain tight-lipped on what happens but we can look forward to Eddy and Patsy waking up on a sheik’s yacht, worshipping Madonna, Twittering and – because they haven’t stopped following royalty since Princess Di – some attempt to cash in on Kate Middleton and Wills. I can’t wait.

AbFab’s new series premieres on BBC One on Christmas Day at 22:00 GMT, and on BBC America in January 2012. In the meantime, please enjoy previews of the new series and some classic clips after the jump.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Oscar 2012: the Golden Globe Nominations

Until the guilds and the Critics Choice Awards wielded greater influence, the Golden Globes were considered the traditional bellwether of who would eventually be nominated for, and win, Academy Awards. Their choices today still make an impact and keep films and the associated talent in the conversation. If nothing else, they remain an excellent venue for Ricky Gervais to ridicule movie stars in their natural element and for stars to be legitimately inebriated on live television (hello Ryan Philippe in 2006, with Reese Witherspoon’s smile turning into a clenched grin as the evening wore on).

I won’t bore you by explaining how the status quo remains unchanged for The Artist, Hugo, Moneyball, The Descendants and The Help. Look for just about each of these films to receive at least one prize each when the winners are unveiled on January 15. Let’s instead focus on the films that got a boost today from their recognition.

Top of mind is George Clooney’s other effort, his The Ides of March. Everyone knows that the Hollywood Foreign Press, who determines the nominees and winners, absolutely loves Clooney the way the National Board of Review does. This year, they nominated him not just for his almost-assured Oscar nom for The Descendants, they honoured him as a Best Director and a Best Screenplay finalist. Ides was floundering in the race and its four high-profile nominations keep it in the mix. It’s not over for the critically acclaimed fall drama quite yet. In fact, the film’s more serious adult drama tone bears a lot of similarities in the run-up to Oscar for 2007’s Michael Clayton, which also starred Clooney. What Ides needs to be kept top of mind are nominations from the producers’, writers’ and directors’ guilds to make a serious play for Oscar.

Another double nominee and surprise beneficiary is Ryan Gosling, seemingly everywhere as a leading man this year. Both of his nods this morning are surprises: one for Ides, the other in the Musical / Comedy Actor race for Crazy Stupid Love. He received a Crix Choice nom the other day for Drive, which was considered the stronger of his two films, and which was shockingly shut out yesterday when the Screen Actors Guild Award nominations were announced. Unfortunately, despite all this recognition, Oscar does not honour a body of work and Gosling, a former nominee in 2006 for Half Nelson, might be kept out due not only to the fierce competition for Best Actor, but also by his body of work this year alone. Remember that last year he was cruelly left off the ballot while co-star Michelle Williams landed in the Best Actress race for their Blue Valentine.

Owen Wilson and Marion Cotillard in
Midnight in Paris
The Hollywood Foreign Press loves Woody Allen. They were the first group to recognize his major return to form for 2005’s Match Point, and three years ago they named Vicky Cristina Barcelona the best Musical / Comedy Film of 2008. Given the excellent critical and commercial response to this year’s Midnight in Paris, a nominee in four major categories, we should keep the film in conversation for Oscar. It’s not a guarantee of course, but it’s certainly not out of the question. The film’s DVD / Blu-Ray release next week, timed to coincide with the crucial voting period, will remind those critics who initially loved the film in the summer of how worthy it is.

Glenn Close and Janet McTeer are on the upswing again after blanking out at Critics Choice. They both earned SAG nominations yesterday and today they each received Globe nominations as well. It’s not really a surprise that the guild honoured Close, as she is a veteran actress well-respected and loved by her peers. What she needs is to hit the circuit hard and remind everyone that Albert Nobbs is a passion project. She played the role onstage in the early 80s, when it was an obscure play, then lobbied for the last 30 years to get it filmed. The added bonus is that Close co-wrote the script and is a double nominee, having also been nominated for co-writing the film’s song. Critical response to the film has been soft, but given the goodwill she has earned from her peers and her continuously remarkable work on television in the last few years, including Damages, The Lion in Winter and The Wire, Close should find herself invited to the Kodak in some way, shape or form.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Sneak Preview: “The Dark Knight Rises” Prologue

Ordinarily, it would be vainglorious to screen the first few minutes of a yet-to-be-completed new motion picture, unless it’s presented in film festivals as a work in progress. Perhaps the best use of this was in 1991, when Disney screened Beauty and the Beast using then-new computerized animation blended with traditional hand paintings, heralding a renaissance in animated film. Perhaps the most recent example was Madonna’s W.E. at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, which secured it a distribution deal through The Weinstein Company. Whether or not the film is a masterpiece waiting in the wings or a misbegotten vanity project (if you believe some of the early reviews accorded W.E.), it’s a great way to gauge audience interest before a project is completed and can be fine-tuned.

