M. Carter’s Oscar nominations (and then some)

As a fledgling movie lover, a burgeoning blogger, I grew up trusting that The Academy as the ultimate and final word on what was good and award-worthy in cinema. Then, somewhere around the time I realized that my parents didn’t know everything, either, I turned a corner and headed down the “Hey, Academy People, You Might Have Petrified White Dog Turds for Brains” Hallway toward the “Wearing a Leopard-Print Wonderbra and Screaming Obscenities at Albert Finney Does Not Translate to Acting Talent” Conference Room. 

(Yes, I am still a little bitter about how the 2001 Best Actress Oscar race played out and please, let’s change the subject before I have to go back to therapy.)

Old grudges aside, the point is that sometimes The Academy gets it right. But more often than not these sorry, sad little people get it wrong. Very wrong. This is why Frank, the Pompous Film Snob himself, asked a number of us movie bloggers to come up with our own nominations for the best of the best in 2010. Find the compiled list here, and peruse my own nominations below.

Best Picture: “Winter’s Bone”; “The King’s Speech”; “Black Swan”; “Restrepo”; “Cairo Time”

Best Director: Debra Granik, “Winter’s Bone”; Darren Aronofsky, “Black Swan”; Tom Hooper, “The King’s Speech”; Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, “Restrepo”; Christopher Nolan, “Inception”

Best Actor: Colin Firth, “The King’s Speech”; Michael Douglas, “Solitary Man”; Jeff Bridges, “True Grit”; James Franco, “127 Hours”; Leonardo DiCaprio, “Shutter Island”

Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, “Winter’s Bone”; Hailee Steinfeld, “True Grit”; Natalie Portman, “Black Swan”; Annette Bening, “The Kids Are All Right”; Patricia Clarkson, “Cairo Time”

Best Supporting Actor: John Hawkes, “Winter’s Bone”; Geoffrey Rush, “The King’s Speech”; Jeremy Renner, “The Town”; Christian Bale, “The Fighter”; Ken Watanabe, “Inception”

Best Supporting Actress: Rebecca Hall, “Please Give”; Melissa Leo, “The Fighter”; Amy Adams, “The Fighter”; Dale Dickey, “Winter’s Bone”; Barbara Hershey, “Black Swan”

Best Original Screenplay: “Cairo Time”; “Black Swan”; “Inception”; “The King’s Speech”; “The Kids Are All Right”

Best Adapted Screenplay: “Winter’s Bone”; “True Grit”; “Shutter Island”; “The Social Network”; “The Town”

Best Ensemble: “Inception”; “The Social Network”; “The King’s Speech”; “The Kids Are All Right”; “The Fighter”

Best Cinematography: “Winter’s Bone”; “Black Swan”; “Inception”; “The Social Network”; “The King’s Speech”

Best Score: “Shutter Island”; “Inception”; “True Grit”; “Cairo Time”; “Black Swan”

Best Editing: “Restrepo”; “Predators”; “The King’s Speech”; “The Social Network”; “Winter’s Bone”

Lifetime Achievement Award winners: Richard Jenkins and Ron Leibman (let’s hear it for the underappreciated character actors!)

Nolan elegantly probes world of dreams in “Inception”

The Forger (Tom Hardy) and the Point Man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) dream of big guns in "Inception."

“Star Trek” touted space as “the final frontier.” Christopher Nolan’s expansive, brain-bending “Inception” makes a case for human dreams as the true unexplored, untapped realm. There’s an underbelly of reason there. The outer boundaries of dreams — even more than the blackness of space – could be unknowable, or just inconceivable. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a thief-for-hire who invades the subconscious of his mark and steals information, spends more time in dreams than in reality. He believes he can navigate the human subconscious better than anyone and that he can control his own.

