Thursday, March 18, 2010

Break Like the Wind: Oscar Nominated Directors Cash in on the Twilight Craze

Well, it has happened.

Hollywood has recruited some of its most well respected directors to helm the forth and final film in the Twilight Saga abortion. Directors who, judging by the fact that all have been nominated and/or won Oscars in the past. Then again, that kind of prestige doesn't really mean a damn thing anymore. Hell, Robert Zemeckis beat out Tarantino the year of Pulp Fiction for what amounted to Tom Hanks playing Rain Man with a Southern drawl. In short, the system is rubbish, but the Twilight books, four thickly bound novels that have consumed popular culture for the past 3-4 years and have inspired a fanbase that has Trekkies begging them to get a life, are painful. And any directors at the helm of the ubiquitious 'Saga' are subject to scrutiny.

The announcement came earlier in the week, and, in time, I'm sure plenty more directors will be asked to film this super emo vampire flick. In an age where the teenage demographic craves kinder, gentler vampires who are emotionally abusive and toy around with their human gal pals, it's disheartening to think that now the pool of people in line to make a quick buck will most surely double.

So, who have been chosen? Spielberg? Spike Lee? Anyone? Surprisingly, the people in the loop thus far are Sofia Coppola, Bill Condon, and Gus Van Sant. Seriously, I am not making any of this up. Why pick any of these three for effing vampires and teenage angst? The answer lies herein. Take these mini 'reviews' to be a prospective future, knowing what each director is capable of, I'm sure we can pin point all three, along with their artistic directions. In short, god help us all.
Sofia Coppola
Going along with her typical themes of isolation and friction among a mostly negative space, Coppola's forth film still maintains the moody and bittersweet tone that has garnered her copious amounts of acclaim in art house cinema. Keeping Twilight's angsty lead, Kristen Stewart, who is no stranger to bored expressions and vancant gazes, feels like a Coppola natural. Armed with enough eye rolls and pouts to put Scarlet Johansson to shame, Stewart takes the already lackadaisical Bella Swann and treads new(yet relatively similar) grounds. Bella feels like an outcast in her hometown of Forks, a problem that is not helped by her ever absent boyfriend, the sparkly vampire, Edward. Spending the bulk of her time lying in bed, listening to her dad's My Bloody Valentine records in her underpants, Bella so desperately craves the happiness and attention she currently lacks. Enter Jacob, the kind, and also isolated, man who she encounters and has a beyond platonic, but not quite carnal, friendship with. After the orignal Jacob, the wooden Taylor Lautner, was kicked out pre-production, Coppola smartly made a quick casting decision, letting Bill Murray fill in the role instead. Murray is captivating as always, going beyond the teen wolf persona, his face filled with enough bittersweet emotion to make any woman swoon. Allowing The Jesus and Mary Chain to score this mood piece was a smart move on Ms. Coppola's behalf, for their guitar strains evoke a strong feeling for displacement and teenage fury. And when Jacob leaves to fight the werewolf war, he whispers nothingness into Bella's ear, leaving the audience with stuff to ponder for weeks.

Gus Van Sant
Boldy foregoing the typical Hollywood Blockbuster route, Van Sant takes the teen franchise and goes completely independent on the film. Using teenage non actors, and working with a mostly improvised script, Van Sant lingers strongly on the voyeuristic and unflinching aspect of Breaking Dawn. The film is shot on a handheld camera, and features shots and scenes that go on longer than seven minutes(trust me, I counted), ultimately exposing the underbelly of the seemingly calm Forks, WA. The result mixes Van Sant's film, Elephant, with Elvira: Mistrss of the Dark, and in all aspects, it feels painful to watch. As Bella and Edward walk aimlessly around together, playing vampire baseball at an abandoned playground while discussing Leo Tolstoy, we are shown snapshots of their lives, and we pinpoint the displeasure and distance between the two leads. Slowly, Edward becomes obsessed with Jacob, a young but streetsmart hustler who just so happens to be a werewolf. Decidedly more homoerotic than Meyer's novel, Van Sant's film pits the naive Edward with the sexually manipulative Jacob, who isn't afraid to shoot up or kiss boys or die slowly. Instead of bulky and hunky, Van Sant's Jacob Black is needy, tragic, and an egotistical teenager who feels stronger than he actually is. Slowly, reality unfurls, leading all three players into dire circumstances. Instead of using loud action packed music to fill dramatic gaps, Rachmaninov instead blows through the tension, leading the viewer down a disturbing, but pretty divide.