Beyond industry screenings, few films warrant a public viewing the way that Christopher Nolan’s eagerly-anticipated The Dark Knight Rises can. Considering its predecessor’s massive box office (the third highest domestic total in history), its canonical status as one of the greatest American films of 2000s, and its magnificently ghostly Oscar-winning performance by Heath Ledger, it more than justifies a public screening, even if they only show the six-minute prologue. Tonight, Warner Brothers quietly screened the prologue for select audiences.

Nolan has a lot to live up to. The franchise was rejuvenated in spectacular fashion with Batman Begins in 2005. The Dark Knight was haunted not just by the genius of Ledger’s embodiment of the Joker, which I consider one of perhaps the ten greatest performances ever committed to celluloid, but by the knowledge that its tragic star burned his essence, including his chaos, pain and primal scream, into the role. The Dark Knight Rises is burdened only by the genius of its predecessor. To be fair, Warner Brothers did a similar launch in December 2007, launching the preview seven months before that mercurial film opened to a rapturous response the following summer.

And how was tonight’s screening? Can we expect to be disappointed? Is this purely a marketing tool or is it a legitimate way to gauge fanboy feedback? (Mild spoilers after the jump.)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Oscar 2012: Critics Choice Awards Nominations

In the last decade, no other critics’ group has so closely mirrored the list of potential Oscar nominations the way the Critics Choice Awards (formerly the Broadcast Film Critics’ Association) has. They correctly forecast 7 of the last 10 Best Picture Oscar winners and before that threw their support to future winners American Beauty and Gladiator. Two years ago they throw awards prognosticators for a loop when Sandra Bullock was one of their two winners for Best Actress, and she went onto sweep the Golden Globe and SAG prizes before winning her Oscar. It’s for this reason that awards-watchers should pay close attention to who is at least nominated here before going onto choosing their Oscar pool.

The major nominees are (and you can click here for the complete list of nominations):

Best Film: The Artist; The Descendants; Drive; Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; The Help; Hugo; Midnight in Paris; Moneyball; The Tree of Life; War Horse

Best Actor: George Clooney (The Descendants); Leonardo DiCaprio (J. Edgar); Jean Dujardin (The Artist); Michael Fassbender (Shame); Ryan Gosling (Drive); Brad Pitt (Moneyball)

Best Actress: Viola Davis (The Help); Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene); Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady); Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin); Charlize Theron (Young Adult); Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn)

Best Supporting Actor: Kenneth Branagh (My Week with Marilyn); Albert Brooks (Drive); Nick Nolte (Warrior); Oswalt Patton (Young Adult); Christopher Plummer (Beginners); Andy Serkis (Rise of the Planet of the Apes)

Best Supporting Actress: Bérénice Bejo (The Artist); Jessica Chastain (The Help); Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids); Carey Mulligan (Shame); Octavia Spencer (The Help); Shailene Woodley (The Descendants)

It should come as no surprise that The Artist and Hugo lead the field. What’s striking are the similarities between the two. Both are a throwback to the cinematic past, incorporating more traditional and less avant-garde storytelling methods, each has at least one major critics’ group best film prize (Artist topped New York, Hugo took the National Board), across-the-board citations and runner-up votes, and each has 11 nominations here. While neither feels like an outright Best Picture winner at this point, they have helped shape the race.

