Friday, October 26, 2007

"Saw IV" -- * * 1/2

I'll admit it: I like the "Saw" movies. The first one, while obviously made on a shoestring and crippled by subpar acting and direction, boasts a terribly clever screenplay and has more than enough sequences to make it worth any horror fan's while. The second is less focused on twists and more on a carefully constructed storyline with cringe-worthy moments a plenty (chiefly, the pit of hypodermic needles) and the elimination of the amateurish shaky-cam and quick-cuts that marred the first. The third film is a bit more twist-and-gore reliant, but probably the most entertaining of the trilogy while maintaining the wit and intelligence (yeah, I said it) of "Saw" I and II. On top of everything, even if it's in the crudest, most simplistic ways possible, these movies pose real moral questions and predicaments, as well as deliciously nasty twists. Even with all the shit I get for it, each time I catch one of them on cable, I'm reminded that no matter how much I may want to deny it to myself, I genuinely like these movies.

"Saw IV," like the entries preceding it, is fun, entertaining, gory, and cleverer than the average horror film, but it's also noticeably lacking a few things. For one, the real sense of unsettling menace that "Saw"s I, II and III had. As you may recall, Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) was killed at the end of "Saw III," and as much as the filmmakers try to include him here via flashbacks and tape recordings, we can't help being reminded at every turn that he's dead and any tension his presence incited has seeped out of the room. For another, the clearly thought-out plot turns and revelations have dulled a bit. There's the trademark twists to be sure, but they're not particularly surprising this time around, nor do they make much sense.

Which is not to say "Saw IV" is a complete letdown if you're a fan of the series. There's still fun (and cringes) to be had, and much of what has made the previous three films so popular has been retained here. The death traps are just as creative and grotesque, with as much clever reasoning behind them as maximum gore-potential-- my favorites were a husband and wife nailed to each other with sharp spikes, and two men (one with his eyes removed, the other with his tongue cut out) chained to one another forced to work together to get out of their situation. The enjoyably complicated storylines also continue here, with much narrative threading and haphazard jumping around in time.

Opening in a morgue with Jigsaw's (a.k.a.: John Kramer) grisly autopsy, this "Saw" entry mostly serves to provide further backstory and rationale for his serial killings/tortures-- as if the explanation we'd already been given wasn't enough-- and establish that there was a third person helping Jigsaw and Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith), who's continuing to carry on their legacy. The movie cuts back and forth between Jigsaw's pre-"Saw I" dealings, mostly involving his ex-wife's rehabilitation center, and his unknown collaborator's ongoing tortures. In the process, we learn that this sequel takes place only 6 months after "Saw II," with that film's Detective Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) still alive and involved in yet another Rube Goldberg-esque trap.

These movies may be guilty pleasures, but at the end of the day, they're still pleasures to some extent. I had some fun with "Saw IV," and I think "Saw" fans will as well. Even so, it's difficult to deny that a substantial amount of air has been let out of the balloon. Feeling overstuffed at just 85 minutes, "Saw IV" represents (at least in my eyes) the first noticeable dip in quality in the series thus far, and might be a wise place to stop. But as long as these movies keep making bank, I think you and I (as well as Lionsgate's bean-counters) know how likely that is.

"Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" -- * * * 1/2

A profound sense of dread permeates "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," Sidney Lumet's thoroughly gripping, relentlessly grim crime drama. Fifty years (!) after "12 Angry Men," 83-year-old Lumet has made one of his best movies with all the intensity, passion and edge of a young man. The end result is simultaneously exciting and unnerving all the way through, leaving you satisfyingly drained in its wake.

Audaciously opening with the image of Philip Seymour Hoffman fucking Marisa Tomei doggystyle (both actors completely, daringly nude), "Devil" centers on a robbery perpetrated by brothers Andy (Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke), and the whirlwind of shit-- and violence-- that falls upon them in the following days. Given that the film embraces a non-linear narrative (we see the robbery happen before we see the planning of it), it's not ruining much to reveal that the robbery in question is of a jewelry shop owned by Andy and Hank's parents (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris). We see certain, particularly important scenes through more than one perspective "Rashomon"-style, but beyond that, I really don't want to say much else; this is the sort of film that's enjoyment hinges on the element of surprise and the nature of the narrative.

