Friday, 25 January 2013

Some (Very) Brief Thoughts on J.J. Abrams Directing The Next Star Wars Film

So, it's been pretty much confirmed that J.J. Abrams will be directing the next Star Wars film, tentatively just known as Star Wars: Episode VII. As to be expected, when this news was announced, the internet exploded with lens flare jokes and strong opinions about the decision.  Now that the dust has slightly settled (Though I'm preparing for two years worth of MovieBob bitching and moaning, ala The Amazing Spider-Man), I'm going to weigh in with my thoughts. As always with this type of news, I'm decidely mixed. I've pretty much liked all of Abrams's films, especially his reboot of Star Trek, of which I loved the look and feel. Mission: Impossible 3 is the leanest of the Mission Impossible films and while I didn't feel Super 8 lived up to the quality of the early Spielberg films it was homaging, it showed that Abrams could go really low key if he wanted, and the stuff with the kids making the film was wonderful. Abrams strikes me as one of the smarter blockbuster directors working today. Even his visually hetic Star Trek was suprisingly character and plot driven. He wants to create blockbusters with some kind of soul, even if he's still perfecting his craft.

I think one problem with Abrams directing the next Star Wars film is simply that it feels redundant. It's the equivalent of if, after The Dark Knight, or after The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan went on to direct a Superman film (which is not too far off since he's a producer on Zack Snyder's Man of Steel). I've already seen Nolan's superhero saga, I don't need another one, even if Batman and Superman are very different characters. With Abrams, I've already seen his space adventure- and while Star Trek and Star Wars are very different franchises, the way Abrams directed Star Trek, it already felt it owed at least something to Star Wars.

I also feel that being a director of another large franchise, even if it's only for one film, squanders Abrams' potential to grow as a director and create really personal work. Super 8 showed that Abrams can do smaller, less visually busy work, and I'd like to see better versions of that film. Abrams' film career so far has seen him attached to pre-existing material that's made it hard for Abrams to form his own identity as a filmmaker. Even in Super 8, which he wrote, Abrams tried a little too hard to be Steven Spielberg. I want him to finally become an auteur, though I don't know if Abrams has that in mind.

Still, I wish Abrams and crew good luck on this project, which, c'mon, it's Star Wars, I'm definitely anticipating it. It's no doubt extremely exciting for Abrams to take the reigns of a saga that inspired so many people of his generation. It's also a great deal of pressure, and I hope he can work through that pressure and create a really great Star Wars film. Just cool it on the lens flares, okay?

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

My Favourite Films of the Year

Trying to do a top film list at the end of the year is always a difficult task. So many films seen, so many unseen. How do you rank works of art, anyway? For my year end list, I've decided to label it top favourites rather than top ten best-since I'm more comfortable saying these are my favourites rather than these are the best. Also, I still haven't seen several 2012 releases. When compling this list in my head, I found that several of the listed films were ones that improved for me on second viewings. If anything, this was the year that second viewings saved a few films for me. Anyway, here on my (roughly) top 11 favourite films of 2012, starting with number one and then preceding alphabetically.

1. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson)- Through catching up with some of his work over the past year (I saw The Royal Tenenbaums ten years ago and really need to revisit it), Wes Anderson is slowly but surely becoming one of my favourite directors, particularly with 2009's Fantastic Mr. Fox and now his latest film, Moonrise Kingdom. It's hard to put in to words why this film is so enchanting. I guess it comes down to the fact that the world Anderson creates, another branch of his signature universe seen throughout all his films, is one I want to live in. It's so delicately crafted- Anderson has been described as a minaturist, and the opening scene makes us feel we're in a dollhouse- yet at the same time it feels completely organic, free from any creator.  Despite all the huge blockbusters, Oscar contenders and prestige pictures that came out this year, this tale of young love between two 12 year old childrens is the one that I may have loved the most. What may be most impressive about it is how Anderson embraces the pure, uncomplicated romance between Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), while subtly acknowledging how in over their heads they are as they run away from their respective homes- for Sam, it's the boy scout camp under the leadership of Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton)- Sam is an orphan- and for Suzy her home is with her parents, Laura and Walt, (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray). Ultimately, running away isn't just about love for Suzy and Sam- it's a way of escape from their trapped in existence. Anderson also shows us how complicated relationships become when you're an adult- Laura is having an affair with police captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). As an ode to young love as well as a mature examination of the difficulties of maintaining a relationship, Moonrise Kingdom, despite being quite stylized, is a really humane and beautiful film.