A winning cast? Davis and Spencer, nominees
Anyone doubting The Help’s Oscar chances should sit up and take notice of its seven nominations including Best Picture and four citations for its cast. The last time a drama on interracial friendship in the Deep South received mixed-to-positive critical notices but became a box office bonanza with a leading lady whose inevitable Oscar win could not be denied, it was The Blind Side and Sandra Bullock. Yes, I’m drawing parallels here now between The Help and Best Actress frontrunner Viola Davis, and I’m sticking to it. Add The Help to your list of Oscar contenders now. The film’s DVD / Blu-Ray release in early December, backed by a heavy promotional campaign right when the nomination ballots are due, was a canny move on the studio’s part.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Oscar 2012: L.A. Film Critics Association Awards & Boston Film Critics Awards

In continuing Academy Awards-season film-critics-prize-giving coverage, here are the winners announced by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the Boston Society of Film Critics:

Scorsese's Hugo
Best Film: The Descendants (runner-up: The Tree of Life)
Best Director: Terrence Malick for The Tree of Life (runner-up: Martin Scorsese for Hugo)
Best Actor: Michael Fassbender for Shame, A Dangerous Method, Jane Eyre and X-Men: First Class (runner-up: Michael Shannon for Take Shelter)
Best Actress: Yoon Jeong-Hee for Poetry (runner-up: Kirsten Dunst for Melancholia)
Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer for Beginners (runner-up: Oswalt Patton for Young Adult)
Best Supporting Actress: Jessica Chastain for The Help, The Tree of Life, Coriolanus, Take Shelter, The Debt and Texas Killing Field (runner-up: Janet McTeer for Albert Nobbs)
Best Screenplay: A Separation (runner-up: The Descendants)
Best Documentary: Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Best Animation: Rango (runner-up: The Adventures of Tintin)
Best Cinematography: The Tree of Life
Best Production Design: Hugo (runner-up: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)
Best Music: Hanna (runner-up: Drive)

Best Film: The Artist (runners-up: Hugo and Margaret)
Best Director: Martin Scorsese for Hugo (runner-up: Michal Hazanavicius for The Artist)
Best Actor: Brad Pitt for Moneyball (runners-up: George Clooney for The Descendants and Michael Fassbender for Shame)
Best Actress: Michelle Williams for My Week with Marilyn (runner-up: Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady)
Best Supporting Actor: Albert Brooks for Drive
Best Supporting Actress: Melissa McCarthy for Bridesmaids(!!) (runner-up: Jeannie Berlin for Margaret)
Best Screenplay: Moneyball
Best Ensemble: Carnage (Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz)
Best New Filmmaker: Sean Durkin for MarthaMarcy May Marlene 
Best Animation: Rango
Best Foreign Film: Incendies (runners-up: A Separation and Poetry)
Best Documentary: Project Nim (runner-up: Bill Cunningham New York)
Best Cinematography: The Tree of Life (runner-up: Hugo)
Best Music: (tie) Drive and The Artist
Best Editing: The Clock (runner-up: Hugo)

Supporting Actor: Brooks
Martin Scorsese didn’t set out to make a critical darling when he embarked on Hugo, he just wanted to bring a children’s story to life. Boston has always been appreciative of his efforts, and they were in the first group to cite his work for The Departed, which won him his richly-deserved (and so far only) Oscar in 2006. Across-the-board wins and runner-up citations from both groups in the film, director and technical categories, combined with the big wins at the National Board of Review, will likely forecast a number of nominations for the commercially-underwhelming Hugo.

Supporting Actress: McCarthy!
The Tree of Life picked up more momentum and is making its case for a Best Picture nomination, even if it is extremely divisive, with wins for Malick and Chastain. In other words, major nominations, critical citations and appearances on “best-of” year-end lists is rolling it towards an invitation to the big dance. If nothing else, it will win the Oscar for Best Cinematography. Whatever you think of the film itself and director Terrence Malick’s artistic choices – whether you regard it as a profound meditation on the circle of life or think it’s just a hot mess – it was a great-looking picture. Unless he’s somehow disqualified, director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki should start writing his speech now.

We need to consider Moneyball as more than just a box office hit with a good-looking movie star front-and-centre in it. Pitt’s win in Boston, paired with his victory in New York, makes him the distinct frontrunner in Best Actor. The fact that the film has also racked up another screenplay nomination, combined with excellent reviews, makes it a very likely Best Picture nominee, alongside Hugo and The Artist, which appears to be on a roll with its latest win in Boston.

The Descendants hasn’t been doing the same business that director Alexander Payne has had with his previous work, Sideways, but the win in LA gives it leverage in the Best Picture race. Look for the film to land nominations in major categories. The only caveat I will give was that prior to Sideways, Payne’s previous film About Schmidt blew away the LA group’s solar plexus and named it Best Film, but it was left out of the Oscars save for two acting nominations.