Despite my preference for his work in the upcoming "The Savages," Hoffman continues to prove here what a tremendous actor he is, and virtually making your jaw drop every time he's on screen. Though Andy is the payroll manager for a successful real estate firm and equipped with a gorgeous wife (Marisa Tomei), he has a wildly problematic and expensive secret life, including a substantial drug problem. Hoffman gets some really explosive moments in the third act, the kind he only touched upon in "Mission: Impossible 3" and "Punch-Drunk Love," and he always makes them feel earned and never like actor-ly bombast. I haven't seen "Charlie Wilson's War" yet (only read the script), but after his trio of performances this fall/winter, there should be little doubt in any filmgoer's mind that he is our finest actor (consistently) working today.

Hawke does the bumbling slacker like no other, and he's quite good as the closest thing we've got to a likable character. Established as a fuck-up and the "baby," Hank is a beaming, loving divorced father who nonetheless is irresponsible and three months behind in child support payments, as well as fucking his brother's wife. Hawke makes us feel his increasing distress, and beautifully sums up his character with two brief, beautifully played moments: (1) contemplating suicide after a seemingly unsolvable situation, Hank stares at a mountain of pills in his hand before sheepishly pouring them back into the bottle, and (2) exuding a brief, joyous smile late in the game when something he does actually goes okay.

Tomei is strong here in an underwritten role, but most talk about her will likely have to do with the three separate sequences in which she bares her breasts. To be fair, the word-of-mouth will be justified, as at 42-years-old, Tomei looks truly unbelievable, the epitome of what most men would kill to be married to.

Finney tears into his role with a vitality we rarely see from the frequently-coasting-on-his-own-presence actor. As a guy who's never been a very good father, and doesn't seem to have much desire to start now, he probably has the most complex and shifting role here, and even if we're not always entirely sure why, we feel for the guy.

Despite never resorting to any sort of flashy camera tricks (or even camera movement, if I remember correctly), Lumet directs with an urgency here that makes these characters' distress as gripping and horrifying as anything on display in movies today. From the discomfiting sound effects laid over the scene transitions to Carter Burwell's extremely effective stress-inducing score, we're never given a moment to settle or get comfortable. And that works to the film's benefit at every turn.

Kelly Masterson's screenplay (his first ever) deserves particularly special attention for its brilliant title alone (it's a completion of the phrase "May you be in heaven a half hour..."). But most impressively, he deftly balances the twisting storyline and effectively utilizes the perspective shifting among our three central characters without it ever feeling like a gimmick. Not to mention, the guy has an ear for deliciously perceptive dialogue. While there are many immensely quotable lines here, my favorites were subtle exchanges like Andy compliment-baiting his father, "I'm sorry I wasn't able to be the son you wanted," with Dad just sighing and replying, "You did the best you could." I'd say it's a safe bet this will be one of the nominees for Best Original Screenplay next February.

Saying intriguing things about familial ties, criminal integrity, and the dehumanizing effects of greed and desperation, the film's momentum keeps the audience's blood boiling and mind engaged for the duration. It should be a welcome respite to those who complain that there aren't enough movies made for adults anymore (though certainly not to those who prefer their adult fare uplifting). With an intriguingly fractured narrative and foreboding doom infusing every sequence, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is the kind of movie most filmmakers don't have the balls to make anymore.

"Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" opens today in New York and Los Angeles (one theater each), expands to 50+ theaters on November 2nd, and semi-nationwide on November 9th.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: While there are chances for Best Actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Supporting Actor (Ethan Hawke or Albert Finney), I think it's strongest chances are in the Best Original Screenplay and Best Original Score categories.

