Wednesday, February 28, 2007

"Zodiac" -- * * * *

David Fincher’s "Zodiac" is an absolute masterpiece, the first truly great movie of 2007, and one that’s going to have a tough time finding (or at least sustaining) a sizable audience. Rather than a "Seven"-esque serial killer thrill-ride, "Zodiac" is a fascinating 2-hour and 40-minute police procedural jam-packed with information, that’s mainly about the frustration of finding answers in a case that simply didn’t offer any (the Zodiac murders were never solved).

It was fascinating to watch the audience at my screening react based on the conditioning they’ve had to standard serial killer movies. At one point in the movie, someone opens the door to enter Jake Gyllenhaal’s house, and the women behind me loudly whispered "It’s the Zodiac!" Also, some were clearly disappointed when the film ended without a typical catch-the-killer finale.
However, despite the lack of a conventionally satisfying conclusion, "Zodiac" is more satisfying in what it sets out to do and what it achieves than any movie about a homeless father overcoming obstacles through the power of money possibly could be. It’s a film about the open-endedness of things and how the lack of catharsis can eat away at one’s soul. Never has a film’s tagline, "there’s more than one way to lose your life to a killer," been more apropos.

"Zodiac" is based on two best-selling books by Robert Graysmith, "Zodiac" and "Zodiac Unmasked: The Identity of America’s Most Elusive Serial Killer Revealed," which were first-hand accounts about the futile hunt for the Zodiac killer who preyed upon residents of the San Francisco area in 1968 and 1969.
The film follows four men who alternately hunted on the Zodiac before giving up and relinquishing the obsession to the next man: San Francisco detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and his low-key partner William Armstrong (Anthony Edwards), a San Francisco Chronicle reporter with increasing drug and alcohol problems Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) and lastly, Chronicle cartoonist and eventual author of the Zodiac books, Graysmith (Gyllenhaal).

We’re only shown a handful of (incredibly chilling and bluntly violent) scenes depicting the Zodiac striking, but they hang over the rest of the movie never letting us feel relaxed, even when the scene is just of two guys talking in an office. And boy, is there a lot of talking. Much of the film is made up of discussion of the incessantly frustrating hints and clues that gather as the case moves along; for every one that seems to advance the case, there’s one that undoes the last. It’s a testament to the filmmaking that despite not much conventional "action," the movie’s never boring.

I will admit, it does feel long, but that’s due to the breadth of scope and amount of information packed in, rather than any sort of dullness or dwindling interest. For fans of police procedurals, exquisite filmmaking or any such things, you should be first in line. But those looking for an adrenaline rush or a mind-blowing ending should be warned that "Zodiac" just isn’t that movie.
Gyllenhaal (who I’m not a fan of) does good work here, never seeming as though he’s "acting," but the best of show prize goes to Downey, who exhilarates or amuses whenever he’s on screen, without ever descending into "showy." Ruffalo is also excellent here, finally giving us a different kind of performance from him rather than the mumbling, good-looking loser (or romantic lead) he plays in every movie.

However, the real reason to see "Zodiac" is Fincher. While I can’t quite say it’s my favorite film of his (I’m still partial to "Seven" and "Fight Club"—sentimental value), this is clearly his most accomplished work and his first one where he really blew me away without resorting to his typical high-style and camera tricks. The film really feels like a ‘70s movie of the highest order, and that’s certainly a good thing. It’s a shame Paramount elected to open in March, since it really has potential to go over well with critics groups and certain end-of-the-year voting bodies (if not the clueless Academy).

"Zodiac" is the rare movie that can really be considered a work of art, as well as the most vital, thrilling piece of cinema in many a month. If your brain (and your butt) can withstand it, it shouldn’t be missed. I haven't been able to get it out of my head since I saw it last night, and in fact, I'm on my way out now to see it again.

"Black Snake Moan" -- * * * 1/2

For those who were surprised they could feel sympathy and affection for a hardened pimp in Craig Brewer's "Hustle & Flow" in 2005, get ready to fall in love with a hostile nymphomaniac and the guy who chains her to his radiator in Brewer's latest, "Black Snake Moan." "Moan" is a bit stranger and significantly more ambitious than "Hustle," and ultimately it doesn't quite reach that film's greatness, but it's truly an original piece of work that delivers in nearly every way a film should.