Body of work: Fassbender is LA's choice
Fassbender, at last, picks up a major critics’ citation in the Best Actor field. The momentum right now is for Shame, which has garnered attention for its controversial subject matter and NC-17 rating. It appears that the Academy may be privy to more unorthodox choices, even with the formerly dreaded NC-17, given Michelle Williams’s nomination for the similarly-rated Blue Valentine last year. It’s also apparent that they are honouring him for a body of work, and looking at his range in roles this year it wasn’t difficult to justify it. He’s played Sigmund Freud, Mr. Rochester and Magneto all in one year! His ability to move between classic literature, a known historical figure and a fanboy favourite means he’s got wide support. Look for him to lock in for a nomination, but for Shame, the film with the mojo at the moment.

Speaking of Williams, she needed a major boost from a major critics group and she got it. Winning at Boston, on top of her win this week in Washington, is a great shot in the arm for her campaign. The film has received somewhat mixed-to-positive reviews, but universal praise has centered on her performance in particular.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Silence is Golden: “The Artist”

“Give them what they want: love, and a bit with a dog.” – Shakespeare in Love

Have you ever enjoyed a movie so much that you leave with a silly little grin from ear to ear and a strong urge to hug everyone around you, not just your companions, on the way out of the theatre? I will sleep well tonight and wake up tomorrow looking like I had slept with a coat hanger in my mouth all night, thanks to Michel Hazanavicius’s film The Artist.

Daring in concept and execution, this film is in black and white, and silent all over. Yup, as in Charlie Chaplin films, complete with title cards to punctuate expository but necessary dialogue, a continuous musical score, and no dialogue. If this doesn’t interest you, please go defile yourself with that new Chipmunks sequel or watch Tom Cruise rappel off the world’s tallest building, because I don’t want you to read my blog.

A sensation at this year’s Cannes film festival, where it won the Best Actor prize, The Artist follows a seemingly played-out A Star is Born story template and turns it on its cheeky head. George Valentin (Jean Dujardin, one of this year’s great acting finds) is a star in the silent era, vain and smug, but who has the world at his feet. A chance encounter with a young fan and aspiring actress named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, Hazanavicius’s wife) leads to a yo-yo in their fortunes. Peppy earns a contract as a studio player and graduates from extra to chorus girl to featured player to romantic lead, while George dismisses the advent of the new “talkie” motion pictures, and banks his fortune on a project that finishes his career, his marriage and his fortune. Only his faithful dog (played by Uggie, the most expressive Jack Russell Terrier on any screen since Eddie on Frasier) and chauffeur (James Cromwell) remain loyal, even when times grow bleak. Peppy, however, silently plays a hand in helping her former benefactor George out of his gloom, even when things get progressively worse.

This could easily have been a gimmick and a trifle, a one-note gag and marketing concept that might have been better as a ten-minute short subject. Hazanivicius has other plans. He follows his lead into the depths of alcoholism and the last vestiges of stubborn pride that keep him wallowing in self-pity. Anyone who’s been unemployed for a long period of time will relate to George, particularly in this economy (this film, it should be noted, is not an analogy for the current economic crisis). Dujardin infuses George with ample humanity and warmth, just enough to keep us from tut-tutting him for his foolishness and refusal to diversify and embrace progress. “If that’s the future, you can have it!” George cackles when he sees his first talking feature, but by dismissing it out of hand, he was really hiding his insecurity at being unable to continue his career. We want him to realize not the error of his ways, but the irrationality of his stubbornness. We want him to succeed.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Oscar 2012: Washington, DC Area Film Critics Awards

In continuing coverage of this year’s Academy Awards and the pre-Oscar critics choice awards, here are the winners for the Washington DC Area Film Critics (WAFCA) prizes, announced today:

Best Film: The Artist
Best Director: Martin Scorsese, Hugo
Best Actor: George Clooney, The Descendants
Best Actress: Michelle Williams, My Week with Marilyn
Best Supporting Actor: Albert Brooks, Drive
Best Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer, The Help
Best Cast: Bridesmaids (!!)
Best Adapted Screenplay: The Descendants
Best Original Screenplay: 50/50
Best Foreign Film: The Skin I Live In
Best Documentary: Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Best Animation: Rango
Best Cinematography: The Tree of Life
Best Production Design: Hugo
Best Music: The Artist

In reading the tea leaves, here are some observations:

Another winner! The Artist snags another Best Film prize
As with the prizes from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review, the status quo remains for The Artist and Hugo to gear up for across-the-board nominations including Best Picture and Director for both. Clooney, The Descendants and Brooks are shoring up support for nominations in their respective categories, with Descendants also looking at Best Picture. Emmanuel Lubezki’s work on The Tree of Life, even if the film is divisive, looks more like the film to beat for Best Cinematography as the season wears on. 

