Sunday, February 27, 2011

2010 Oscar Picks--The 83rd annual Academy Awards

Here are my picks--I will list the nominees in the eight major categories (Best Picture, Best Director, the four acting categories and the two screenplay categories). I will list who I think should win, who will win, and who deserved a nomination (save for the screenplay awards, there I will just list who will and should). All the other categories I will simply predict a winner.

Best Picture:

Black Swan
The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech
127 Hours
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter's Bone

Will Win: The King's Speech
Should Win: Inception
Wish You Were Here: Nobody--this is the best crop of films to be nominated for Best Picture in a long time. None of these films deserve omission.

Best Director:

Darren Aronofosky, Black Swan
Joel and Ethan Coen, True Grit
David Fincher, The Social Network
Tom Hooper, The King's Speech
David O. Russell, The Fighter

Will Win: Fincher
Should Win: Christopher Nolan, Inception
Wish You Were Here: See above

Best Actor:

Javier Bardem, Biutiful
Jeff Bridges, True Grit
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Colin Firth, The King's Speech
James Franco, 127 Hours

Will Win: Firth
Should Win: Franco
Wish You Were Here: Leonardo DiCaprio, Inception

Best Actress:

Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone
Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

Will Win: Portman
Should Win: Portman
Wish You Were Here: Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right and Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit

Best Supporting Actor:

Christian Bale, The Fighter
John Hawkes, Winter's Bone
Jeremy Renner, The Town
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech

Will Win: in an upset, Rush
Should Win: Bale
Wish You Were Here: Andrew Garfield, The Social Network

Best Supporting Actress:

Amy Adams, The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter, The King's Speech
Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom

Will Win: Steinfeld, in what is probably the evenings closest race
Should Win: Steinfeld
Wish You Were Here: Marion Cotillard, Inception

Best Adapted Screenplay:

127 Hours – Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy from Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston
The Social Network – Aaron Sorkin from The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich
Toy Story 3 – Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Lee Unkrich; characters based on Toy Story and Toy Story 2
True Grit – Ethan Coen and Joel Coen from True Grit by Charles Portis
Winter's Bone – Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini from Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell

Will Win: Sorkin
Should Win: Sorkin

Best Original Screenplay:

Another Year – Mike Leigh
The Fighter – Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson
Inception – Christopher Nolan
The Kids Are All Right – Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg
The King's Speech – David Seidler

Will Win: Seidler
Should Win: Nolan, though Seidler is equally deserving

Best Animated Feature: Toy Story 3
Best Animated Short: The Gruffalo
Best Art Direction: The King's Speech
Best Cinematography: Roger Deakins, True Grit
Best Costume Design: The King's Speech
Best Documentary Feature: Inside Job
Best Documentary Short: Killing in the Name
Best Editing: The Social Network
Best Foreign Language Film: Incendies
Best Live Action Short: The Confession
Best Makeup: The Wolfman
Best Score: Alexandre Desplat, The King's Speech (though the award should go to Hans Zimmer for Inception)
Best Song: "If I Rise" from 127 Hours – A.R. Rahman, Rollo Armstrong, and Dido
Best Sound: Inception
Best Sound Editing: Inception
Best Visual Effects: Inception

Biggest Applause on the "In Memoriam" reel: Dennis Hopper

True Grit: Keeping It Real, Coen Bros. Style

With True Grit, the Coen brothers find themselves in heretofore—for them anyway—uncharted territory. The film represents the first true four-quadrant blockbuster—meaning the film has connected with audiences of all types, male and female, young and old, etc—the duo has directed. It was the runaway hit of the 2010 holiday season, and was the rare film to sustain its audience drawing power. In the third week of its release, True Grit reached #1 at the box office, and since its release over the Christmas weekend in 2010, has grossed nearly $200 million dollars. By box office standards, True Grit is easily their most successful film, far outpacing the earnings of their next highest grossing film, the 2007 Best Picture winning No Country For Old Men, which, like True Grit, was adapted from a Western novel.

I think a certain degree of selling out is involved when a film becomes a big hit, especially if the filmmakers have largely created heretofore independently produced films. We live in the age of movie making where the major studios do not like to gamble. Films are test-screened, re-shot, re-cast, endless drafts of screenplays are written because when all is said and done, movies cost millions of dollars to make and there are potentially billions of dollars at stake. Oftentimes, independent filmmakers make a calculated choice to direct a big film financed with studio dollars and meddled with by executives, partially for the challenge in doing so but also for practical reasons—large grosses on a blockbuster can secure funding for the more personal story the filmmakers wish to tell. Thankfully, True Grit is none of these things. The Coen Brothers—Ethan and Joel—have created a film true to their own ethos, and it fits thematically into the rest of the work in their filmography. The Coens themselves are surprised at the success of True Grit.

In many ways, the success of the film is surprising. First of all, it belongs to a genre of film long considered dead—the Western. And True Grit isn’t a Western filmed with modern tendencies. Rather, the film is decidedly old-school and classic in its approach. It also flirts with disaster because it is a remake. Clinton Portis’ novel was first adapted to screen in 1969, and it starred John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, in the role which won him his only Oscar for Best Actor. I haven’t seen the 1969 version, and while I have heard that the original version of True Grit is not as classic as The Searchers or Stagecoach or some of Wayne’s more acclaimed films, his take as Cogburn is iconic—it is considered to be John Wayne’s last great role. Messing around with films that are considered classics or contain Oscar winning work is a burdensome task; the remake will inevitably set itself up to be unfavorably compared to the original, and there are few stars more beloved than John Wayne, who to this day retains an uncommon degree of popularity. Believe me, The Duke still abides.

Yet the Coen Brothers are filmmakers with an uncommon degree of skill. First, they benefit from the fact that the 1969 True Grit was not especially faithful to the Clinton Portis novel. The earlier film had a comedic take on the story, softened the violence, and featured a singing cowboy. The Coens made a film closer in tone to the novel, retaining the rough edges of the story and the archaic patois of Portis’ dialogue—the language is highly formal, and none of the characters speak in contractions. In their films, the Coens have always shown a love of language and especially colloquialism; if you’ve followed their work, it’s easy to see what attracted them to the Portis novel. I favorably compare True Grit to Fargo, which was a film that certainly contained a very specific form of colloquial dialogue.

The Coens have also proved themselves to be masters of many genres of films. While their films contain similarities, no two Coen Brothers films are exactly alike. They’ve made gangster films, noirs (of the color, black and white, neo-, and anti- varieties), smart comedies, stupid comedies, stoner comedies, 1930’s inspired screwball comedies, religious parables and a pseudo-musical inspired by The Odyssey. Sometimes their films contain all genres at once. While they have never made a straight-up classic Western (No Country For Old Men is more noir than cowboy) until True Grit, they ably succeeded in doing so. The Coen brothers are America’s master filmmakers.

The duo has also achieved name-brand recognition. Each new Coen Brothers film is always anticipated. While none of their films have achieved the runaway level of success True Grit has, the Coens have more cult and word-of-mouth films on their resumes than the average filmmaker. In fact, their 1998 stoner comedy The Big Lebowski—which also features True Grit star Jeff Bridges—is one of the biggest cult movies ever made. Audiences are more rabid for that film today than it was upon its release. In fact, all of the Coen Brothers films age remarkably well. Go pop in their first feature, 1984’s Blood Simple, and prepare to be blown away. Part of the reason their films have such a timeless quality is that the Coens often set their films in the past, and those films feel like they were shot in the time in which they were set. Another reason their films age well is because the characters are simply so exceptionally well rendered.

The Coen Brothers have long loved unique characters. Their films probably contain the highest degree of idiots, jackasses, schmoes and psychopaths than seen in the majority of American films, which tend to feature classic heroes and heroines. The Coens have a true soft spot for the oddballs, and their body of work suggests that Americans have more in common with the wackos in their films than the classic heroes we like to see ourselves as. The characters in True Grit are right at home with the other crazies in the Coen Brothers filmography. Bridges plays Rooster Cogburn as a fat, drunken sot. Eye patch aside, he hardly seems to live up to his billing of ruthless mercenary; he’s so fat and so drunk it is a wonder he can ride a horse. Rooster is a total slob. LaBoeuf, the Texas Ranger played by Matt Damon, is a boob. First of all, he pronounces his name as “La Beef”, and where Rooster’s general drunkenness causes him to be underestimated, LaBoeuf is constantly overestimating his abilities. Their quarry, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) proves to be a gutless coward. Chaney’s boss, “Lucky” Ned Pepper (Barry Pepper, who brings to life one of the scariest outlaws seen in recent memory), is a villain of honor, but also utterly amoral and lawless.

In fact, the only character in the story that truly displays the “true grit” of the title is the protagonist of the film, fourteen year old Mattie Ross. Played by Hailee Steinfeld—who is the same age as her character—the character is unflappable and righteous. She has come to collect a bounty on Chaney, who shot and killed Mattie’s father, leaving her as the functioning head of her family. Mattie has a terrier-like tenacity. She is constantly being told to go home, that she is in over her head, that the lawless towns of the West are no place for a young girl. But Mattie proves to be the smartest character in the film—there’s a scene where she thoroughly out-negotiates a horse trader (who reminded me a whole lot of the used car salesman Jerry Lundegaard, played by William H. Macy in Fargo) that proves her intelligence—and also a real pain in the ass. In a world of shifting allegiances and fuzzy morality, Mattie holds others to high standards. She expects value from the things she pays for. She expects that contracts and business agreements to be upheld. When she says, “You must pay for everything in this world, one way and another. There is nothing free except the grace of God,” the character is written in such a way that you absolutely believe it, and Steinfeld plays the part with utter conviction. In a world filled with rottenness, Mattie is a bastion of values.

The Coens rarely include characters of such moral integrity in their films. They have a fondness for rascals, so when a character shows true grit in their movies, it reveals something about the brothers themselves. They too, demand integrity. Mattie reminds me very much of the Coen Brothers best character, their most beloved heroine, Marge Gunderson from Fargo, played by the great Frances McDormand (Joel’s wife) in her Oscar winning role. Mattie, like Marge, is a character who holds steadfast to her beliefs, and is a force of goodness in a world where concepts of honor and loyalty are foreign. I like how neither character lets their most obvious weakness become their undoing—for Mattie, it’s the fact that she is still a girl; for Marge, it is her massive pregnancy—these women are truly undaunted. Mattie’s character also rubs off on both Rooster and LaBoeuf. The film makes it clear that neither man would be capable of rising to true heroism, but Mattie inevitably rubs off on both men, who go from finding the girl annoying to willing to sacrifice themselves for her without regard to their own safety. When Rooster faces off against “Lucky” Ned Pepper and his gang, bellowing “FILL YOUR HAND, YOU SON-OF-A-BITCH!” we are witnessing the birth of a hero and an instantly classic Western moment. Through Mattie’s example, lazy men become heroes and provide the Coen Brothers with their first truly crowd pleasing, rousing moment on film.

