Wednesday, February 29, 2012

W.E. (2011)

Written by Madonna & Alex Keshishian


Directed by Madonna


Where & When: Mann Chinese 6, Hollywood, CA. February 20.2012  7:30PM


Madonna may not be the best singer out there but that certainly didn't stop her from becoming one of the biggest pop stars in music history. And while she is far from being a great actor, that didn't prevent her from winning a Golden Globe for Best Actress for her performance in the film adaption of the Broadway musical, "Evita".

Now Madonna is looking for a new challenge, so why not directing a film? It doesn't appear to be that hard, right?

I didn't see her 2008 first feature film, "Filth and Wisdom", mainly because I didn't hear a lot of positive things about it but I did venture out to see the follow-up, "W.E." for which Madonna has, once again, directed, produced and co-written. A glossy but vacuous fiction about a modern young woman's obsession about the controversial romance of  The Duke and Duchess of Windsor in the 1930's which should have given the pop star director an opportunity to create a riveting, dramatic love story but instead the emphasis seemed to be placed more on the fabulous jewelry the Duchess was wearing.

This story involves Wally Winthrop (Abbie Cornish), a beautiful and stylish New Yorker, who appears to have gotten everything she wanted. Married to a handsome, successful doctor (Richard Coyle)  and trying to start a family, it all seems perfect, however, her husband's work consumes all of his time but Wally suspects he is actually having an affair and the couple is having difficulty trying to conceive which brings additional stress to their relationship.

Lonely and depressed, Wally spends hours looking at the exhibition of the estate of Wallis Simpson shortly before going to auction. As she daydreams about the seemingly ideal love affair of Simpson (Andrea Riseborough) and the future King of England, Edward (James D'Arcy), we learn that the couple's relationship was actually quite perplexing and impractical.

Wallis was happily married to her second husband, Ernest Simpson (David Harbour) before she was introduced to Edward through a friend who just happened to be dating the Prince. The unlikely pair quietly spend as much time together as possible before it blossomed into an intense and passionate affair. After King Edward VIII passes away, Prince Edward is next in line for the crown. Edward insists on making Wallis his Queen but the British government will never allow a divorced American to take a place by his side. Not being able to bear the thought of a life without the woman he loves, Edward abdicates the throne.

A Russian security guard (Oscar Isaac) at the auction house notices Wally and how often she appears at the exhibit. They soon become friendly as he becomes a kind and handsome shoulder for her to lean on during a difficult time in her marriage and much like the story she's obsessed with, Wally soon finds herself in a complicated situation.

 "W.E." plays like a really long music video, full of glittering, highly-stylized images and magnificent camerawork but the use of different film stock in the same scenes and the choppy editing seems arbitrary and adds nothing beyond simply looking cool. The film is completely devoid of any real emotion or believable characters (most especially the non-fictional) as the screenplay (co-written with Alex Keshishian who was the director of  the documentary, "Truth Or Dare" that peeked behind the crazy life of Madonna during the height of her fame) which clumsily attempts to merge the two stories; one based on fact while the other is trite fiction. There is an amazing lack of subtlety or depth to be found as we witness exact moments recreated by Wally and Wallis, sixty years apart, such as both writing on a mirror in lipstick which becomes an unimaginative way to express some sort of deep connection between the two women. Perhaps Wally is supposed to be Simpson reincarnated? That might have been more interesting idea than the stale story that was created. While "W.E." is not exactly dull but it's all so serious and heavy-handed that even a little light humor would have helped considerably.

Ms Cornish,  the Australian actress who first captured attention with her turn in Jane Campion's 2009 film, "Bright Star", does the best she can with her underdeveloped character but manages to breathe a little life in to Wally. Ms Riseborough, who is actually British, is the best thing in the film as she brings grace and charm in her portrayal as the American Simpson.

All of the heavy lifting in "W.E." was done by Arianne Phillips, Madonna's long-time personal costume designer, who received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her extensively detailed work on this film as well as Huw Arthur who was overlooked for a nomination for the exquisite art direction.