This is more than we deserve (and usually get) in the dog movie days of spring, and it's also probably a bit more accessible than you'd expect based on the film's poster and trailer. Like "Hustle," the film takes its characters' struggles seriously and treats them with understanding and affection.
As the film opens we're introduced to Rae (Christina Ricci) and Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), who're each going through some troubles. Rae's boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) has just shipped off to the military, and with him gone, she's having trouble keeping her insatiable lust for sex at bay. Lazarus's wife (Adriene Lenox) has just left him for his brother, and for the first time in his life, he's questioning his faith and what he'll do next.

After a few too many pills (and a few too many guys) at a party, Rae finds herself beaten on and left for dead on the side of the road. When taking out the trash the next morning, Lazarus finds her and is determined to mend her wounds to nurse her back to health. While she's recovering, he finds out about her "history," and takes it upon himself to "cure" her. He digs out an old chain from his attack uses it to tie Rae to his old rusty radiator till she can control herself. Despite the controversial imagery, male domination plays no part here. It's ultimately about teaching Rae to respect herself; when she can do that, the chain will be unlocked.

While the film acknowledges its content and has a sense of humor about itself, it is most emphatically a drama, no matter how often the advertising campaign utilizes Sam Jackson bellowing "Get you ass back in my house!" There's a richness to the characters here that makes us grow attached to them after a short while; as with "Hustle," Brewer writes fully fleshed-out people here with intensity and uses music as an integral part of their evolution. Rae inspires Lazarus to return to his blues roots, and the scene where he soothes her urges and comforts her with the song of the film's title is the best and most powerful scene the movie has.

Ricci gives the performance of her career here, showing a fearlessness in terms of both the raw emotion and raw nudity she's asked to have on display for much of the film's running time. Jackson is the strongest he's been since at least "Changing Lanes," and quite possibly "Pulp Fiction;" you can really tell when his heart's in a project, and not just because he's not co-starring with either snakes or Eugene Levy. Timberlake does okay here in the pivotal role of Ronnie, but he doesn't seem to slip into the role as easily as he did in "Alpha Dog" just a few months ago.
"Black Snake Moan" may be a tough sell, but I have a feeling people are going to connect with it a lot more than they might expect. While no one who might enjoy the atrocious "Wild Hogs" (also opening this weekend) has any place seeing this, anyone appreciative of anything a little bit left of the mainstream will likely find something to glom onto here. There's enough sex and kickass blues to appeal to the adventurous filmgoer, as well as an emotional kick and sweet sort-of (platonic) love story at its core. In only his third film, Brewer is already shaping up to be one of the best new filmmakers around, and "Moan" only fuels excitement for his next original piece of work.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

My Oscar Predictions/Hopes

I've listed the 5 nominees in the order I think they deserve to take home the Oscar. I've bolded the ones I would be happy to see win, and starred the ones I think have the best chance of winning.

--Little Miss Sunshine*
The Departed
--The Queen
--Letters From Iwo Jima

I love how insanely up-in-the-air this category is in terms of potential winners, and my favorites. I actually think 'Babel' is the best of the 5, but for some reason I can't help rooting for 'Little Miss Sunshine' and 'The Departed.' I love them nearly as much as 'Babel,' but something innate in me just wants to see the Academy reward fantastic entertainment for a change. Not a message movie, not an epic, not an emotional powerhouse (though if 'Pan's Labyrinth' or 'Children of Men' were nommed, I'd be rooting for them), just fantastic entertainment made by great filmmakers. 'The Queen' is a very good film I liked a whole lot more than I thought I would, but I still find it appalling that it's up for best picture. 'Letters From Iwo Jima' is the one nomination here that would make me cry if it won-- enough with this Eastwood bullshit. Even if I loved 'Iwo Jima,' I'd want it to lose, and I happened to think it was the dullest movie of 2006, so there you go. I've been predicting 'Sunshine' for a while now, but lately I've been getting a 'Departed' vibe, and I also think there's a big groundswell of support for 'Babel' and 'Iwo Jima.' It could really be anything, but I'm sticking with 'Sunshine.'