The crowd pleasing moment feels truly earned. The Coen Brothers made no compromises in the making of True Grit. They belong in the rare company of filmmakers who trust their audiences to believe in the power of strong characters in a good story. It isn’t surprising at all that audiences have responded so warmly to this film. And in close examination, True Grit feels right at home with the rest of the Coen Brothers films. Ethan and Joel Coen delivered a crowd pleaser by staying true to themselves, and making movies from material that inspires them. You get the feeling True Grit is exactly the kind of film the Coens would love if someone else had directed it.

The Coen Brothers have proven themselves to be an Oscar force. (Though this year they downplayed the 10 Oscar nominations True Grit received, saying “Ten seems like an awful lot. We don’t want to take anyone else’s.”) Their last three films—No Country For Old Men, A Serious Man, and this film—have received Best Picture nominations, with No Country For Old Men outright winning. True Grit could certainly surprise, but it would be a long shot. The film’s best chances at capturing an Oscar would be with Hailee Steinfeld’s performance—she is nominated as Supporting Actress when she should have been nominated for lead. Steinfeld’s work was my single favorite performance from any actor in 2010. Having won the role over 15,000 young actresses competing for the part, Steinfeld is a true find, and unlike most of her teenaged peers, there isn’t a sense of mugging or phoniness in her performance. The girl is a gem. I also think that Roger Deakins should finally be honored for his cinematography—True Grit is a gorgeous film, and I was filled with regret when watching the images Deakins captured so beautifully. Westerns look so magnificent on film; it’s a shame that they aren’t made with as much frequency as they used to.

I feel Ethan and Joel Coen are the single greatest and most original American filmmakers working today, and they just may be the greatest our country has ever produced. With True Grit they have made an instant classic, and finally, audiences who may be unfamiliar with their work can see how brilliant they are.


True Grit (2010)

Directors: Ethan and Joel Coen

Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper

Studio: Paramount Pictures

Total Oscar Nominations: 10 (Best Picture—Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Scott Rudin; Best Director—Ethan and Joel Coen; Best Actor—Jeff Bridges; Best Supporting Actress—Hailee Steinfeld; Best Adapted Screenplay—Ethan and Joel Coen; Best Art Direction—Jess Gonchor, Nancy Haigh (Set Decoration); Best Cinematography—Roger Deakins; Best Costume Design—Mary Zophres; Best Sound—Skip Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff, and Peter F. Kurland; Best Sound Editing—Skip Lievsay and Craig Berkey)

NEXT BLOG: 2010 Academy Award Picks and Winter’s Bone

Toy Story 3: Beyond Infinity

If one were to teleport Irving G. Thalberg, Louis B. Mayer, David O. Selznick, Jack Warner, Harry Cohn, Carl Laemmle, Jr. and Walt Disney himself eighty or so years forward from the Golden Age of Hollywood to present day, perhaps the only film studio they would be sufficiently impressed with would be Pixar, and only Disney wouldn’t be surprised an animation studio would be the poster child for consistency in quality filmmaking. In the sixteen years since Toy Story was unveiled on movie screens—ushering in the age of computer animation—Pixar’s eleven releases have each been of exceptional quality and imagination, causing their films to receive near-universal critical acclaim and massive popularity with the average moviegoer. (To me, Pixar’s only missteps were back to back—2004’s The Incredibles, which was too derivative of Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four for my liking and 2006’s Cars which managed to be surprisingly crass—but this is just one man’s opinion.) To wit—Toy Story 3 is the highest grossing film in the 2010 U.S. box office receipts by a healthy margin. Succinctly put—nobody makes movies better than Pixar, and for crying out loud, they’re cartoons.

The animators at Pixar understand the limitless potential of their medium. Through their films, audiences have seen the world from the perspective of insects, the sights and smells of Paris through the eyes and nose of a rat, the vast expanses of our oceans, and a vision of a post-apocalyptic Earth. Starting with 2007’s Ratatouille—who could forget the ending with the upended critic finding joy in the discovery of something original and new—Pixar’s films have confronted sophisticated adult themes in a form designed to entertain children. Wall•E—which for my money was the best film of 2008—tackled loneliness, environmental responsibility and satirized the notion that human beings were becoming slaves to technology. The Best Picture-nominated Up confronted grief. In Toy Story 3, the toy characters are used as tools in which the filmmakers explore confronting death and obsolescence, and the character of Andy is used to demonstrate the changes a boy must make when becoming a man. These are the themes of Greek drama and Shakespearean tragedy; the very foundation upon which classic literature is built. Such thematic depth is anathema to the vast majority of modern day filmmakers and the corporate studios that bankroll them. And animated films would seem like the least likely source to uphold classic storytelling tradition, yet here is Pixar cranking out classic film after classic film at a rate that frankly, the rest of Hollywood should strive to emulate.

Why is Pixar so successful with their films? Quite simply, they get the details right. When they want to animate a school of fish, they go to an aquarium. When they anthropomorphize a car, they look at the real car, and make sure it moves and sounds like an actual car driving on the road. When a world is viewed from a perspective of a small creature, it appears appropriately massive. Finally, the characters are treated for what they are, not stand-ins for human beings or mere symbols. This is where the creators of Woody and Buzz Lightyear (voiced, of course, by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen) really excel. While the characters talk, move, and act like people—at their core these are only toys. Woody is never going to have to pay taxes. Buzz will never need to file for unemployment. The toys themselves will never physically age. Their existence is entirely co-dependent on their owner, Andy, and the central question of the film becomes this: What happens to a toy when its owner has outgrown playing with them?

From this question, the creators of Toy Story 3 have a solid foundation upon which to establish character and build an emotionally engrossing narrative. Andy is now seventeen and about to leave for college. His mother has tasked him with cleaning out his bedroom, and to separate his keepsakes—to be stowed away in the attic—from the junk which will be thrown away. Andy, in true teenage fashion, calls his toys “junk”, which unleashes a wave of agita amongst his plastic playmates. Some of the wiser toys—Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, Hamm the piggy bank, Slinky Dog—have no qualms about being stashed away in the attic. Others, like Rex, the neurotic and emotionally needy Tyrannosaur (Wallace Shawn, whinier than ever)—who rejoices when Andy incidentally touches him—behave utterly irrationally. Also in the irrational camp—though not to the extent of the dinosaur—is Jessie the cowgirl (Joan Cusack), who has never forgotten (and never really gotten over) her previous owner abandoning her (Jessie’s backstory, revealed in Toy Story 2, is for my money, the most emotionally devastating sequence in Pixar’s films). As for our heroes, Woody and Buzz, they engage in a bit of role reversal. Buzz, usually the toy in the Toy Story films that must deal with an existential crisis, has settled comfortably into a leadership position amongst the toys. Buzz does so because Woody, as Andy’s most cherished toy, will accompany his owner to college. Yet Buzz and the other toys—especially the caustic Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles, still full of piss and vinegar) and the sarcastic Hamm (Pixar stalwart John Ratzenberger, channeling his Cheers role as Cliff Clavin)—feel that Woody may just be in denial about his future. Is a seventeen-year-old teenager really going to bring a pull-string cowboy with him to college? One thing is for certain—every toy fears the garbage sack, the only fate in which destruction is a certainty.

A third fate is presented. Andy’s sister, Molly, will be moving into the bedroom vacated by Andy, and she is also tasked with disposing of the playthings she has long since ignored. Her mother tells her to throw anything she doesn’t want into a box to be donated to Sunnyside Daycare. In goes Barbie. (In an astute twist, the creators show that the sister is far less sentimental about her toys than her brother; I would say that the same is true for most girls, who mature at an earlier age.) There is an inevitable mix-up; the Andy puts his toys in a Hefty bag meant for the attic, but the mother mistakes for garbage. When the toys, sans Woody, realize they’ve been deposited curbside, they make a mad dash for the Sunnyside box. The uncertain fate awaiting them at the daycare is preferred to the certain destruction the garbage truck signifies. Woody, who knows of the true intention of the toys’ fate, tags along in an attempt to make the other toys return home.

When the toys arrive at Sunnyside, it appears to be a utopia. Pixar’s animators clearly did their research, as the place looks as if a camera documented an actual daycare instead of it being created on a hard drive. The walls are brightly colored and cluttered with toddler’s finger paintings. Tiny, kid-sized table and chair sets (gargantuan, of course, to the toys) furnish the vast playrooms. Mismatched sets of blocks and broken crayons accompany the motley crew of donated toys the daycare has accumulated over the years. There is a “Butterfly Room”, for the elementary aged boys and girls, and the “Caterpillar Room” for the toddlers. Sunnyside looks like every daycare center in America (and when you have young children, you notice they all do really look alike). They are greeted by a kindly, wizened pink stuffed Lots-O’-Huggin Bear—Lotso for short—who still carries the faint scent of strawberries (the rich burr of Ned Beatty—recalling Burl Ives—voices the character to life). Lotso describes Sunnyside as a paradise where toys are forever played with, for as the kids age, younger children replace them. At Sunnyside, the toys are promised an eternal playtime. Barbie finds a Ken (Michael Keaton, in a bravura role). Even Woody—steadfastly loyal to Andy as always—admits he is impressed by the daycare, saying it would be far preferable to the attic.

Sure enough, the promise of paradise proves to be empty. Andy’s toys—minus Woody, who begins to make his way home—are assigned to the Caterpillar Room, where they eagerly await being played with. The actions of the toys veteran to the caterpillar room—hiding under baskets and in the shadows of shelves—go largely unheeded. The toddlers treat the toys nightmarishly. Buzz is used as a hammer, Rex has his limbs ripped off, the Potato Heads find their parts strewn about the room, and Jessie’s hair is used as a paintbrush. The Pixar animators again score big here, as anyone who has seen a toddler play with toys knows just how chaotic and destructive they can inadvertently be. From the toys perspective, it is like they have survived the wrath of an F5 tornado. When they see the docile manner the toys in the Butterfly Room are being played with, it comes clear that the benign bear that seemed so kind is really running a totalitarian dictatorship, where the new toys are used as fodder for the rampaging toddlers.

The metaphor here is clear. As the whole film is a rumination on aging and death, Sunnyside becomes a metaphor for old folks homes. With the situation of unwanted toys being donated to a daycare, Toy Story 3 becomes critical of those who would deposit their loved ones into the care or strangers in places whose names seem harmless (there’s probably thousands of retirement homes that use the word “sunny” in their name). The insightful script by Michael Arndt also knows that evil often disguises itself in the most innocent of guises. When Buzz voices that he and the rest of Andy’s toys would be more appropriately placed in the Butterfly Room, Lotso and his goons turn nasty, reprogramming Buzz (the poor toy can’t go a whole movie without some sort of existential crisis) and turning the Caterpillar Room into a prison. The film grows noticeably darker here, though leavened with clever parodies of such prison films as The Great Escape and Cool Hand Luke (in a nod to the late Paul Newman, whose voice-over work was easily the best thing about Cars).