There are four notable winners here who should get a leg up from this latest round of awards-giving. Click after the jump for a brief analysis.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Classic TV: Why I Miss “30 Rock”

I couldn’t put my finger on what was missing from this year’s fall TV series lineup. The failure of The Playboy Club, the disappointment that is Pan Am (which nevertheless illicit great analysis on the brilliant fashion-related TV blog to which I occasionally contribute, You Know You Love Fashion), and the sorely wrenching one-two punch of New Girl and Whitney were prone to induce depression and a longing for true quality television. There are terrific new series such as Once Upon a Time and the on-life-support (“hiatus” is a euphemism, I just know it) Prime Suspect, but what’s really missing is my beloved 30 Rock.

30 Rock grew out of a development deal Tina Fey received in 2005 following nearly a decade of greatness at Saturday Night Live. The antics of an SNL-style sketch comedy centering on the neurotic head writer, the Republican blowhard / mentor figure who protects the show from corporate heads threatening to cancel it, the incredibly bizarre comedian who fronts the show, the starlet hanging onto her youth, and the ragtag team of writers is easily the best show on television, for me (Modern Family is a very close second). As Fey went on maternity leave this spring and gave birth in the early fall, the show will return to the air on January 12, 2012, giving the five and a half million fans of TV’s 106th-highest-rated show something to cheer about and look forward to in the New Year.

Here are five reasons why I miss 30 Rock:

1. It is today’s equivalent of the ultimate workplace comedy (no disrespect to The Office, which I also love)

Every decade brings at least one excellent comedy on the workplace. In the 70s, the beloved Mary Tyler Moore Show showed us the humanity and dignity of work, without ennobling it or making martyrdom or sacrifice of a work-life balance something to shout about. In the 80s and early 90s, Cheers demonstrated that work can be lively and, given the right balance of personalities, remind us that work is, to many people, like a second home, provided that you happen to like most of the people who work there. With the economy in danger and the more those with jobs are pulling bigger, heavier loads due to fewer people at the office, work becomes a bit more unbearable and there are plenty who are hanging onto their jobs and doing them just to stay out of the unemployment line and welfare office.

The rather preposterous situations in this comedy are not the usual run-of-the-mill variety, as they go over the edge and verge on the surreal. And isn’t your work a bit like that, sometimes? The series’ fast-paced dialogue is never dumbed-down for anyone, since those who criticize the series for being “too smart” and “too snarky” for its own good are not worthy to watch this ingenious show on a regular basis. Despite the discouragingly low ratings, 30 Rock remains alive due to the high quality of its writing, directing and acting (and not just for the also-high production values) and, quite frankly, there’s always been at least one really smart little comedy show kicking around on the air that doesn’t stick around long enough to be truly appreciated because most folks “just don’t get it” (RIP Arrested Development, The Critic, Sports Night and Pushing Daisies, among others).

2. Jack Donaghy is one of my personal heroes

I am not saying this because I am a Republican (since I am Canadian, I cannot be, and by virtue of being Canadian I will always be a little left of centre regardless). I am saying this because for a lot of us, who wouldn’t want to be successful, put-together, with impeccable credentials and a glamourous corporate office in the sky? What sets Donaghy apart from so many other suits on TV is that he’s unapologetically successful, without being smug about it (but he doesn’t have false modesty about it, either).

