Thursday, December 30, 2010

Not Phoebe, But Fiona (Wallice, That Is)

Obviously, as of late this has become almost entirely a film/Oscar-devoted blog, but as it moves forward, I'm going to work to make it more well-rounded, with reviews of film, TV, theater, and other modalities. Speaking of modalities... have you heard? Fiona Wallice has her own modality of psychiatry. It's called Web Therapy.

"Hi, I'm Fiona Wallice, and this is Web Therapy!"
I've bever been a big fan of "webisodes" or web series, simply because I feel the experience of television is meant to be enjoyed on a, you know, television. I can hardly stand YouTube clips if they're any longer than two minutes and aren't GloZell or The Second City Network. (No, I would not like to see a clip of that Asian man singing Whitney Houston on the Asian version of America's Got Talent, thank you.) But if there's one thing that college teaches you with regard to television, it's that the internet (specifically Hulu) is your best friend.

At the recommendation of Nathaniel Rogers at The Film Experience (who, if after my multiple references you still have not checked out, you must take the time to read), I made an appointment with Lisa Kudrow's three-year old web series Web Therapy. I had heard tell of the project before but I was never interested enough to check it out. How wrong I was not to be watching all this time.

Kudrow, who has long been miscast as a minimal talent in my mind due to her work on what has never been known to be my favorite sitcom, Friends (sue me, I never enjoyed the antics of the rent-controlled twenty- and thirty-somethings who didn't know what the hell they wanted out of life but sure loved to whine about it), is a wonder and a dark comedy revelation as the innovative therapist Dr. Fiona Wallice who cares far more about herself than she does her patients. But far from being bad at her job, Fiona is actually a masterful therapist: in one case, she actually diagnoses her patients' intimacy problems in half a minute without even breaking a sweat.

Fiona: "This is an issue of intellectual property, which I own."
Jerome: "You, you own it?"
Instead of worrying too much about her patients' problems, Fiona prefers to work to further her own cause: the new modality of therapy she's invented, titled, appropriately enough, "Web Therapy." Instead of the traditional, in-person, 50-minute therapy session, Fiona has found that a 3-minute session over iChat is a far more effective modality, because so much of a typical 50-minute session is just aimless wandering. As she puts it, the 3-minute time limit is like a "gun to your head" that forces patients to divulge all the pertinent information quickly.

While Fiona is actually incredibly competent, her sessions often go awry when her own interests become more important than those of the patient. This is most often found in season one, when Fiona's main goal was to get more money from her investors and further the spread of her special modality. But the patients are all well-cast, with each face familiar to most who watch television with differing size of the celebrities (Courtney Cox is the best among the big names, while Julie Claire as a long-running character is the biggest of the smaller names) and Kudrow's improvised interactions with them always ringing true.

Season one isn't the strongest of the show, but it introduces the concept well and has some great series (the Jerome/Hayley series and the initial Richard series, featuring her great catchphrase, "I've muted you"). Season two is even better, with the story arc turning to Fiona's husband, Kip Wallice, and his alleged homosexuality. Each patient is a great addition to the show and the narrative arc really hits its stride. Season three, the most recent season, is more of a typical episodic tale than the other, more series-focused seasons, and it's disappointing to see the show become more about Fiona's life and the people surrounding her (most of the patients were repeats, except those who weren't patients at all and had another connection to Fiona), but the comedy remained sharp and the twists interesting. I hope the show can save itself from Extras-style derailment (the BBC sitcom, a work of art in its first season, eventually lost itself and was merely a shade at the point of its finale) and bring the storyline back in a new, funny way that hits those season two creative peaks.

Fiona: "No, I don't have any children."
Camilla: "Oh! Not even one?"
As a special treat to fans, though, Kudrow managed to get Therapy fan Meryl Streep on for a three-episode arc as Camilla Bowner, the...well, I shouldn't give away her role, as it's far too spoiler-prone. Suffice it to say that Streep, not exactly well-known for her improvisational skills, does great work here, if a little stilted at times. Still, she's Meryl Streep--how could she be anything but great?

Web Therapy can be watched online for free at any time at Lexus Studio, as well as selectively on Hulu and for purchase on iTunes. Episodes range from 3 to 15 minutes, and it's easy to get through series in one sitting. If you're a Lisa Kudrow fan or just a fan of great dark comedy, Web Therapy just might be the modality for you.

I've attached the video for the first episode below: check it out to see if it's to your liking.

