Monday, February 25, 2013

Burning Questions from the 2013 Oscars

Boy, that opening monologue sure was long, wasn't it?

And wasn't it kind of a mess?

Didn't Seth MacFarlane initially seem very nervous?

Can you blame him?

Is there a more thankless task than hosting this show?

Will the Mr. Skin website see increased traffic now that MacFarlane has outed all those actresses' nude scenes?

Wasn't Tommy Lee Jones cracking a smile a great start?

Did your enthusiasm dampen when you realized that would be the highlight of the entire night?

Did it truly test the theory that William Shatner makes everything he's in better? 

Wouldn't it have been great if HE sang all the nominated original songs?

Were Charlize, Channing Tatum, JGL and Daniel Radcliffe blackmailed into being involved in that?

But didn't they all do a pretty good job?

All other complaints aside, doesn't MacFarlane have a tremendous singing voice?

Wasn't there entirely too much singing (as usual)?

Between that and Kristin Chenoweth on the red carpet, didn't this feel more like The Tonys?

So, MacFarlane or Hathaway/Franco?

Did everyone immediately go 0 for 1 on their Oscar scorecard when Christoph Waltz was announced for Supporting Actor?

Am I the only one still amazed that Beasts of the Southern Wild's score wasn't nominated?

Is Roger Deakins ever going to win an Oscar?

And if he does, by that point, will he even care?

How tasteless was the Jaws music playing the winners off?

But wasn't it still really funny?

Wait, THAT was their "tribute" to 50 Years of Bond?

Looking at that montage, isn't it astonishing just how few truly great Bond movies there have been?

I knew Connnery would be a stretch, but couldn't they at least get a couple of the Bonds to show up?

George Lazenby and Timothy Dalton were busy?

Did Shirley Bassey sing the hell out of "Goldfinger" or what?

But shouldn't it have started a medley?

How about Duran Duran?

Paul McCartney?

Chris Cornell?

Carly Simon?

Didn't the pacing of the show feel particularly painful this year?

Wasn't that obvious when we were only an hour in?

How about John Travolta's mispronunciation of "Les Miserables?"

Were you thinking, "Join the club, John?"

Did you notice how little "singing" there was during the musicals tribute?

And out of all the classic Hollywood musicals they pick Chicago and Dreamgirls?

Remember when Dreamgirls was "a lock" to win Best Picture?

And Eddie Murphy for Supporting Actor?

Should I be proud that I still haven't seen Dreamgirls?

Or that I can't remember whether or not I've even seen Chicago?

Can Hugh Jackman host this again? 

How funny was Mark Wahlberg trying to convince the audience that there really was a tie?

How bad is it that, despite the tie, I STILL got the Sound Editing category wrong?

Were you wondering how insane it would be if there was a tie in a major category like Best Actress?

Am I the only one who has no recollection of Christopher Plummer winning Best Supporting Actor last year?

Why does the always classy, gracious Anne Hathaway get such a bad wrap?

Is there something wrong with wanting to win an Academy Award and being thankful for it?

Wasn't her husband great in Drive?

Didn't MacFarlane drastically improve when he started mocking the show and his own hosting of it?

Isn't it kind of cool that the Academy gave a lifetime achievement Oscar to Hal Needham, the director of Body Slam?

Any bets on whether that film was included in his highlight reel?

Can we just all agree now that the Jurassic Park theme is John Williams' greatest composition?

While Streisand was fitting, wouldn't it have been nice to have a montage of the late, great Marvin Hamlisch's screen contributions?

Am I saying that partially so I get to see The Swimmer make it onto the Oscar telecast?

Shouldn't we cut Kristen Stewart a break since there's a good chance we would have been bored presenting at this show too? 

Did it occur to anyone that it could have just been nerves?

Can you believe I'm defending Kristen Stewart?

Is it wrong that I laughed at MacFarlane's joke about Rex Reed reviewing Adele's performance?

Did it top his other one about John Wilkes Booth being the only actor to really get inside Lincoln's head?

Isn't that song from Chasing Ice great?

Wasn't it a missed opportunity not having Scarlett Johansson there performing it?

Charlize Theron and Quentin Tarantino...neighbors?

Since the Affleck snub, did everyone's chances for correctly guessing Best Director go up in smoke?

Isn't Jennifer Lawrence's maniacal laugh in the diner scene awesome?

Could they have possibly picked a better clip?

After that fall, should she also get an Oscar for stuntwork?

Wasn't her reaction just further proof of how cool and self-depricating she is?

What does it say about how much of a lock Daniel-Day Lewis was that Meryl Streep didn't even need to open the envelope?

Can you believe that massive spoiler clip they showed for Flight?

Isn't it always great to see Jack Nicholson at the Oscars?

Doesn't The First Lady deserve a lot credit for agreeing to do this and doing it well?

Could you actually picture Nancy Reagan announcing Platoon as Best Picture in '87? 

Wouldn't this make for a fun project of matching previous First Ladies with coinciding Best Picture winners of their terms?

Given how much the Obamas have publicly been supporting Beasts of the Southern Wild, weren't you a little concerned before Michelle opened that envelope?