When I used to watch successful corporate types on TV growing up, I never thought that J.R. Ewing was the be-all-end-all of that corporate type. I enjoyed Donald Trump on The Apprentice until one day I realized his business-minded daughter Ivanka was way cooler. I had initially thought such a boss should be feared but approachable, and not be a blowhard who yells at people all the time just to exert control. It must have been serendipitous (the second time I’ve used that word in a blog post this weekend) that Meryl Streep’s scary Miranda Priestley on The Devil Wear Prada showed up in theatres just months before Alec Baldwin and the premiere of 30 Rock, because her performance was a primer for Jack Donaghy, the kind of executive I’ve always wanted to be. (They also both whisper, which is a lot more frightening than a scream.) That, and for some reason, I’ve thought that Baldwin would make a really kick-ass executive type. That Baldwin infuses him with humanity and yet keep his wits and witticism about him is a testament to the ingenuity of the writing staff.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Art on Ice: Yuko Kavaguti

Meet Yuko Kavaguti. At one time, she was Yuko Kawaguchi. Let me explain.

Yuko Kawaguchi was born in Aichi, Japan in 1981. A competitive figure skater for Japan, the story goes that she saw the inspiring performances Elena Berezhnaya delivered with Anton Sikharulidze in pairs at the 1998 Nagano Olympics and was inspired to switch disciplines to pairs. Not one to do things halfway, Yuko contacted their coach, the legendary Russian skater Tamara Moskvina, asking that she become her coach so she could be like her idol. Eventually, Moskvina relented, pairing her with Russian skater Alexander Markuntsov. Yuko moved halfway around the world to train in Hackensack, New Jersey. Despite being the first Japanese pair to medal at an ISU (International Skating Union) championship, rules dictate that to compete for the nation you represent at the Olympics, you must be a citizen. When Markuntsov was unable to secure a Japanese passport, the partnership dissolved.

Not one to give up on her career, and with changes in pairs partnerships not uncommon, Yuko was matched with two different American partners and even relocated to St. Petersburg to continue training with Moskvina, even though she didn’t speak a word of Russian. Again, not one to do things halfway, Yuko enrolled at the State University of St. Petersburg and graduated with a degree in International Relations, learning Russian along the way. She now speaks it fluently. Although these initial partnerships did not work out, in the spring of 2006, Yuko was paired by Nikolai Velikov with the strapping Alexander “Sasha” Smirnov and, after initially training with him, they both chose to go with Moskvina. This match turned out serendipitously, as they captured three consecutive Russian national titles, two world championship bronze medals and the European championship in 2010.

During this time, Yuko faced a difficult decision. As the top-ranked Russian team, they were expected to compete at the next Olympics. As Smirnov would be unable to obtain Japanese citizenship, if she wanted to compete at the Olympics, Yuko had to acquire Russian citizenship instead. As Japan does not allow dual citizenships, she had to give up her original passport, leading to the name change that resulted from the transliteration from Kanji to Cyrillic. She cannot get her passport back until at least 2018, and requires a Japanese visa just to visit her parents there. Some media outlets viciously labeled her a “traitor skater”, but this was in 2008, and by then she was already collecting several medals on the ISU Grand Prix circuit (it’s the world cup season in figure skating) and the pair's sheer excellence managed to silence some critics. To this day, Yuko has a following in her native Japan and is greeted with warm, appreciative applause whenever she steps onto the ice in competitions there.

The duo faced disappointment at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Despite being one of the favourites to medal, they made several mistakes in their free skate and finished off the podium. While a fourth-place finish is an impressive debut in the Olympics, the fact that this was the first time in 50 years that Russia did not even place on the podium was, over there, considered the equivalent of the Chicago Bulls not winning the NBA championship in the 1990s over here. Or for a more local example, that’s like the Oilers not winning the Stanley Cup every year like they did in the 1980s. In Russia, figure skating is considered a fine art as well as a sport and is supremely respected: in other words, I am not speaking out of hyperbole. Undeterred, and despite intense media scrutiny from both the Japanese and Russian press, the pair soldiered on, and are still competing at the highest level in the sport.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Trailer Park: Wim Wenders’s “Pina”

Some film trailers are so mesmerizing that they inspire you to find out more about its subject matter. That happened for me recently with Wim Wenders’s dance documentary Pina.

Originally, this was supposed to be a film documentary made in collaboration with famed German contemporary dance pioneer, choreographer and dancer Philippina “Pina” Bausch. In mid-2009, as she was collaborating with Wenders on the project, she was diagnosed with cancer and shockingly died less than a week after being diagnosed. The film project went ahead without her, but the focus shifted from being a collaborative endeavour to a valediction on her legacy.