Web Therapy 
Season 1: A-
Season 2: A
Season 3: B+
The Camilla Bowner miniseries: B+

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Oscar Predictions: Black Swan, The Fighter and True Grit Up

New Oscar predictions are up! Check the Current Oscar Predictions tab above this post to see them in full, but a few notes:

-- We seem to have stalled at these six locks for Best Picture, with two others (True Grit and Winter's Bone) supposedly strong bets but with major weaknesses (Grit was blanked at the Golden Globes, while other awards bodies are having a difficult time remembering Bone beyond star Jennifer Lawrence), and three films rotating out of two spots (The Kids Are All Right, which has unsteady buzz, 127 Hours, which really screwed up at the Globes but has the buzz, and The Town, which had manufactured buzz but missing the SAG Ensemble nod hurt--a lot). Hopefully, once the PGA and DGA sound off, we'll have a little more clarity here.

-- Unlike most, I have Darren Aronofsky locked in Best Director while Tom Hooper is only a Good Bet for The King's Speech. I think this year is strange for Best Director, with auteurs really taking the lead. I don't think Hooper will miss the nod, but I also don't think it impossible that he doesn't make the DGA shortlist, which would be tremendously bad for him.

-- Nicole Kidman is now locked in Best Actress. Michelle Williams is basically acting as a placeholder in Longer Shots because I can't come up with a feasible fifth nominee other than her...except for one. See below.

-- Hailee Steinfeld and Mila Kunis edge out Jacki Weaver in Best Supporting Actress, but I still think that's three women jockeying for two spots. However, what if the Oscars reject Steinfeld's obvious category fraud? If they bump her up to lead, making her the fifth nominee (edging out Williams), then Weaver takes her spot back and we have our five. That's the plan that makes the most sense, anyway. And considering exactly how fraudulent the category placement is, I don't think it impossible that this happens.

-- I'll start adding more and more categories as we get closer to the announcement in January. Next to go up will be Best Original Song, Best Original Score (recently thrown into question because of three controversially disqualified scores), Best Animated Feature and Best Documentary Feature. I'll probably hold off on those dreadful Short categories that blanked me 0/3 in predictions last year until after the nominations. The technical nominations will probably come after the nominations as well.

Sound off about the new nominations in the comments!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Entertainers of the Year 2010

2010 has been nothing if not entertaining. Unlike the circus that was 2009, featuring such ridiculousness as Britney Spears, the Black Eyed Peas and Lady Gaga, this was truly an artist's year, with high-quality projects hitting peak popularity. It also saw the return of former giants, the continued dominance of certain talents, and surprising breakouts from new stars. It was a rewarding 2010 for fans of quality, as even the most austere projects were just plain fun. When 2010 is examined by pop culture historians, it will be remembered as the year of highbrow fun.

Here, I present to you, in no particular order, Awkward is What We Aim For's top fifteen Entertainers of 2010.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Rapid Reviews: Winter's Gritty Kingdom Somewhere

Merry day after Christmas everyone! Hope you all had a wonderful Christmas filled with laughs, joy, eggnog, gingerbread, etc.

It's approximately 1:30 in the morning and I just watched a really shitty movie. As such, I'm not in the best of moods. But there's cinematic magic to do and I must press onwards! It's time for some quicker than usual Rapid Reviews before bed.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Rapid Reviews: Fighting the Return of Phillip Morris Through the Rabbit Hole

Let's be honest, these Rapid Reviews titles are getting a little ridiculous.

I was planning on holding off on this set until I stockpiled the rest of the films I need to watch this year (still remaining: Somewhere, True Grit, Animal Kingdom, Winter's Bone and The Ghost Writer, though I'm also gonna take a second look at Inception), but I saw The Fighter today and, well, let's just say the occasion called for a set of Rapid Reviews. And let me say that the lead review is gonna be a little less than rapid.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Rethinking 2010 Cinema

I recently screened Easy A, The Social Network, Please Give, The King's Speech, Black Swan and Catfish so I could be more sure about my Top Ten list (coming out very soon!). You can see all the new scores on the Recent Reviews page, but a few quick notes.

First, The Social Network and Black Swan both hold up impressively upon repeat viewings. I thought that Network would, but I was actually quite surprised that despite knowing what would happen, I found Swan just as captivating the second time around. Both films truly are instant classics.

Second viewings were kind to Catfish and Easy A, two films I had long considered among my favorites but I hadn't quite realized how good they were. A is far better than I gave it credit for--while its true that star Emma Stone is working overtime to elevate the material, the material itself, as well as the star-studded supporting cast, is pretty damn great. And Catfish was just as suspenseful and chill-inducing the second time around, while I noticed exactly how well-made the film really was.

Not so good on repeat viewings are The King's Speech (truly a crowd experience--when you're not with others laughing along, the movie is a lot less fun) and Please Give (was everyone this whiny the first time I watched this?)--though the performances, especially Geoffrey Rush's from the former and Amanda Peet's and Catherine Keener's from the latter, still hold up.