The characters in “Inception” feel much like the people in human dreams — ephemeral and furtive, but with an element of humanity that smudges the line between the conscious mind and the subconscious. There is a core of emotion to them that sets “Inception” far apart from typical heist films (the scenery and the apocalyptic-feeling Hans Zimmer score do the rest). We know little about Dom’s team members, but their interactions provide some real-world touchstones. Though these people could be projections of someone’s subconscious, but that’s beside the point. They instill a level of trust between viewers and the director. Dom’s capable team consists of Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the point man who researches Dom’s marks; Eames (Tom Hardy), a forger whose arguments with Arthur supply the film’s funniest moments; Ariadne (Ellen Page), a young architect Dom hires on his father’s (Michael Caine) recommendation; and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a chemist skilled at creating sedatives. The job, proposed by business tycoon Saito (Ken Wantanabe), will be the trickiest Dom has attempted: infiltrate the mind of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), heir to his father’s company, and plant the idea to dismantle his inheritence. This, however, is not an in-and-out job. Dom and crew must descend into dreams within dreams and root the idea in catharsis. Yet the deeper Dom goes into Robert’s dreams, the deeper he goes into his own, and Dom’s memories of his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) are bursting their prison.

Much like “Memento,” the structure of “Inception” defies linear analysis. The beginning, middle and end are there; they bleed into one another. Besides, the story is dreamlike in the way the beginning is hazy. All the immediacy lies in the middle, which is where viewers find themselves. There are dreams and meta-dreams and even dreams inside those; Nolan fashions these dreams, designed by Ariadne and populated by the mark’s minds, like everlasting gobstoppers. The dream layers seem interminable, and the only way to leave them is through a kick: the feeling of falling, or death, in a dream. There’s only one way to determine reality from a dream, and that’s the presence of a person’s totem, an artifact or self-made object. (Dom’s metal top is integral to the fabric of the story and to his memory of Mal and the part of his subconscious only Ariadne has seen.) The thought of making visible this shifting other plain boggles the mind, but Nolan — with an astronomical budget and shoots in six countries — pulls it off. He’s limited only by his imagination, and his imagination is vast. Mountain fortresses on snowy peaks, cliffs collapsing into the ocean, trains that barrel down city streets, fights in revolving hotel halls – these are sights that demand and deserve marveling. Wally Pfister’s cinematography, when combined with Zimmer’s trumpeting score and Nolan’s gift for confounding, is a sight to see.

More surprising than the images and the stunts, though, are the characters. Written in true Nolan fashion, they are not swallowed up by their majestic surroundings. Page finds curiosity and, better still, empathy in Ariadne, both amazed and horrified by the job she’s accepted. Hardy and Gordon-Levitt are a dream comedy team, lightening the atmosphere with their bickering, while Watanabe is no-holds-barred intensity. We can’t discern how close to the vest Saito is playing, and Watanabe doesn’t want us to. The talents of Caine and Cotillard continue to make impressive what should be minor parts. DiCaprio’s Dom is becoming the actor’s specialty: the man eaten away by pain and guilt he’s convinced he can hide from everyone. He assumes he’s the architect when it’s possible he’s as lost as everyone else.

Grade: A-

Brain-bending “Shutter Island” a stunner despite faults

Cat, meet Mouse: DiCaprio, Ruffalo and Kingsley star in the imperfect but riveting "Shutter Island."

Dry land, no matter where it’s located, offers some measure of comfort — a feeling of solidity, a foundation for the feet. Water does not. Its mysteries are limitless. Martin Scorsese means to capitalize on this elemental human fear early. Does he succeed? Please. The combination of the gray sky, choppy waves, an ashen-faced detective (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the score — which pulsates with supernatural menace — is dynamite. In these opening scenes, Scorsese yanks us around like marionettes. We’re right where he wants us.

He keeps on yanking throughout this long-delayed, atmospheric Gothic thriller/film noir send-up, perhaps having a chuckle as we labor to wrap our minds around the gnarled plot — much of Dennis Lehane’s tightly drawn novel is retained — and reason out characters who are beyond reason. “Shutter Island” is one of those films where everyone is hiding something; each line of dialogue seems designed to reveal everything and nothing. Listen, in particular, for Deputy Warden McPherson’s (John Carroll Lynch) greeting to the two federal marshals just off the boat: “Welcome to Shutter Island.” His eyes are a little teasing, but his tone says without saying: “You don’t know what you’re getting into.” Scorsese structures “Shutter Island” so that we don’t, either.