"Dan in Real Life" -- * * *

Peter Hedges’ romantic comedy “Dan in Real Life” is a bit more familiar, formulaic and sitcommy than his previous feature, the wonderful “Pieces of April,” but it’s cute and charming enough to become a crowd-pleaser, and is elevated to ‘worth seeing’ status by the presence of the intrinsically funny and endearing Steve Carell. Older woman and the date crowd may make “Dan” a modest hit, but any fans of Carell will be interested to see him in a perfect showcase for his considerable talents.

Not terribly plot or contrivance-driven and directed with a breezy and understated feel, the film revolves around likable advice columnist and widower/father Dan Burns (Carell) and the complications he encounters on a weekend retreat with his extended family. Chief among them, sharing a house with his brother Mitch (the surprisingly tolerable Dane Cook) and Mitch’s new girlfriend Marie (Juliette Binoche). The problem lies in that Dan has recently fallen for Marie, before he knew she was with Mitch, when he meets cute with her at a local bookstore, and the two share flirtacious banter.

Though Dan, still mourning the death of his wife four years ago, knows he can’t pursue anything with Marie and tries to avoid her throughout the weekend, the two keep finding themselves together and fighting the fact that they’re obviously a much better match than Marie and Mitch. On top of this, Dan has to deal with his increasingly doting and wisecracking parents (John Mahoney and the much-missed Dianne Wiest) and problems with his three daughters (Alison Pill, Brittany Robertson, Marlene Lawston).

From “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” to “The Office” to “Little Miss Sunshione,” Carell has proven that he’s not just terribly funny, but a tremendously skilled and subtle actor with substantial range. Here, he’s given probably his most likable role to date, and he’s terrific. After the disastrous “Evan Almighty” (which once you get past the media negativity, truly is one of the worst movies of the year), Carell makes up for his momentary lapse in judgement with this immensely charming performance. While this won’t be a performance that gets him an Oscar nomination, it indicates that there’s a lot more to Carell than people seem to be willing to give him credit for, and that a nomination sometime in the future isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

Though the movie should be commended for remaining airy and understated, never descending into particularly broad or audience-baiting territory, it does have its share of cloying and familiar moments, and without the presence of Carell, there wouldn’t be much here to stand apart from other films of its ilk. It’s also troubling that Hedges, at this point in his career, is already ripping himself off—there’s an (admittedly sweet) singing-performance scene that is virtually identical to one in the Hedges-co-written “About a Boy.”

Still, the film’s sweet, Capra-esque charms are refreshing in an age where films strive to either manipulate you at every turn or beat you over the head with obvious jokes. “Dan in Real Life” is, thankfully, not that film; nor is it the laugh riot that Carell’s presence (or the trailer for that matter) might indicate it would be. It’s a graceful, warm, slice-of-life comedy that probably won’t be crude enough for Carell’s “Virgin” fans or edgy enough for his “Daily Show” fans, but will sit just right with those seeking a cute, sweet 90-minute diversion.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Now playing at a theater near you... (i.e.: movies that opened on 10/19 that I didn't get to review in time)

Once again, I apologize, I apologize, I apologize. College life has been crizazy, which is no excuse, but there it is. Took a much-needed “vacation” home this weekend and caught the new plays from Tom Stoppard and Aaron Sorkin, as well as “Sleuth” (liked most of it, despite the perpetually yawning audience) and “Control” (liked it, despite my youthful ignorance and never hearing of Joy Division). This weekend was a big one for releases, so I regret that I couldn’t get my reactions up in time, but for what it’s worth, I will have full reviews this Friday for “Dan in Real Life,” “Saw IV” and “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” and here’s my quick takes on this past weekend’s films:

“GONE BABY GONE” - * * * *

While personally, I’ve remained a fan despite some of his poor decisions, Ben Affleck officially deserves an apology from pretty much everyone else. With his directorial debut “Gone Baby Gone,” he’s delivered an excellent (having seen it three times now, I’m fairly certain that adjective is earned), gritty, compulsively compelling, morally complex crime drama that excels in virtually every department. Based on a novel by Denis Lehane (“Mystic River”), and set in an exceedingly seedy Dorchester neighborhood, the film revolves around a missing 4-year-old girl, and the two private detectives (Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan) hired to find her. Rather than the cinematic depictions of Boston in “The Departed” and “Mystic River,” here it feels like we’re watching a documentary; Ben, if anything, is a master of atmosphere and everything always feels like it has a discomfiting layer of grime on top of it. Casey Affleck and Ed Harris are particularly strong, but Amy Ryan and Amy Madigan as the missing child’s degenerate mother, and caring aunt walk away with the movie. With a top-notch script, confident direction, a profound third-act moral dilemma and superb performances all around, the unrelentingly (and admirably) grim “Gone Baby” is one of the more rewarding and unexpected films of year so far.

This is a film that will really need to be championed to be recognized at all, but if that happens I could see nominations for Ed Harris (Supporting Actor), Amy Ryan (Supporting Actress) or Best Adapted Screenplay

“30 DAYS OF NIGHT” - * * *

Taking place in a town (Barrow, Alaska) where darkness lasts for an entire month, David Slade’s vampire films has its scary moments for sure, but is really worth seeing for its style, atmosphere and flair for strange quirks. Though it missteps by succumbing to the camera-moving-so-quickly-you-can’t-tell-what’s-going-on school of filmmaking with its first death, for the most part, the killings and appearances of the vampires are remarkably effective. As preludes to their attacks, we just see vague, blurry figures in the background slowly appear with no hint of music; when they finally do appear, it’s a quick leap out of darkness, snatching their victims before anyone can figure out what’s going on. Slade’s moody, atmospheric work here establishes a significant sense of dread and foreboding doom, and some of the grotesque violence is downright poetic; there’s an overhead shot showing the entire town, and the chaos and blood spilt in the snow throughout it that’s truly awesome.

Some of its details (the vampires speak their own subtitled language) have been dubbed “pretentious” by some, but I appreciate any sparks of originality or oddness in a genre increasingly known for its sameness. The acting is a bit hit-or-miss. Josh Hartnett (as the town’s hero policeman) is bland as usual, while Danny Huston, in a surprise bit of casting as the head vampire, is having an insane amount of fun and makes his “character” genuinely frightening. Deserving of special mention, though, is Ben Foster, who I’ve actually grown to despise, as a human accomplice of the vampires. Here, he’s playing another mannered, affected psycho with a comically weird voice that I’m starting to think it’s all the guy can do (he doesn’t do it particularly well either). While Christopher Walken waited until his 60s, Foster is already turning into a parody of himself; thankfully, he’s killed and out of the movie by the 45-minute mark.


Hackneyed without ever rousing any interest, this misconceived Oscar bait is exactly what you would get if you took an Oprah’s Book Club book, adapted it into a Lifetime movie, and managed to convince Oscar winners to star in it. Halle Berry is fine, though she’s given a few too many blatant “Oscar clip” scenes of screaming and crying, and as the magical heroin addict who comes to live with her after the death of her husband and his best friend, Benicio Del Toro is strong (if not totally believable in his relapse moments). Life lessons are learned, problems are overcome, mistakes are forgiven, wounds are mended. Saps will praise it as “powerful,” the rest of us will find it dull, forced and lacking any original perspective.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: Some people are saying Berry and Del Toro have chances, but they really don’t deserve nominations and I’m sure the film’s quick disappearance from theaters (and memories) will ensure they don’t get them