Bausch’s style of choreography was often matched with jarring body rhythms that seemed incongruous or not of modern dance, but her use of repetition to convey raw energy and feeling were what made her one of the leading lights of the dance world. In particular, her magnificent Rite of Spring is one of her trademark pieces, focusing the word “rite” to highlight the physical aspect of human sacrifice. With the dancers barefoot on a stage covered entirely in dirt, and the lead dancer acting as the sacrificial lamb, the effect is visceral and disturbing, yet beautiful:

Similarly, another of her trademark pieces if the Café Muller chairs sequence, consisting of dancers moving in a space populated by chairs, using them as metaphors for the obstacles and facilitators of life’s struggles. This was popularized in Pedro Almodovar’s film Talk to Her and is still considered part of the contemporary dance canon:

Wenders’s film, shot in 3-D, is a majestic tribute to Bauch’s work and shows us her aesthetics, how it influences people, and the beauty of movement. It is a celebration of the human body. And it’s just been short-listed as one of the finalists (the last step before the nominations are finalized) for Best Documentary Feature for next year’s Oscars. Pina, already a sensation at film festivals around the globe, will receive a North American limited release on December 23. In the meantime, you can view the magnificent trailer below:

Additionally, I recommend you also consider their influence on other art forms. The three-time world champion figure skaters and 2010 Olympic bronze medalists from Germany, Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, have brought Bausch’s aesthetic to create some radical choreography in figure skating, as seen at a recent tournament. Note the jagged edges and deconstructed, broken-down body positions that are in contrast to more “classical”, balletic movements and clean lines favoured in the sport. It seems that even after her death, Bausch’s influence lives on.

You can find out more on Pina on the film’s website

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Oscar 2012: National Board of Review Awards

Traditionally always the first film critics’ group to charge out with the year-end prize-giving, the National Board of Review (“NBR”) was beaten to the punch this year by the New York Film Critics. That doesn’t mean that their awards are any less worthy of attention, they are just one of a series of groups that recognize the year’s best in cinema.

Generally, the NBR gives plenty more prizes in cinema that extend beyond Best Art Direction and Best Visual Effects. As they are a juried award-giving body, they have the flexibility to honour films in a list format rather than the standard nominee-and-single-winner scheme, or even just a list of single winners per category. They name a list of the ten best films, and also produce lists for Best Documentary and Best Foreign Language Film, indicating an arguably less competitive and more egalitarian form of award-giving. Here are the winners of this year’s prizes, and a brief analysis of each.

Best Film and Best Director: Hugo and Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese’s crowd-pleasing new release was an unusual choice, partly because it was not violent (like his The Age of Innocence) and partly because it was a family-oriented picture. It opened to better-than-expected box office over Thanksgiving and was not widely considered major awards bait, but this big prize, combined with steady business and rapturous reviews, should help make the film a contender for Oscar.

Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Screenplay: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley and The Descendants

They love Clooney at this group: love him. This is his third prize from the NBR within the last five years, having also been named Best Actor for 2007’s Michael Clayton and 2009’s Up in the Air. This should get him notice and solidify his slot in the Oscars. Woodley’s victory should only put her in greater steady for Best Supporting Actress, and the script a shoo-in nominee if not outright winner. Curiously, these three prizes mimic three of the four categories Up in the Air won two years ago, with the exception of the Best Picture prize (although The Descendants was named one of the year’s ten best films).

Best Actress: Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk about Kevin

Swinton has always been a critics’ darling, if not a major critics’ group champion. Her work as the mother who gave birth to a demon child was long considered the one to beat for Oscar and here she just upped her chances at landing a slot in the big race. She’s already won an Oscar, for Michael Clayton, and has an excellent chance at duking it out with the likes of Meryl Streep, Glenn Close and Charlize Theron in this year’s competitive Best Actress race.

Caveat: the NBR’s choice for Best Actress last year, Leslie Manville, was completely ignored in the Oscar race and didn’t even land a nomination. This was not helped with category confusion as to whether or not Manville’s role was considered a lead of supporting one. However, Swinton’s higher profile should keep her name in the competition.

Plummer, with Ewan McGregor
Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer in Beginners

Plummer has, at age 81, only one previous Oscar nomination to date, for The Last Station in 2009. His role as the father who comes out of the closet at age 75 and lives a full gay life before he dies is a touching, subtle one, and considered by many to be a career capper. Not that he needed critic’s notices to stay in the conversation, but this will help him over the long season.