Wednesday, March 16, 2011

An Appreciation of Christopher Nolan

There have been some very good directors emerging in the cinema with the coming of the new millennium, but only two directors whose work I most eagerly anticipate have emerged as exceptional. Jason Reitman and Christopher Nolan. Reitman is one of the most talented comic directors, but two of his three films have been adaptations (albeit brilliant ones) of other novels. Nolan, therefore, has a secure place as the most original filmmaker of the last decade.

So when this years Academy Award nominations were released, and Nolan's Inception received eight nominations, but none for best director, one can not help but think that Nolan is being unfairly regarded by the film industry, much in the same way that Steven Spielberg was disregarded early on in his career. To understand why the Oscars have been remarkably unfair to Nolan, one must consider his body of work, and see that there is some prejudice.

Nolan first came to the attention of the film world with his 2001 film noir Memento, a very small independent movie that deeply split the film industry: while most critics acknowledged that it's method of storytelling was ground-breaking, some, like Roger Ebert and Leonard Maltin, were very hostile to it. Considering that this was one of the most complexly layered films--- one that reads just as well backwards as forwards--- one can understand why some people didn't get it. And because it opened in January of 2001, by the time Oscar nominations came around, it was clear that Leonard Shelby wasn't the only person in that world who had really problems with their short-term memory. (The Independent Spirits had an easier time, and awarded it Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress. ) It remains one of my favorite films of the last ten years, and set the tone for the challenges that Nolan was willing to take.

His next film was Insomnia, a remake of a Norwegian mystery. If Memento demonstrated how good a craftsman Nolan was, this film showed how good he was at getting performances out of actors. Al Pacino gives a masterful performance as a New York City cop trying to solve a murder in Alaska, while suffering from the complete inability to sleep. By the end of the film, he's teetering on the brink of exhaustion, and can barely keep up with the killer he's trying to catch. The film also demonstrated once again how wonderful an actor Robin Williams can be when he's underplaying everything, and the first real proof that Hilary Swank's work in Boys Don't Cry had not been a fluke. A well made thriller is a thing of beauty, and this was a near gem.

After choosing such fine films to start his career in Hollywood, one might be able to see the path that Nolan's career might take, which may have been the reason that so many people were appalled that Nolan's next project was to take over the Batman franchise. One that Tim Burton, a director whose talents who have seemed perfectly suited for, had tried to master and failed creatively. Further efforts to try and carry on with the project had led to the film sinking further and further into camp. Which is why a lot of people--- myself included--- were so astonished when Batman Begins came out.

The reason it succeeded was because Nolan used his individual gifts to make the film work. Rebooting the entire series was a good idea, but given the direction the last two films had been in, anything would have been an improvement. What made this film work was that for the first time Nolan explored the psychology of Bruce Wayne. By now, everybody and his mother knew why Wayne was driven towards this --- the murder of his parents. But this time the event was given breadth and depth, and one could get the idea of loss. The movie also did something it's predecessor had almost completely ignored--- they made Bruce less of an island. Burton's Wayne is almost isolated from the world, Schumacher's is more convivial but the relationships are more rivalry than they are anything else. Here, Alfred the butler is given far more depth and access. Jim Gordon, just a sergeant in this movie, seems to be the last bastion of decency in a corrupt Gotham police. And Lucius Fox, basically ignored, is shown to be the brains behind all of the gadgets and toys that will eventually come to be Batman's stock and trade. Of course, it helped matters immensely that Nolan had cast Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, and Morgan Freeman in these roles ---- none of those people are actors that you can ignore, and they seem to fit perfectly into the film.

Also, we get the feeling that everything is being done by steps. The Batcave is an actual cave. The Batmobile looks more primitive than the humming vehicle that will become his trademark. Bruce is clumsy as he does his first acts as the Bat. The eventual Batsignal looks foggy and out of focus.

And you can't have a good comic book without villains, but here Nolan was especially cagey. Knowing that all of the canon villains had been used in the previous movies, he chose to put to the front and center characters who were a lot smaller tier than some of the others, and perfectly cast them. Liam Neeson as Ras Al'Ghul, the man who basically gives Bruce his start as a hero, shows himself to be as ruthless and merciless, even though many of his aims are similar to that of Wayne's. Cillian Murphy is also very impressive as Jonathan Crane, the doctor who runs Arkham Asylum, and who takes on the alter ego of Scarecrow by the movies end. (Even here, there is a sign of primitive-- the mask Crane uses seems like it could fall apart at any moment.) By the move's end when the hints of what was coming in the last ten minutes, one could look forward to the franchise as one with a future, and left filmgoers breathless with anticipation.

To call The Dark Knight the best comic book movie ever made, or even the best sequel ever made, would seem to be damning with faint praise --- how much effort would it take to make a better movie than Superman Returns or Daredevil? It might even be considered one of the best films of the decade, and while that might be a little extreme, let's examine the evidence.