Bill Condon
Nominated for Nine Academy Awards, Breaking Dawn reinvents the musical genre, taking it two new heights! In her second Oscar nominated role, Jennifer Hudson is especially noteworthy as the dumpy underdog, Bella Swann, contrasting the dull and vacant Bella the series has grown accustomed to. But this Bella has a dream, a dream to sing in a music group along with her two other gal pals. And boy, can she sing! Managed by the cold and charismatic Edward Cullen, a vampire with a slick eye for talent, Bella propels her rag tag group to the top. Trouble is, Edward is now pursuing the prettier(Read: Skinnier) Jessica, an also noteworthy Anna Kendrick. Dumped by the man she loved, the one whose child she is carrying, Bella pleas in a moment of drama that will cause audiences to weep while their hairs stand on ends. Think "And I Am Telling You..." but with fangs. Meanwhile, the band rises to the top with a freshfaced new member, although Jessica feels like she has cheated her once good friend, Bella, out of the fame she so clearly deserved. But with the help of Jacob, Bella's old friend who plays the piano, Bella decides that her true calling is to sing out, no matter what her weight or popularity may be! Condon teams up with Death Cab for Cutie's frontman, Ben Gibbard, to write and compose twenty whopping songs that bring Breaking Dawn beyond the vampire genre. Here is a loud and fun, and quite stellar film that encompasses everything a musical should include. Is there substance?'s colorful!

Friday, March 5, 2010

And the Dinner is...:A Guide to What to Eat on Oscar Night

The way I view the Oscars is as if they are a more formal version of the Super Bowl. Instead of playing football and tackling sweaty men in pads, you have occasionally humorous comedy from the host and you get to hear the exact same people who have already won numerous awards for portraying a minority or a famous figure. The Oscars are a ritual I watch every year and will get excited about come November when the Oscar worthy movies are generally released. Do I always get angry when they ignore my favorite films of the year from Romania, as they have done in the past? Yes. Will I heavily criticize the actors up for the awards? Of course. Since I so value the Oscars, and since they are on Sunday, what better way to celebrate ten movies in the running for Best Picture than by the thing that unites us all, food.

For my list, I've taken all ten nominees and given each film a food item that the characters would eat or food that represents the movie in a fun and creative way. Enjoy, and hopefully, my meals will inspire you to create your own Oscar experience.

The Hurt Locker
To start the list, I'm going with the film that will most likely win the Best Picture Oscar. As an Army stand by, a recipe for some Shit on a Shingle(In polite culinary terms, chipped beef on toast) would help take you to the lines of enemy territory. As a fun, added bonus, you might want to get some Pop Rocks as a cute dessert item. Sandstorms and bomb dismantling not included.
Up in the Air
Once poised to win Best Picture and a slew of other awards, now most likely stuck with the Best Adapted Screenplay, this film deals a lot with flying the friendly skies and the life of a man who has spent his life on planes. To authenticate the in flight experience, go for some Rold Gold Mini Pretzels and a microwavable TV dinner, perhaps food from Stouffer's or other frozen food companies. Though I'd advise not to rent Norbit as your in flight movie.

An Education
Cute in parts, but ultimately unsettling, An Education has an authentic olde timey British feel to it. Not my favorite of the year, but its strong performances carry the flawed and somewhat cute movie to great heights. As cliche as it may be, Tea and Crumpets and some sweet and milky Cadbury chocolate buttons to complete the meal. Not so much a dinner as it is a most excellent snack for tea time.

Inglourious Basterds
Tarantino must have had lots of fun with this movie, because his creative flair is most evident in Basterds. A Spaghetti Western at heart, what better way to follow its genre than to make...spaghetti?! And since Basterds is all about Nazi scalping, why not add some German sausage on top of a nice bed of Angel Hair? Arguably the oddest meal on the list, but one that will improve with rich red sauce to match the pretty reds in the film.