Eventually, Woody learns what Sunnyside is really like, and the sad origins of Lotso. Lotso was a beloved toy whose owner lost him. Upon making a long journey home, he finds he has been callously replaced by another, exactly similar Lots-O’-Huggin Bear and has grown bitter toward children ever since (the message here—take better care of things precious to you). Woody leads a successful escape, though the toys find themselves scooped up by a garbage truck and taken to the dump. Again, Pixar’s research in bringing the garbage facility to life is incredible; the setting provides a perilous stage for the climax of the film, which is as exciting as any major set piece in a major action flick. The toys are helpless to escape the machinery that leads all of the garbage toward the furnace. In an incredible scene, the toys accept their fate and link hands as they surge inexorably toward the flames. Here, the filmmakers are saying that if death becomes inevitable, it is better faced in the company of true friends. For a film whose audience is comprised of large percentages of young children, this is an incredibly bold statement to make.

It is rare for any children’s programming to approach issues of mortality, but the animators at Pixar know that the actions Andy’s toys take remain true to their characters. Besides, this storytelling choice reveals the ultimate secret to Pixar’s success—they have faith in the intelligence and sophistication of their audience, especially children. They are storytellers who never condescend, and as such they have built trust and rapport with their audiences. Imagine that—an audience that can trust a major Hollywood studio to deliver quality entertainment. For a minute there they even had me thinking that the toys were going to bite the dust, and I have rarely been more invested in the fate of any characters in a film, animated or otherwise. Of course, with the G rating, the fate of the toys is never really in doubt, but the storytelling wizardry on display here completely transports the audience.

Toy Story 3 closes with a resonant coda that many grown men have admitted bawling to (for the record, I did not cry, but I will admit the final moments of the film were very touching and honestly emotional). Andy decides that the attic is no place for his toys; they are too beloved to merely collect dust. He gives them to a young girl, Bonnie, with whom he is familiar. In observing Bonnie, Andy sees a kindred spirit; he knows this little girl plays with her toys just as imaginatively as Andy played with his when he was a young boy. (Coincidentally, Bonnie is already familiar with Woody, as he is waylaid at her house after his first escape from Sunnyside.) Though he appears reluctant to do so, Andy donates all of his toys to Bonnie, and he plays with Bonnie with his toys for a final time. The scene is incredibly poignant (and one of the keys to its poignancy is that Pixar used John Morris, who voiced Andy as a child in the first two films—knowing that the same actor has grown with the role only makes the entire performance more real), as Andy subconsciously knows that part of growing into a man requires letting go of some of the things that meant the world to you as a boy. Andy lets go in the most meaningful way possible, knowing that the joy he had in playing with his toys is best experienced by a child with an imagination stretching, in the motto of Buzz Lightyear, to infinity and beyond.

I don’t remember—as I suspect many adults do—many specifics of my childhood. The details of my rituals are lost to me. Instead, many portions of my childhood are remembered as a period of infinite innocence, and I remember as a child that growing into an adult seemed like it would happen at a point forever in the future. For a child, adulthood is the place beyond infinity. For an adult, what lies beyond infinity is obsolescence (call it retirement if you must). In obsolescence, beyond infinity lies only death. Toy Story 3 is a miraculous film that explores what happens as we inevitably change, grow older, and die. The filmmakers at Pixar know that they can bravely approach such a deep and resonant theme because their imaginations aren’t strictly limited to recreating a world through the eyes of a toy. They have enough creative verve to know that the haunting questions human beings have about their own fates, their own natures fall squarely within the realm of limitless imagination.

Sadly, Toy Story 3 has probably zero chance of winning the Best Picture Oscar. The Academy has taken strides to recognize the brilliant work done in the field of animation by all animators. Animated films undoubtedly benefit from the decision to extend the field of Best Picture nominees to ten. Like science fiction films, animation is a medium which is still not taken seriously by most of the voting members of the Academy. This is one instance where the filmgoing masses are clearly far more progressive than the Oscar voters. Were the fans to decide, I suspect Toy Story 3 would walk away with the Oscar—I doubt that the voting would be close—and Pixar would probably already have a collection of trophies to display. Alas, this is not the year. I suspect though, as times change and if Pixar maintains the level of quality established with their body of work—and there is no reason to think the quality of their films will diminish—the Best Picture Oscar they so richly deserve will find a worthy owner.


Toy Story 3 (2010)

Director: Lee Unkrich

Starring (the vocal talents of): Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Ned Beatty, Michael Keaton, John Morris

Studio: Pixar (Walt Disney Pictures)

Total Oscar Nominations: 5 (Best Picture—Darla K. Anderson; Best Adapted Screenplay—Michael Arndt, Best Animated Feature—Lee Unkrich; Best Original Song—“We Belong Together” by Randy Newman; Best Sound Editing—Tom Myers and Michael Silvers)

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Social Network: Movie of the Moment

Ah, to be tapped into the zeitgeist. When I first saw The Social Network, I was sitting behind a woman who was updating her Facebook status on her iPhone, saying that she was watching a movie about Facebook. Such is the world we live in. 500 million people can’t be wrong.

David Fincher’s film was bound to have a built-in-audience; Facebook is only probably the most significant website to be created since the invention of the internet, the story of its genesis is a tale that stirs curiosity. Socially inept computer geeks creating a website does not sound like movie material at first, but the scandal, betrayals and overall salaciousness to grow out of Facebook’s origins proved to be dynamite. Not to mention, we now live in an age where the ability to post one’s feelings on the internet in an instantaneous manner moves people’s dirty laundry from private business to information so urgent we’re obligated to prioritize it on a need-to-know basis. People love rumors. We want the juicy details. Snap judgments need to be made. Fincher, working from Aaron Sorkin’s frankly outstanding screenplay, understands that audiences love the juice, that we thrive on the he-said, she-said. The Social Network is a reflection of how human beings communicate. The power of the film comes from a great irony at its core—that the man responsible for connecting the globe at the click of a mouse is woefully inept when it comes to face-to-face communication.

The already legendary opening scene of The Social Network finds the subject of the film, Mark Zuckerberg (played with biting intelligence and obvious insecurity by Jesse Eisenberg, who is brilliant) on a date with his girlfriend, Erica (Rooney Mara). For Mark, the date is going terribly. He barely lets Erica get a word in edgewise. He’s completely insensitive to her participation in the conversation. He realizes, all too late, that Erica is there to break up with him. When she finally has Mark’s complete attention, all she tells him, “You are probably going to be a very successful computer person. But you're going to go through life thinking that girls don't like you because you're a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won't be true. It'll be because you're an asshole.” Erica’s comment upends Mark; a man clearly uncomfortable with having that which he is most insecure about thrown back in his face. Eisenberg plays the scene beautifully; he knows that for all the technical genius his character possesses, the Mark Zuckerberg as a Harvard sophomore cannot crack the code of communicating with the opposite sex. Erica’s comments are a massive put down, and Eisenberg plays the scene with Mark looking mortally wounded.

Better still, is Fincher’s decision to stage the conversation in a busy college pub. Most directors wouldn’t want to risk such rich dialogue possibly blending into the din of background conversation. And were the film set in say 1993 instead of 2003, maybe Erica breaks up with Mark in a more private setting. Both Fincher and Sorkin know though, that such notions of privacy have been rendered irrelevant in this age of instant communication. Setting the scene in a place where anyone within earshot could casually eavesdrop is clearly commentary on current social interaction. What’s even better is that this all serves to establish Mark’s character. Erica’s words not only have the effect of Mark getting his dick caught in his zipper, but because they’re at a bar, everyone there can be made aware of Mark’s impotency. It’s the fear of appearing powerless which eats at Zuckerberg; he rushes home to blast Erica in a vitriolic blog posting, hardly aware of the creative potential his vengeful motivations possess.

Key to the theme of The Social Network is the idea that in our time, inspiration is born not out of passion, but insecurity. Mark’s nasty blog post mutates into the idea of being able to rank photos of the faces Harvard girls side by side and make a snap judgment on their attractiveness. Mark seems to hardly care which girl is hotter—he is enamored with how quickly his idea spreads like wildfire throughout the Harvard campus, eventually crashing the school’s servers. When he is disciplined, he doesn’t seem in the slightest bit contrite or remorseful; in fact, he feels he “deserves recognition” from the panel at the hearing for pointing out the flaws in their security. Mark is always letting everyone know that he feels he is the smartest person in the room at any given time. On the date with Erica, he mentions he scored 1600 on his SAT’s. He’s not a world class athlete, he’s not rich, he’s not handsome—his genius is his lone distinguishing characteristic, and it isn’t enough to gain acceptance into the exclusive Final Clubs Mark desperately wishes to be a part of. The resentment fuels his ambitions. Through Zuckerberg—and several other characters in the film—The Social Network makes a conclusion about this modern generation: inspiration is born not out of dreaming, but seething.

Mark’s idea does catch the eye of three members of the Harvard elite—Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (or as Zuckerberg calls them in a fabulously condescending manner—The Winklevii—played with the aid of digital enhancement, by Armie Hammer in both roles) and their partner, Divya Narendra (Max Minghella). The trio recognizes Mark’s coding genius, and they ask him to develop their idea for the Harvard Connection, which as explained in the film, allowed the members of the Final Clubs to create profiles and share information amongst each other. From here the film shows Zuckerberg as a man of opportunity. Zuckerberg isn’t merely content to have his idea be shared exclusively throughout the Final Clubs, his ambition, as he explains it to his friend and eventual business partner Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) is to take the “entire social experience of college” and put it online. Zuckerberg also comes up with the idea of adding the “relationship status” feature to the website, as he knows that sex is the overarching motivating factor behind the social decisions college students make. Eduardo expresses moral doubts over their creation, thefacebook, especially when the Winklevii and Narendra threaten legal action, but Mark says, “Look, a guy who builds a nice chair doesn't owe money to everyone who ever has built a chair. They came to me with an idea, I had a better one.” The Social Network is also saying that in today’s times, creation of an idea does not necessarily preclude ownership of that idea; vision, ambition and most of all—opportunity—is what is needed to secure ownership.