I also recently viewed Rabbit Hole for the first time, and you can expect a Rapid Review on that along with True Grit, The Fighter, Winter's Bone, The Ghost Writer, I Love You Phillip Morris and Animal Kingdom as soon as I get around to them (this week, probably). I'm also going to start a new series, Netflix Picks, of movies available on Netflix Instant Stream that are necessary to watch. (First in the series, the classic All About Eve.)

I wrote on this site in the summer how doomed I felt 2010 cinema was. At that point, that fate appeared irreversibly true. However, I have been pleasantly surprised at every turn with the movies that have emerged. There are instant classics and feats of direction, screenplays to be remembered forever, and quieter films among louder films that will all be remembered with great fondness. It looked like it was going to be a hard year for film, but in truth, it looks like everything turned out just fine.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Rapid Reviews: Carrey, Clooney and Hathaway

Delayed flights are a pain. They're less of a pain if you get stuck somewhere lovely, like the San José International Airport. They're even less of a pain if you have free Wi-Fi and movies to entertain you. And they're even less of a pain if the movies are The Truman Show, Rachel Getting Married and Up in the Air.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Everyone's an Awards Body everyone done nominating yet?

The past three days or so have been an absolute whirlwind of nominations and awards from critics groups, chiefly the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. This morning, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association announced their nominations for the primary Oscar forerunner, the Golden Globes. While the dust settles around all these nominations, it's time to update the predictions.

(Adapting a color scheme idea from Nathaniel Rogers over at The Film Experience, green is a sure-thing nomination, blue is a strong possibility but not locked just yet, and red indicates that the potential nominee's position in the category is incredibly shaky.)

Saturday, December 11, 2010

It Just Wants to be Perfect

I wrote a Rapid Review about Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan immediately after seeing it, but the movie hasn't left me since I saw it the first time. That sensation did not cease upon second viewing. As more and more of you see it and we talk about it, the point I knew long ago is once again crystal clear: Black Swan is one of those films that truly draws you in and leaves you, quite literally, gasping for more as it concludes.

For those who haven't seen it, take a detour now, because this is gonna get really spoilery. But come back when you have seen it--if you're anything like me after seeing it, you won't be able to stop talking about it.

Swan is a movie that starts from the first time you hear about it. For me, that was its trailer, an exquisite work of art unto itself that teased you, enticed you, drew you close and then rejected you at the last possible second.

From the moment the trailer ends to the time you see it, you're filled with great expectation. What will this film really be like? Will it live up to its hype and incredible promise? Or will it fall short and be one of the greatest disappointments in film industry?

After the waiting (which, for me and a few others, was almost a year), the film begins. The first sequence is the dream, which already echoes the trailer.

"I had the craziest dream last night about a girl who turns into a swan.
But her prince falls for the wrong girl, and she kills herself."

The only other first scene this year that foreshadows and illuminates nearly as beautifully is that of The Social Network, a masterpiece of writing that sets the pace and tone while still enthralling us. Unlike that soon-to-be-classic scene, this one uses no dialogue, instead hinting at the corruption that will soon attempt to corrupt our beautiful White Swan. That swan, of course, is the incomparable Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers.

Portman is, as you no doubt have heard by now, a revelation as Nina, playing her in such great degrees and variations that all ring unmistakably true. She begins as a delicate flower just waiting to be stepped on, firmly ingrained in childhood by her overbearing mother.

Yet just below the lily-white surface, we see a hunger in Nina that can't be fed by simply remaining comfortable and complacent. She wants the role of Swan Queen in the new production of Swan Lake. Her mother, the bracingly good Barbara Hershey, is both encouraging of her process and reserved about Nina doing something so bold and out of her comfort zone. When she thinks she's lost the role, Nina's mother seems almost relieved that her "sweet girl" will be performing her usual part.

However, despite butchering her audition due to the arrival of a new dancer, Lily (the effervescent, mysterious Mila Kunis), Nina gets the role after her biting response (literally!) to her teacher, Thomas (Vincent Cassell, dominating but complex) after he makes a sexual advance. She still can't dance the part of the Black Swan properly despite her astounding technique when performing as the White Swan. Not helping matters are the ease of which Lily takes to dancing the Black Swan's role and a drunken accosting by the former lead ballerina, Beth, who has just been forced into retirement by Thomas. Beth, played with tenacity and venom by Winona Ryder, spits vicious accusations at Nina while Thomas attempts to calm her down.
Beth: "What'd you have to do to get this role, huh? Did you suck his cock?"
Nina: "Not all of us have to!"