--Martin Scorsese, "The Departed"*

--Paul Greengrass, "United 93"

--Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu, "Babel"
--Stephen Frears, "The Queen"
--Clint Eastwood, "Letters From Iwo Jima"

Granted the best directing of the year wasn't nominated (Alfonso Cuaron), but even if he was, I'd still have to cast my vote for Scorsese. I've never believed in this sentimental 'lifetime achievement' awards in the form of Oscars, but enough is enough. If there was ever a year to give it to Marty, it would be for 'The Departed,' where he actually DESERVES it. I've always rooted for him to get an Oscar, but let's be honest: he didn't really deserve it for 'Gangs of New York' or 'The Aviator.' On the other hand, 'The Departed' is so well-directed, it's astonishing. Greengrass is the only other nominee I'd be happy to see take it from Scorsese, but we all know that ain't happening, so no use thinking about it.

--Ryan Gosling, "Half Nelson"
--Forest Whitaker, "The Last King of Scotland"

--Will Smith, "The Pursuit of Happyness"

--Peter O'Toole, "Venus"
--Leonardo DiCaprio, "Blood Diamond"

Once again, my favorites of the year were snubbed (Hugh Jackman in "The Fountain," William H. Macy in "Edmond," DiCaprio in "The Departed"), but we've got to make the best of what we have. Gosling was fantastic, and is the best of the group, so again, let's not worry about it. Whitaker was great and has been doing wonderful work forever, so he really does deserve this. As sugary as the movie is, I'm apparently one of the few who really thought Smith was fantastic in 'The Pursuit of Happyness.' As big a star as he is, I'd be fine with seeing him win here. O'Toole is a living legend-- and yes, he competently walked around and spoke in 'Venus' but it's really not a great performance. DiCaprio was nominated for the wrong film-- the atrocious 'Blood Diamond'-- and it just gets me furious, so the less said about it, the better. I think Whitaker's the winner here, but I'd say watch out for a surprise from O'Toole or DiCaprio *shudder*

--Helen Mirren, "The Queen"*
--Judi Dench, "Notes on a Scandal"
--Kate Winslet, "Little Children"
--Penelope Cruz, "Volver"
--Meryl Streep, "The Devil Wears Prada" (I love her, and I love the performance, but c'mon, it's nowhere near the other four)
Fucking awesome category-- three, arguably four, of the greatest actresses of all time, and just great performances all around. That said, Mirren will win, and she deserves to.

--Jackie Earle Haley, "Little Children"
--Eddie Murphy, "Dreamgirls"
--Alan Arkin, "Little Miss Sunshine"*
--Mark Wahlberg, "The Departed"
--Djimon Hounsou, "Blood Diamond"
What a shitball category. Jackie Earle Haley DID give the best supporting performance of the year, so I'm happy he got nominated, but the rest of these? C'mon. Murphy was very good, but he's just such an asshole, I don't really want to see him get an award. Arkin's great, and was mildly amusing in a gimmicky role (Tee-hee, the grandpa's cursing!), but he's the LEAST of that entire ensemble. Carell and Kinnear were far more deserving of nominations. Wahlberg's nomination I think is a joke. I know a lot of people love him in 'The Departed' but I just don't get it. Are we giving out Oscars now for saying a handful of variations on 'I fucked ya mutha' now? Hounsou was awful. He needs to stop playing the noble black man-- he ran around for two and a half hours screaming "my son!" This was barely a performance. Murphy's the front-runner, but I have a feeling there's too much backlash. I'm predicting Arkin or Haley.

Adriana Barraza, "Babel"
--Jennifer Hudson, "Dreamgirls"*
--Rinko Kikuchi, "Babel"
--Cate Blanchett, "Notes on a Scandal"
--Abigail Breslin, "Little Miss Sunshine"

I know everyone's sick of seeing her win awards, but I think J. Hud's performance is 'Dreamgirls' is the kind of performance this award was created for. She's just wonderful-- and while I loved the 'Babel' ladies and my favorite was Barrazza-- I'll be happy to see Hudson win here.

"Pan's Labyrinth"
--"The Queen"
--"Little Miss Sunshine"*
--"Letters From Iwo Jima"

"Little Miss Sunshine" will likely take this because it's the movie everyone loves, but in my humble opinion, everything that was great about that film had little-to-nothing to do with the screenplay. On the other hand, "The Queen" is a movie that lives and dies by its wonderfully witty and intelligent screenplay. That said, I just can't hide my enthusiasm for 'Pan's Labyrinth' extremely touching and imaginative screenplay, and will be rooting for it here.