How cool was it that Ben Aflleck thanked the director of Gigli, in his speech?

How many people picked up on it?

And who ever thought Affleck would get to the point where that would happen?

With that win (and beard) has he now fully completed his transformation into the new George Clooney?

Was being snubbed for Best Director the best thing that could have ever happened to him?

Will the media have their knives sharpened for MacFarlane?

Was the whole night him trying to find a balance between crude humor and song-and-dance routines?

Sometimes successfully, sometimes not? 

Am I wrong in thinking there's way too much Broadway-style theatrics for a show supposedly honoring movies?

Even though it didn't come anywhere close to being the longest show in the Academy's history, didn't it kind of feel that way? 

Wasn't that a strange show?

So, who's hosting the Oscars next year?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

2013 Oscar Predictions

Below are my predictions for the 85th Annual Academy Awards (oops, I meant "THE OSCARS"). If you caught my recent Oscar preview appearance on Dennis Has a Podcast you already have some idea as to which way I'm leaning in the major categories, but there's a good chance I'll still be fiddling with many of these picks right up until the last moment. If I could have one wish for the night it would be that Silver Linings Playbook pulls a Crash and shockingly beats frontrunner Argo for Best Picture, as unlikely as that seems at this point. And as far as potential disappointments, they wouldn't get much bigger than the deserving Jennifer Lawrence somehow not walking away with Best Actress. It's tough remembering when we've had a race where so many categories were still up in there and the possibility for major upsets this great. If that, a wildcard host, and the fact we have the highest grossing slate of Best Picture nominees of all-time, can't translate into an entertaining, highly rated broadcast, then the Oscars have far bigger problems than we originally thought. This is one to watch for sure. 

*Predicted Winners

Best Picture
"Beasts of the Southern Wild"
"Silver Linings Playbook"
"Zero Dark Thirty"
"Les Miserables"
"Life of Pi"
"Django Unchained"

David O. Russell - "Silver Linings Playbook"
Ang Lee - "Life of Pi"
Steven Spielberg - "Lincoln"
Michael Haneke - "Amour"
Benh Zeitlin - "Beasts of the Southern Wild"

Actor in a Leading Role
Daniel Day-Lewis - "Lincoln"
Denzel Washington - "Flight"
Hugh Jackman - "Les Miserables"
Bradley Cooper - "Silver Linings Playbook"
Joaquin Phoenix - "The Master"

Actor in a Supporting Role
Christoph Waltz - "Django Unchained"
Philip Seymour Hoffman - "The Master"
Robert De Niro - Silver Linings Playbook"
Alan Arkin - "Argo"
Tommy Lee Jones - "Lincoln"

Actress in a Leading Role
Naomi Watts - "The Impossible"
Jessica Chastain - "Zero Dark Thirty"
Jennifer Lawrence - "Silver Linings Playbook"
Emmanuelle Riva - "Amour"
Quvenzhane Wallis - "Beasts of the Southern Wild"

Actress in a Supporting Role
Sally Field - "Lincoln"
Anne Hathaway - "Les Miserables"
Jacki Weaver - "Silver Linings Playbook"
Helen Hunt - "The Sessions"
Amy Adams - "The Master"
Writing (Adapted Screenplay)
"Argo" - screenplay by Chris Terrio
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" - screenplay by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin
"Life of Pi" - screenplay by David Magee
"Lincoln" - screenplay by Tony Kushner
"Silver Linings Playbook" - screenplay by David O. Russell

Writing (Original Screenplay)
"Amour" - written by Michael Haneke
"Django Unchained" - written by Quentin Tarantino
"Flight" - written by John Gatins
"Moonrise Kingdom" - written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola
"Zero Dark Thirty" - written by Mark Boal

Animated Feature Film
"Brave" - Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
"FrankenWeenie" - Tim Burton
"Paranorman" - Sam Fell and Chris Butler
"The Pirates! Band of Misfits" - Peter Lord
"Wreck-it Ralph" - Rich Moore

"Anna Karenina" - Seamus McGarvey
"Django Unchained" - Robert Richardson
"Life of Pi" - Robert Richardson
"Lincoln" - Janusz Kaminski
"Skyfall" - Roger Deakins

Costume Design
"Anna Karenina" - Jacqueline Durran
"Les Miserables" - Paco Delgado
"Lincoln" - Joanna Johnston
"Mirror Mirror" - Eiko Oshioka
"Snow White and the Huntsman" - Colleen Atwood

Documentary (Feature)
"5 Broken Cameras" - Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi
"The Gatekeepers" - Dror Moreh, Philippa Kowarsky and Estelle Fialon
"How To Survive A Plague" - David France and Howard Gertler
"The Invisible War" - Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering
"Searching For Sugar Man" - Malik Bendjelloul and Simon Chinn

Documentary (Short Subject)
"Inocente" - Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine
"Kings Point" - Sari Gilman and Jedd Wider
"Mondays at Racine" - Cynthia Wade and Robin Honan
"Open Heart" - Kief Davidson and Cori Shepherd Stern
"Redemption" - Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill

Film Editing
"Argo" - William Goldenberg
"Life of Pi" - Tim Squyres
"Lincoln" - Michael Kahn
"Silver Linings Playbook" - Jay Cassidy and Crispin Struthers
"Zero Dark Thirty" - Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg

Foreign Language Film
"Amour" (Austria)
"Kon-tiki" (Norway)
"No" (Chile)
"A Royal Affair" (Denmark)
"War Witch" (Canada)

"Hitchcock" - Howard Berger, Peter Montagna and Martin Samuel
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" - Peter Swords King, Rick Findlater and Tami Lane
"Les Miserables" - Lisa Westcott and Julie Dartnell

Music (Original Score)
"Anna Karenina" - Dario Marianelli
"Argo" - Alexandre Desplat
"Life of Pi" - Mychael Danna
"Lincoln" - John Williams
"Skyfall" - Thomas Newman

Music (Original Song)
"Before My Time" from "Chasing Ice" - music and lyric by J. Ralph
"Everybody Needs A Best Friend" from "Ted" - music by Walter Murphy, lyric by Seth MacFarlane
"Pi's Lullaby" from "Life of Pi" - music by Mychael Danna, lyric by Bombay Jayashri
"Skyfall" from "Skyfall" - music and lyric by Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth
"Suddenly" - "Les Miserables" - music by Claude-Michel Schonbergm, lyric by Herbert Kretzmer and Alain Boublil

Production Design
"Anna Karenina" - Production Design: Sarah Greenwood, Set Decoration: Katie Spencer
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" - Production Design: Dan Hennah, Set Decoration: Ra Vincent and Simon Bright
"Les Miserables" - Production Design: Eve Stewart, Set Decoration: Anna Lynch-Robinson
"Life of Pi" - Production Design: David Gropman, Set Decoration: Anna Pinnock
"Lincoln" - Production Design: Rick Carter, Set Decoration: Jim Erickson

Short Film (Animated)
"Adam and Dog" - Minkyu Lee
Fresh Guacamole" - PES
"Head Over Heels" - Timothy Reckart and Fodhla Cronin O'Reilly
"Maggie Simpson in 'The Longest Daycare'" - David Silverman
"Paperman" - John Kahrs

Short Film (Live Action)
"Asad" - Bryan Buckley and Mino Jarjoura
"Buzkashi Boys" - Sam French and Ariel Nasr
"Curfew" - Shawn Christensen
"Death of a Shadow (Dood van een Schaduw) - Tom van Avermaet and Ellen De Waele
"Henry" - Yan England

Sound Editing
"Argo" - Erik Aadahl and Ethan van der Ryn
"Django Unchained" - Wylie Stateman
"Life of Pi" - Eugene Gearty and Philip Stockton
"Skyfall" - Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers
"Zero Dark Thirty" - Paul N.J. Ottosson

Sound Mixing
"Argo" - John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff and Jose Antonio Garcia
"Les Miserables" - Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson and Simon Hayes
"Life of Pi" - Ron Bartlett, D.M. Hemphill and Drew Kunin
"Lincoln" - Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom and Ronald Judkins
"Skyfall" - Scott Millan, Greg P. Russell and Stuart Wilson

Visual Effects
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" - Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton and R. Christopher White
"Life of Pi" - Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer and Donald R. Elliott
"The Avengers" - Janek Sirrs, Jeff White, Guy Williams and Dan Sudick
"Prometheus" - Richard Stammers, Trevor Wood, Charley Henley and Martin Hill
"Snow White and the Huntsman" - Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, Philip Brennan, Neil Corbould and Michael Dawson

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Dennis Has a Podcast: 2013 Oscars Preview (with Jeremy The Critic)

After almost a year absence I returned as a guest to my good friend Dennis' fantastic Dennis Has A Podcast (great logo by the way!) and discussed all things Oscar. We previewed the big show tomorrow, offered up our predictions, talked about what we hope to expect, and still found time to cover some other fun stuff too. As always, it was a blast. Plus, you get to listen to me rant about why Silver Linings Playbook deserves to win Best Picture. What's not to like?

Click here to listen

And don't forget to check out other episodes of DHAP on iTunes, TuneIn, and Stitcher, like him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Ranking The Alternative Best Picture Oscar Posters (Worst to First)

Well, this was a surprise. In what might be the coolest, hippest thing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have done in years (admittedly not saying much I know), they've teamed up with Gallery 1988 and commissioned some of today's most talented pop-culture artists to design limited addition screen prints for each of this year's nine Best Picture nominees. And it figures they're about ten times better than any of the official posters released for these films, not to mention far superior to much of what I singled out in my annual Best Posters list. While the artists achieve varying degrees of success with these prints, it's indisputable all them do a fine job capturing the spirit of these films as stylishly and simplistically as possible. If looking at these doesn't at least get you mildly interested in checking out this Sunday's nominees, it's likely nothing will. It's just a shame that none of them are for sale, unless you happened to show up at their L.A. gallery earlier in the month and grabbed one. Of course, this could change, and if it does, I know exactly which print I'm picking up. Remember, I'm ranking the posters, not the nominees (though you couldn't be blamed for being slightly suspicious when I get to a certain selection). So, here they are, along with my comments on each.