The most whimsical film of 2009, Up relies on colors and a strong heart to move and affect the viewers. Since the film is childlike and very pretty to look at, might I suggest some brightly colored cupcakes, adorned with Skittles or Gumdrops, hell, even baloons or something fun to decorate the cupcakes with. Use bright colors in everything you use to enhance your meal, and to pay tribute to Russell, some Worms in Mud would bring out the kid in you.

Tragic, hard to watch at times, but ultimately uplifting, Precious is a strong and unique film amid a bunch of cookie cutter Hollywood fare. Though in the film, the characters pig out of junk food like Cheetos and Fried Chicken, it would also help if you were to add a strong and robust food entry to finish up the dining experience. Add some spice to a thick and powerful Sirloin steak to give it the flavor and spice of life.
Personally, I felt that Avatar was an eye popping treat that delivered every dollar you paid for. Its gorgeous visuals are breathtaking, and the film, though flawed, is just plain fun. Going with the fun aspect of Avatar, I'd suggest scoring some blue cotton candy and popcorn, almost like what you'd get at a fun fair. And for the health food nut, blueberries relate to the blue characters and the natural aspect of the film. Not everyone's favorite, but it's worth giving a look.

The Blind Side
I haven't seen The Blind Side, but from what I gather, it's Sandra Bullock playing a nice white lady and doing what Julia Roberts did ten years ago. As empowering as Precious was, The Blind Side is just another case of Hollywood celebrating boring inspirational biopics. White bread with white mayo and American cheese brings out the boring and very white aspect of the film, and some pork rhinds to scarf down while watching some good ol' football.
A Serious Man
I loved A Serious Man, as I love the Coen bros. It was very well thought out, very Jewish and just plain compelling. Taking the 1960's and looking at it from a perspective of a man who is slowly losing it all. A Rheuben sandwich and anything typically Jewish from a deli would satisfy the characters in the film, Latkes are also good enough to bring together Jews and Gentiles alike.

I quite liked District-9, having spent the previous year learning about the Aparthied in S. Africa, which allowed me to understand better the subject matter and the importance of the film overall. Nothing very edible in this movie, unfortunately, apart from cat food of course, but to get nice and creative with the meal/movie is to ponder what your last meal would be were the end of the world to happen tomorrow. Because in District-9, everyone is on the brink of destruction.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Melancholy and Infinite Sadness

A Single Man
Directed by: Tom Ford
Year: 2009
Starring, Colin Firth, Julianne Moore,
Nicholas Hoult and Matthew Goode.

He was my North, my South, my East, my West,
My Morning week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong
W.H Auden: Funeral Blues

By far, A Single Man is one of the most gorgeously shot films I've ever seen(The visionary Wong-Kar Wei stands as the champion of lushly beautiful cinema). It's a film whose true feeling is perfectly depicted in its cinematography, its down to a T reproduction of the early sixties, and, thankfully, in its brave, heartbreaking, and utterly spellbinding story.

And that is a gift from god in itself, for too often is a paper thin story masked by an intricate and ornate environment we forget is created for the film and only the film. No, A Single Man aptly balances the fine line between style and substance, dream and reality. And it's a reflection of sheer stupidity on behalf of the Academy for snubbing and leaving this uniquely wonderful film out of the running for Best Picture in favor of ham fisted biopics that capitalize on the emotions of its audience and mistakes schmaltz for substance.

Ranting aside, A Single Man is a very simple, yet well developed story centered around George, a closeted gay English professor in the early 1960's. His lover, Jim, was killed in a car accident the day prior, and George loses his faith in living. Throughout the day, George is chased after by an eager student, quietly annoyed by his picture perfect neighbors, and invited to dinner with an old friend, all the while planning his imminent demise.

George is played by Colin Firth, and his understated emotions carry the weight of his performance. Portraying a deeply saddened character, Firth erases the permeters of sexuality, for the pain he feels of losing his only love is universal. It's tragic, and often quite painful to watch George as he plans out his death, yet we the viewer are unable to sway him from doing anything else. Less voyeuristic than it is encompassing, A Single Man reflects not only a man in mourning, but a changing era in American history. The Beatles are on the verge of becoming world famous, J.F.K's death is only a few months away, and by the end of this diverse decade, our nation will be at war, fighting for something no solder truly believes in. When George interacts with his surroundings, we see how truly polarized he is from the rest of the world. His old friend, and ex-wife, played by a cruelly ignored Julianne Moore lives in an apartment that might be a drag queen's dream come true and has fun by doing 'The Twist'. Moore's scenes with Firth give off a beautiful chemistry that is truly alluring. To consider the life both characters have had to deal with, it's wonderful to see how amid sexual identity and loves gone astray, the two are still thicker than thieves.