(5-way tie; alphabetical)
--"Children of Men"
--"The Departed"*
--"Little Children"
--"Notes on a Scandal"

Best category of the night. Every single one of these screenplays deserves to win, and that makes it the one category of the night I'm not worried about. No matter who takes it, I'll be happy. Huzzah and kudos Academy. Given that, I don't think they're going to be able to resist the snappy clever dialogue of 'The Departed.'

Other deserving winners:
BEST DOCUMENTARY: "Deliver Us From Evil"
BEST EDITING: "United 93"*
BEST MAKEUP: "Pan's Labyrinth"*
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE: (tie) "Happy Feet" and "Monster House"
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: "Pan's Labyrinth"*
BEST ART DIRECTION: "Pan's Labyrinth"*
BEST COSTUME DESIGN: "Marie Antoinette"*
BEST ORIGINAL SONG: "Love You I Do" from "Dreamgirls"
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS: Uh... I don't give a shit, they all suck

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Coming soon... I promise

Okay so I didn't fulfill my promises of reviews and whatnot. Perhaps I just wasn't motivated enough by the material.... but as for the movies opening tomorrow:

"The Number 23" is the silliest movie I've seen in quite a while. Stretches the dumbest premise of the year so far to a very long-seeming 90 minutes. I know it's shocking, but Joel Schumacher has made another crappy movie.

"The Astronaut Farmer" is pretty lightweight, inspiration "follow your dreams" type stuff but it really worked for me. It's charming and inspiring, with a really endearing (to me) anti-authority bent-- watch out for a sharp quip about weapons of mass destruction.

"Reno 911: Miami" I'll be seeing in a few hours... it's only screening the night before opening which isn't typically a good sign, but I'm looking forward to it nonetheless since I love the show.

Anyway, I should have my interview with Craig Brewer posted within 24 hours, and should have my Oscar predictions/hopes up by Saturday afternoon at the latest.

In a roundabout kind of way to apologize for my lateness, here's a classic clip from the UK "The Office" for you to enjoy (I tried to embed it, but I did it wrong, so here's a link):

Friday, February 16, 2007

My Ten Most Anticipated Flicks of 2007

"Hot Fuzz" (April 20th)

There's not many bigger fans of "Shaun of the Dead" than I, so the pedigree here is perfect. Wright, Pegg and Frost are back, as well as bit parts for the likes of Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Steve Coogan and pretty much every other brilliant British person who's funny. Add to the equation, the trailer is great, and all the early reviews have praised it as even better than "Shaun." This is one I already have a feeling I'll be seeing multiple times.

"The Simpsons Movie" (July 27th)

Granted, I was MUCH more excited about this when they first announced it-- i.e.: when I still watched "The Simpsons." But nonetheless, America's favorite family has been such a great and significant part of my life, that I can't help but still be excited about the promise of their own feature film. And while the show may have lost its heart, on the rare occasion when I catch it, it's still funny as shit. It's just a shame they couldn't have gotten this one out a few years ago.

"Shoot 'Em Up" (September 7th)

This is probably the only movie on this list virtually guaranteed to have zero chance of making it onto my end-of-the-year Top 10, but I've included it purely because it seems like it'll be a balls-out hardcore fun time at the movies. To the best of my knowledge, Clive Owen plays a dude who has to protect a BABY from being assassinated by a group of bad guys, and Monica Bellucci's a lactating prostitute who caters to clients with a mother-baby fetish. On top of that, the main villain is played by none other than Paul Giamatti. Need I say more?

"Beowulf" (November 16th)
As if the prospect of Robert Zemeckis delivering an adaptation of "Beowulf" wasn't awesome enough, this is being done in complete motion-capture a la "The Polar Express," and promises to be one of the real mindblowers of the film year. No, Tom Hanks isn't in this one.

"Leatherheads" (December 7th)
Okay. I'm not totally in love with the premise on this one-- Romantic Comedies don't always allow for the most originality. And I'm super-not-thrilled about the female lead (it's *shudder* Zellweger). But, it's Clooney's next as a director (and star) and I have to trust my favorite guy in Hollywood's instincts. And ya gotta love "The Office's" John Krasinski getting a major film role-- not just cameos in "The Holiday" and "Dreamgirls."

"There Will Be Blood" (December)

I'm not going to lie: I know nothing about this one other than it's the brilliant Paul Thomas Anderson's ('Boogie Nights," "Magnolia") first movie in 5 years, it stars Daniel Day-Lewis, and it's loosely based on Upton Sinclair's "Oil!" I don't know about you, but that's more than enough for me.


