A Descent Into Oscar Territory
By Chauncey Telese
As Eminem has said many times, “It’s so good to be back!” After a five-week hiatus due to a plethora of projects at school hitting me like the Ravens defense, I have missed a ton of things both in movies and in the world, so before I cover the films I’ve chosen to cover, let’s recap the last month.
First, congratulations to my editor Carol Rock’s World Series Champion San Francisco Giants. Tim Lincecum got to go to the party at the moon tower and came home and fell asleep to “Slow Ride”. He wasn’t named MVP though it would’ve been a lot cooler if he did. Kenny Powers went on a soul searching quest in Mexico (with hilariously disastrous results) however La Flama Blanca did get a shot at reviving his career in Texas and he found out he and April are having a baby.
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“The Walking Dead” ended its brief first season as the highest rated cable series and deservedly so. The finale was amazing (Noah Emmerich’s work as CDC worker Jennings was outstanding) but couldn’t eclipse the brilliant finale of “Boardwalk Empire”. Congratulations to everyone involved. Kelly MacDonald’s Margaret Schroeder is the best female character on television (expect her to cruise to an Emmy win), Buscemi and Michael Pitt (and in Pitt’s case win), SAMCRO got Abel back, killed Stahl and Jimmy, and will only have to serve fourteen months because Jax is savvy. I dare the Emmy committee to ignore “Sons of Anarchy” three years in a row. “Dexter” is winding down and I’ve loved the Dexter/Lumen relationship though am fearful that she won’t be around next year (major bummer because Julia Stiles has done her best work in a long time).
Manning has fallen on some hard times and I hope he can bounce back next year, The Pats, Steelers, Jets, Falcons, Ravens, Packers, Eagles, and Saints are the best teams in the NFL (I’d say the Bears, but their cowardice against the Lions cost me money), and my Rams will win the West without being over 500, the Miami Heat are learning the hard way that having three stars and a bunch of other people won’t win them a trip to the Finals.
Lastly, I wish to say good-bye to Leslie Nielsen and Irwin Kirshner who both died last week. Nielsen was in two of the funniest movies ever; “Airplane” and “The Naked Gun.” His deadpan is that of legend and he will be missed. Kirshner directed “The Empire Strikes Back” which not only was the best film in the saga but rewrote the format for movie sequels by choosing to go darker and his ability to make the scenes with Luke and Yoda so profound as well as convincing Lucas to keep Han Solo’s improvised last line in the film. My childhood would’ve been different if I hadn’t seen “Empire,” that’s a fact.
Whew! Okay, now that we’ve gotten all of that business out of the way, let’s talk movies. Late November through December is the time the studios roll out their Oscar movies. To date there had only been four movies worthy to contend for a plethora of Oscars (“Inception,” “Toy Story 3,” “The Kids Are All Right” and “The Social Network”) but now, that has all changed. Over the last two weeks I’ve covered a lot of ground and have seen four films that will all win a major award or two and will vie for the biggest prize of them all. So let’s get all serious and discuss some Oscar movies, because as Derek Anderson would say “I’m not laughing I take this s--- serious, there’s nothing funny about it” sorry that clip is still funny after a week. Anyway let’s get to it.
“127 Hours”: More Then That Movie Where Franco Cuts His Arm Off!
Every year there seems to be a movie that becomes known more for a particular scene than the movie itself. Usually there’s good reason like there’s a really awesome love scene (that shows up later), or it stars a power couple, or in the case of “127 Hours” a gruesome scene that ends up being given as the plot of the movie. It would be trivial to focus on that one part (though I will discuss that later because the audience reaction was fascinating to say the least). To me this film is the prime example out of how to tell a story using the bare minimum in production to tell a compelling story. Oscar winner Danny Boyle of “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Trainspotting” and “28 Days Later” outdoes himself again by getting the entire audience to watch a movie where we just watch James Franco in a crevasse for nearly two hours and yet never get bored. This movie, based on the true story of Aaron Ralston, could’ve been some overly dramatic movie of the week that would’ve been sappy and unwatchable.
James Franco plays the aforementioned Ralston and when we first meet him he is up before the sun and getting ready for a weekend hiking trip in the mountains of Utah. We don’t know much about him and in reality don’t need to because Franco plays him with such impish charm that it is impossible not to like him. On his hiking trip he meets two girls and shows them a spring inside on of the cliffs. At first they think he’s a kook because he’s out there by himself and is way too enthusiastic in talking about hiking. They spend an hour or so with him and go on their way.
Aaron goes hiking and while walking inside of a cliff falls into a crevasse. His arm gets pinned in a rock and that is where the movie starts. As I said earlier, this could’ve been done where the family is shown worrying about him and we find out a lot about him. Instead we spend all of our time with Aaron. He notices that he doesn’t have much water left and is armed with a fairly dull knife attached to a pair of cheap scissors that came for free with his gear. The other thing he is armed with is a small video camera. Through his five days we see him try to cut through the rock, try to break free, and basically keep himself sane. Then the moment we are all waiting for he cuts his arm off.