Much ado has been made about did Zuckerberg steal from the Winklevii and Narendra. The veracity of events portrayed in Sorkin’s script has come under inevitable attack, but in terms of the movie, it doesn’t matter who stole what or who had the idea first. The Social Network clearly comes down on the side of Zuckerberg as the creator of Facebook, no matter whose idea it originally was. Sorkin certainly makes an effort to show the class distinction between Zuckerberg and the Winklevii and Narendra. Zuckerberg isn’t winning any ethics or morality awards, but unlike the three men suing him, he doesn’t have a sense of entitlement. In many ways, Zuckerberg is seen as the David to their collective Goliath—especially as the Winklevii stand 6’5”, have movie star good looks, and tons of connections. In dealing with Zuckerberg, Narendra says “I want to hire the Sopranos to beat the shit out of him with a hammer,” but the twins reply, “We don’t have to do that. (Cameron’s line) I’m six-foot-five and there’s two of me. (Tyler’s line)” Cameron also adds that the three of them are “gentlemen of Harvard” and such physical altercation is beneath them. Yet when none of their tactics cause Zuckerberg to desist, they do a very un-gentlemanly thing: they whine to the President of Harvard—who they use their connections to get a meeting with. The President of Harvard is thoroughly unimpressed by this argument, stating that the three men would be better served by coming up with a new idea, and that “Harvard students believe that inventing a job is better than finding a job.”

In the depositions—which Sorkin cleverly uses as a framing device for the film—the Winklevii and Narendra are subject to further abuse. Their lawyer—who is also the lawyer to Winklevoss Sr.—is clearly overmatched by Zuckerberg. In the depositions, Zuckerberg seems to hardly care what anyone is asking him. At one point, the lawyer asks him, “Do you think I deserve your full attention?” (There’s that word “deserve” again…) Zuckerberg replies, “I had to swear an oath before we began this deposition, and I don't want to perjure myself, so I have a legal obligation to say no.” The lawyer is flabbergasted, and Zuckerberg knows the opportunity is ripe for attack. “I think if your clients want to sit on my shoulders and call themselves tall, they have the right to give it a try - but there's no requirement that I enjoy sitting here listening to people lie. You have part of my attention - you have the minimum amount. The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing.” Zuckerberg pauses, before adding, “Did I adequately answer your condescending question?” Sorkin gives Zuckerberg this line of dialogue, effectively closing the case against the Winklevii and Narendra to the audience of the movie: “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.”

The Winklevii and Narendra are subject to some of the harshest dressing down I have ever seen characters in a film receive (the nasty lines Annette Bening’s character gives Mark Ruffalo’s in fellow Best Picture nominee The Kids Are All Right are tame by comparison). These guys have all physical and economical advantages in the world, yet they whine like little bitches, hiding behind an outdated code of honor and when that doesn’t work, their Daddy’s lawyer. Zuckerberg, scrawny and by comparison, working class, takes the fight to these entitled pricks. I don’t condone Zuckerberg’s behavior, but I was rooting for him to embarrass these three clowns and embarrass them solidly. Sorkin’s script is genius in the sense that the viewers can find reasons to both love and hate the character of Mark Zuckerberg. Eisenberg’s performance illuminates this dichotomy. Still, for as even handed as Sorkin presents some of the events in the film, there is an undoubted position against entitlement taken in the screenplay.

It’s thrilling to watch a film that dares hold a mirror up to contemporary society. Nowadays, movies are so disposable, so superficial that precious few craftsmen within the industry realize its potential as a piece of art, something that can make a statement. The Social Network gives us a lead character that does despicable things and has a personality laced with strychnine, but yet shows the flipside to Zuckerberg’s personality. Sorkin comes down hard on elitism and the sense of entitlement it brings through the Winklevoss twins and Narendra, their minion. He also presents a scathing critique of rampant egomania.

About halfway through The Social Network, the conflict between Zuckerberg and the Winklevii is mostly concluded, and a new character makes his entrance into the story—Sean Parker, the wunderkind who founded and lost the file-sharing site Napster (ably played by Justin Timberlake, riffing on his own image). Parker represents everything that Zuckerberg desires to be—powerful, sophisticated, and above all, cool. Parker gives Zuckerberg the final, crucial idea relevant to the creation of Facebook, “Drop the ‘the’. Just ‘Facebook’. It’s cleaner.” Parker treats Mark and Eduardo to a fancy dinner where both are impressed, and Mark is especially impressed by this tenet: “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool—a billion dollars.” At that point, Zuckerberg is wholly Parker’s acolyte.

The two characters share much in common. Relatively humble upbringings. Coding genius. Grand ambitions. A pronounced anti-authoritarian streak. In framing the film with the two separate lawsuits served to Zuckerberg, the character is imbued with the impression that people are always out to get him. Parker immediately recognizes this, and ensnares Mark with stories of how Napster scared so many people in the music industry it had to be destroyed and how none of the CEO’s and executives he worked with would ever take him seriously because he was young. The script is wise to show that both Zuckerberg and Parker feel that they are underappreciated and unrecognized geniuses. From there, Parker exhorts Zuckerberg to think bigger, to move Facebook to California, to make the website global.

Parker’s entry into the film serves as a wedge between the friendship of Mark and Eduardo. There is a genuine bond between the two young men, but Sorkin is wise to include details that Mark needed Eduardo for two key reasons: startup money for thefacebook and his connections to the Final Clubs, of which Eduardo has been accepted into. Sorkin also implies that because Eduardo was accepted into the Final Clubs and Mark wasn’t, Mark held a jealous grudge against him. Parker’s appearance into the story quickly turns their relationship toxic, as Eduardo mostly wants Facebook to remain on the path of steady growth while Parker and Mark are ready for their idea to explode. As Facebook blows up, so does the friendship between Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin.

Parker, in the guise of mentorship, really clings desperately to Zuckerberg’s coattails. While Parker is the life of the Facebook party, he uses Mark to live out revenge fantasies on people who he feels has slighted him. He encourages Mark to attend a meeting of potential investors wearing his bathrobe, pajamas, and flip-flops, and instructing him to merely tease the idea partnering Facebook with the investment group. Parker convinces Mark that it would be a great idea to print up business cards reading “Mark Zuckerberg—I’m CEO, bitch”. In short, the details in the script imply that Parker’s lack of professionalism is what ultimately derailed his previous ventures. He also proves to be a coward. When Eduardo and Mark have their final confrontation—prompted when Eduardo learns that the shares in Facebook have been diluted to .03% (another one of Parker’s ideas)—Parker lingers in the back, taunting and sneering at Eduardo while calling for security. Parker goes too far when he presents Eduardo for a check in the amount of $19,000—the amount representing the cause of an earlier dispute between Mark and Eduardo—but tells him that the funds were drawn on a bank account Eduardo had already frozen. Eduardo, who though tall is not physically imposing, turns to punch Parker, Parker cowers. Eduardo tells him, “I like standing next to you, Sean. It makes me look so tough.” The final fate of Sean Parker in The Social Network sees him being arrested for snorting cocaine and providing alcohol to minors in a party celebrating the one-millionth Facebook account. His egomania proves to be his undoing.

Sorkin provides another scene demonstrating the dangers of egomania. It is the one scene where Zuckerberg is shown having remorse for his actions. His business cards are delivered to him, and as he reads “I’m CEO, bitch” under his name, Eisenberg gives Mark a look of regret, understanding how childish and immature having thousands of business cards printed with that phrase actually is. It’s an excellent character moment, closing the door on Parker’s antiauthoritarian antics, and providing the slightest glimpse into a possibility that Zuckerberg may overcome his own insecurities. Again, Sorkin’s screenplay draws a line in the sand on a moral issue.

The story, in another lovely bit of screenwriting, closes with a scene where Zuckerberg is again being called an asshole by a woman. After much deliberation, Mark’s junior counsel, Marylin Delpy (Rashida Jones), instructs him to settle. While she thinks Mark’s position has legal merit, she knows that if his lawsuits reach a jury the sordid details about the founding of Facebook and Mark’s own prickly personality will prove too unsympathetic. She tells him, “Creation myths need a devil.” Mark understands this because in many ways, he is now part of the elite he once despised. Mark is now so wealthy, that the hundreds of millions of dollars the settlements will cost him will be no more burdensome than a parking ticket. Mark says he isn’t a bad guy. Marylin says, “I know you’re not an asshole. You’re just trying so hard to be one.” The Social Network closes as Mark, alone, sends a Friend Request to Erica. She proves to be his Rosebud as the Beatles’ “Baby You’re a Rich Man” (excellently used) plays while he refreshes the page every few seconds, again hoping to be accepted. For all his phenomenal success, Zuckerberg ends up lonely. Sorkin refreshes an old theme for modern times—no amount of fame, money, or even notoriety can fill an empty soul with love.

I have heard The Social Network be called the “Silicon Valley Citizen Kane” and clearly, David Fincher’s modern film shares much in common with Orson Welles’ classic one. Fincher, a filmmaker better known for mindbenders and visually imaginative movies is wise enough to know that a great story is the best special effect. Fincher used his perfectionist style—he demands many takes of scenes—to help the actors fine tune their performances and create a tone reminiscent of the great screwball comedies of the 1930’s. Normally, dialogue heavy stories can drag, but Fincher assures that his film is zippy. He is wise to remove nearly all of his usual trickery and visual flair (Fincher has a background in music videos and commercials) and place his trust in the actors and screenplay. The result of these choices is a film that comes off as almost clinically non-judgmental—any impressions one takes away from The Social Network are supplied by the prejudices of the individual audience members watching the film.

However, Fincher is astute enough to know that The Social Network is, as is said in Hamlet, a play that holds a mirror up to nature. While Facebook is an undeniably awesome invention—marvel at how the power of social networking was able to organize massive protests for democracy in Egypt—it also holds the flaws of its creator. We can “friend” someone a continent away, but are we really any more interconnected as human beings? Did Mark Zuckerberg become a wiser or more popular person because of his creation or did the creation end up consuming him? In the film, Sean Parker says, “We lived on farms, we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the internet!” If we now live in cyberspace does that mean we have to sacrifice personal connection? The Social Network is the movie for our moment. It holds a mirror up to its viewers, and ultimately, it is on us to decide if we like what we see.


The Social Network (2010)

Director: David Fincher

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer*, Max Minghella, Rooney Mara, Rashida Jones

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Total Oscar Nominations: 8 (Best Picture—Dana Brunetti, Ceán Chaffin, Michael de Luca, Scott Rudin; Best Director—David Fincher; Best Actor—Jesse Eisenberg; Best Adapted Screenplay—Aaron Sorkin; Best Cinematography—Jeff Cronenweth; Best Editing—Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter; Best Score—Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross; Best Sound—Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick and Mark Weingarten)

* The performance of the Winklevoss twins is also credited to Josh Pence, whose body was used but with Armie Hammer’s head digitally superimposed on it. Pence has a cameo in a scene where Mark and Eduardo are coming out of a bathroom after getting laid.

NEXT BLOG: Toy Story 3

Friday, February 25, 2011

127 Hours: The Measure of a Life

Roger Ebert, in his four star review of 127 Hours, called the film “an exercise in conquering the unfilmable.” Of all ten Best Picture nominees, 127 Hours feels like the least likely when described—a canyoneer stumbles into a crevice and as he falls, a boulder pins his right forearm to the canyon wall. The film is quite literally a story of a man caught between a rock and a hard place. The thrust of the narrative unfolds of the title time period, where the hiker finds himself at the center of the ultimate dilemma: amputation, or death? The film has basically one actor in one location. The amputation is shown in gruesome detail, leading some audience members to faint. (I’m sure the producers of the film are thankful for the publicity surrounding that particular urban legend.) By that description, 127 Hours sounds like an exercise in experimental filmmaking. Just who is going to see this film?