Separating the film from the work of Heath Ledger as the Joker is impossible to do. We will never know if Ledger would have received the same critical praise (or his posthumous Academy Award) that he did had he not died six months prior to the films release. But it is one of the most memorable and haunting portrayals of any villain anywhere. Like everyone else in the series, the Joker appears to be in his earliest part of his career--- his makeup seems and clothing seems in its initial stages. But there is an incredibly disturbed mind behind that mask, one who seems to have seen the darkest parts of the human race, and, unlike Bruce Wayne, seems determined to bring it out to fruition. The diabolical plans he makes are so ingenious. He doesn't want money or credit or even to destroy; he seems determined to creating a new kind of archetype--- the epitome of evil. It's a great shame that we will never see him in another movie, yet it is a great credit to Nolan in not trying to dilute the character with any other kind of performer.

Yet Ledger is not the whole movie. Aaron Eckhart may go down in history as one of the most undervalued actors of this generation, and this film is a prime example of his bad luck; had Ledger not so dominated the film, Eckhart almost certainly would have received an Oscar nod as well. The moment we hear the name of Harvey Dent, even the most casual follower of the Batman franchise knows that he is doomed. It is a credit both to Nolan and Eckhart that they were able to take Dent's fate, and give it one of Greek tragedy It is clear that Dent could have been the savior of Gotham, that he recognizes that there is hope in the city. Yet before his fall, we see the potential for evil in him, and even though it takes truly horrifying events, we know it wouldn't have taken much to bring out Harvey's evil side. There was a certain amount of ambiguity regarding his character's ultimate fate; I hope that somehow Nolan finds a way to bring Eckhart out again.

The movie featured so many virtuoso sequences --- Joker's chasing of Dent as he is transported by a police escort may have been the most brilliant action sequence I've ever seen--- yet it also raised great moral questions that other so called 'adult' movies wouldn't even dare to touch. The fact that Bruce Wayne is, at his core, not that different in how he wants to fight evil in the same way that the Joker wants to bring it out, is illustrated in a way that is frightening, and some of the questions of what happens have relevance to issues about how we fight the lesser angels of our natures. The fact that this film was not considered worthy of a Best Picture nod and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was is yet another reason that the Oscars are still not capable of recognizing intelligent blockbusters when they see them. Hopefully, when the third film in the series comes out, they might be inclined to see things differently.

Which brings us to Inception. I may have a very difficult time convincing my family and some of my friends that it was as brilliant as everyone said it was. And I will admit that the plot had several intricacies that may not have held water. But so much of the film was well executed that I think it deserves higher praise than it got.

I believe sincerely that one of the duties of the film as a medium is to take us to stunning new places both visually and emotionally. A lot of films that try to do so never get the recognition they quite deserve ---- Dark City and Minority Report are two of the most obvious examples of this work. Inception tried to take us inside the subconscious, and deal with some of the most stunning visual ways that only very great cinema can. The chase sequences, the constant spinning of the camera the deeper into the subconscious one went, the way that each level of the dream within a dream seemed to be having an effect on the other. These were the coming together of so many brilliant technical aspects--- cinematography, editing, visual and sound effects--- yet all of this had to come out of Nolan's ideas.

Nolan also has the gift to reach inside the interior of great performers and get work you wouldn't expect from them. Leonardo DiCaprio never quite gelled with his work with Titanic but while working with filmmakers as gifted as Scorcese, Edward Zwick and Samuel Mendes, he taps into a deeper well and brings out a hidden reservoir of pain. Nolan managed to elicit a fine work out of him, and I think he never got the credit for it he deserved. He also demonstrated the talents of Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tom Hardy in their first mega-blockbuster, and that they, unlike so many so called big things, might actually have a deserved future outside the Independent film world.

Many blockbuster films are ethereal things--- they look brilliant and seem good when you're in the theater, but once you're outside it, you can't remember a single lasting image from it. Inception was the rare hit that not only benefited but almost begged for repeat viewings, not merely because the visuals were so stunning, but because looking at things from a certain perspective, there might be whole other ways to look at it. And considering that ninety percent (I'm probably being generous with this figure) of summer films are manufactured so that they don't tax your brain, to develop one that was stimulating and raised questions--- Nolan deserved a prize just for that. Nolan deserved a Best Director nod, and while I found the five films that were nominated were worthy, I can't help but think that the Coen brothers or David O. Russell would have been all right without being recognized if Nolan had been.

It is rare that a filmmaker can created a masterpiece with a million dollar budget; nearly as hard to do with a hundred million dollars. The fact that Nolan has demonstrated the capability of being able to do both shows that he may be the most dazzling talent to come out of Hollywood since Francis Ford Coppola. We know what his next film is going to be, but after that, I don't know which way he'll go. I only know that I can't wait to see it, and that is the mark of a true artist.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Last Bit of Love

Rare is the HBO program that is given its proper amount of due.. They are either showered with praise and award nominations despite their lack of quality, are hailed quickly, and then ignored for the majority of its run, or are truly awful, yet linger on forever. Yet, in its own quiet way, Big Love is the prototype of an HBO drama, perhaps the networks most well performed and produced show since Deadwood.