Here comes the tough part. To reveal too much of the plot would be criminal, so restraint will be the name of this game. No doubt you’ve heard lots of murmurs (some disgusted) about a twist; do not let anyone reveal it. Two U.S. Marshals, Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio, proving again he’s grown to deserve leading-man status) and Chuck Aule (a meh Mark Ruffalo) hop a ferry to Boston’s Shutter Island, the grim site of Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. (Sublime character actors like the ever-creepy Jackie Earle Haley and Patricia Clarkson get cameos.) It’s their first case together, and they’re an odd pair: Teddy’s a visibly haunted man while nothing sticks to the low-key Chuck. They believe they’ve come to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer), locked away after drowning her three children. Though no one at Ashecliffe can or will explain her disappearance, chief psychiatrist Dr. John Cawley (Sir Ben Kingsley) has a theory. “It’s as if she evaporated straight through the walls,” he says. Kingsley’s slight smirk is cause for a few lost hours of sleep.

The investigation may be a sham. Patients and hospital staff may or may not have been coached. A recovering alcoholic, Teddy, still reeling from the death of his wife (Michelle Williams), may be a reliable or an unreliable protagonist. Rachel Solando may or may not have had help escaping her tiny, barred-in room. The only certainty is there is no certainty. So “Shutter Island,” essentially, is 138 minutes of known unknowns wrapped in a damn stylish package. Little Did He Know noir throwbacks rarely looked this good. The predominantly gray, chilly colors — of the island, the hospital itself — provide a terrific backdrop for such a twisted story about twisted people. Shots of Ward C, home to the most dangerous offenders, show a Gothic castle of untold horrors, where every corner is dark and puddled. Here “Shutter Island” very nearly swerves into horror territory. It comes closer with Scorsese’s envisioning of Teddy’s dreams, so bright they shatter the grimness. Not unlike Dario Argento in “Suspiria,” Scorsese uses the camera like a paintbrush, splashing rich reds and golds and greens against Ashecliffe’s walls and the island’s rocky shores. If despair is dingy, then horror is technicolor.

Sometimes the artistry goes too far at the expense of other elements. There are enough continuity errors as to be distracting (one stopped me cold during a white-knuckle scene). The music occasionally overpowers the characters — about whom, by the way, we learn virtually nothing. They are foreboding (Max von Sydow as Dr. Naehring is downright spine-chilling), and yet their emotional impact is nil. Even Teddy, whose story we come to know and whom DiCaprio imbues with repressed grief and palpable heartbreak, only registers faintly. Then again, “Shutter Island” isn’t out to warm our hearts. The film means to play brains and emotions like piano keys, and it does. And in a psychological thriller? Sometimes that’s more than enough.

Grade: B+

A bang or a whimper?

“SHUTTER ISLAND”!

 

The showdown between expectation and reality begins tonight…

Five reasons I’m pumped about “Shutter Island”

Shutter_Island1. It’s Martin Scorcese. MARTIN SCORSESE, the man who gave us “Raging Bull,” “GoodFellas” and “The Departed.” If that doesn’t sell you, nothing will.

2. The cast. The quickest of quick glances down the cast list is enough to make my heart skip about 14 beats. Say what you want, but Leonard DiCaprio has grown into a most accomplished, chameleon-like actor. Mark Ruffalo as his wisecrackin’ sidekick? Le sigh. And let’s not forget Sir Ben Kingsley, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson and (my personal favorite) Jackie Earle Haley. Oh my. I do believe I’ve got the vapors.

3. The book. Any Dennis Lehane fans out there know instantly “Shutter Island” is an adaptation of Lehane’s insanely tense, intelligent thriller of the same name. Does that mean we should hate it immediately, no questions asked? Hell no! Lehane wrote “Mystic River” and “Gone Baby Gone,” and both went on to become fan-freakin’-tastic films. Goes to show that when you start with a genius book, it takes a special kind of idiot to screw up the movie. And good ole’ Marty? He’s got a lot going on upstairs.