9.  Lincoln by Jeff Boyes
To be totally honest, there's not much you can do with Lincoln. That said, Boyes does about as good a job as could have been expected given the circumstances. Does it look nice? Yes. Would I hang it on my wall? Probably not. In fact, this might be the only case where I slightly prefer the original theatrical one-sheet (albeit slightly). The two-faced red and blue is a nice touch though, giving the image of our 16th President a complexity many still claim the film lacks.

8. Les Miserables by Phantom City Creative
Another tough one. The possibilities aren't exactly endless when you're handed the task of designing a poster for Les Mis. Or maybe they' are since there's so much going on and so many characters it's a chore deciding what exactly to represent. Taking the path of extreme minimalism was the right choice. The blood, eyes and flag is a cool design for sure. It grows on me the more I look at it.

7.  Amour by Matt Owen
I have a feeling that when I eventually see Amour my appreciation for this will probably grow considerably. Hardly knowing much about the film, I still kind of really like what Owen did here. It looks like a cross between a Wes Anderson DVD cover and a painting you'd find hanging in someone's study. There's something that's just beautifully simplistic about it. And don't underestimate the difficulty of having to design a poster for an over 2-hour foreign film centering around an elderly woman's death. 

6. Argo by Anthony Petrie
If nothing else, this addresses all those pesky complaints about Argo downplaying Canada's involvement in the rescue mission. Between the three flags, the shredded paper and the really neat shadowy silhouettes of the escapees running through Iran (on a film strip no less!), it's definitely an eye catcher. While I still have a nagging feeling something bigger could have been done (perhaps working in the sci-fi angle), I'm perfectly fine with this classy, relatively simple image representing the year's likely Best Picture winner.

5. Django Unchained by Mark Englert
Yeah, I know. This doesn't exactly capture the "spirit" or bloodshed of Quentin Tarantino, but don't we have enough of those kinds of posters anyway? I'm actually glad they didn't take the grindhouse exploitation route and instead picked an artist whose very style is the antithesis of what Tarantino's work represents. That contrast makes for an unforgettable print. This could be an alternate poster for a classic western like The Searchers or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and while it's kind of a misrepresentation of the movie, you can't tell me it isn't an incredible piece of landscape art that would look good on any wall.

4. Life of Pi by Tom Whalen
Upon first laying eyes on this I really didn't care for it at all, but upon closer inspection it starts to become clear what Whalen was going for. And once you're on board (no pun intended) with that, then it's hard to stop staring at it. Here's another one where my appreciation for the details in the print would probably increase dramatically once I've actually seen the film. But I can say with absolute certainty it would look great hanging up with its interesting color scheme and the stain-glass style design. 

3. Zero Dark Thirty by Godmachine
Boy is this unusual. It almost looks like two entirely different prints combined as one. Zero Dark Thirty was always going to be a difficult movie to visually conceptualize in poster form so a lot of credit should go to the designers who found a way out by creating something that doesn't even slightly resemble a movie poster in any way, shape or form. It looks more like a splashy desktop background or wallpaper that's cut right down the middle. We even get a cloaked Maya and Bin Laden in nightglow green on the right and a re-creation of the movie's most memorable sequence on the left. I'm still not sure how it would look on a wall, but as a representation of Kathryn Bigelow's film, it's incredible.

2. Beasts of the Southern Wild by Rich Kelly
Here's another print that while not necessarily the most accurate depiction of the actual film from an marketing perspective (kind of making the movie look like a Gothic horror tale about the dangers of alcoholism), it's just too impressive a piece of abstract art to deny. So in that way it kind of does capture the film's spirit, which in a way defies description itself. I love the cluttered representation of the "Bathtub" in the middle, the barely visible Auroch behind Wink and of course that awesome reflection in the lake of he and Hushpuppy in the water. Wouldn't mind seeing this released in a variety of different colors just of curiosity, even though the green works really well.

1. Silver Linings Playbook by Joshua Budich
I've decided when and if Silver Linings Playbook loses Best Picture, I'm blaming its awful official theatrical poster, which was one of the many missteps made in unfairly marketing the best movie of the year as rom-com fluff. Luckily, those misconceptions have since been squashed as audiences are just recently discovering how powerful it really is, with its chances of a shocking upset on Sunday at least better than decent. Mental illness, running, romance, football, gambling, ballroom dancing. It's woven into an unforgettable tapestry in writer/director David O. Russell's comic masterpiece. And it's all captured in Joshua Budich's magnificent print which, as far as I'm concerned, stands as the film's true OFFICIAL poster.