Despite the fact that at its center is one of the more humble protagonists, Bill Hendrickson, played by the closest thing to an everyman HBO has produced, Big Love has been all about the women. Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny, Ginnifer Goodwin --- three superb actresses who never got the Hollywood stardom they deserved, are each in their own way as pitch perfect as, respectively, the affectionate Barb, the prickly and repressed Nikki, and the overly emotional Margie. Amanda Seyfried's Sarah, Bill's oldest child and the series breakout star, the one desperately wanting to escape entangling web that this polygamist life is hurting. Grace Zabriskie, Bill's mother, Lois wizened and seemed nearly ancient, whose criminal manipulations and fights with husband Frank, have become legendary. And Eileen, played by Mary Kay Place, initially seen as the power behind Juniper Creek, where the true horrors seemed to be, but who has begun to fall apart as her power has diminished.

Most times, I have managed to find myself attracted to HBO dramas, because of the strength of the writing or the power of the setting, but my relationship with Big Love has been more uncertain than it was with The Wire or Deadwood, and part of this may be due to my inability to agree with the problem. I have less of a problem with the setting of a polygamous family and its challenges, even though I find some of their ideas barbarous. But ever since the middle of Season 2, I have begun to feel that Bill has been, willfully or not, leading his family down a dangerous path.

\It started when he convinced his family, against their better wishes, to buy into a slot machine company, in order to protect their income. This was the first time the plural marriage seemed like less of a democracy than it had been. Then he became romantically attached to Ana, a Russian waitress. First, he lied about being married, then he lied to his family about this relationship. Ana became a piece of contention in Season 2, Barb didn't want another wife, Nikki and Margene did-- but not for the same reasons.. The signs of alarm were particularly deep for Barb, who learned her eldest wanted to become a polygamist.

In season 3, when a health scare came for Barb, she gave in and allowed the family to date Ana, which didn't make Ana happy. She eventually agreed to become the fourth Mrs. Hendrickson, but the conflict over grew so fast and developed such hostility that the marriage was over within a week. The cracks in the family started getting more visible, especially with Sarah and got worse when Bill seemed to find proof that plural marriage was part of Mormon doctrine. His beliefs led to estrangement from the rest of Barb's family, and her eventual excommunication. Bill's reaction was to form his own church. My first thoughts were This is how cults are formed.

In Season 4, Bill elected to run for the State Senate, with the idea of revealing his family's secret when he won. He did so, almost completely against the wishes of Barb and Margene, and had no problem being as ruthless as any politician, sacrificing his oldest friend and business partner, nearly severing his relationship with Ben, and nearly getting destroyed by a Washington lobbyist (Sissy Spacek, at the top of her game) Near the middle of the season, Ana remerged, pregnant with Bill's child, starting a new mess. This situation may have led to a final break between Bill and Barb, who tried to destroy Bill's campaign. Bill finally admitted that he saw that there was a darkness in him, and that only by coming into the light could he save himself -- once again, showing how self-centered

All through these seasons, I have been watching this show with growing dismay, feeling that some point, the writers have got to find a way to deal with the consequences of Bill's actions. Well, Sunday night, we got a first glance at what they might be, and they're worse than even Barb could imagine.

Bill and his family left home for a week hoping to escape the news cycle and the attention of the press. He clearly thought that might be the worst of it, showing a naiveté I wouldn't have thought. But Home Plus, the foundation of Bill's business, is falling apart, with people quitting in droves, and those who stay, very unhappy. His constituents are literally spitting in his face. And his hope for a future in politics is probably doomed from the start. In two short scenes, the new Speaker of the Utah legislature (played, as always, with considerable smarm, by Gregory Itzin tells Bill that his career in politics is likely to be both short and messy. And when Charles Logan tells you that your career in politics is in trouble, he knows from whence he speaks.

Things are going into meltdown for each of Bill's wives. Barb is going through the biggest emotional crisis, as she has begun to start drinking heavily. Margene, who in Season 4 came closer to financial independence than she ever had in her life, was terminated from her position under a morals clause. Nikki alone seems to be adjusting, but her overreaction to a little boy who attacks her son, is a sign she's not nearly as sanguine as she appears. She's also looking even more concerned about the health of her daughter.

Bill Hendrickson is, fundamentally, a good man. But he has misjudged the world if he thinks that they are ready for polygamy. He has placed a target on his families back, and it's probably going to explode even more than he and his family did near the end of the season premiere. The end may finally be coming (God knows there will be confrontations in the days to come) but it can only make a glorious noise before it does.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Golden Globes, Part 1

Technically speaking, the awards show season will begin with the Broadcast Critics on Friday night. But the first really show that everybody will be paying attention to will begin Sunday evening when the Hollywood Foreign Press honors the "best" in movies and television.