The director spent a considerable amount of time focusing on the impeccable look for "W.E." but not nearly enough creating a competent or engaging narrative. Why a British king would give up his crown for the love of a plain-featured, twice-divorced, American socialite is certainly an intriguing romance that deserves to be told but "W.E." does not even come close to doing justice to their fascinating but complicated story.

Monday, February 27, 2012

THE 84TH ANNUAL ACADEMY AWARDS


Another Oscar night has ended and with the exception of Meryl Streep's win, there were no real surprises and the show was pretty safe and unadventurous. Now, I love the Oscars regardless but this is not the kind of show that's going to help lure a younger audience to the program although last year's attempt to do that was disastrous.

First off, welcome back, Billy Crystal! He was sorely missed and with his returning to host for the ninth time made it crystal clear (pun intended) how much the show needs his style of good-natured humor. Mr. Crystal effortlessly knows how to keep the program lively, entertaining and moving along. Although some of his jokes fell flat but he brought back the stuff that does work like inserting himself in the opening montage with clips from last year's films, the "Great Night For Oscar" tune and the "What Are The Stars Thinking?" skit.

As for my thoughts on the show; it surprisingly managed not to run too much over on time but that was due to the wise decision of having the same presenters hand out multiple awards at a time. It was simply ridiculous that there were only two nominees for Best Original Song and that they were not even performed on the show. They need to go back and reevaluate the nomination rules in that category. The Cirque Du Soleil performance was fine but felt unnecessary and somebody seriously needs to give Angelina Jolie a hamburger to eat. She is scary-skinny.

The majority of the awards were pretty much split between "Hugo" and "The Artist' with each winning five. Martin Scorsese's film swept the technical awards and my favorite, "The Artist" taking the top prizes. I thought Ms Streep was absolutely amazing in "The Iron Lady" but she's been nominated seventeen times and already has two Oscars. Viola Davis should have gotten that award, no question. I wish I could say she will get plenty of other opportunities for another nomination but the reality is that they're just not that many strong roles created or given to African-American actresses.

This is the complete list of the winners from the 2012 Academy Awards:

Best Picture: "The Artist"
Best Director: Michel Hazanavicius, "The Artist"
Best Actor: Jean Dujardin, "The Artist"
Best Actress: Meryl Streep, "The Iron Lady"
Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer, "Beginners"
Best Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer, "The Help"
Best Adapted Screenplay: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, "The Descendants"
Best Original Screenplay: Woody Allen, "Midnight in Paris"
Best Cinematography: Robert Richardson, "Hugo"
Best Editing: Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"
Best Foreign Language Film: "A Separation"
Best Animated Feature: "Rango"
Best Animated Short: "The Fantastic Flying Books Of Mr. Morris Lessmore"
Best Live Action Short: "The Shore"
Best Documentary: "Undefeated"
Best Documentary Short: "Saving Face"
Best Art Direction: Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schavo, "Hugo"
Best Costume Design: Mark Bridges, "The Artist"
Best Original Score: Ludovic Bource, "The Artist"
Best Original Song: Bret McKenzie, "Man or Muppet"
Best Makeup: Mark Coulier and J. Roy Helland, "The Iron Lady"
Best Sound Editing: Phillip Stockton and Eugene Gearty, "Hugo"
Best Sound Mixing: Tom Fleischman and John Midgley, "Hugo"
Best Visual Effects: "Hugo"

Oscar winners previously presented this season:

Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award: Oprah Winfrey
Honorary Award: James Earl Jones
Honorary Award: Dick Smith
Gordon E. Sawyer Award: Douglas Trumbull
Award of Merit: ARRI cameras



Saturday, February 25, 2012

"THE ARTIST" WINS BEST FEATURE AT INDEPENDENT SPIRIT AWARDS


On the eve before the biggest night for films in Hollywood, The Independent Spirit Awards which recognizes and honors the films made outside of the studio system announced their winners today. The event, now in it's twenty-seventh year, presented "The Artist" with four awards including Best Feature. The film is also favored to win the top prize at tomorrow's Academy Awards.