4. The setting. Boston is the new New York. Haven’t you heard? It’s leaner, meaner, darker, sneakier and less forgiving — all of which makes it the perfect locale for top-notch crime dramas. (Sorry, N.Y.C. We’ll still be friends!)

5. The horror component. Though Scorcese comes up aces in the crime drama and gangster epic genres, he’s only done one movie (the forgettable but not horrible “Bringing Up the Dead”) that vaguely resembles a scary movie. Since Scorcese never does anything halfway, I can’t wait to see his conception of a horror-thriller.

The countdown to February 19, 2010 begins!

 

 

Quick Picks: “Revolutionary Road,” “Last Chance Harvey”

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet pair up again -- equally dire consequences -- in "Revolutionary Road."

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet pair up again -- with equally dire consequences -- in "Revolutionary Road."

“Revolutionary Road” (Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Shannon)

Deferring dreams, poet Langston Hughes warned us over half a century ago, is a messy, even explosive business. Nowhere is that truth more evident than Sam Mendes’ gorgeously lensed, powerfully acted “Revolutionary Road.” In fact, Frank (DiCaprio), a dissatisfied businessman, and April, his deeply unhappy wife, have a powder keg of a suburban New England 1950s marriage — she wants a new life in Paris and will do anything to make it happen; he wants the change, too, but lacks the guts to leave the comfortable, settled job and life he knows. All that dissatisfaction translates into an atmosphere of unrelenting tension and despair communicated beautifully by DiCaprio and Winslet. DiCaprio finds the right mix of uncontrollable anger and wordless despair in Frank, a kind of Everyman who doesn’t like to look back but can’t quite move forward, either. He won’t be honest with himself, the mentally ill son (a superbly caustic Shannon) of a neighbor harshly points out, so he’s just stuck. As for Winslet, well, this might be the best acting she’s done (which is really saying something). She’s equal parts bitterness and vulnerability as April, and her eyes alone — sad but anxious, like those of a deer trapped in headlights — are enough to make “Revolutionary Road” much more than some whiny diatribe on suburban life. This one hits right where it hurts: the heart.

Grade: A

“Last Chance Harvey” (Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson)

It’s perhaps not an accident that Hoffman plays a commercial jingle writer in “Last Chance Harvey,” a quietly charming romantic comedy that at times, most unfortunately, seems like a clever commercial ruined by loud, formulaic music. On second thought, no, that’s exactly what Joel Hopkins’ movie is. That’s a pity, too, because actors don’t come much more likable, charming, or deserving of a leading role than Hoffman and Thompson. Still, “Last Chance Harvey” isn’t quite a lost cause, probably because the aforementioned leads make — pardon, ahem, the pun — beautiful music together. Hoffman is Harvey, a divorced, failed jazz pianist-turned-jingle maker in London for his slightly estranged daughter’s wedding. At Heathrow, he meets Kate (Thompson), a survey taker who’s just weathered a really, really bad blind date. There aren’t sparks, exactly, but there is a conversation that, Roger Ebert might say, “threatens to continue for a lifetime.” The words turn into new friendship, then genuine affection, then trust, then love. The chief joy of “Last Chance Harvey” is watching that slow, satisfying bloom — and Hoffman and Thompson are up to the task. Hoffman nails Harvey’s moving transformation from dejection to hope, and nobody covers stark vulnerability with awkward humor quite like the divine Thompson. Seeing them stumble, then walk tentatively into romance feels like a breakthrough, and one bright enough to counter the “dramatic plot points” and cutesy background tunes. They don’t make romantic comedies like this anymore.

Grade: B+

Top 5 “WTF?” moments in Scorcese’s “The Departed”

jack_nicholson9

"OMG WTF?": Damon's shock won't compare to your own as "The Departed" slams one "WTF?" moment after another over your head.