Now, as much I love these awards shows, the hype, the circus, et al, the choices that these critics make often leave me baffled, starting from their very arbitrary decision as to what is a comedy and what is a drama. I thought that Up in the Air was a lot closer to the former, but it was listed in the Drama's with The Hurt Locker and Precious. In 2002, after winning a Best Actor in a drama Globe for Alexander Payne's brilliant About Schmidt, even Jack Nicholson confessed to being baffled because "I thought we did a comedy." Of course, this was the same year Nicholas Nickleby got a Best Comedy nod, a distinction I'm pretty sure Dickens himself would dispute.

The clarity in TV is not much better. For one thing, the Globes have always tending to classify certain shows that our combinations of comedy and drama into the comedy category, but there's always a sense of being random here, too. Ally McBeal, Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty have been ranked to the comedy category, even though the mixture of the two genres was uneven at best. Six Feet Under, on the other hand, ended up in the Drama category, though I've always felt that particular position was somewhat more precarious. This year Nurse Jackie and The Big C are in a similar position, though I'm inclined to say they weight a bit more towards the serious side.

And of course, there's that subtitle, 'best Musical' which the voters never had to worry about until Glee. This takes them off the hook from having to decide about it's comedy potential, but has already caused major uproar with those who write for shows like Modern Family or 30 Rock. I'm pretty sure this combination of bias is why Housewives and Ugly Betty never won Best Comedy at the Emmys, and why Glee lost last year. Considering the immense popularity of both shows, this doesn't seem like an issue that's going to be resolved soon--- unless the TV people feeling like adding some new categories.

I like the Globes, and they have a tradition of recognizing shows that didn't get the same appreciation in the community they just didn't get in the Emmys like Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Shield. They also recognized The Sopranos and Sex in the City years before the Emmys were willing to acknowledge them, but since I didn't much care for either show, I'll refrain from commenting. They'll also on occasion recognize a well done network show like Felicity, Once and Again, or 24. I'd like to say this means they're a lot less stodgy than those people at the other awards shows, but since they often refuse to acknowledge other highly qualified overlooked programs such as Buffy, Battlestar Galactica, Homicide or The Wire in favor of Nip/Tuck or Melrose Place, I'd say they're often more in love with appearances rather than quality. They're also not immune to the habit of recognizing the same show or actor over and over for no apparent reason. Sarah Jessica Parker won three Best Actress trophies, none of which I think she deserved. Mad Men's a great show, too, but it hasn't deserved to win the last season. (But that's a personal call, so I'll let that go for now.)

Usually, I have only a casual interest in who wins the films awards because, as I explained in an earlier post, I don't normally see most of the films until they come out on DVD. But this year, I saw several of the likely contenders , which probably makes me better up than some of the voters. However, to keep this post from going on interminably, I'll just list my posts for TV shows in this post, and deal with my film choices in one later on.

Best Drama: Always a difficult call, this time it's a lot tougher than usual, as there are several new contenders that could triumph. Mad Men could make it a four-peat, but this is still very close. For the moment, though, I'm going to give the edge to Boardwalk Empire. It's an HBO show, which the Globes like, and it's their finest offering since Big Love. However, just about any of the picks is a good one, which I normally can't say.

Best Actor, Drama: After three consecutive Emmy wins, Bryan Cranston finally got some recognition from the Globes for his superb work on AMC's Breaking Bad, which was otherwise shut out. Jon Hamm gave a superb performance in 'The Suitcase' episode of Mad Men, which could help. But I think this year the Globes will recognize Steve Buscemi for his performance on Boardwalk Empire. He's an acting veteran with over twenty years in the business, and the Hollywood Foreign Press loves to acknowledge a great actor.

Best Actress, Drama: Another very tough call. Elisabeth Moss deserves to win something for her work on Mad Men, and she'd get my vote for the Emmy. But I think that it' more likely that they will honor Juliana Marguiles for The Good Wife. Her work on this show was ignored by the Emmys, and even though she won last year, this time I think she deserves a second trophy

Best Musical or Comedy: Why they continue to nominate The Office is beyond me, but the other five choices are brilliant comedy. Basically, you have sitcoms and dramedys. With five nominations, Glee leads all contenders, usually a good sign, but Will & Grace perpetually got four nods and it didn't help them. I think Modern Family will win at the SAGS, but here is Glee is the veteran show. I think (and hope) it will repeat.

Best Actor, Comedy: Alec Baldwin's had a lock on this ever since 30 Rock premiered five years ago, so the big question is: can Jim Parsons in The Big Bang Theory, who beat him at last years Emmy's, break his stranglehold? I'd like to see Matthew Morrison for Glee triumph, cause his character does everything Baldwin does and sing and dance, but I'm betting that this time Parsons will emerge triumphant.

Best Actress, Comedy: And here the question is, which strong, powerful actress from a quirky Showtime dramedy will prevail. It could go to Edie Falco, who already has a couple of trophies for her work on tHE Sopranos. But I think that the show that is fresher in viewers minds will prevail, which is why I'm picking Laura Linney in The Big C.