Aside from the absolutely astounding comic-style artwork, just look at the details! The expressions on Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver's faces. The Eagle wings. The book thrown out the window. And Budich deserves major kudos for knowing just the right line to scribble at the bottom, quoting DeNiro's chill-inducing speech at the end of the film. Who ever thought we'd be this happy to see Chris Tucker?  I'll cop to some bias since it's my favorite film of the year designed by my favorite poster artist, but the work here really does speak for itself. If I could envision the quintessential SLP print, it would still fall short of this, as the most inventive Best Picture nominee is now deservedly rewarded with a poster worthy of it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

House of Cards (Season One)

Creator: Beau Willimon
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright, Kate Mara, Corey Stoll, Michael Kelly, Sakina Jaffrey, Kristen Connolly, Constance Zimmer, Sebastian Arcelus, Sandrine Holt, Michael Gill, Dan Ziskie, Ben Daniels
Original Airdate: 2013

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

There's a scene that comes late into the inaugural season of Netflix's House of Cards where House Majority Whip and South Carolina congressman Francis "Frank" Underwood (Kevin Spacey) convinces the buffoonish Vice President Matthews (Dan Ziskie) to do something that can best be described as completely insane. It's hard to even believe we're listening to it, much less that the sitting V.P. of the United States would actually consider it as a serious option. But we do believe it. Frank's so persuasive it almost makes perfect sense, becoming clear that every manipulative move he's made from the very beginning has been building to it. Based on the acclaimed BBC miniseries and produced by The Ides of March screenwriter Beau Willimon and executive produced by David Fincher, House of Cards can't be accused of not living up to its title. One move leads to another and then to another until it's infected every facet of government and reaches the highest level possible, causing the house of cards to come toppling down. It's about control and manipulation, anticipating actions and reactions while adjusting accordingly. It's one man's plan to rise to the top of the food chain and take control from the inside-out, even if that means running over everyone in his path.
House of Cards Opening Title Card

You'd have to go all the way back to Kevin Spacey's Oscar winning turn as Lester Burnham in American Beauty to find a role he's been able to tear into like this. And he just chews into it like a juicy steak, reminding everyone just how gifted an actor he is when handed exceptional material. And the supporting players are just as impressive, with many underappreciated actors and actresses being afforded a golden opportunity and taking full advantage. The show isn't exactly perfect, but comes pretty close. There's nothing new or groundbreaking about its story of Washington corruption and calling it The West Wing on steroids wouldn't be completely off base. Where it exceeds expectations is in delivery and execution. The direction, cinematography, performances, production design and even the soundtrack are first class, making for intelligent, gripping entertainment that could compete with anything today on basic cable. No one can claim Netflix didn't go all out here, recruiting top talent in front and behind the camera for their first major foray into scripted original programming. And it really shows.

The series starts slowly, with the first two episodes directed rather cinematically by Fincher. What's most intriguing is how those episodes look and feel exactly like you'd imagine a TV series directed by David Fincher would look and feel like with seemingly no obvious compromises made for the medium. At times it almost feels as if you were watching Zodiac or The Social Network on the small screen, but set in the capital. Fincher's chilly visual style permeates through the rest of the season, even as other talented directors like James Foley, Joel Schumacher and Allen Coulter take over the reigns for the remaining episodes with no drop in quality whatsoever. If anything, their episodes are probably stronger since so much set-up and establishing has to be done early that the show gets off to a methodical start that's sure to play even better when you revisit it. It's a slow burn that doesn't grab hold immediately or necessarily cause you to plow through the season at furious, breakneck pace. It plants seeds for what's to come, even if at first glance it appears that the characters could turn out to be unlikable cliches. That fear is squashed  after only a couple of episodes as the Shakespearean drama starts to unfold and the writing and performances lift the characters beyond that.
Reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) breaks a story

After being passed over by the President Walker (Michael Gill) for Secretary of State, the charismatically scheming Frank Underwood sets in motion a complicated, but brilliant plan for revenge with his ambitious, ice queen wife Claire (Robin Wright) and loyal chief of staff Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) by his side. There are two major pawns in his game. One is a young Washington Herald reporter Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) who's more than willing to cut a deal with Frank as an inside source to make a name for herself, and Pennsylvania congressman Pete Russo (Corey Stoll), who's tapped by Frank for Governor despite his battles with drugs and alcohol and the fact he's carrying on a secret relationship with his secretary Christina Gallagher (Kristen Connolly). Russo becomes Frank's pet project and the scenes involving him trying to clean this troubled candidate up for a run at office count among the season's strongest.

Equally compelling and driving the narrative is Frank's relationship with Claire, which more closely resembles a business venture than a loving marriage. Yet in some ways it's both as they conspire together to further each others goals, which sometimes conflict when his Machiavellian scheming gets in the way of her trying to successfully run her non-profit organization. Taking cues from the original BBC version, Frank often breaks the fourth wall to turn to the camera and make the audience co-conspirators. Sometimes it's to let us in on his diabolical plans, but mostly it's to make hilariously sarcastic asides. This could have been very pretentious (and the first few episodes I had my worries) but they get funnier and more revealing as each show passes to the point that I eventually conceded the device works really well. Much of why hinges on Spacey's enthusiastic delivery, as he truly looks like he's having the time of his life drolly selling these lines.
Frank and Claire Underwood (Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright)

Spacey makes it almost impossible to dislike Frank by playing him so charmingly and charismatically that you fall into a similar trap the characters do. He doesn't so much manipulate people as trick those he needs into manipulating themselves. And many of them aren't stupid. Wright's Claire never feels like she's just along for the ride, often coming off as cold-blooded as he, if not worse, since emotions rarely pierce through her steely exterior (her reaction to a character's mid-season deathbed confession is particularly disturbing). Even when fighting over political leverage or extra-marital affairs the actors slyly make it feel as if they're still teammates disagreeing on the exact means they'll use to win. Both have skeletons in their closets and the writers are careful to reveal just enough, but not too much, such as when Frank returns to his alma mater where a new library is erected in his name. What results is the season's most revealing episode and Spacey's finest work, as Washington politics are temporarily put on the backburner to take a breather and explore the character of this man we've grown to simultaneously appreciate, respect and despise. Then it's back to business.