The scene could play as camp bitchiness, and there are certainly elements of that, but Ryder and Portman have never been finer than in this scene. Portman gives us a glance of a different Nina, a darker Nina, while Ryder is going for the completely self-referential here. She's the "washed-up" talent who envies the younger, prettier one taking all her roles. It's a fantastic cameo and one if Aronofsky had allowed for more development would have been spoiled. Ryder's a spike of bitchiness that wakes the audience up. This is a movie that can't be ignored for even a second. It demands your attention. Every movement is precise, vital to the piece. What an incredible analogy.

Soon enough, Nina is letting the part get to her. A long-dormant scratching habit has resurfaced and she becomes paranoid about Lily's motives. She sees her reflection in mirrors--major credit to Aronofsky for making this suspenseful and interesting and not the cliché it could easily be. Her mother begins to control her more and more as a response to her new freedom, but nevertheless Nina finds ways to break out. And then we reach one of the most intriguing, strange, fascinating scenes in the entire film: Nina and Lily's night out.

Lily: "Someone's hot for teacher."
Nina: "I don't want to talk about that."
Lily: "You really need to relax."

Lily offers Nina some ecstasy to loosen her up, which results in several hookups in the club and an (imagined?) tryst between the two dancers. It's an incredibly explicit scene but one that rings undeniably true: for someone as virginal and pure as Nina, a White Swan to her core, such a raw, sexual experience, imagined or no, would be the ultimate corruption. It is only after this and after arriving late to practice the next morning (after an incredibly tense confrontation with her mother) that Nina realizes it was all just a dream. Thomas is unhappy with Nina and decides to make Lily her alternate, furthering Nina's paranoia. It is in these scenes, wherein we can see Nina's slow descent into insanity, that Portman really shines. She makes the character entirely believable while pulling off incredibly unbelievable things.

The finale is a scene that cannot possibly be described. It involves a character death, a transformation, a grand performance, and the height of Nina's delusions. The audience is completely on-edge, and not a moment goes by in which a surprise isn't lurking right around the corner. The final moments absolutely take your breath away, and you're left reeling as the credits roll. It is a masterpiece finale, that is for sure.

There are many, including the Los Angeles Times' own Kenneth Turan, who have trashed the film as being merely surface-level theatrics with nothing lying below. That criticism is not only factually incorrect, but it is irrelevant for a movie like Swan. It is a film that impacts and shocks, not one that is meant to have you talking as soon as you leave the theater. In fact, if it does what it sets out to do, you won't be able to speak for some time after it has finished. It is absolutely devastating, from the script to the direction to the superb acting.

What a film Black Swan is. It is, as it currently stands, my favorite film of the year. Is it the best? Possibly not. But its aim is not that of Nina, of the White Swan:

"I just want to be perfect."

Black Swan is not a film for which the technique must be perfect. It is about emotion, impact--what will leave the audience gasping for more? It is the cinematic embodiment of the Black Swan: sometimes messy, sometimes imperfect, but a devastating work of art.

It is a metaphor, it is histrionic, it is dramatic, and it is, at times, incredibly difficult to watch. But it is a beautiful film, and one that needs to be seen. It is quite possibly Aronofsky's best work. It is definitely Portman's best work. It is, without reservation, one of my favorite films of all time. It may not be perfect, but it doesn't need to be.

If you wish, please add your own comments and ideas about the film in the comments section. Also, read what some have already posted--between the ideas about mirrors, the reflection on what this film means to someone as an artist, and Nina's childishness, there are many more points to explore. It is the kind of film that can carry a conversation for days.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Rapid Reviews: Eight Movies, Ten Days, 127 Hours

As of 7 PM this rainy Sunday in Westchester, California, I have the honor (curse?) of having seen six movies in ten days. Starting with Fair Game in Austin, then Unstoppable and The King's Speech last weekend, and finally wrapping with Black Swan, Burlesque and Love and Other Drugs this weekend, I've seen some great performances, some interesting films, and some absolute schlock. I also need to write up 127 Hours and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I from last month. And this is what I like to call Rapid Reviews.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Post-Black Swan Oscar Predictions

Since last updating my predictions, the first rounds of awards have come in and I've seen a few of the major frontrunners. (Of course, you can always check out the latest predictions by clicking on the Current Oscar Predictions tab.)

I hate mixing my opinion with Oscarology, but suffice it to say that The King's Speech and especially Black Swan are absolutely phenomenal films that deserve major awards consideration. (I liked 127 Hours, too, but it wasn't my favorite beyond James Franco's incredible star turn.) Regardless, here are my updated Oscar predictions.