Thankfully, the material is handled by a gifted and visionary filmmaker at the very top of his game. Director Danny Boyle, who after his big Oscar victory with Slumdog Millionaire two years ago, has proven himself to be a great humanist movie maker. Where other directors might have seen this story better served as a documentary, or a demented snuff film (believe me, with the level of nastiness seen in many horror films in recent years, there is certainly a very real and perverse audience for gore—the bloodier, the better), Boyle had the insight to see the potential for a tale of willpower, courage, and the triumph of the human spirit. 127 Hours is not the kind of film when you read the plot described, you expect immense emotional uplift. Yet at the end of 94 minutes, I was in tears; the film affected me more profoundly than any I had seen in a very long time.

In my last blog posting, I reviewed The King’s Speech, which is currently winning over the hearts of filmgoers and Oscar voters everywhere. That film is also a story about the triumph of the human spirit, but it is also very traditional and quite emotionally manipulative. As a former stutterer myself, I felt compassion toward King George VI, but at the same time, I felt that the biggest obstacle George VI had in the way of overcoming his stutter was his own hubris. I know that the character has a tremendously different history and set of class values than I do, but when the filmmakers are asking the regular folks in the audience to show sympathy toward a very privileged man I’m not that sympathetic when George VI knows how to best solve his problem but remains too stubborn to do so. I had to drag my ass to speech therapy as a kid. It was a source of embarrassment for me too; why does this rich asshole wait until his coronation to finally get serious about fixing his own problem?

Interestingly enough, hubris also plays a big role in the story of Aron Ralston, the subject of 127 Hours. Boyle is practically begging us not to like the guy, and lead actor James Franco plays Ralson as very cocksure and overconfident. The character is belongs to the subgenre of nature loving dudes that I like to call The Dumbass in the Woods (though in this film, Aron Ralson is The Dumbass in the Canyon; for a classic example of A Dumbass in the Woods look no further than Christopher McCandless, the subject of the non-fiction book Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer and the film directed by Sean Penn—both are great). The Dumbass in the Woods is that guy who thinks he is the master of nature. He’s the trail guide that knows the shortcut that will shave an hour off a hike and take you by some killer views, man. He’s the kind of guy who will eat berries off the bush and drink water from a stream without first iodizing it. The Dumbass in the Woods is the guy who when on vacation in Hawaii, has to walk over the lava field to find the most secluded beach. The Dumbass in the Woods is so confident in his own abilities that he doesn’t think to check his gear before he leaves, tell anyone where he is going, or file a plan with the Park Ranger. In short, The Dumbass in the Woods is the kind of guy who is destined to have a bad date with karma.

In the first 20 minutes of 127 Hours, Boyle gives us plenty of evidence that Aron Ralston is a Dumbass in the Woods. One of the first shots in the film has Ralston overlooking his Swiss Army Knife. Another has him tell his boss that he is going camping by himself. When setting out on his fateful hike, Ralston decides to cut 45 minutes off of his time by biking a portion of the trail. He meets a couple of cute female hikers (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn), and takes them off trail to a freshwater lake only accessible by plummeting down in-between two canyon walls (OK—I’ll admit that was pretty cool). When the girls inquire as to Aron’s plans, he is aloof, but they invite him to a party anyway. One of the girls, after Aron departs, says, quite astutely, “We didn’t even factor into his day.” Those girls are very much like the audience watching the film; we are a Greek chorus, shaking our head at Ralston’s arrogance and lack of planning. We have the benefit of knowing Ralston’s eventual fate; when I saw him glance over his Swiss Army Knife, I said to myself, “Man, he is going to wish he had that when his ass gets stuck in the canyon.” It is good that Boyle has us laughing at this Dumbass in the Woods; the humor has a disarming effect on the viewer, and makes us a little unprepared at how quickly Ralston finds himself imperiled.

Boyle and Franco—probably more than any director-actor combination I can recall—are very adept at dragging the audience alongside Ralston’s dilemma. Almost as soon as Ralston falls, he realizes that there is absolutely no chance that anyone will come to his rescue. In many ways, we too have our forearm trapped at the bottom of the canyon. Aside from the fact that his arm is stuck, Franco turns Ralston into a man of action. His inner Boy Scout is brought forward when Ralston takes stock of his limited useful supplies—a half a bottle of water, a head lamp, rope, carabiners, a burrito, his tent, and a cheap, Chinese made all-in-one tool. Most important is Ralston’s willpower. Each of his possessions becomes dear to him, as he will eventually need all of them to survive. The all-in-one tool is comically useless; the blades are too dull to slice his fingertips, and Ralston initially uses the tool to vainly try and chip away at the boulder which has pulverized his forearm. Acknowledging the inferior quality of the tool, Ralston sarcastically thanks his mother for thoughtfully giving it to him as a stocking stuffer. It’s no more than a toy, really, but the tool will ultimately be Ralston’s salvation. Given the extreme peril of his situation and the limited supplies Ralston has at his disposal, and armed with the foreknowledge that he does escape, the character quickly turns from being The Dumbass in the Woods to a makeshift MacGyver. Franco makes it easy to believe that Ralston has both opposing aspects within his character.

Boyle reaches deep within his bag of directorial tricks to illuminate Ralston’s mental struggles. Another took crucial tool Ralston’s survival is the video recorder he has brought with him (another classic Dumbass in the Woods move—you forget your knife and to file a plan but remember your camera). It serves to purpose to nourish him or can be used to break free of the boulder, but the camera provides immeasurable comfort as a mental release. Ralston creates a video diary chronicling his time trapped in Blue John Canyon, and in these segments, Franco’s performance really comes alive. They start off as simply observational, but as time passes, Ralston gets a little crazier. My favorite moment is a scene where Ralston is interviewing himself as if he were on the Oprah Winfrey Show; Franco, a talented comic actor, nails the humor in the ridiculousness of the situation though. Eventually, he becomes more delusional and grim, and that is where Boyle really shines. First off, the video diary segments are filled with true sense of intimacy, but as Ralston begins hallucinating and remembering his past, Boyle uses split screen to marvelous effect. The technique is used to devastating effect in a scene where Ralston remembers the moment he broke up with his girlfriend (Clémence Poésy) while they attended a Utah Jazz game. Boyle uses true directorial flair to illuminate the mental anguish of a man trapped by a boulder, with only his own memories to keep him company.

127 Hours is a film that really brings to life this adage: your life is flashing before your eyes. Gradually, Ralston begins to accept that there may be no way out, and he tries to make peace with the life that he may miss. I like how his regrets range from the mundane to the deeply personal. He will never attend the party the cute hikers invite him to. The girls tell him to look for a giant, inflatable Scooby-Doo, and Ralston realizes he will never see that show again. He has immense regret toward the girl he loved and how it was his fault the relationship ended. In turn, Ralston makes peace with his father, mother and sister, whose wedding he will never attend. Ralston has a vision of the son he will never have. Because the audience is trapped alongside the character, Ralston’s remembrances cause us to ask the same sorts of questions.

If we were stuck in a situation where death seemed like the only release what things would we be thinking about before we died? What silly TV shows would we miss? What parties would we never attend? Would we feel at peace with how we said goodbye to our loved ones? What would our biggest regret be? Would we feel that our parents would be proud of us? What parts of life would we never get to experience? What would the measure of our lives be? 127 Hours is a film that engages its viewers in these sorts of questions. Watching the film, one will inevitably imagine themselves in Ralston’s place, asking themselves the same sorts of questions. Few films dare ask their audiences to engage so personally with their own lives. The cumulative effect of all this soul searching is that I felt I knew Aron Ralston like I know myself. I may still think Ralston was a Dumbass in the Woods, but trapped alongside the character at the bottom of that chasm caused me to invest in his humanity.

As the film rises to its climax, and Ralston chooses amputation over death, I felt as if I was watching a man become reborn. Like birth, the amputation scene is bloody and painful, and you get a true sense of the awesome amount of willpower it must have took for Ralston to first break his own forearm bones, then to sever his arm using a hopelessly inefficient tool. (The scene is intensely gruesome, and I admit to watching most of it with fingers over my eyes. Still, more people in the audience in the theater I saw the film in were more grossed out by the scene where Ralston must drink his own urine.) Boyle lingers on a shot of a single nerve as the final piece of viscera connecting Ralston’s forearm to the rest of his body, and the nerve serves as a metaphor for the choice Ralston must make. Stay connected, and assure yourself of death. Break free and guarantee life. When that final link is cut, an enormous feeling of catharsis swept over me, as if Ralston’s struggle became my own, and I looked death in the eye and said, “Not today, not in this moment. In this moment, I choose life.”

Boyle ends the film with a coda featuring footage of the real life Aron Ralston. We are told that despite his accident he continued to be an outdoorsman, and he kept his passions of climbing and mountaineering alive, but this time, Ralston always tells someone where he is going. What made me a massive blubbering mess was when footage of Ralston holding his real life son was shown, and the text on the screen read that the vision of his son Ralston had while trapped in the canyon came true, that it was this vision that willed him to choose life. Before my own child was born, I would have thought this would be a corny, perhaps overly sentimental ending. Now that I too am a father, I know that if faced with the choice between amputation or death, I would choose life. Life without my daughter would be unimaginable, and at the core of his soul Aron Ralston did not want to imagine his own life without children and willed himself to make that a possibility. To see his sacrifice rewarded was the ultimate happy ending.

127 Hours is a film about man, in the face of impossible circumstances, choosing life. Aron Ralston’s story is a marvelous testament to the human spirit, and Danny Boyle’s film proves to be truly uplifting.


127 Hours (2010)

Director: Danny Boyle

Starring: James Franco

Studio: Fox Searchlight (20th Century Fox)

Total Oscar Nominations: 6 (Best Picture—Danny Boyle and Christian Coulson; Best Actor—James Franco; Best Adapted Screenplay—Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy; Best Editing—Jon Harris; Best Original Song—“If I Rise”, by A.R. Rahman, Dido, and Rollo Armstrong; Best Score—A.R. Rahman)

NEXT BLOG: The Social Network

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The King’s Speech: The Royal Hype

Being the film favored to win Best Picture is a double edged sword. The filmmakers, producers, actor, and other nominees get to soak up the accolades, and then the little bastards like me are sitting in front of their computer screens lining up to take potshots at the giant. Most of the time, the criticisms of a prohibitive favorite is just counter-hype to the hype; it is human nature in some of us to criticize what is popular. And yet, while I thought The King’s Speech was an excellent film, I guess I’m a little like Chuck D in saying “Don’t believe the hype!”