Here is the complete list of the winners from this year's presentation:

Best Feature: "The Artist"

Best Director: Michel Hazanavicius, "The Artist"

Best Screenplay: "The Descendants," Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash

Best Female Lead: Michelle Williams, "My Week With Marilyn"

Best Male Lead: Jean Dujardin, "The Artist"

Best Supporting Female: Shailene Woodley, "The Descendants"

Best Supporting Male: Christopher Plummer, "Beginners"

Best First Feature: "Margin Call"

Best First Screenplay: Will Reiser, "50/50"

John Cassavetes Award: "Pariah"

Best Cinematography: Guillaume Schiffman, "The Artist"

Best Documentary: "The Interrupters"

Best International Film: "A Separation"

Robert Altman Award: "Margin Call" director: J.C. Chandor, casting directors: Tiffany Little Canfield and Bernard Telsey, and ensemble cast: Penn Badgley, Simon Baker, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Mary McDonnell, Demi Moore, Zachary Quinto, Kevin Spacey and Stanley Tucci

Piaget Producers Award: Sophia Lin, "Take Shelter"

Audi Someone to Watch Award: Mark Jackson, "Without"

Nokia Truer Than Fiction Award: Heather Courtney, "Where Soldiers Come From"

Jameson FIND Your Audience Award: Benjamin Murray and Alyssa Nahmias, "Unfinished Spaces"

Sunday, February 19, 2012

THE WOMAN IN BLACK (2012)

Written by Jane Goldman


Directed by James Watkins


Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. February 7, 2012  2:00PM


Puberty can be a challenging time for your average child but it can become a complete life-changing event for a child who just happens to be an actor. A young actor can become a national treasure, bestowed with fame and fortune but once his voice begins to crack or as she begins to develop womanly curves, their careers can quickly become nothing more than a fleeting memory. Some are fortunate enough to be able to make the transition in to adulthood but for every Natalie Wood, Ron Howard or Jodie Foster, there are countless other performers who are simply forgotten or become lost, tragic casualties of Hollywood.

Daniel Radcliffe spent his entire childhood acting, having just completed his run playing the boy wizard, Harry Potter in eight films, and at the age of  twenty-two, is attempting to move into more mature film roles. He has already taken chances by hitting the stage, first going full-frontal in a revival of "Equus",  then singing and dancing in a recent Broadway run of "How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying" while managing to achieve some success with distancing himself with his famous character. Now, he is playing a widower with a small son in the dark thriller, "The Woman In Black" set in England near the beginning of the last century. The film is a great showcase to display Radcliffe's potential as a future leading man.

Mr. Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer who lost his wife four years ago giving birth to their child. He is still so consumed by grief that even his young son notices how unhappy his father has become. It has also effected his job performance which Kipps has been given an assignment that is his last chance; he is to go to the estate of a Alice Drablow, a recently deceased widow to settle her affairs.

When Kipps arrives in the gloomy, little town, he is made to feel most unwelcome as there seems to be a dark cloud of dread and fear hanging over the citizens. No one wants any part of the Drablow house and want to make sure that Kipps doesn't either. He goes to the abandoned home anyway and eventually discovers the reason for every one's discomfort.

Many years ago, Alice's sister, Jennet had a young son who died under mysterious circumstances and unable to bear the loss, committed suicide on the property. It is now believed that her spirit, called "the Woman In Black", returns to avenge his death by having the children of the town kill themselves.

The only person who will speak to Kipps is Sam Daily (Ciaran Hinds), a wealthy businessman, who invites him to his home for dinner with his wife. Their young son died by his own hands but Daily refuses to believe in the curse while Elizabeth, played by Janet McTeer (an Oscar nominee this year for her work in "Albert Nobbs") who makes a brief but effective appearance as his mentally fragile spouse that insists that she's still able to communicate with their dead child.

His piercing, blue eyes reveals his fear but Kipps stays in that creepy house to complete his job. He remains brave and quite stoic, regardless of every increasingly scary bump or supernatural visitor before him that would make any sane person head for the door, screaming hysterically but he is determined to resolve this troubling mystery.