So I have this friend. (Every truly interesting story begins this way, right?) You may have heard of him; his story is the stuff of urban legend. Or it should be. At any rate, he’s the guy who let a copy of “The Departed” — that would be the 2007 Oscar winner for Best Picture, savvy readers — gather dust on his TV stand for, oh, about six months. Yes, it sat there, untouched, unappreciated, unwanted and unwatched for six months. I’d mention it periodically (re: “aren’t you ever going to watch that?”) and he’d make some noise about not being able to make “that kind of commitment” to sit down and watch it. (He fancies himself something of a comedian, this one.)

Then one day something crazy and momentous happened: He watched it. And watched it again … and again … and again. (I can’t hazard a guess at how many times he’s seen the various parts in various orders; however, I suspect the number would make me cringe with laughter.) So you might say he’s become something of a “Departed” connoisseur.

It’s not surprising that during a recent discussion of great gangster films (“GoodFellas”: hell yes; “Miller’s Crossing”: I say also yes) “The Departed” came up. Of course, you can’t discuss “The Departed” without saying the words “what the f!@#$!?” (in that order and with an infinite number of inflections) roughly 30 times. It’s a film littered with “WTF?” moments; I’d bet my next paycheck it has, minute for minute, more “WTF?” moments than any movie ever made (excluding “Syriana,” which makes less sense the more I watch it, and “The Usual Suspects”).

So behold the birth of the newest list: The Top 5 “WTF?” moments in “The Departed.” (Note: There are spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t seen the movie (a) I blow my nose at you and (b) Stop reading, get off your duff and buy — not rent — it.)

5) Baby daddy drama: A weary, lonely shrink (the divine Vera Farmiga). Her is-he-or-isn’t-he? impotent fiancee (Matt Damon). Her hardscrabble but kind-hearted patient (Leo DiCaprio). Oh, what a love triangle it is, and in the next-to-last scene in “The Departed” we viewers — heads still reeling from Number 1 on this countdown — discover the head doc is in a family way. That’s surprise enough, but better still is Scorcese’s absolute refusal to divulge the father-to-be’s identity. (Even if you think you know, you can’t prove it.) I do so love a director who pimp-slaps me around.

4) Sweet revenge (the final scene): The last five minutes of “The Departed” kick you in the face, throw you to the ground so you can pick up the teeth you lost and then lift your spirits with a blackly comic and satisfying ending where Matt Damon’s charmed life meets a dramatic end – but in a way you’d never, EVER expect and with an abundance of sarcasm and satire. Consider it the bittersweet cherry topper on this “WTF?” sundae.

3) A guy walks into a warehouse … and gets thrown off it: Talk about a twisted punchline to that old joke. Captain Queenan/Martin Sheen’s untimely demise is one of those blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shockers, something so totally and wholly unexpected that even the shrewdest viewer/critic can’t see it coming. Once the shock wears off (it takes at least 10 minutes), the full impact will have you whispering “WTF?” with the particular abject hopelessness of a duped moviegoer who knows no explanation is forthcoming.

2) Will the real FBI informant please stand up?: So we have a rat who’s pretending to be looking for a rat … and a rat who’s pretending not to be a rat while looking for his own rat. Confused? A careful viewing of Jack Nicholson’s role in the second half of “The Departed” will clear up the mystery. Get used to whiplash; you won’t be shaking your head in disbelief so much as whipping it around constantly “Exorcist”-style. My response? W. T. F?.

1) I get capped, you get capped, we all get capped: This one will make you want to pull the “emergency stop” button before the elevator parks at your floor. This blow-your-mindhole moment inaugurates — with a very literal bang — a slew of gangland-style executions that become more shocking as the brain matter coats the walls. You’ve never seen a death scene this shocking — NEVER; it bears repeating — and you won’t again. It will have you reeling for days; in fact, it might have you shrieking “WTFF?” (“what the effing f?” of course). Thus, it is deserves the honor of being christened the Number 1 “WTF?” moment in “The Departed.”

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