During that sequence my buddy Grant who is twice my size had a difficult time with it because while it isn’t as graphic as it could’ve been it is done in such a way that makes us feel what Aaron can’t yet. The other thing is that while he and I were watching Aaron cut his arm off, a guy had a seizure during the movie; yes a full blown “Is there a doctor in the house?” seizure. Luckily he was fine and was mad that he missed the end of the movie but still it was an odd experience for everyone involved.
What made the movie for me though was James Franco doing some amazing work as Ralston. As his time in the crevasse gets longer and longer Franco shows us what kind of person Aaron is and that is a very normal everyday person. He shows us that while Aaron earns a man card equivalent to Clooney’s platinum card at the end of “Up in the Air” that basically earns him a free drink where ever he goes as well as impunity from losing said card for wearing Crocs or listening to Justin Bieber, that Aaron also has regrets, longs for a son, and is just as complex as the rest of us. That may seem like common sense but in a society where we expect out heroes to be clean cut and pure, Aaron is a hero that’s human. The scene where he imagines himself on a talk show is both hilarious and heartbreaking. James Franco faces some stiff competition on Oscar night (he’ll be hosting with Anne Hathaway and they will both be great), he is still my front runner for the award. By the way Hathaway was great in “Love and Other Drugs” and while it may seem like a chick flick (okay it is) guys will love it because Hathaway is naked for most of the first half hour (sorry to break guy code, but then again it’s been talked about to death already, right?)
The film is absolutely gorgeous and the cinematography is incredible. I may not want to live in Utah but I’d love to have any still from the movie as part of my screensaver. Danny Boyle shows us his ever-growing versatility with this film and should net a second Best Director nomination. “127 Hours” is one of several films I’ve seen this year that could very easily be taught at my school because this is as minimal a movie made all year that achieves so much more then it should.
While “127 Hours” shows us how one man can triumph over adversity our next film shows us how an unconventional family can succumb to the same problems as traditional families.
“The Kids Are All Right”: Not Just That Movie about the Lesbian Couple
Again, every year there is a movie that, on the surface, looks like it will be a political or social movie that will bore everyone to tears or beat an issue to death and look like a 90-minute blow hard. I am glad to say that “The Kids Are All Right” is not that movie and like “127 Hours,” is described without its title. Though in this instance it is regarded as “That movie with the lesbian couple,” it is again an inaccurate description. Yes, Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play a lesbian couple, yes they have teenage kids, but no the issue of gay parents or even gay marriage is never really discussed, instead we get an adult film that portrays this family as what it is - A FAMILY! This film has some of the best acting and some of the best writing all year and will net a slew of nominations.
The film co-written and directed by Lisa Cholondenko is about Nic (Bening) and Jules (Moore) and their children Joni (Mia Wasikowska of “Alice in Wonderland”) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson). Joni has just graduated from high school and is in her last summer at home. Nic is a nurse and is more rigid in comparison to the free-spirited Jules. Their dynamic works until one day Laser gets Joni to help him find their donor father. Joni doesn’t see the need to meet him but Laser’s growing curiosity convinces her to seek him out and eventually they find him in Paul (Mark Ruffalo). Paul owns a restaurant that only uses food from an organic co-op farm. He is a spacey new age hippie that captivates Laser. Joni at first sees him as pretentious but she grows to bond with him. Eventually they tell their moms about meeting Paul and while Nic is hesitant to have him over for lunch, Jules is dying to meet him. At this lunch Nic is highly critical of him and Jules embraces him as they both appear to operate on similar wave lengths. Paul’s presence in their lives eventually serves to test the dynamic of this a typical family.
What makes this movie work is that we believe that Nic and Jules love each other and their kids. We see though that Jules is going through a midlife crisis and Nic isn’t aware of this. We are also given a family that isn’t comically over the top like Armand and Albert in “The Birdcage” or Mitch and Cam on “Modern Family”. These two are real people who go through the same thing that most middle age couples experience. Major props go to Bening and Moore for bringing a ton of heart and intensity to these characters and Mia Wasikowska continues to be a great find and will be compelling to watch as her career continues to grow. Mark Ruffalo acts outside of himself and gives us a character that means well but lacks the self-awareness to see what he’s doing to this family. I liked Paul but hated him at the same time and that goes to show the strength that Ruffalo brings to the film.