While there are moments that feels old-fashioned and obvious but "The Woman In Black" is still quite stylish with a solid script by Jane Goldman that is grounded in reality and frights that are well earned. The filmmakers perfectly capture an eerie, moody atmosphere required for a Gothic horror story, thanks to cinematographer, Tim Maurice-Jones while director, James Watkins manages to keep the tension on high throughout.

"The Woman In Black" is a tidy, little ghost story that provides enough chills and scares to keep you on the edge of your seat but it's far from anything that will have you lose any sleep over. As for Mr. Radcliffe, I'm sure the next step in his evolution in to cinematic manhood will be to put a gun in his hand and headline a cop thriller and if so, he seems more than capable of handling the weapon.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

ALBERT NOBBS (2011)

Written by Glenn Close & John Banville


Directed by Rodrigo Garcia


Where & When: Los Feliz 3 Cinemas, Los Angeles, CA. January 29, 2012  7:00PM


"The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs", based on a short story by George Moore, has been a passion of Glenn Close ever since she first performed the role in a stage production back in 1982 for which she won an Obie Award. After several fits and starts over the years, Ms Close has finally been able to assemble a film version of the project. Now shortened to just, "Albert Nobbs", Ms Close was very hands on with not only starring, producing, and co-writing the screenplay but she even found time to co-write the closing song, "Lay Your Head Down" which is sung by Irish pop singer, Sinead O'Connor.

Set in Ireland during the 19th Century, Albert Nobbs (Close) appears to be a quiet, simple little man who has been working for many years as a butler in a Dublin Hotel run by the stern hand of the coquettish Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins). However, Mr.Nobbs has been keeping a secret; he is actually a woman which no one, surprisingly, has ever suspected. He has been saving all of his earnings to one day open a tobacco shop and almost has enough to make it a reality.

Hubert Page, a painter from out of town, has been hired to repaint some rooms at the hotel and Mrs. Baker insists that he share Albert's room during his stay. Terrified that his secret could be revealed, Albert tries to avoid going to sleep but a flea in his clothing causes the painter to see who he really is. Albert begs for Hubert to keep his secret but Albert soon discovers that he has a similar secret of his own. Hubert, played by Janet McTeer, has also been living a life as a man and even has been happily married to a woman for many years. Intrigued by the idea, Nobbs decides to court Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a saucy, young maid, in the hopes that they will wed and help him run his future business. Helen, however, only has eyes for Joe (Aaron Johnson), a rough,strapping stud who is a new hire at the hotel and soon they discreetly become lovers. Made aware that Nobbs is attracted to his girl, Joe encourages Helen take walks with him to get gifts and money to help them move to America. This triangle leads to a regrettable conclusion for all involved.

Ms Close (who recently received her sixth Academy Award nomination for her role) gives a strong, heartfelt performance but she's never believable as a man for one moment. The act of simply putting on male drag and lowering your voice does not make an actual man. Close never brings enough of a male aesthetic to be able to seriously convince everyone she encounters and Nobbs says so little that he leaves no real impression, making it difficult to have any connection to him. Ms McTeer (also an Oscar nominee), on the other hand, is much more successful in conveying an authentic masculine presence and delivers quite an impressive performance. Notable Irish actors, Brendan Gleeson, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and the Oscar winner for "My Left Foot", Brenda Fricker add brief but compelling appearances in the film.

Rodrigo Garcia, who worked with Ms Close previously on two films, is a very gifted filmmaker who has created some splendid films such as "Nine Lives" and "Mother And Child" but he was probably not the best choice for this project. He is best known for female-driven, reality-based dramas which he has brought to this film but "Albert Nobbs" is more of fable and required a lighter approach. The film feels heavy-handed and fastidious and considering the plot, it would have benefited with something more surreal and whimsical. It would have been interesting to see what someone like Almodovar would have done with this material.

"Albert Nobbs" delivers an intriguing story of what extreme measures a woman is willing to to endure to find a place in a society that doesn't offer one unless she has a man at her side by becoming the man that she needs. Although the film is certainly well-made and features some admirable performances, but it's emotionally constrained, much like Albert Nobbs, and fails to fully draw you in to this tragic tale.