The Rest, Alphabetically.

The Avengers (Joss Whedon)- Out of the three big superhero films released this year, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises being the other two, The Avengers was the one the most completely embraced its comic book origins, making it refreshingly free from any attempts at grittiness or realism. It was also the most purely fun blockbuster released this year-being absolutely what anyone could want in a large scale entertainment- it has great action but never becoming stupid- director Joss Whedon infused a lot of wit and humanity in to the interactions between the offbeat superhero family. Whedon understood that the appeal of seeing all these superheroes (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, etc.) onscreen together wasn't just about them fighting each other or the bad guys-it was about seeing what happens when you get drastically different personalities on the scale of a super soldier, a demi-god, and a billionaire philanphropist together in one room together. Seeing them work through their differences and finally come together is quite meaningful, especially since ten years ago all these characters would have been isolated in their own respective film continuities. With The Avengers being a smashing success, it's opened the doors to many exciting possibilities for the superhero genre, including a possible film about that other superhero team.

The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard)- A smart and brutal deconstruction of the horror genre- as well as love letter to said genre- director Drew Goddard's debut feature, which he co-wrote with Joss Whedon, gives us a straightforward horror movie plot- five friends go for a weekend to a, wait for it, cabin in the woods, where evil stuff begins to happen- while simultaneously, pulling the curtain back and showing us the way the events of all our favourite horror films could actually be engineered. the film questions the reasons why we watch horror films- creating a critique that never feels hypocritical. The film also manages, especially when it gets to its final act, to work as a gory horror film- it's also funny as hell.

The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan)- While there were many criticisms directed at this film, including its plot holes and its treatment of its main antagonist, after three viewings of Christopher Nolan's third and final Batman epic, I've come to feel that in some ways The Dark Knight Rises is arguably the best of the trilogy. Why there are elements of the film that disappoint me, including not enough reaction to the revelation of Harvey Dent's crimes, as well a villain reveal that shouldn't come about half an hour earlier, Nolan's direction grabs me and sweeps me up in a way most other superhero films, even The Avengers, don't. From the opening sequence involving Bane (Tom Hardy) and a mid air hijacking, to the lead up to Gotham's football stadium being blown up, scored to a child's rendition of the star spangled banner, as well as the first confrontation between Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and Bane- a raw and manner of fact beat down that's free of the more fantastical elements found in other cinematic superhero fight scenes- The Dark Knight Rises is arguably the best and most vividly directed of the three films. It also feels like Nolan has pretty much reached the place he wanted to go seven years ago when the first film of the trilogy, Batman Begins, was released. And Like The Avengers it'll be very exciting to see how Nolan's Batman trilogy affects the genre in years to come.

End of Watch (David Ayer)- Who would've thought that one of the best and most affecting buddy cop movies would come from this quasi found footage crime thriller? End of Watch takes the buddy cop genre and grounds it in the every day life of LAPD police officers, Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena), partners and friends, as they patrol the streets of LA. Brian is part of a film class so he records he and Mike's conversations and life on the job- which is where the found footage aspect comes in. While the film is episodic in structure, as things progress we see Brian and Mike confront their morality and the possibility of leaving their wives behind if they die on the job. Gyllenhaal and Pena give richly authentic performances that help us buy in their friendship and believe them as LAPD officers. The film is raw, funny and by the end, devastating.

Les Miserables (Tom Hooper)- As I said in my review of the film, despite being messily directed, as well as revealing flaws in the stage play, the film really worked for me- due to the conviction of its performances, including Anne Hathaway's devastating rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" and Samantha Barks as Eponine. There are so many moments of subliminity that they outweigh the flaws in its direction.

Looper (Rian Johnson)- When I first saw Rian Johnson's Looper, I walked out a little disappointed- liking the first half- the set up- more then the second half- the payoff. But after hearing more people talk about it- and revisiting it recently, I admire how Johnson takes what seems like too different films and makes them fit together structurally and thematically. Johnson's script is actually quite tight and, while you can probably pick it apart in terms of logic-like all other time travel films- emotionally and thematically, it's all very well thought through. The film, for all its sci fi noir trappings, ultimately comes down to the sincere and simple ideal of motherly love, and the idea of being raised right can set you on the right path. It's an idea that some may scoff at but I respect Johnson for creating a intricate time travel tale based around such a humane idea.