What also works for the movie is that while the movie contains some serious moments it is also downright funny. The music is great starting off with “Cousins” by Vampire Weekend. I loved this movie and implore you all to rent it (I had to rent it as well because I missed the boat over the summer) because it showcases the dynamics of family better then more conventional mainstream movies do. Bening, Moore and Ruffalo all deserve nominations and Cholondenko deserves credit along with writing partner Stuart Blumberg as well as a nomination for Best Picture. While this movie shows what happens when a family pulls together our next movie shows us how a family can drag us down.
“The Fighter”: More Then Just A “Rocky” Wannabe
I love sports movies, when done right they serve as a perfect literal metaphor for people overcoming adversity. The sport that typically nails it the best is boxing because it is a sport where you have to beat your opponent and likewise take a beating. Over the years this has been done with such classics as “Rocky,” “Raging Bull,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “The Hammer” and to a lesser extent “Cinderella Man.”
In the case of all of these films, the boxer in question is always given extraordinary odds to deal with outside the ring that they must overcome to succeed inside the ring. Usually, they do this by meeting someone that believes in them and gives them a second wind in life. In the case of “The Fighter” this is no different except this story is entirely true (I know, so was “Cinderella Man”). “The Fighter” tells the story of “Irish” Mickey Ward’s run and eventual win of the Welterweight Title (I’d say spoiler alert but it is a true story so it’s not like I can hide the end of the movie). What the movie does so well is not only do we not really focus on the fights (though they are well done), but rather on the family life of Ward. While “The Blind Side” tricked people into thinking it was an incredible sports movie about the triumph of the human spirit and stole a Best Picture spot (and yes stole a Best Actress statute for Sandra Bullock, there I said it), “The Fighter” is actually deserving of what ever accolades it receives.
Our story begins with the filming of a documentary about Ward’s (an incredible Mark Wahlberg) half-brother Dickie Ecklund (a transcendent Christian Bale, more on him later) who thinks HBO is documenting his comeback because he is known as the pride of Lowell, Massachusetts for having gone toe-to-toe with Sugar Ray Leonard and knocked him down. Dickie and Ward’s mother Alice (played with great malice by Melissa Leo) and the rest of the family ignore Mickey even though he is currently fighting while Dickie is his trainer. Dickie is a crack addict and while the family believes he is coming back to prominence, he is continually late to train Mickey because he is off getting high. Mickey by consequence becomes a stepping stone fighter and always comes back a loser. He is told repeatedly to ditch his family and get a real trainer but Mickey is loyal and his brother did teach him what he knows.
Mickey contemplates quitting boxing until he starts seeing Charlene (a marvelous Amy Adams), a bartender who dropped out of college, leaving behind a high jump scholarship, to party. She sees the potential in Mickey and also sees the anchor that his family represents. She convinces him to ditch Dickie and Alice after Dickie winds up in jail and the whole family finds out that the documentary is not about Dickie’s comeback but a look at the effects of crack (this is one of the best scenes in the movie as we feel exactly how they feel watching it). This decision does not go well but unlike LeBron’s decision, it was the right one. Mickey actually gets in shape, wins fights, and succeeds, much to the chagrin of the rest of the Ecklund family.
The acting in this movie is absolutely stunning, starting with Wahlberg who proves yet again that he is for real. He will surely get a nomination because he chose to show us Ward’s struggle with knowing Charlene is right about his family, a family he still loves, especially Dickie. This maybe his best work, though to me he will always be Dirk Diggler (I am too young to identify him as Marky Mark). Adams is tough as nails and provides some great moments when she stands up to his mother and seven sisters (who personify the term ‘grenade’). She is one of the best working actresses out there and is sure to lock up her third nomination. She will compete with Leo who plays Alice Ecklund as a woman who loves her sons but is also vicious and doesn’t realize that she is a bad force in Mickey’s life.
And finally, Christian Bale proves yet again that he is one of the most underrated actors out there. Dickie Ecklund makes us laugh (actually the whole movie offers some great comedy to go along with the drama, no easy task), but he also breaks our hearts because he’s such a mess. Bale is a classic method actor who immerses himself into a role (see “The Machinist”) and here he gets us to like Dickie as much as Mickey does and we aren’t shocked but still feel it when Dickie lets Mickey down. Bale shows us that he is more than Batman and, while he’ll never shed that audio clip of him cussing out the lighting guy during “Terminator: Salvation,” eventually it’ll be just a footnote.
An underrated part of the movie is Mickey’s father George (played by “Rescue Me” alum Jack McGee); his moments where he has to stand up to Alice are hysterical and lighten the mood when things get tough. Overall, I think this movie will captivate audiences because it contains the classic sports movie elements that made “Rocky” what it was. It balances heavy drama and humor and is better then any sports movie released all year. I hope that David O. Russell snags the last Best Director slot because he does wonders with what could’ve been another lame Disney sports movie. Our last movie again has a stigma to overcome and is a prime example of what happens when you let your quest for perfection consumes you.