Also ignored by the Academy is the luminous scenery, as directed by long time fashion designer, first time film director, Tom Ford. Seeing how much he put of himself into the film makes me only the more eager to see what other films, if any, he will come up with. When Ford plays with the cinematography, letting colors fade or pop, depending on the mood of the scene, it's exciting, and you can tell Ford is clearly thinking abstractly.

Ultimately, A Single Man is a bittersweet orchid, blooming life in the most unexpected of places, adding dabs of color to its devestating story, and mixing beauty and art to create a powerful and affecting film. Better than Brokeback in my opinion, and less uplifiting than Milk, A Single Man looks to be the future of gay cinema, I only hope that America, and the Academy, is willing to embrace such an out of the box type of moviemaking.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Children Are Watching Us

The White Ribbon
Directed by: Michael Haneke
Year: 2009
Starring: Christian Friedel, Leonie Benesch,
Burghurt Klassner and Susanne Lothar

It's pure coincidence that two of cinema's most sadistic living directors both had films released in 2009. First, Lars Von Trier infuriates the world and film critics alike with his excruciatingly gory, yet compelling Antichrist, and then Michael Haneke, whose films include Cache, Funny Games, and the utterly devastating The Seventh Continent, adds to his list of moody and mysterious masterworks The White Ribbon, a taut drama/thriller that is set in pre-World War I Germany.

Operating like an Ingmar Bergman film set in Germany, The White Ribbon is a film that examines the mounting violence, fear, and uncertainty that invades a seemingly calm village like a virus. Right from the first scene, in which a doctor, riding on horseback, is tripped by a wire tied between two trees, Haneke sets up the story and piques the interest of the audience. At first, the town is curious, because anyone and everyone could be a suspect. However, as more acts of violence occur, and as their graveness intensifies, it becomes clear to both the audience and the villagers that something is not right. Even more unsettling is the looming possibility that the children of the village know more than they are leading on.

Giving no clear answers, Haneke weaves together several other storylines that intercept the central story, starting with the innocent and truly good hearted school teacher, who falls in love with Eva, a young peasant who is hired to watch over the Baroness' children. Also crucial to the story is Martin, the son of the pastor who wants with all his heart to do good and be seen as morally correct in his father's eyes. The doctor is also noteworthy, and his dark side is exposed in snippets throughout the course of the film. He is cruel, domineering, and unable of showing genuine human emotion.

Morality and redemption are two key themes in The White Ribbon, both even tie into the title itself, the ribbon being a reminder for children that while wearing the ribbon, one must be good and moral. Religion also plays into this, for it clouds the judgement and influences characters left and right. It's a film that gives its audience much to ponder and question, and leaves enough room for individual interpretation.

Of the Michael Haneke films I've seen, albeit still unsettling, The White Ribbon represents a less critical and angry Haneke, without television and the media to serve as an influence for destruction, the film works on simplicity and the minimal actions that overall set the course for the rest of its characters. Not overly violent, like Funny Games, but the violence we view is positively cruel and harrowing. Not as soul crushing as The Seventh Continent, but the fates of the characters are universally dark. Overall, The White Ribbon has silent suspense pulsating through its veins, evil is on the horizon, the children we see before us could and would evolve into the Hitler Youth/Nazi party, the stubbornness and the foibles of the characters make them prone to horrors unforeseen. In the end, the violence isn't what shakes us, it's the normalcy overall that does us in. And boy, is it jarring.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Nazis

Inglourious Basterds
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Year: 2009
Starring: Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz,

Diane Kruger and Melanie Laurent

Only in a Quentin Tarantino film would there be a baseball bat wielding antihero who is called "The Bear Jew"

Suffice to say, Inglourious Basterds is anything but a history lesson on World War Two. Don't expect a Schindler's List type movie, hell, forget crying in general. What Tarantino ignores from history he makes up by drawing from the timeless Spaghetti Western genre to create a world where the Jews are mad as hell and are scalping Nazis for leisure, where the most renowned German actress is also a spy for England, and Hitler...well, let's just say he has a much gorier demise than his actual death.