Seven Psychopaths (Martin McDonagh)- What I love most about this film is the way it's able to be meta without being soulless and detached. It makes you care about its characters, particularly Christopher Walken's Hans, a dog thief who works with Billy (Sam Rockwell), the friend of struggling screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell). When Hans and Billy steal the dog of Woody Harrelson's mobster Charlie, it brings all three together and puts them through an emotional journey that changes all of them. Along the way the film pokes fun at the conventions of the action genre, most notably in Billy's hilarious monologue in the desert. By the end of the film, Walken's Hans gives Marty an idea that helps his screenplay transcend the conventions he was afraid of falling in to. This film is one of the most funnest times I had in a theatre in 2012, with great performances and sharply written scenes.

Skyfall (Sam Mendes)- While I wouldn't call this the best James Bond film, or even the best Daniel Craig Bond film (I would argue for Casino Royale on both counts), there are so many things I love about this film that it earns a place on my list. From Adele's gorgous theme song, invoking the classic Bond tunes of Shirley Bassey, to Javier Bardem's villain Silva and Ben Whishaw's Q, as well as Roger Deakins' stunning cinematography and Sam Mendes' direction, which makes this one of the handful of contemporary action films that actually has breathing room, rather than just being a frenzy of incoherent action, Skyfall has some of my favourite elements in the entire 50 year history of the Bond franchise. This is also the most self conscious Bond film since 1995's GoldenEye, questioning Bond's relevance and usefullness in a era almost thirty years detached from that of the Cold War- one where our enemies do not come from one singular nation but strike from within the shadows. And for a series that has almost always been high tech, stylish, and exotic, climaxing the film at Bond's childhood home in Scotland was a pretty risky move- but one that makes sense. Since Silva is a computer hacker, what better place to face him than somewhere where he cannot use technology. It also fits in to the goal of these Craig Bond films thus far, to take the fully formed character we met in 1962's Dr. No and deconstruct him- and ending at Bond's childhood home, a place that has always haunted him, concludes what can be seen a trilogy of films showing us the true man behind the number.

Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell)- While Silver Linings Playbook is in many ways a conventional romantic comedy, it reminds us that what matters in this type of film isn't the framework of the plot but the details and chemistry between its lead. Bradley Cooper's Pat and Jennifer Lawrence's Tiffany, like in romantic comedies,  don't get together at first, in this film, it's not just because the script calls for them to hate each other- it's because they're both emotionally damaged- Pat suffers from bipolar disorder and is obessesed with winning his wife back- and Tiffany's husband is dead. As they grow closer together, they're able to help each other make progress in their lives. Lawrence is stunning in her performance as Tiffany, taking what could be the typical "manic pixie dream girl" archetype and giving her a darker and unpredictable edge. Cooper shows what a capable dramatic actor he can be, being both funny and sad in his portrayal of bipolar disorder. While I feel the ending of the film is a little too pat, I cared about these characters so much that I was just happy for them.

21 Jump Street (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller)- Along with End of Watch, 21 Jump Street is one of the best buddy cop films to come along in some time. What makes this film work is how it goes against your expectations of what a 21 Jump Street film would be- instead of just being a retread of its 1980s counterpart, it becomes an honest examination of how, whether you were uncool or even popular in High School, and no matter how much time as elapsed, given the chance, you'd do it all over again- which is what happens when Schmidt and Jenko (Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) go undercover in a high school. Schmidt gets to hang with the cool kids and Jenko finally gets to feel smart as he becomes friends with the science crowd. Ultimately, Jenko, who was popular in High School, is the one who betters himself while Schmidt gets in to deep. This movie has a lot of heart and really makes you care about the characters at its centre. It works as a buddy cop movie, a romantic comedy, a high school comedy, a spoof of the action genre, and is a pretty good character study as well.