Danny Boyle has yet to disappoint me... well, "A Life Less Ordinary" wasn't exactly the cat's pajama's but you get what I'm going for here. More often than not, the guy fucking delivers. From "Trainspotting" to "28 Days Later" to "Millions," I've fallen in love with his work time after time after time. Here, he's given a decent-sized budget, a cool-as-shit premise (reigniting the sun), and the trailer is probably the best I've seen this year so far. If I were a betting man, I'd put my money on this one being great.

"Lions for Lambs" (November 9th)
Synopsis pulled from "consists of three interconnected storylines: Tom Cruise as a congressman who interacts with a journalist (Meryl Streep); Robert Redford as an idealistic professor who attempts to inspire a privileged student in his class; and a third storyline about a pair of American soldiers wounded in enemy territory, one of whom is Redford's former student." Sounds pretty good, don't it? I'm not the hugest fan of Redford (read "Rebels from the Backlot" and you won't be either), but I'm certainly rooting for a comeback from the talented-but-crazy Cruise, and I'll flock to anything featuring Streep that isn't an ABBA musical.

"The Darjeeling Limited" (Fall)

Anyone who knows me knows I'm a whore for some Wes Anderson, so it shouldn't be surprised I'm superpumped for his 5th film about three brothers' (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman) voyage to India to search for their mother. I was lucky enough to read the screenplay for "Darjeeling" last summer, and I'll say this: it's drastically different from Anderson's last few films while keeping much of his typical trademarks, but it's more in line tonally with "Life Aquatic" and "Bottle Rocket" than "Rushmore" or "Royal Tenenbaums." Reading a screenplay for one of Anderson's films is really only maybe 1/10 of the finished product, and I can't wait to see what he does with this one.

"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (December)
I don't know if this is the film I'm most excited about this year, but it's certainly the one I'm most nervous about. Sondheim's "Sweeney" is, in my opinion, the greatest musical of the 20th century, and last year's Broadway revival of it starring Michael Cerveris and Patti Lupone (pictured above) was hands-down the greatest production of a show I've ever seen. For the most part, the casting seems right from an acting stance, but I'm really not sure if Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter have the singing chops to pull off Sondheim's incredibly demanding score. On the plus side, Alan Rickman and Sacha Baron Cohen seem perfect for Judge Turpin and Senor Pirrelli, respectively. If Tim Burton doesn't go overboard on the macabre, and his gothic sensibilities, he has the potential to make the greatest movie musical of all time... or not. I'm not getting my hopes up just yet.

Oh yeah, my top 25 of 2006

I know I said I'm not going to rehash and fill you in on everything from the last few months, but I thought I might as well just post the list of my top films from last year, just for your own edification. Feel free to comment.

1. Pan's Labyrinth
2. Children of Men
3. Babel
4. The Fountain
5. United 93
6. The Departed
7. Little Miss Sunshine
8. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
9. Dreamgirls
10. Volver
11. Shut Up & Sing
12. Deliver Us From Evil
13. V for Vendetta
14. A Prairie Home Companion
15. Little Children
16. Stranger than Fiction
17. Half Nelson
18. Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story
19. A Scanner Darkly
20. The Prestige
21. Miami Vice
22. Thank You for Smoking
23. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
24. Superman Returns
25. Brick

Le blog is le back.

Now seems about as good a time as any to re-start my floundering blog which I haven't updated since the end of October. Needless to say, I'll have a bit more time to update it regularly from now on, so I hope to be doing so. Obviously, I've missed a lot of things going on in terms of award season so I won't attempt to catch up with all of them.

I'm currently working on a post of my most anticipated films for the rest of 2007 that I'll try to have up tonight; also, in the next few days, I should have up (1) my thoughts/predictions on ALL of the Oscar categories, (2) my reactions to "Black Snake Moan," "The Astronaut Farmer," "Wild Hogs," "Factory Girl," "The Host," "The Lives of Others," "The Namesake," "Reign Over Me" and "Knocked Up," as well as (3) the transcript of a phone interview I did with Craig Brewer (writer/director of "Hustle & Flow" and "Black Snake Moan") last week.

It's good to be back, and I'll try to be more faithful to y'all in the future.