The series' take on the changing face of print media and journalism is timely if nothing else, resulting in some intentionally (and unintentionally) humorous scenes involving newspaper editors refusing to change with the tweeting times while stubbornly holding steadfast to "hard news." My biggest worry early on was the familiarity of Kate Mara's blogger Zoe, but she skillfully sidesteps a potential stereotype with a clever mixture of bratty entitlement and almost child-like innocence, playing her as professionally on point but personally inept. She'll do anything to advance her career and making a deal (the nature of which I won't spoil, but you can guess) with the devil himself, Frank Underwood, is quickest way to do it. With first Rooney and now Kate (who really displays quite a range here), Fincher can't complain he hasn't gotten his money's worth out of the Mara sisters.

Corey Stoll is doomed Pennsylvania congressman Pete Russo
The season's major sub-plot involving Pete Russo's run for governor is so compelling, and Corey Stoll's performance so revelatory, that it shows up nearly everything else in the series. Despite his weaknesses for drugs, alcohol and hookers, he's strangely the most moral character. We think we're in for another arrogant jerk, but Stoll (best known for playing Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris) digs surprisingly deep, revealing an essentially decent, honest guy who wants to do the right thing by his constituents and family but is being sabotaged at every corner, sometimes by himself, but mostly by others wanting to prop him up for their own advantage. Frank smells his vulnerability and is more than willing to exploit it in order to make him a political puppet.

In a series full of characters whose misfortunes are almost always well deserved, Stoll still succeeds in extracting a high level of sympathy for Russo in a performance that, assuming it qualifies, is more than worthy of a supporting Emmy nomination. A practically unrecognizable Kristen Connolly, who hardly left an impression on me starring in The Cabin The Woods last year, makes a far more memorable mark here as Russo's staffer and girlfriend Christina, whose loyalty and determination lift what could have a the most cliched of relationships into a genuine partnership we end up invested in. Her and Stoll work together so well it's hard imagining their characters even functioning without each another.

Anyone hoping for closure to the major story arc this season may as well go elsewhere, as a "to be continued..." title card may as well have flashed on the screen at the end of the finale. If there's any flaw in the season, it's that a major game-changing event occurs before we reach the end and after that some steam is lost heading toward the finish. Ironically, the very beginning and very end of the season just might be the weakest (if such a word could even be used) sections while everything in between is downright phenomenal.There's really two ways to approach writing a TV series. You can either go the self-contained route and tell a different story each season or you make the entire run of the series an ongoing saga. It's apparent Fincher's going The Breaking Bad route of telling one story stretched over time, which is becoming  an increasingly popular approach in this golden age of serialized dramas.

David Fincher directs Kevin Spacey and Kate Mara
While much fuss has been made about this being Netflix's first major foray into scripted original programming, their distribution model of unloading an entire season at once won't feel new to anyone who's been binging on their favorite shows, or maybe discovering new ones, for the past couple of years. If there's any adjusting to be done for the viewer, it's getting used to these episodes being labeled by chapter numbers rather than actual titles, which sometimes creates confusion when trying to reference a specific episode, but further recreates the feeling you're watching one long movie. This approach definitely feels more convenient than ever, but would mean nothing if the quality wasn't there. But it is. And for a change it's nice to see a show's success or failure judged on merit rather than ratings.   

Saturday, February 16, 2013


Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, John Goodman, Melissa Leo, Nadine Velazquez, Brian Geraghty, James Badge Dale
Running Time: 138 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Remember that last section in Cast Away when Tom Hanks finally makes it home and is faced with the trauma of seeing how life just went on without him? His girlfriend's now married with kids. He's sleeping on the floor with a volleyball. That third act made the movie for me. It would have been so easy to stop and just call it a win when he got off the island, but director Robert Zemeckis just kept plowing through, knowing full well that the story was just starting and it would have been criminal to deprive viewers of at least a piece. Now with Flight, he's made an entire film about it. The script begins where most movies end, using its entire running time to explore an aftermath and dispense fascinating details we're unaccustomed to getting.

The happy ending comes first, or so it seems. Facing massive equipment failure and diving fast, Airline captain William "Whip" Whitaker (Denzel Washington) rolls SouthJet flight 227 upside down before crash landing in a field outside Atlanta, saving almost all the 102 passengers and crew on board. The only problem: He was drunk and high on cocaine after having spent the night with a flight attendant (Nadine Velasquez). That his condition didn't cause the crash (we think) is one of the screenplay's most creative touches since going that route would have been way too easy and a lot less morally complicated. In fact, the film's quite clear in presenting the notion that there's a better than great chance no other pilot, sober or not, would have known what to do in that situation, much less been able to execute it. If not for Whip, everyone would likely be dead. The bad news is that six people still are, and he and the airline have to answer for it.