Other films I liked: The Amazing Spider-Man, Brave, Cloud Atlas, Django Unchained, Dredd, The Five Year Engagement, The Hobbit, LincolnPrometheus, The Raid, Sinister, TedWreck-it-Ralph, Zero Dark Thirty

Some Other Favourites (AKA the Davies Awards)

Favourite Actor: Joaquin Phoenix, The Master
Favourite Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

Favourite Supporting Actors
Javier Bardem- Skyfall
Leonardo DiCaprio- Django Unchained
Michael Fassbender- Prometheus
Tom Hardy- The Dark Knight Rises and Lawless
Samuel L. Jackson- Django Unchained
Seth MacFarlane- Ted
Sam Rockwell- Seven Psychopaths
Mark Ruffalo- The Avengers
Christopher Walken- Seven Psychopaths
Ben Whishaw- Skyfall

Favourite Supporting Actresses
Samantha Barks- Les Miserables
Emily Blunt- Looper
Judi Dench- Skyfall
Anne Hathaway- The Dark Knight Rises and Les Miserables
Brie Larson- 21 Jump Street
Jane Lynch- Wreck-it-Ralph
Sarah Silverman- Wreck-it-Ralph
Emma Stone- The Amazing Spider-Man

Favourite Directors
Wes Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom
Drew Goddard- The Cabin in the Woods
Sam Mendes- Skyfall
Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight Rises
Joss Whedon, The Avengers

Favourite Screenplays
The Avengers- Joss Whedon
The Cabin in the Woods- Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon
Django Unchained- Quentin Tarantino
Looper- Rian Johnson
Seven Psychopaths- Martin McDonagh
Silver Linings Playbook- David O. Russell, adapted from Matthew Quick's novel
21 Jump Street- Michael Bacall

Favourite Cinematography- Roger Deakins, Skyfall

Favourite Original Song- "Skyfall"- Skyfall

Best James Bond Opening Sequence Not in a James Bond Film- The mid air hijacking- The Dark Knight Rises

Best James Opening Sequence In a James Bond Film- The pre-credit sequence in Skyfall

Favourite Action Sequences
The mid air hijacking- The Dark Knight Rises
The school fight- The Amazing Spider-Man
New York climax- The Avengers
Shootout at Candieland- Django Unchained
Freeway chase- 21 Jump Street
First fight between Bane and Batman- The Dark Knight Rises
Shanghai fight- Skyfall
Pre-credits sequence- Skyfall
Ted and John hotel fight- Ted
Billy's monologue- Seven Psychopaths
Nearly every scene- The Raid

Favourite Onscreen Chemistry
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence- Silver Linings Playbook
Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone- The Amazing Spider-Man
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum- 21 Jump Street
Jonah Hill and Brie Larson- 21 Jump Street
Mark Wahlberg and Seth MacFarlane- Ted
Jason Segal and Emily Blunt- The Five Year Engagement
Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo- The Avengers

Favourite Action Film- The Raid

Favourite Comedy- 21 Jump Street

The Happy Anniversary Award: Skyfall and The Amazing Spider-Man- both hitting theatres on the 50th anniversary of Spider-Man and the James Bond franchise.

Stuff I'm Looking Forward to in 2013: Before Midnight, Warm Bodies, Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Stoker, Seth MacFarlane hosting the Oscars, Skyfall on Blu-ray, The Importance of Being Earnest at Neptune Theatre, Iron Man 3, Evil Dead, Community Season Four,  To the Wonder, The Great Gatsby, A Good Day To Die Hard, Arrested Development, The Wolverine.

Friday, 11 January 2013

And Here We Go: Some Thoughts On The Oscar Nominations

Aw yes, that time of year where everyone exclaims how the Oscars are bullshit, irrelevant, etc, etc, even though we tune in every year to see who's nominated. I guess that's the thing with the Oscars- love them or hate them, they're addictive to movie buffs. Even if you're critical of awards, if you love movies, you care who gets in and, more importantly, who doesn't. I'll go through some of the major categories, giving my thoughts. To be honest, I haven't seen every performance or film nominated yet, but judging from what I have seen, I'll say who I think will win in several categories, as well as the surprising omissions.

Best Picture- Like last year, we have nine nominees: Amour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les MiserablesLife of PiLincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty. Out of the nine I still need to see Amour, Beasts, Pi and Zero Dark Thirty. Right now I think it's between Steven Spielberg's Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook, especially since SLP's director, David O. Russell, previously nominated for 2010's The Fighter, got a Best Director nomination over Ben Affleck for Argo and Kathryn Bigelow for ZD30SLP is the type of crowd pleaser like the previous two Best Picture winners, The King's Speech and The Artist, that the Academy often loves. Moreover, Russell has never won Best Director or has a Best Picture winner under his belt, whereas Spielberg already has two Best Director Oscars, for 1993's Schindler's List and 1998's Saving Private Ryan. He also won the Best Picture Oscar for Schindler's List. While Speilberg is a titan, the Academy may want to award Russell for his strong work over the years.