Told in chapters that establish the film and create a large ensemble of characters, Basterds is a classic revenge picture, filmed with striking reds, an unflinching eye at violence, and dialogue that only Mr. Tarantino himself could conjure. The Basterds, led by a delighfully scene chewing Brad Pitt, are Jewish solders who are want to strike back against the Nazis by scalping the SS men and carving Swastikas into the surviving Nazi men's' foreheads. Hitler wants them taken out, but with the premiere of an upcoming propaganda movie, the Basterds rely on the help of other Nazi hating rogues to go in for the kill.

Also in the mix is Shosanna Dreyfus(An enigmatic Melanie Laurent), a Jewish woman who watched her family get shot to death by the Nazis four years earlier. Now the owner of a movie theater, one that gets extra special attention from the Nazis, Shosanna concocts her own revenge plan to infultrate and obliterate the Nazis.

While the Basterds are integral to the story, the real shining glory is Christoph Waltz, who takes a Hannibal Lecter like approach to his cold and creepy Nazi Colonel Hans Landa. Poised for the win of Best Supporting Actor, Waltz is surprisingly serene and utterly compelling in all of his scenes. It's talent like this that deserves the utmost of recognition.

For what it's worth, Inglourious Basterds delivers enough violence inflicted on the ultimate of criminals, the Nazis, to satisfy even the most seasoned of people. It may not be totally serious, or historically accurate, but all of this only adds to the fun and chaos that runs amuck in the film. And, if anything, see it for Brad Pitt's hilarious and multi dimensional turn at Aldo Raine, the unlikelist of heroes imaginable.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Sky's the Limit

Up in the Air
Directed by: Jason Reitman
Year: 2009

Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick and Jason Bateman

The thing that Up in the Air succeeds with most, apart from its stellar performances and its kick ass soundtrack (Hello, Elliott Smith!), is its ability to be incredibly witty and sharp, and at the same time maintain an air of tragedy about itself. Up in the Air owes much of its quick fired dialogue to the classic romantic comedies of the 1930's-1940's. Katherine Hepburn and her speedy yet defiant drawl, or the humor between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert as they separate their bedroom with a bed sheet. The film is not so much a rehashing of all of these classic movies, but more of a bittersweet reminder that there was a time when witty banter filled the silver screens. Think of it as Adam's Rib for the post-9/11, electronically addicted America.

Ryan Bingham(An on point George Clooney) is a motivational speaker/a man who travels around the country to fire employees. Besides reaching his goal of 10 million plane miles, Ryan has few other cares or obsticles in his way. Enter Alex(Vera Farmiga, who couldn't look more genuinely pretty), a very compatiable and female version of Ryan, and sparks really start to fly. When together, Ryan and Alex play off one another like a sexually charged game of Pong, the chemistry between both characters is very compelling.

All of this is fair and good, until Ryan is introduced to a new employee, Natalie, a marriage minded, uptight and spritely girl who is about five minutes away from taking Ryan's job away. Her idea is to take the act of firing into the new millenium by setting up virual web cams that make the job easier, and allow the company to cut back of paying for plane fare, which Ryan will not stand for, do not pass go. Natalie is played by Anna Kendrick whose grip on her character is so professional that even for a young woman whose previous film had her as Bella's best friend in the Twilight series to show such depth is refreshing to see in young actors.

Not so much a trip to enlightenment as it is a journey into the life of a man who never realized just how lonely he was, Up in the Air is on the pulse of the nation, considering our current state of economic affairs. It ends on a blah note, which is a small disappointment, but to have a film that so expertly takes contemporary America and injects sly and well thought out humor into its veins, that in itself is worth note.

To divulge in describing the plot would only cheat the viewer. It's not, for lack of a better word, a completely complex saga, nor is it a cookie cutter romantic dramedy. No, Up in the Air is, simply put, interesting filmmaking. Filmmaking that deserves to be observed, watched and given the right amount of treatment to. It analyzes one man, whose search to find inner contentment he learns may have begun too late, who is hurt, but redeems himself, who finds empathy in his friends and family. And, hell, that's life in itself.