At its core, Flight is really an exploration of addiction and guilt. If an event like this can't get someone to stop drinking and using drugs, what can? For Whip the downward spiral is just starting. A deadbeat dad in full denial about the severity of his problem, he miraculously walks away from the crash with minor injuries, only to turn on the news and discover he's a hero. What's strange is that he mostly is. But the NTSB's investigation is heating up and the toxicology reports are coming in. His biggest ally in the battle is an old buddy named Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), a pilots union rep. Joining him is criminal attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle), whose soften-spoken demeanor belies the fact that he's great at what he does and works tirelessly to keep Whip out of jail. They really want to help but he's having nothing of it, instead hiding out at his parents' abandoned farmhouse and drowning his sorrows in a bottle. His enters a complicated relationship with a heroin addict named Nicole (Kelly Reilly), whom he meets at the hospital and is trying to turn her life around following a near-fatal overdose.

I've probably already revealed too much, as the rest of the film is full of tiny details concerning the fallout from the crash and how those involved with it (directly or indirectly) view Whip's responsibility in it, which is anything but cut and dry. You can only imagine the amount of aviation research Oscar nominated screenwriter John Gatins had to put in to make sure all those details came out right and the work Zemeckis had to do the insure the crash at the beginning has the emotional impact it does. We've seen a lot of terrifying plane crashes on film but this is the first to literally take us inside the cockpit and give us a feel for what it must be like for the pilot and co-pilot when all possible options have been exhausted. And for the passengers certain they're all going to die and appear to be right.

Oscar nominated Denzel Washington gives one of most affecting performances in years as a tortured addict caught in a web of his own lies.Whip knows his silence is morally, if not criminally, reprehensible but he's too consumed by his own demons and false pride to admit a problem, much less accept help. What's most shocking is just how much damage it takes for him to get there, with Washington providing unflinching insight into how addiction grabs hold and doesn't let go, practically writing a person out of their own life. Matching him scene-for-scene in her first major co-starring role is relatively unknown English actress Kelly Reilly, who in addition to pulling off a really credible southern accent, is altogether heartbreaking as a junkie torn between trying to turn her own life around and salvaging whatever relationship she has with this total stranger. In a crowded year full of great female supporting turns, hers still stands out out from the pack, making it a bit of a mystery that she really hasn't been recognized for it.

The film is also filled to the brim with scene stealing cameos, the most memorable of which coming from John Goodman, who couldn't be more entertainingly insane as Whip's hippie best friend and drug dealer Harling Mays. His two appearances make a big enough impact that he even gets his own entrance music. Then there's James Badge Dale as a philosophical cancer patient who's either a twisted genius or has just watched too many episodes of Lost. He has only a single scene that can't be spoiled, but it's the film's because of his disturbing brilliance in it. Melissa Leo doesn't play the NTSB official as the villain she could have been, but instead as a fair, intelligent woman asking all the right questions to get to the truth. It's hard to dislike her. The same could be said for Cheadle's attorney, who at first appears to be a pushover but ends being tougher and more determined than anyone expects, even as he's constantly pushed away by his own client. We want to root for him because he's technically and legally right about the crash's cause but the means he uses to make his case are questionable. There are so many grey areas here, but none greyer than the situation involving Whip's co-pilot, well played by Brian Geraghty. When we finally do hear his take on what happened up there, that powerful scene definitely doesn't disappoint.

As we get closer to to the moment of truth for Whip, it's clear things can only end one of two ways. Dark or darker. Neither outcome can in any way be viewed as a win for the protagonist, though one is decidedly less bleak for the audience. The story is the very definition of hitting rock bottom and it's easily the edgiest, darkest thing Zemeckis has ever done. But most will just be happy that he's gone back to directing live-action, at least temporarily abandoning the motion capture CGI silliness he's been dabbling in with clunkers like Beowulf and A Christmas Carol. This picture demonstrates in full why that career diversion was so upsetting and he should have taken those complaints as a compliment. His real gift has always been in telling distinctly human stories and it's great to see the visual effects used more sparingly and effectively in helping to further that. A nearly two and a half hour, R-rated character study about an addict is probably the last thing anyone expected from the director of Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, but it couldn't have possibly been a more welcome departure. Leaving you with a lot to consider and never taking the easy way out, Flight ends up being anything but predictable.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Trouble with the Curve

Director: Robert Lorenz
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake, Matthew Lillard, John Goodman, Robert Patrick, Scott Eastwood
Running Time: 111 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

When aging baseball scout Gus Lobel says a player looks good "on paper" you better believe he knows what he's talking about. No one has more paperwork since he refuses to rely on computers or even statistics to his job. But considering he's played by Clint Eastwood, you probably could have guessed that already. He's old school, as is the film's approach to sports recruiting. Trouble with the Curve could easily be his anti-Moneyball, if not for the fact that for the first time since 1993's In The Line of Fire, he's acting in a film he didn't actually direct. Taking over the reigns with mixed results is his longtime assistant director and producer Robert Lorenz, who puts his mentor front and center. And yet despite appearing in every scene, it still doesn't really feel like Eastwood's film. This is light, popcorn entertainment with the actor's performance playing as kind of a Grumpy Old Men version of his bitter, ornery Gran Torino character, minus the racial and ethnic slurs. It does some things well, and a few more wrong, but it's not exactly the disaster many have made it out to be, suffering more for its theatrical release coinciding with the actor's infamous Republican convention speech last November. Of course, that was blown way out of proportion by the media, undeserving of being remembered as anything other than a tiny blip on his storied career. He's earned that much, even if this effort still doesn't quite add up to much more than the sum of its parts. But if interviews implying that this could be his final acting appearance hold true, we can at least be grateful it's no Welcome To Mooseport.