Best Director- I think this category provided the most surprising omissions of the race this year, with Affleck and Bigelow, perceived locks for their work with Argo and ZD30, respectively, shut out. Other big names like Tom Hooper, who has been the subject of controversy over his directon of Les Miserables, and Quentin Tarantino, who directed Django Unchained, were also left out. The line up is as follows: Michael Haneke, Amour, Ang Lee. Life of Pi, David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook, Steven Spielberg, Lincoln, and Benh Zeitlin for his debut feature, Beasts of the Southern Wild. At 30 years old, he's the youngest nominee in this particular category. Good for him getting a nomination for his first film. With the four big names, Affleck, Bigelow, Hooper and Tarantino out of this category, it does leave Russell some room to take the prize. His biggest competition in this category, again, is Spielberg.

Best Actor- Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook, Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables, Daniel Day Lewis, Lincoln, Joaquin Phoenix, The Master, Denzel Washington, Flight. I'm glad to see Phoenix here. There was some talk that Pheonix's harsh comments about the Academy and awards in general would lead to hm being left, particularly with The Master losing steam. But here he is. I was really blown away by him in The Master, and I think it's a career best performance- he'd be my pick for Best Actor. However, Day Lewis is the frontrunner for his warm and commanding performance as President Abraham Lincoln. If Les Miserables was more of a frontrunner, Jackman may be more of a threat, but the film, especially without a Best Director nomination, is vulnerable. In fact, Day Lewis' competition may mostly come from (gasp) Bradley Cooper. The internet would explode if Cooper won over Day Lewis, but if SLP is loved enough, who knows, right? John Hawkes, for his role in The Sessions, didn't make it, even though he was a leading contender for a nomination, Jamie Foxx's performance as the title character in Django Unchained also didn't make it, probably due to the more animated performances around him in that film.

Best Actress- Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty, Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook, Emmanuelle Riva, Amour, Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Naomi Watts, The Impossible. I thought Lawrence was stunning in SLP, so I wouldn't be upset if she won. I think it's between her and Chastain, who I like a lot too, for ZD30ZD30 is finally out in my city so I'll be seeing it Sunday. From what I hear about Watts in The Impossible, it strikes me as the type of performance we may look back on as the one that should've won. Watts can be argued to be overdue as well. Wallis, only six when we shot Beasts, received a nomination for her breakthrough performance. She's the newcomer that this category always seems to like. While I haven't seen Amour, it'd be awesome if a legendary actress like Riva won.

Best Supporting Actor- Alan Arkin, Argo, Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook, Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master, Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln, Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained. Like last year, the supporting actor category is full of veterans, although it doesn't have a newcomer like Jonah Hill last year. Also, all these guys are previous winners. Jones seems to be the frontrunner, particularly if Lincoln is going for a sweep. Though, as I keep saying, if people love SLP, De Niro could be on his way to a third Oscar. Though I like Waltz, I'm disappointed Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson had made it for Django Unchained.

Best Supporting Actress- Amy Adams, The Master, Sally Field, Lincoln, Anne Hathaway,  Les Miserables, Helen Hunt, The Sessions, Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook. Poor Amy Adams. This her fourth nomination in this category over the last seven years, and she keeps getting blocked. Even with Adams' overdue factor, I think this race is between Field and Hathaway. I wasn't really blown away by Field in Lincoln, so I prefer if Hathaway for her short but devastating performance in Les Miserables. I wish Hathaway's co-star, Samantha Barks, had also gotten in. She was a real stand out.

So, those are my thoughts. I'm glad Moonrise Kingdom got a screenplay nomination and a tad disappointed The Dark Knight Rises didn't get in for any of the tech categories. I loved Adele's theme for Skyfall, so excited to see her here, as well as Roger Deakins' for his stunning cinematography in that film. The Academy Awards are on February 24, so until then, have fun predicting. And don't forget, Golden Globes, sans Ricky Gervais, are this sunday.