Best Supporting Actor: Always tough to figure out which way the supporting categories will turn because they merge all three specialties. I've beefed about this before, though, so... Tough one to call, but I think it's going to come down to Chris Noth for The Good Wife vs. Glee's Chris Coifer, and Coifer has had more swinging for the fence moments on the show this year.

Best Supporting Actress: I was sure Jane Lynch was going to win last year in this exact category, but Chloe Sevigny for Big Love (who honestly should have gotten an Emmy nod) won. Now Lynch faces competition not only from Sofia Vegara on Modern Family, but the stunning Julia Stiles' work on Dexter. Man, this is the toughest call yet. I pick Sue Sylvester... by about an inch.
Stay tuned to this spot to see my picks for the movies.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Awards, awards, and more awards

I like award shows a great deal. Mainly I find the nomination far more exciting than the actual awards. I also like the pre-award period, but I think that recently it has reached levels that surpass overkill. I remember an era when there were only four major critics organizations--- the National Board of Review, the Los Angeles Critics, the New York Film Critics, and the National Society of Film Critics. And that's not a long distant era--- that goes back to 2003.

Since then, it seems that expansion has come to this process, and, just like it did in professional sports, it has diluted the value of any awards. Now I can understand why Chicago, Boston, Detroit, Washington, and Florida have picked up awards, but Oklahoma? Indiana? Frigging Utah? A state which I would have been willing to bet had more electoral votes than it did film critics?

By my last count, and I may miss a few, there are twenty-five critical organizations giving awards before the Critic's Choice, Broadcast Film Critics, Hollywood Foreign Press and all the Guilds start giving their trophies, which are somehow considered more significant. But if this many groups are giving so many awards, how valuable is anything supposed to be considered? Do the writers of The King's Speech think their film will suddenly gain more clout because the Phoenix film critics named it Best Picture? Is that likely to help it at the box office? The Academy Awards is considered a political process, just like everything else in this world, but, just as the extensive primary season may have watered down the quality of political nominees, perhaps all of these minor awards have diminished an already very thin subject.

Does Natalie Portman make time for a trip to Texas because she has been named Best Actress by the Dallas, Houston, and Austin Film Critics? This actually raises a better question? Do all these groups have ceremonies? I know New York and LA did, but how far down the food chain do you have to go, before you're going to the San Diego Film critics awards to pick up a Best Supporting Actor trophy? Imagine how irritating this must be for Christian Bale, whose already won fifteen prizes, and the real awards haven't even begun to be delivered yet.

None of this is, of course, news. All throughout the Internet people have been ranting that this process and how this is a bigger deal for the organizations then any recipients.. But it does beg the question: if the performers don't care and the reviewers are indifferent... no, this is dangerous territory to get into. Soon, I'll be suggested that maybe they should get rid of awards all together, which is the complete opposite of what I actually feel about these awards.

There are website which keep records of these awards, and probably manage to catch some of the ones most people do. There are also ones that do it in a nice little chart with special graphics (I've visited one site, movie city news, btw.) So there's not going to be anything earth-shattering. But I like lists and I like awards, so for the next few days, I'm going to have listings of all the minor associations that have given out critics awards. When we get into the bigger deals (which is coming up pretty fast now) I'll actually list some of my own picks based more on what I've seen.

There appears to be one film the critics really like: The Social Network. Up until now, it's one just about every prize imaginable. Not only New York, The National Board of Review and Los Angeles. So much so that it would be easier to list the ones it hasn't won.

127 Hours, Utah
Black Swan, Austin
North Texas, Central Ohio
The King's Speech, Phoenix
Winter's Bone, San Diego.
We'll see if its luck keeps holding when the major trophies start coming out Friday.

David Fincher, The Social Network NBR, NY, LA, (tie) Utah, Chicago, Southeastern, Boston, Dallas

Darren Arronofsky: Black Swan: Austin, San Diego, San Francisco
Oliver Assayas, Carlos: LA (tie)
Danny Boyle, 127 Hours:Detroit
Christopher Nolan, Inception: Indiana, Kansas City, Utah, Phoenix, North Texas, Central Ohio

Little more variety here
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network: NBR, Boston, Houston, Oklahoma, Toronto, National Society of Film Critics
Colin Farrell, Ondine (San Diego
Colin Firth, The King's Speech: LA, NY, SF, Austin, DC, St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago, Florida, Phoenix, Kansas City, North Texas, Online, AWFJ
James Franco, 127 Hours: New York Online Critics, Indiana, Dallas, Las Vegas, Utah, Central Ohio

Annette Bening, The Kids are All Right: New York, Women's Film Critics, AWFJ
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone: NBR (most promising newcomer) LA, DC, San Diego, Toronto, Detroit
Leslie Manville, Another year, (NBR, San Diego
Giovanna Mezzogino, Venice: National Society
Natalie Portman, Black Swan: Austin, Florida, Houston, St. Louis, Kansas City, Dallas, Boston, Phoenix, Oklahoma, Chicago, Southeastern, Indiana, Las Vegas, Utah, North Texas, Online
Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine: SF