“The Black Swan”: More Then That Trippy Ballerina or That Movie Where Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis Hook Up
Some movies exist to inspire us, some exist to give us hope that true love exists, some to scare us, some to remind us where we’ve been or to tell us where we’re going, and some are made to haunt us (yes, that is different from scare) and to mess with our heads. “The Black Swan” is that type of movie.
Darren Aronofsky is renowned for his use of surreal images and overall trippiness to get us into the psyche of his characters. With his last film, “The Wrestler,” he showed us the pain that comes with being a wrestler and how damaged the body and mind are from being on top and on the bottom. With this movie he shows us the inner workings of a ballet production. To guys, ballet is traditionally used as sitcom fodder where dads like Tim Taylor or Homer Simpson fall asleep during a performance and make fun of it for being sissy. Well, I dare any little girl who dreams of being a ballerina to want that dream after seeing the physical strain that line of work entails.
Our story centers on Nina Sayer (Natalie Portman) who is naïve and more like a 12-year-old then a 24-year-old. She is seen as a cold girl when really she just doesn’t fit in socially. She is a perfectionist and works every day to be the most fundamentally sound dancer in the world (though like Kenny Powers would say “Fundamentals are a crutch for the untalented”) and she very well could be. Her life is altered by the forced retirement of legendary dancer Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) who is perceived as too old to dance by the charismatic and manipulative director Thomas (Vincent Cassel). He decides to put on a production of the ballet “Swan Lake” but putting a greater emphasis on the black swan because of its dark nature. He sees that Natalie is technically sound and perfect for the white swan but lacks the passion and emotion needed to be the black swan.
Thomas gives Nina the part anyway and pushes her to unlock her dark side. Nina slowly but surely begins to unravel and break with reality. Her overbearing mother Erica (a brilliant Barbara Hershey) sees that the part is killing Nina but Nina refuses to give it up. Nina is then introduced to Lilly (Mila Kunis) who Nina begins to believe is her rival and trying to steal her part. Lilly is a party girl but when she dances she brings the emotion that Thomas wants Nina to bring to the part. Basically Nina is Tim Duncan and Lilly is Kevin Garnett to a purist Duncan is vastly superior but to someone who only looks for raw emotion Garnett is superior (trust me even though Duncan has four rings an MVP and is the best power forward of his generation, Garnett will be remembered better because of his fiery intensity).
Throughout the movie Thomas tries to break Nina of her rigid ways with some very unorthodox techniques that start to work. Nina eventually starts to lose sight of what’s real and what’s not and so do we. We don’t know if Nina’s scratches are real, if Lilly did in fact drug her the night before the show on purpose (by the way the aforementioned hook-up scene with Portman and Kunis is done in a way that feels a lot dirtier and provocative then it is, yet no guy in the theater will complain) and we also don’t know how Nina will make it through the show.
Natalie Portman gives a career-making performance and not only delivers the best female performance of the year but one of the best performances by anyone all year. Portman gives us a unique mix of paranoia, malice, doubt, fear, and intensity all at the same time. She is my front runner for Best Actress and I wouldn’t be surprised if she wins. Mila Kunis is making tremendous progress as an actress and while she’ll always be Jackie Burkhardt to me I think she’s got a legit chance of becoming a top level actress if she chooses the right roles.
Barbara Hershey does marvelous work as Nina’s mother and we see a woman who tries to protect her daughter from what she went through while simultaneously trying to live through Nina. There is a scene in the beginning that is so brief involving a cake that gives us a window into how tortured Erica is. Vincent Cassel is creepy and brilliant as Thomas and while Thomas isn’t entirely evil we see how his directorial style can cause someone to completely lose it.
Aronofsky’s direction is a work of brilliance; his over-the-shoulder hand-held camera technique that he used in “The Wrestler” works wonders here as well like we were riding Nina’s shoulder and experiencing her normal day. He shows us the bruises and painful things that theses dancers go through every day to put on a show that seems effortless. Another thing he does is show us what goes on backstage during the show and it feels almost like a documentary until Nina’s fear comes into play. His use of imagery (sorry if that sounds pretentious) is incredible and the uses of red, black, and white go along way into conveying the emotions that the dialogue doesn’t need to. The music is haunting and instead of using any actual songs (except for the club scene) it feels as if we are watching a real life ballet. He’s also made a movie that seems like it is much more risqué then it is. There is absolutely no nudity in the movie yet it feels like there is, he gets Portman and Kunis to be absolutely seductive without objectifying them in the slightest. The movie is haunting and will shake you and even though the ending is open-ended (much like “The Wrestler”), we feel satisfied at the same time. I thoroughly enjoyed this film as it is a unique experience unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
Thank you for reading and stay tuned as next week I see Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie in “The Tourist” and Jim Carrey in “I Love You Phillip Morris”. Remember you can see these and other fine movies at your local Edwards.