For starters, I’ll talk about what the film does well. The film makes what sounds like a dreadfully boring subject—a king having to overcome a crippling stutter (though in Britain it is a stammer—stammer/stutter; tomato/tomahto—just another example of differences in a shared language)—into a film filled with humor, inspiration and urgency. David Seidler (at 73, a first time Oscar nominee for Original Screenplay) nurtured the idea of the story since his childhood. Seidler, having himself overcome a stutter, discovered a kinship with the subject of the film—King George VI. When he became a writer in adulthood, Seidler vowed to write a story about how George VI overcame his difficulties. After decades of research and having to gain the express permission of the Queen Mum—George VI’s wife and mother to the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II—with the added caveat that Seidler not begin work on the story in earnest until after the Queen Mum died (of this Seidler jokes, “I didn’t know she would live to be 186”—exaggerating the fact that the Queen Mum did live to the exceptionally old age of 101). Seidler’s personal dedication to the story can be clearly felt when watching the film; his screenplay is immensely successful at reminding the audience that underneath all of the royal trapping, George VI was all too human.

The screenplay is also brought to life by some immensely talented actors. Heading up the cast is Colin Firth—a long respected actor in the role of a lifetime—as King George VI (after I list the other actors, I will focus more in-depth on Firth’s performance). Firth is the favorite to win Best Actor, an award that if he wins, will be certainly deserved. Ably supporting him are Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue, speech therapist to George VI, and Helena Bonham-Carter as Elizabeth, Duchess of York (aka The Queen Mum). Rush, who also executive-produced the film, has the most important role in the film. As Logue, Rush’s character speaks for us commoners in the audience watching the film. He also is crucial in supporting Firth—the antagonistic methods Logue uses in speech therapy help to humanize George VI, and the long stretches of dialogue between the two characters give Rush and Firth ample time to develop a true and real relationship between their two characters. Bonham-Carter’s role is far less showy, but the actress instinctively knows that her character must be a steadying influence, for in many ways, Elizabeth has to be the one to give a voice to her husband when he is unable to do so. It’s also nice to see Bonham-Carter in a role that isn’t in a Tim Burton film or some sort of variation of the trashy gutterslut she has played since 1999’s Fight Club.

The smaller supporting roles are equally well acted. The chameleonic Australian actor Guy Pearce (who has played such varied roles as the man who cannot form new memories in Memento, to the over-confident detective in L.A. Confidential, and finally a massively flaming drag queen in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert—Pearce’s first role) has a ball as George VI’s older brother King Edward VIII. Pearce plays Edward VIII as the ultimate party boy; it is his affair with American socialite Wallis Simpson—a fine Eve Best—that forces Edward VIII to abdicate the throne, setting the stage for George VI’s ascension. Michael Gambon, in a far cry from his most famous role as Albus Dumbledore, is menacing and regal as the father to both men, King Edward VII. Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi is nicely skeptical as the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Timothy Spall (another Harry Potter alum) makes an excellent Winston Churchill. The King’s Speech is certainly an actor’s showcase, and the work of the many fine British, Australian, and Irish actors in the production are on fine display.

Firth though, is in a class by himself with his performance in this picture. What I really admired about his performance was that he truly understood the debilitating effects stuttering can have on the stutterer. On a personal note, I stuttered quite badly when I was in junior high school. Not quite to the degree that George VI does in the film, but enough so that I too had to take speech therapy. Most films portray stuttering simply as a vocal tic, and mostly for laughs. What most films with stutters fail to take into consideration is the physical toll stuttering takes on the body of the stutterer. A speaker with a terrible stutter can feel their entire body seize up and collapse. When I stuttered, I often felt as if my body would implode through my mouth. It is a devastating, weakening feeling to have your voice betray your entire body. I could tell that Firth did his research when it comes to stuttering; I felt George VI’s physical anguish in watching the performance onscreen. Firth knew that the affliction isn’t simply a tic or stumbling over words; stuttering is a crisis of the body. It’s a masterful physical performance. Couple that with a deep understanding of the character—overcoming the stutter aside, Firth illuminates the mental conflict of a man who does not wish to be thrust into a position of authority and responsibility, yet knows he must do so against his nature—and what Colin Firth gives us is a performance for the ages. Any other issues I have with the film aside, Firth assures himself of immortality in The King’s Speech.

The problems I have with the film are twofold. One, for as beautifully made and exquisitely acted The King’s Speech may be; the film is void of any truly original ideas. It’s a lovely historical drama, but it is nothing I haven’t seen before and many times over. As far as British royalty goes, Victoria, Elizabeth I & II, George III, Henry V and VIII, and Richard III—and even figures like Edward Longshanks (Edward I) was a key supporting character in the Best Picture-winning Braveheart—have all been depicted on screen within the last 25 years, in films that have garnered significant awards attention. I guarantee there will be another quality film made about British royalty made in the near future. I am not trying to diminish the quality of any of these films, nor am I trying to say that the life of every monarch is exactly the same, but the fact is that the British monarchy continues to be an endless source of inspiration for filmmakers, and the Royals undoubtedly hold the imaginations of massive worldwide audiences (though as an American, I’ve never seen what the whole fuss over the Royals is about.) There’s nothing in The King’s Speech that hasn’t been done before.

The second part of my disdain toward the film is the fact that The King’s Speech is such a blatant magnet for the Academy Awards. Studios will continue to fund the making of these types of films because of the fact they generate so much Academy attention, and The King’s Speech, which leads all 2010 films with 12 Oscar nominations, is no exception to that rule. A tastefully made period film is an annual event come Oscar season, and there is undoubtedly an audience—and a core section of Academy voters—who feels that quality filmmaking is strictly associated with lavish costumes and sets and stories that depict historical events. These films are quintessential Oscar bait. Because of this line of thinking, I think The King’s Speech has earned nominations in categories it does not deserve—namely Best Director, where I feel that while Tom Hooper does a fine job, it is nowhere on the visionary level of David Fincher or Darren Aronofsky—his co-nominees—and especially nowhere near the creative genius of Christopher Nolan, who was not even nominated! The film was also distributed in the United States by The Weinstein Company, whose co-founder, former Miramax studios head Harvey Weinstein is undoubtedly the most effective and notorious Oscar campaigner of all time.

Finally, the storyline, while effective, plays to the corniest of themes: the uplift of the human spirit. The Academy members are total suckers for films that have stories of men and women—preferably important historical figures—who must struggle to overcome a great obstacle (or obstacles) to achieve a seemingly impossible goal. That shit is so safe, and so played out, but every year you can bank on a film with this theme winning over the hearts of Oscar voters—not to mention the everyday moviegoer. What really kills me is that this year, there is another film nominated for Best Picture—Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours—which also has the uplift of the human spirit as its central theme, but Boyle approaches the material with such a fresh eye that that I actually felt uplifted by the end of the movie. What does The King’s Speech do? It shows us a George VI at the beginning of the film who can barely string two words together and by the end of the film; he has delivered a patriotic speech that reassures his country as they enter WWII. In case you weren’t aware, when George VI receives applause at the end of his speech and his wife and daughters are weeping, that is the audience’s cue for cheers and tears. Yet 127 Hours—which earned my tears honestly—has almost zero Oscar momentum while The King’s Speech appears unstoppable.

I don’t want anyone to read this blog posting and feel that I think The King’s Speech is completely without merit. Colin Firth is amazing, and it wouldn’t be surprising or undeserved if Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham-Carter all walked out of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with Oscar statuettes. David Seidler’s script is fantastic and is full of memorable lines and funny moments. The exchanges between George VI and Logue are the heart of the picture, and any script that has whole ten minute conversations that enrapture audiences is a good thing for movies. Screenwriters should strive to emulate Seidler’s work on The King’s Speech; in a year with several outstanding original screenplays, Seidler’s may just be the cream of the crop. I also think that this is far and away the most accurate and sensitive depiction of stuttering ever seen on film. It’s the one aspect of the film that is illuminating. I do think though, that The King’s Speech is just another award magnet period drama—albeit one with several outstanding moments—that contains the clichéd qualities so many other Best Picture winners share. Ask yourself this question: in 25 years, will The King’s Speech seem as original or resonate as strongly as the other films nominated for Best Picture? My money is that it’ll be just another costume drama.


The King’s Speech (2010)

Director: Tom Hooper

Starring: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham-Carter, Guy Pearce, Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, Timothy Spall, Eve Best

Studio: See Saw Films (U.S. distribution by The Weinstein Company)

Total Oscar Nominations: 12 (Best Picture—Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Gareth Unwin; Best Director—Tom Hooper; Best Actor—Colin Firth; Best Supporting Actor—Geoffrey Rush; Best Supporting Actress—Helena Bonham-Carter; Best Original Screenplay—David Seidler; Best Art Direction—Eve Stewart, Judy Farr; Best Cinematography—Danny Cohen; Best Costume Design—Jenny Beavan; Best Editing—Tariq Anwar; Best Score—Alexandre Desplat; Best Sound—Paul Hamblin, Martin Jensen, John Midgley)

NEXT BLOG: 127 Hours

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Kids Are All Right: Just Like Us

For a good portion of America, this film might just be the most subversive of the ten films nominated for Best Picture. Writing from my desk in blue-state liberal-ass Seattle, a film about a family headed by two lesbians and their biological children fathered from a sperm donor isn’t something I am surprised to see. In the vastness of conservative values outside of my city, the family in The Kids Are All Right is a decidedly new phenomenon. What makes the film subversive isn’t that the two lesbian mothers in the film aren’t toting their kids along with them to Pride Parades and they aren’t bull dykes nor do they live in some sort of gay utopia of tolerance. Instead, the family is—circumstances in which two lesbians must give birth to biological children aside—blessedly normal. If the parents in this family comedy were straight, they would be played by Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt. Part of what director Lisa Cholodenko is striving to get forth is that your “non-traditional” family is just as normal as “traditional” family; that their problems are just as mundane and vanilla as everyone else’s. And just what do we mean by “normal” and “traditional” anyway?

Sexuality aside, the characters Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play could very well be Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt. Nic Allgood (Bening) is a successful OB/GYN who is the breadwinner for her family. She has provided a comfortable middle-class, suburban existence for her partner and their children. It’s a role gender-identified with as male, and it seems like in every family comedy Hollywood churns out, the Dad always has a white-collar job (and more often than not, that job is a doctor of some kind) that provides a comfortable existence for his family. As breadwinner, Nic also takes on the role of being the disciplinarian to the children—another role almost always identified with fathers. The character also has a short, neatly trimmed haircut and wears horned rimmed glasses. Were Nic Allgood Nick Allgood—a straight man instead of a lesbian woman—the role would be cliché.