Christian Bale, The Fighter: NBR, Boston, Las Vegas, Indiana, Chicago, Florida, Detroit, St. Louis, Houston, Austin, Dallas, Kansas City, Phoenix, Utah, AWFJ
John Hawkes, Winter's Bone: San Francisco. San Diego
Arnie Hammer, The Social Network: Toronto
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right: New York
Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech: LA, Southeastern, National Society, Central Ohio

Amy Adams, The Fighter: Detroit, Las Vegas
Mila Kunis, Black Swan: Oklahoma
Melissa Leo, The Fighter: NYCO, NY, Florida, St. Louis, DC, Phoenix, Dallas, North Texas
Juliette Lewis, Conviction: Boston
Hailee Stanfield, True Grit: Southeastern, Kansas City, Austin, Houston, Indiana, Toronto, Chicago, Online, Central Ohio, AWFJ
Jacki Weaver, The Animal Kingdom,
NBR, LA, San Francisco, Utah
Olivia Williams, The Ghost Writer, National Society

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New Year, New Plans

A new year, a different kind of resolution. For the past year, I've been mostly blogging about television because it's one of the subjects that I feel most comfortable with. I have mostly stayed away from the movie industry even though it might be easier to get into, because there are far better people more qualified to bitch and moan about the sorry state of the cinema. I may think that certain critics are more rigid and curmudgeonly or that the film industry closely resembles a snake swallowing itself, but that adds nothing to the discussion other than my opinion, which is biased. Besides, as someone who prefers to see movies at home than go through the exercise of sitting through a film at a multiplex, my reaction to certain films is almost inevitably on tape delay.

But there is one aspect of the film industry I love, despite the fact that people have been bashing it since its founding, and that everything they've tried to do I still get thrilled by --- yes, the Oscars. There's something about awards shows that bring out the boy in me, even though I'm past thirty. And I follow the buildup to the Oscars with a fanaticism that probably would frighten all but the most loyal movie buff. But over the past decade, I've had my own series of problems with them, and while there's probably nothing earth-shaking in what I'm about to relate, maybe letting loose some of my confusion will help make me feel better.

Now, I'll admit to be an amateur film buff. I haven't studied the art of cinema much more than your average cinephile (if such a thing exists), so it doesn't take a genius to notice that the quality of films has been going downhill for quite some time. And sometimes it takes even less of a genius to notice that even the films that some people consider brilliant are anything but. However, my prejudices are inevitably shaped by my parents, who also love movies, but perhaps have grown a lot more rigid with their advancing age. My father loves movies, but he doesn't like how cheerless and unenjoyable even the very good films are, and while this may be partly due to my own prejudice, there's something to his position. Particularly over the past decade, cinema has been getting a lot darker in tone and in style of films. Dad may be unused to seeing copious amounts of blood on the big screen, but I am, and even I am dismayed by how much you tend to see in a lot of these darker films. No Country for Old Men was one of the best reviewed movies of the past few years, but I walked away from it thinking that I had just seen a glorified snuff film. I've seen mindful violence on a lot of network TV, but this was one of the films I thought that was glorified mindless violence. I've come to expect better from the Coen brothers (Fargo had a lot of violence too, but there they had a sense of black comedy which this film desperately needed.) I had a much similar feeling when I saw The Departed but I was prepared to show leniency as I've never much cared for the work of Scorcese. Heresy for a native New Yorker, I know, but that's my problem.

Of course, sometimes my parents dislikes come out of harder to justify reasons. Neither of my parents thought that much of Far from Heaven or Good Night, and Good Luck two movies which I consider among the better of the first decade of the twenty-first century, but I understand their reasoning. In the first case, my parents was familiar with the kind of films that the director was paying homage to; in the latter, they lived through the time, and thought that it had nothing new to say.

But sometimes watching a movie with them is a little strange, Part of its because we have now reached a stage in our movie-going relationship where I'm nervous about sex and violence in what they see. I want desperately to see Black Swan before Oscar night; but there's no way I'm watching a lesbian love scene in the same theater with them. I just don't have the stamina. More annoyingly, I think their opinion of a movie will sometimes affect my own sense of judgment. I can't help but think I might've enjoyed The Kids are All Right a bit more if I didn't have them looking over my shoulder. (I'll be coming back to this in a moment.)

But perhaps the real reason I don't enjoy watching films with them is that sometimes they will raise a mirror that I'm not comfortable with, particularly on critically acclaimed films. Last year, we sat and watched The Hurt Locker together, and they didn't have a good time. Normally, I try to defend the critics point of view, but when I saw it, I wondered--- what was in this movie that every critic in the world seemed to see in this? This was the best film of the year? Precious and Up in the Air were light-years ahead of it. And Invictus and The Last Station were ignored in favor of it. Maybe the academy was saying something arguing against the war in Iraq, but The Messenger did it a lot better, and much less flashily. And if they hadn't been in the room, I might have had been able to talk myself out of it.