With his contract up in three months, legendary Atlanta Braves' scout Gus refuses to see the handwriting on the wall. Now in his twilight years and with rapidly deteriorating eyesight, management may not extend his contract despite his best friend and boss Pete (John Goodman) doing everything he can to convince them otherwise. But Gus has a major, "can't miss" prospect to check out in North Carolina, and much to his displeasure, Pete convinces his workaholic lawyer daughter Mickey (Amy Adams) to join him on the trip, which evolves into an extended therapy session for both. With Mickey distracted by a potential promotion to partner at work and still harboring resentment toward her dad for abandoning her as a child and Gus in full denial about his declining health, their few moments of bonding come from their shared love of baseball. While there, they run into the charismatic Johnny Flanagan (Justin Timberlake) a former player Gus recruited who's now a scout for the Red Sox angling for a job in the broadcast booth. While scouting the kid he takes a romantic interest in Mickey but Gus has bigger problems to worry about. If he screws this up, he's done for good.

It's difficult to watch this without memories of 2011's vastly superior Moneyball lingering in the background. What's compelling about the comparison is that while both films focus heavily on major league baseball scouting, they take completely opposite approaches. Eastwood's Gus may as well be one of the old, out-of-touch veterans who were mocked by Brad Pitt's Billy Beane in so many of that picture's most effective scenes. There was no point in management actually "scouting" anyone anymore, as the key to the A's success came from the sabermetric system of running player stats through a computer. Here, computers are viewed as creating a culture of laziness in baseball management, screwing teams up by recruiting the wrong players and costing wise, grizzled veterans like Gus their office jobs. This is exemplified with Matthew Lillard's sleazy Braves scout, a character who rather heavy-handedly represents the supposedly clueless new guard. In other words, a one-dimensional moron who knows nothing about baseball and lets his computer program do the work. That's a bit of a stretch, as is the assertion that an aging well traveled blind man is preferable. The truth probably lies somewhere in between in terms of statistics and experience and a narrative exploring would have been far more interesting than the one we get. Fair or not, that manipulation kept me from completely sympathizing with Gus when we're clearly meant to. Also odd is what a slog the action is considering there's more of an emphasis on actual scouting and recruiting at games as opposed to just analyzing statistics, a task Moneyball somehow found a way to make extremely exciting.

It all has kind of a lazy Sunday afternoon TV movie feel about it, only coming alive when Justin Timberlake arrives to share the screen with Amy Adams and Eastwood. He's ideal for the part of a cocky, but good-hearted former player who's career was cut short. He just nails it, making you wonder why he wasn't the protagonist since he certainly feels like one in scenes opposite Adams, with whom he has surprisingly great chemistry. Too bad the pacing of the relationship feels off, as it seems to take about an hour of screen time for those sparks to go anywhere, and by the time they do, we've checked out. Adams basically carries the whole movie bringing a considerable amount of depth her ice princess character and the usually hackneyed storyline of a father-hating daughter carrying emotional baggage. Without spoiling too much, when we're finally given an explanation for the rift between the two, it's in a flashback scene meant to pack a dramatic wallop, but instead had me howling with laughter. It plays like a bizarre cross between Equus and Dirty Harry. But that we even got a brief moment of bad-ass, old school Eastwood is reason enough to celebrate since the rest of the way through it does kind of feel like he's on autopilot, at times almost sending up his own image as an actor and icon.

For all it does wrong, this gets one really important thing right. There's this seemingly throwaway moment toward the middle of the picture with the obnoxious (and boy he's obnoxious) player Gus and Johnny are scouting that's strangely memorable, its full repercussions figuring into the conclusion in a surprising way. The way it returns, much like everything else in the third act, is probably a bit too convenient, but the underlying message of talent hiding anywhere isn't. Of course, a few more happy (if not completely earned) resolutions are also shoehorned into an ending that clumsily juggles personal and professional trials, before tying them up nicely with a bow. Ironically, the film is strongest when dealing with the personal drama and weaker in the professional department, namely everything involving Mickey's work problems back home, resulting in annoying, undramatic scenes with Adams' face buried in her phone, texting non-stop. The attempt join everything together at the end comes off as well as it can given the circumstances, even as Lorenz faces limitations imposed on him by an overstuffed script. Despite its predictability and the fact it has nothing particularly important to say, Trouble With The Curve is still a breezy watch, as there are far worse ways to kill two hours, especially for Eastwood fans who will probably feel obligated to see it. And they should. Just as long as they don't expect anything special.