Jules Allgood (Moore) is just as gender-identified with the typical mother roles as Nic is with father roles. She is the stay-at-home parent, and far more loose-limbed and laid back when it comes to parenting. She definitely has the “cool mom” vibe going for her, as evidenced by the name she gives her son—Laser (Josh Hutcherson). (Nic’s daughter, Joni—played by Mia Wasikowska—is named after Joni Mitchell, hinting at a time when Nic was not as uptight as the character in the film is currently.) Jules is also more aimless in terms of her career. The script makes it clear that Jules has tried to make a go of many different professions, none of which has stuck. As the film begins, Jules is starting a landscaping business which Nic supports financially yet feels will ultimately be another passing phase for her partner. Jules is shown as a woman of hobbies—much in the same way one would expect a traditional stay-at-home mom to take up sewing or crafting or selling cosmetics. It is something that keeps a wife happy and perhaps earns the family income, but isn’t taken seriously as a pursuit by the breadwinner.

For the most part, Nic and Jules share happiness in their family. The pair has developed problems indicative of any couple who have been with one another for a very long time. Their sex life is non-existent. Jules harbors resentments over the fact that Nic does not take her career ambitions seriously. Nic has become a workaholic, and her disapproval about her wife’s career comes from that Nic harbors some bitterness over Jules’ carefree attitude. Cholodenko, who based the characters in large part on her own life, makes it very clear that the struggles Nic and Jules have come not from their sexuality. Instead, they are the exact same sorts of problems that married couples everywhere share, especially if the relationship has been established over many years.

The thrust of the plot kicks in when Laser expresses a desire to learn about his biological father. Because he is fifteen, information about the sperm donor cannot be released to him. Laser enlists Joni’s help—she is eighteen—in discovering the origins of their father. Initially reluctant to do so, Joni eventually becomes the more enthusiastic of the two kids when they finally meet Paul, the sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo). Joni is impressed by Paul’s bohemian lifestyle and the fact that he runs an organic restaurant. She feels a kinship with Paul that she does not feel with either of her mothers. Paul is also seen as most definitely cool by the kids. He rides a motorcycle, listens to cool classic rock (much props to Cholodenko for including three really awesome, lesser known David Bowie songs—“Black Country Rock”, “Panic in Detroit”, and “Win”—to underscore scenes with Paul), and has a pronounced streak of independence. Paul, for his part, is taken with the kids and becomes enthusiastic about being a father. The kids arrange to have Paul meet Nic and Jules, and while the meeting is tactful on all sides, the results are predictable. Nic is wary of Paul’s effect on her family, but Jules is charmed, and is hired by Paul to do the landscaping of his restaurant (to Nic’s disapproval).
From there, the film is thrown into utter chaos as Paul and Jules begin a torrid affair. Paul is appreciative of Jules’ work, and he provides her the support that Nic does not. From that angle it is the next logical step that Jules seeks sexual satisfaction, for she feels comforted and loved by Paul in a way Nic has not provided in a long time. Paul, however, misinterprets Jules’ needs as affection, and he begins to fall in love with her.

The affair is one of the less believable parts of the film to me. Though certainly very flaky and impulsive, I never bought that Jules’ character would fuck a man after being in such an established lesbian relationship. Granted, I don’t personally know any lesbians who have been in long term marriages, but the film presents Jules as someone secure in her sexual identity, and it just seems uncharacteristic of a lesbian to want to cheat on her established partner with a man. Infidelity I can understand, and if Jules was feeling underappreciated, wouldn’t she seek comfort from another woman? I’ll be the first to admit I am not an expert on lesbian sexuality, but the affair feels more like a plot device than a choice a real person like Jules would make. Mark Ruffalo certainly plays Paul as charming and very charismatic—and he’s more handsome and desirable in this role than he has ever been on film—but not so much that he could make a lesbian switch sides temporarily.

I also have mixed feelings about Ruffalo’s character. He’s the only straight, adult male in the film, and the script makes him out to be the least mature person in The Kids Are All Right. Although Paul embraces his newfound fatherhood, he has a conversation with Laser where he tells his son he became a sperm donor for the money—though adding the disclaimer: “I’m glad I did it.” His enthusiasm toward his fatherhood just seems like another thing for Paul to be “cool” at, much in the same way that riding a motorcycle is “cool” or having casual sex with one of his female employees is “cool” or how having knowledge of good wine is “cool” or—and this is subtly implied in the film—banging a lesbian is “cool”. Paul has absolutely zero understanding of the hard work in being a father, and a guy who is so blasé about why he became a sperm donor (though how can being paid for your sperm be anything but a blasé act?) wouldn’t be so interested in his kids.

I wish that Cholodenko wouldn’t have made the only adult male in the film such a jackass—I and many other fathers I know take our responsibilities very seriously—but Ruffalo, to his credit, knows exactly how to play the role. When Nic, after she has learned of the affair, calls Paul, “a fucking interloper”, by Paul’s reaction we know that she has perfectly summarized his character, and the audience knows exactly which character exemplifies responsible parenting. Nic leaves Paul with this: “Make your own damn family.” It’s a thorough of a dressing down one character has given another as any ever on film. (On a personal note, I do dig how with the character of Paul, Cholodenko calls bullshit on all the sensitive, bohemian types of dudes into organic food and motorcycles—she knows it is just as much of an act to get pussy as the rich guy with a cool car is.)

The Kids Are All Right is filled with very subtle and effective performances from its actors. Each performance seems lived-in rather than acted; one feels as if they are spying on intimate moments between family members. The performances from the adults in the film have a disarming quality. Ruffalo as so likeable and charming when we first meet him that when he is revealed as such a cad the audience doesn’t recognize the subtle hints he has planted throughout his performance. Moore is so flighty and flaky as Jules that when her adultery is exposed her contrition is surprisingly genuine; Jules’ “Marriage is hard” speech has power because it is an expression of utmost honesty. Finally, Bening is a knockout. Long associated with more dynamic roles like Carolyn Burnham in American Beauty, Bening is so effective at underplaying Nic that she hardly seems like the actress responsible for creating such a memorable desperate housewife. Bening imbues Nic with another typically male quality—the burying one’s emotions as a sign of strength. Nic’s ambition and strict sets of rules serve as a shield to a heart easily wounded. When she does open up to Paul ever so slightly—they bond over a shared love of Joni Mitchell—it sets the stage for utter emotional devastation, which Bening plays masterfully. None of these characters end up being what the audience’s first impression of them are—these three actors make true human beings out of their on-screen characters. They become people we know.

It is in this familiarity that The Kids Are All Right gains a subversive power. By the end of the film, the audience no longer characterizes the Allgoods as a family headed by a married lesbian couple—they’re simply a family, the kind of people who could easily be your neighbors, or co-workers, or people you go to church with. Had Cholodenko set out to make a film with a grand political statement about gay marriage or alternative families, The Kids Are All Right would have been a failure. Instead, she is a smart enough filmmaker to recognize that in this day and age, a film endorsing gay marriage and “alternative” families is implicitly political; for the message to be effective the characters and situations have to be real, they have to be something the audience can recognize themselves in. To paraphrase Harper Lee, we need to put on the shoes of these characters and walk around in them for a little bit. The Kids Are All Right succeeds—both as a film and as a political statement—because Cholodenko and her actors never fail to make the story personal.

Undoubtedly, The Kids Are All Right is exactly the kind of film to reap the benefits of the Academy expanding the field of Best Picture nominees from five to ten. Out-and-proud gay-themed films have had a checkered history with the Academy. For every Milk, there is a Brokeback Mountain. I don’t expect The Kids Are All Right to win in any of the four categories in which it is nominated (it should be five, the lack of an acting nomination for Moore is a huge snub). However, the nomination guarantees that this wonderful independently made film will certainly find a larger audience, and that audience is bound to be surprised to find that they have more in common with the characters in the film than they realize.


The Kids Are Alright (2010)

Director: Lisa Cholodenko

Starring: Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson

Studio: Focus Features (Universal)

Total Oscar Nominations: 4 (Best Picture—Gary Gilbert, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, Celine Rattray; Best Actress—Annette Bening; Best Supporting Actor—Mark Ruffalo; Best Original Screenplay—Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg)

NEXT BLOG: The King’s Speech

Monday, February 21, 2011

Inception: Dream a Little Dream Within a Dream Within a Dream Within a Dream

It seems like nowadays, the big studio picture has gotten a bad rap. With the advent of 3-D, the profitability of sequels, remakes, and movie adaptations of bad television shows and comic books, quality and originality are lacking at movie houses. In many ways, I have to agree with that assessment. Therefore, when a refreshingly original film like Inception comes along, it has the power to restore the audience’s faith in the spectacular Hollywood studio picture.

I’ll be honest—Inception was easily my favorite film of 2010, and if it were up to me, I would have already awarded it the Best Picture statuette. I think the ten nominees for Best Picture this year represent a bumper crop of quality, but Inception has a quality the other films lack—of the ten Inception is the only film that demands you drag your ass up into a movie theater and experience it on the big screen. I’ve seen exquisite British productions about their royalty before—while great The King’s Speech has a been-there, done-that, we’ll-meet-again feel. Toy Story 3 plays just as well at home without the 3-D gimmick. The Kids Are All Right and Winter’s Bone represent voices from independent filmmakers, but neither film demands to be seen on the big screen. 127 Hours is so personal, it actually benefits from a more intimate setting. The Social Network has tapped the zeitgeist more ably than any film in recent memory, but it also plays just as well at home instead of a movie theater. The magnificent western vistas of True Grit and the ballet in Black Swan both benefit from being watched on a big screen, but if someone were to put a gun to my head and ask me to choose between those two films or Inception, I’m picking Inception. This is a film that dares to make the landscape of dreaming an onscreen reality, a film that brings impossible and infinite possibilities to life. Inception represents that rarest and most elusive quality in cinema—the original idea.

Christopher Nolan, the film’s director, has the most impressive body of work of any filmmaker in the past decade. Inception is the culmination of Nolan’s work as a filmmaker, beginning with the backwards-playing noir Memento (2000) to the massively popular The Dark Knight (2008), which re-contextualized the comic book world of Batman into the crime saga for modern times. As early as a teenager, Nolan had the idea of bringing the world of dreams to film. In 2001, Nolan had written an early draft of the Inception script where the film played more like a horror movie. There was interest from Warner Brothers to turn Nolan’s script into a film, but the director felt he did not have enough skill as a filmmaker to actualize the film in the way Nolan felt it deserved.

With Memento, Nolan was able to sell audiences on a high-concept premise—namely that a man who cannot form any new memories is trying to solve the mystery of who raped and murdered his wife. Nolan used both a linear and a reverse narrative to tell the story of Memento. His next two non-Batman films—Insomnia (2002) and The Prestige (2006)—continue the themes of altered, unreliable perceptions and mindscapes married to an emotionally charged narrative. Like Memento, both Insomnia and The Prestige are more intimate, focusing on one or two main characters. With the Batman films, starting with Batman Begins in 2005, Nolan was able to master his command over films that truly demand an epic scope.