I had a similar POV with Kids are All Right. Now I thought that Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo gave brilliant performances, but this was the film that every critic in America (almost) had gone into paroxyms of joy over? Maybe I would've thought it was funnier on my own, but I've seen this filmmakers work; I've come to expect better from her.

I am perhaps giving my parents more credit than they have earned --- I'm capable of making my own judgments a lot of the time, and most of the time, I see beyond the flash and CGI of films to see that there's no 'there' there But because some part of me doesn't want to give the critics the benefit of the doubt, I follow their judgment other than my own far more often with movies than I do with TV. This may be the main reason that I'm reluctant to delve into the world of the silver screen more than the smaller one.

But I'm going to rectify that at least a little over the next few weeks. Tune in next week when I continue to bite the hand that I want to feed me, and continue to criticize critics.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Top 10 TV Shows for 2010

Man, does this year lend itself to alliteration.
A lot of people have complained that there was a certain lack of good TV this season, particularly how carved up the network fall season was. But the fact of the matter was that this season featured some truly majestic peaks of for the medium --- they just weren't in the most populated areas of the world.
So, starting from the bottom, here goes:

10. Nurse Jackie (Showtime)
It's official: this season Showtime has become the strongest cable network. Particularly as it has managed to create a new medium: the half-hour comedy-drama. Three of the shows are populated by formidable actresses, but this one is by far the strongest. Edie Falco has reached levels she never achieved on The Sopranos and an able supporting cast from Paul Schulze to Anna Deveare Smith more than ably supports her. Let's hope that the season finale's intervention doesn't do more than slow her down.

9. Damages (FX)
It may not draw the prestige that Rescue Me and Nip/Tuck did, but this was the most fascinating piece on a strong network. From extraordinary turns by Martin Short, Lily Tomlin, and the criminally ignored Campbell Scott, this show kept me guessing week after week. I'm still not sure about everything that happened (Keith Carradine's role was never quite clear) , but it was very satisfying to watch Patty Hewes goes after her biggest fish yet. I'm glad this show has a future, even if right now, it's means I won't be able to watch it.

8. Dexter (Showtime)
Considering how good Season 4 was I didn't think the writers could top themselves this season. They didn't, but they came damn close. We've seen some bloodthirsty killers on this show, but this season painted us a picture of what true evil might looklike. Add to that stunning character roles by Julia Stiles and Johnny Lee Miller --- neither of whom I would've thought would be capable of it before Season 5--- and the continuing growth of Julia Carpenter as Debra, and you've got an absolute stunner. I don't know how much of a future this show has, but this seasons end gave the first real hint that Dexter's future may nto end in blood.

7. Lost (ABC)
First of all, let's admit that no ending for this show would really have satisfied us. But even if the last episode left you feeling a little cold (like me), that doesn't change the fact that this series did some stunning work in its final season. Any show that is capable of creating episodes like 'Dr. Linus' and 'Ab Aeterno (where we finally learned who Richard Alpert was) is worthy of our respect. Maybe the show didn't give us all the closure that we thought we deserved. But if it had, would it have been true to Lost? It'll be missed, but not as much because ...

6. Fringe (FOX)
This show has been providing the goods for the last couple of season, but with the introduction into the alternate universe, Fringe has become spectacular. Anna Torv and John Noble's bifurcated performances over Season 3 have been Emmy-caliber, and watching us getting actual answers to questions that this show asks has made this the most thrilling show on TV. It's just a shame that so few people are watching. Maybe we should start a 'Save Our Show' style campaign in both universes?

5. 30 Rock (NBC)
Maybe it was a bit premature to give Tina Fey the Mark Twain Prize from the Kennedy Center. But it doesn't change the fact that five seasons in, this is still the biggest laugh riot on television. Only this show could use the utter collapse on NBC and turn it into a hysterical joke. Let's hope that they'll move it to a good time slot, and that it will stay there (and wish Tracy Morgan a speedy recovery from his surgery)

4. Parenthood (NBC)
OK, I'll admit that I was slow to climb aboard on this one. But after being stupendously disappointed by Brothers and Sisters, this show with realistic marriages, successful and borderline, realistic children with some really strong actors playing them, and some issues that have some particular relevance in both being a parent and a child, this show is
is that utter rarity--- an adult network drama. Why is it that nobody's watching it? Oh, that's right....

3. The Good Wife (CBS)
Is it a legal drama? A political drama? A family show? A show about relationships when you're in your forties? The fact that this series does all of these things is a marvel. That it does them so spectacularly is incredible. As long as networks continue to turn out programs like The Good Wife, there will be a future for them. And as to that acting--- Alan Cumming, Best Supporting Actor. The race starts here.

2. Mad Men (AMC)
I'm still not convinced that it deserved three Emmys in a row. But that doesn't change the fact that this may be the most searing dramas in TV history. Watch Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Price struggle for survival was stunning. Watching Don Draper come to terms with his battle with drinking mesmerizing. Watching Betty confirm that no matter who she marries, she'll never be happy--- that was astounding. And as good as Jon Ham is (The Suitcase was a stunner), this show is really all about the women. I'm convinced that by the end of the series run, Peggy and Christina will be running the agency. But then again, that might be a demotion for them.