While Nolan gained skill as a director with each new release, he was revising his screenplay for Inception. One of the major changes he made to the script was to move it from being a horror film to a heist thriller. His experiences on the Batman films—especially The Dark Knight—gave Nolan a further familiarity with crime films. Inception is essentially a “one last job” thriller, where the protagonist takes on a mission with an incredible degree of difficulty as the final job of his career. Having Inception use a plot structure many viewers are familiar with allowed Nolan to layer in the more fantastic ideas of the movie—like a group of people sharing the same dream within a dream—as well as provide a foundation for the spectacular dreamscapes to be built upon.

With that in mind, Inception is the story of Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), an “extractor” who leads a team of professionals into a person’s dreams where they can extract information from the subject’s subconscious. Nolan presents the act of extraction as a form of corporate espionage, where trade secrets and sensitive personal information can be raided. Dom is hired by Saito (Ken Watanabe), a wealthy industrialist. What Saito wants from Dom is not extraction, but inception, the much more difficult operation of planting an idea deep within a subject’s subconscious, to make it seem as if the idea was the subject’s all along. Saito intends to topple the empire of his dying rival; Fischer (Pete Postlethwaite), by suggesting to his son Robert (Cillian Murphy) that the father’s dying wish is to have is empire broken up so Robert can become his own man.

Dom enlists the aid of his right-hand man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the “point man” who is primarily responsible for researching and investigating into the life of the subject. Arthur is also a skeptical foil to Dom. In addition to Arthur, Dom needs the services of a “forger”, Eames (Tom Hardy), who can assume identities familiar to the dreamer within the dreamer’s subconscious; and a “chemist”, Yusuf (Dileep Rao), who provides drugs to the Dom’s team to have a deep and extended sleep and dreaming. Rounding out the team is a young “architect”, Ariadne (Ellen Page), recruited from Dom’s mentor and father-in-law (Michael Caine). As the architect, Ariadne is responsible for creating a labyrinth to confuse and fend off the militarized “projections” of the subject’s subconscious, which are aware that a dreaming mind can be invaded and are trained to fend off extractors. Ariadne is also the character who substitutes for the audience; as the new member of the team, the action is largely seen through her eyes. Page, in an about-face from her most famous role as Juno, anchors the film with a necessary doze of honest doubt and skepticism.

The lengthy first act of Inception lays down the ground rules for the film. One rule is if an extractor is killed in a dream then they will awaken. A “kick”, such as a body being dropped into water, or a seated dreamer being kicked over in their chair, will also awaken the dreamer. Another rule involves time, which moves faster in dreams than it does in reality—i.e. what seems like an hour in the dream may only be ten minutes in real life. Yet another is that each of the extractors must create a totem—a small item unique to each dreamer—which can be used as a test to see if one is in the dreaming world or awake. Nolan also shows us scenes of how Ariadne constructs the landscape of the dreams, where cities can be folded up onto themselves and impossible, closed loop objects like M.C. Escher’s Penrose Stairs can be created within dreams to fend off projections. In these scenes, the production design and visual effects teams work overtime to show the limitless potential of the dream world.

Nolan is also an astute enough screenwriter to know that even the most cleverly constructed heist thriller can have the coolest effects and set pieces seen in a movie yet remain “deliberately superficial in emotional terms.” To counter this, Nolan gives Inception an emotional subplot involving Dom and his dead wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). Dom is responsible for Mal’s death, and she appears as a malevolent projection within his own subconscious that is a threat to the whole team. Dom’s guilt is what creates this “shade”, a nightmare projection. I love the fact that Nolan suggests that nightmares are manifestations of guilt, sorrow, or any other unresolved issues of the dreamer. It is because of the role that Dom plays in Mal’s death that he is unable to return home to the United States and see his children. Coming home to see his children is what motivates Dom, but he will need to overcome his issues with guilt to keep his team safe within Robert Fischer’s dream. The emotional hook really allows the viewer to connect with Dom’s character, and adds a personal layer of conflict to the film.

With that setup, Inception provides a platform for all areas of filmmaking to succeed brilliantly. In order to complete inception within Fischer, Dom’s team eventually passes through four layers of dreaming. Each layer—a rain soaked urban city, a chic hotel, a snowbound mountain fortress, and an infinite city being eroded by the ocean—gives the production design team a variety of settings in which to showcase their skills. The production filmed on four continents (Europe, North America, Asia, Africa) in the dry deserts of Tangiers (doubling as Mombassa), to the snowy peaks of Alberta (where the snow scenes were filmed—Nolan was inspired by the alpine scenes in the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service when filming these sequences). Inception literally uses the whole globe to bring the film to life.

The already impressive visual effects are made even more so because Nolan shot 90% of the effects in camera instead of using CGI. For comparison, Inception used only 500 shots of computer generated imagery, compared to the 1,500 to 2,000 shots used in other VFX heavy films. (Even Batman Begins, which by comparison would seem like a film that would use less CGI, had 620 CGI shots to Inception’s 500.) To achieve this, the filmmakers built massive sets and used camera trickery to create the illusions. Perhaps the signature set piece of the film—a fight between Arthur and a projection in a 100 foot long hotel corridor—significantly alters the viewer’s perception of gravity; the two actors appear to have Spider-Man like abilities when attacking one another. The effect was achieved by constructing a massive, cylindrical set that could rotate a full 360 degrees, knocking the actors around like pinballs. The lesson here is that Nolan knows that for all CGI can achieve, it isn’t a replacement for actors or sets. Nolan knows that special effects need to be used to enhance a scene instead of becoming the scene itself. In this manner, for as outlandish and over-the-top the story becomes, the effects in Inception are grounded in reality.

Finally, in discussing the technical elements of the film, I would be remiss to exclude cinematographer Wally Pfister and editor Lee Smith. Pfister establishes a clean look for the film when so many other contemporary action films tend to be dark and busy—see the Bourne trilogy. Also, unlike the Bourne trilogy and other films, there is a blessed lack of the handheld, “shaky-cam” cinematography that muddles the look and makes the action hard to follow. Pfister favors a classic look reminiscent of Ben-Hur and the David Lean epics. He works in tandem with editor Smith, especially in the final act of the film, when Inception cuts in-between the four dream layers. Pfister gives each dream a distinctive look, and Smith is largely responsible for lining up how the layers of dreams interact with one another. Especially cool is how Smith sets up a synchronized kick that awakens the team members up through each layer of dreaming. Inception is a film shot and pieced together with absolute precision, with the craftsmen understanding that if each element is not executed to perfection, the entire story of the film is liable to collapse under its outlandishness (and the fact that Lee Smith didn’t receive an Oscar nomination is mind boggling, as crucial as the editing is to the success of the picture).

The story concludes with one of the all-time great ambiguous endings. SPOILERS AHEAD!!! Upon completion of the mission, Dom and his team are successful with inception; Robert Fischer does decide to dissolve his father’s company, and Saito arranges for Dom to return home. When Dom arrives home, his father-in-law meets him at the airport, and he goes to home to see his son and daughter—and the audience sees the faces of his children for the first time. He spins his totem—a metal top—and has been established, if the top stops spinning, Dom is awake. If it continues, he is dreaming. Nolan ends the film with a shot on the top as it begins to wobble slightly; the audience is left to draw their own conclusions as to if the top stops or continues. There have been many interpretations of the ending, and the beauty of the film is that one could make a case for any of those interpretations to be correct. One interpretation I particularly enjoy comes from Nolan himself saying, “I put that cut there at the end, imposing an ambiguity from outside the film. That always felt the right ending to me—it always felt like the appropriate 'kick' to me…” In other words, Nolan understands that the audience watching his film—or any movie in a theater—is, like the characters in Inception, engaging in a form of collective dreaming. The ambiguous ending is what snaps the audience out of their dream state and into reality. And like actual dreams, we are left with much to discuss and ponder. By crafting Inception—a film about collective dreams—as a collective dream for the audience watching the film, Nolan makes the ultimate case for his film to be experienced with a crowd, in a darkened theater. The cinema is the only way to truly experience Inception.

So, is the film worthy of Best Picture? Abso-fucking-lutely. Yet the Academy made one of the biggest snubs in its history by not nominating Christopher Nolan for Best Director. It is a shameful omission. I hope I have demonstrated to you that the entire success of the film comes Nolan's orchestration. He nurtured the screenplay over decades, and as producer, Nolan made right choices at every opportunity in the creation and casting of the film. Nolan was rewarded with a screenplay nomination and is a credited producer for the Best Picture nomination, but by failing to nominate his work as director, the Academy massively overlooked that Nolan is the engine that makes the film work. He is the ultimate creative drive behind the film. It also represents a failure to recognize the director responsible for making the most consistently innovative, acclaimed, and commercially successful films over the past decade.

What can explain this oversight? The Academy has notoriously overlooked films in the science fiction genre as inconsequential, immature and not worthy of award recognition. The failure of any member of the cast to receive a nomination is also indicative of this bias. Hardy and Gordon-Levitt give star making performances, Page is rock solid, and DiCaprio and Cotillard are heartbreaking in the doomed romance. DiCaprio, like his director has been consistently great over the past decade and consistently overlooked. Cotillard, who won Best Actress in 2007 for her performance as Edith Piaf (because of this Nolan almost didn’t use Piaf’s “Non, je ne regretted nien” as a key music cue—which would have been unfortunate, because the song perfectly complements the film and also led Hans Zimmer to construct elements of his fantastic, Oscar-nominated score around it) gives an unhinged, affecting and truly original performance. She creates a haunting presence that serves, in many ways, as the dark soul of the film. While Inception did garner a total of eight Oscar nominations, the failure to recognize Nolan or any of the cast is still indicative that the Academy doesn’t take science fiction seriously. It’s a damn shame, because science-fiction is rarely as well crafted and insightful as Inception.

What likely will happen is that Inception will join the ranks of the many films that are simply too cool for the Academy. Of the ten films nominated for Best Picture, Inception is the most likely to endure as a classic. It is a film about a subject that everyone has experienced at some point—dreams. What human beings dream and how we experience dreams are an endless source of mystery and inspiration. Christopher Nolan understands that cinema is a form of dreaming and truly great movies find ways to bring what we dream to cinematic life.


Inception (2010)

Director: Christopher Nolan

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Marion Cotillard, Ken Watanabe, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Dileep Rao, Pete Postlethwaite, Tom Berenger

Studio: Warner Brothers

Total Oscar Nominations: 8 (Best Picture—Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas; Best Original Screenplay—Christopher Nolan; Best Art Direction—Guy Hendrix Dyas (Set Decoration—Larry Dias and Doug Mowat); Best Cinematography—Wally Pfister; Best Score—Hans Zimmer; Best Sound—Lora Hirschberg, Gary A. Rizzo, Ed Novick; Best Sound Editing—Richard King; Best Visual Effects—Paul Franklin, Chris Corbould, Andrew Lockley, Peter Bebb)

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