1. Glee (Fox)
Most of the shows on this list would be considered dark and depressing. This show has moments of that (it is high school, after all) but for most of the time, it is filled with sheer joy and energy. Featuring one of the most talented ensembles television has ever assembled, this show is funny, heartbreaking, powerful and joyous hours of TV ever created. Chris Coifer and Jane Lynch are two of the best actors currently working in the medium, and the guest cast (who would've thought that Gwyneth Paltrow had such a voice?!) has been next to flawless. Never has their been a show where the title perfectly describes the experience of watching it.

With this, we look ever forward into the new year. Maybe there's more great TV in our future.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Nominees Are...

Well, I know that's it's been a very long time since I made any additions to this blog, and my few but faithful followers may have thought that I've abandoned it all together. My only excuse is that there has been a lot going on in my life, and that while I've been able to spend a fair amount of time watching TV, I have not had enough time to write about it.

But now, the holiday season is upon us, and there are two things that are sure to come with the arrival of December: the supposed 'War on Christmas (which because this is not a political forum, I've not going to take a side on) and the coming of award nominations. A lot of the major critics groups in this country, most of them having to do with films have announced nominations, but a few deal with TV. I've seen more than my fair share of films this year, so I might be able to comment with some degree of wisdom about the films that will be in this years Oscar race. I may even do that a little later on. However, for the moment, I will stay within the borders of TV, which has also been getting recognition.

I will focus on the Golden Globes, which on occasion will right some of the more obscure wrongs that the Emmys often make, and sometimes will demonstrate that the Hollywood Foreign Press can live on Mars.

First the good things. While admit that this has been a piss-poor year for new network TV offerings, the Globes has seen fit to recognize two of the stronger shows: Boardwalk Empire, HBO's best new drama since Big Love, and AMC's The Walking Dead, which has become the most popular series on AMC---- ever. They also recognized Dexter, Good Wife, and Mad Men, three of the best shows currently on TV.

I've got no problem with the Best Actor noiminees. I'm glad to see Bryan Cranston finally getting some love (after three straight Emmys, it would be surreal to be ignored in favor of Simon Baker again). But Piper Perabo for Best Actress? I'm not even sure Covert Affairs was renewed for a second season. Glenn Close caught shunted aside for her?

And Damages being completely shut out after one of its finest years? Martin Short, having given one of the finest performances I've seen on TV last year ignored? There are always problems in the Supporting categories, but come on, Scott Caan for Hawaii Five-0? Alan Cumming or Aaron Paul would make sense, but Scott Caan? I'm pretty sure even his father wouldn't vote for him, given the opportunity.

I'm similarly baffled by Thomas Jane getting a best actor nod for Hung. It didn't make any sense last year, and it makes even less sense this year. The only explanation I can come up with is the shortage of candiates for Best Actor in a comedy, but David Duchovny's work in Californication was superior, and seen by a larger audience. What bizarro world mentality does this fit? Here's hoping there are more candidates with the coming of 2011.

Nurse Jackie deserved to be nominated for Best Comedy, so they got that right. I'm less certain about The Big C. At times, it was very funny, but it's behavior was erratic. Still, Laura Linney deserved her nomination, and now it's becoming clear that Showtime has a lock on comedies centered around fascinating woman with big problems. Without question Showtime is the real winner of the Globes this year, and continues to demonstrate that it is the real powerhouse in the pay cable world.

Nods that just made me feel good: Chris Colfer's for Glee. He is without question one of the best actors of a very strong cast, and watching him is probably the most enjoyment on one of TV's best rides. I was also glad to see Chris Noth and Julia Stiles nominated in the Supporting categories and I hope that when the Emmy judges get around to honoring them (and trust me, they will) they'll remember where they were. And though I still don't watch it loyally, it's good to know that the Foreign Press has finally recognized the superb Big Bang Theory as one of the Best Comedies of the year. I don't pay as much attention to the TV movie side of this, but I was glad to see Idris Elba nominated for his work in Luther, not just because it was just good work, but because I'm glad to see any alumni of The Wire getting recognized for something. (Hint, hint)

One last thing Foreign press, you might want to consider creating a whole new categories for Supporting Actors and Actress in TV movies. Yeah, it might add a few extra minutes to your show, and it was just be another category for HBO to dominate... you know what, forget I mentioned it. Few years, they'll all be gone anyway. Such is the balance of power in the TV industry.

That's enough for the Golden Globes. I'd try and run through the SAG awards as well, but the sad truth is, considering how wide a base they use, and how leads and supportings get shunted into the same category, I've given up getting worked up or excited by them. Besides, how seriously can you take a group that considers Hot in Cleveland one of the Best comedies of the year?

Stay tuned to this spot for my ten best list for 2010. But first, some classic antidotes for the Christmas themed episodes.