“RENDITION” - * * *

A true ensemble piece (and a hell of an ensemble it is, including Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese Witherspoon, Meryl Streep, Peter Sarsgaard and Alan Arkin) and politically relevant thriller, “Rendition” explores the U.S.’s current policy of extraordinary rendition—i.e.: expediting suspected “terrorists” to other countries where there are no sanctions on torture, so we can work our magic on them. Posing similar questions to Milos Forman’s “Goya’s Ghosts” (what won’t people admit to while being tortured?), “Rendition” will likely please smarts and stupids alike, if they bother to see it, that is. Yes, this is certainly the Hollywood version of a political film, and some characters/themes are one-note, but that’s alright. It completely works as a compelling thriller and a piece of entertainment that isn’t likely to alienate the masses like “Syriana” did. If it helps brings issues to the forefront, great, but if not, it still works as a movie. Though Witherspoon’ primal yell (shown in all the ads) didn’t work for me at all, she’s fine up until that point, and Sarsgaard is particularly strong. Arkin gets some juicy dialogue to work with in his small role as a pussy-ish liberal Senator (“If you push this, they’re going to be screaming national security at the top of their lungs, and you and I are going to be called bin Laden lovers”), and Gyllenhaal is surprisingly effective in a role that mostly just requires him to stare aghast and not speak for most of the movie. Streep, despite being given the most one-dimensional role (she’s a bitchy, villainous Republican senator), is so much fun to watch chewing the scenery that you can forgive that her southern accent only creeps its head out every 15 minutes or so. “Rendition” isn’t quite as important as it’d like to believe, but it’s a lot more entertaining than you’d expect.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: Probably none.

“RESERVATION ROAD” - * * * (now playing in limited release, expands to addition cities this Friday)

“There is no closure. There’s only acceptance and resignation.” The preceding line is spoken in Terry George’s “Reservation Road,” and is pretty much backed up by the proceedings at every turn. Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Jennifer Connelly as parents whose son has been killed in a hit-and-run accident and Mark Ruffalo as the driver of the car, the film suffers from a bit too many coincidences and imbalanced tone, but its stronger emotional moments and acting by its leading men make it worth your while. I fear the film may be lost in the awards and box office shuffle since its central elements are extremely reminiscent of other films (“House of Sand and Fog,” “21 Grams,” In the Bedroom” to name a few), but it’d be a shame; Phoenix and Ruffalo are tremendous here, doing work unlike anything they’ve done before. Both man are wracked with guilt and rage, for different reasons, and whenever they’re onscreen, the film is never less than compelling. Connelly gives it her all here, in a role largely defined by exposition, but is all too often prone to hysterics we’ve seen her do before. “Reservation Road” isn’t a perfect film, but if you get the opportunity, it’s worth seeing for two of the best performances of the year.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: I would have thought nominations for Phoenix and Ruffalo were locks, but given the film’s horrific dying at the box office this weekend (as well as its critical dismissal), it looks it might not even get put into enough theaters to be seen, let alone nominated. We’ll have to wait and see, but it’s not looking good.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Just between you and me...

...I've hit sort of a creative roadblock at the moment. I've made no bones about still being a full time student in Baltimore, and in the last week or so, my work load has gotten so abundant that my time for banging out reviews has been few and far between. When I finally do sit down to write, at least in the last few days, not too much has been coming-- just a mental exhaustion from the work preceding it. Hell, I've been trying to write a review for the delightful "Lars and the Real Girl" for a good week now and have been struck with all sorts of difficulties.

Usually balancing the blog and the schoolwork is manageable, but it seems every one of my classes has a substantial paper due this week, and of course, it happens to fall on a week with an insane amount of noteworthy releases (eight, if my count is correct, including the "Nightmare" 3-D re-release). Anyway, I can't promise this will be the last time-- though I'll certainly try to do it minimally as possible-- but this Friday (10/19 UPDATE: this weekend), I'm just going to put up an "Opening this Weekend" post with 5 mini-reviews (for "Rendition," "Gone Baby Gone," "30 Days of Night," "Things We Lost in the Fire" and "Reservation Road"), rather than give a complete take on each of the 5. (10/19 UPDATE: since I won't get my reviews up till tomorrow or Sunday, for those of you who need help deciding, "Gone Baby Gone" is without a doubt the movie to see this weekend)

I apologize for the foreboding short shrift-- at least one of these movies deserves a longer analysis, and I might be able to give a belated one at some point-- but this week, the combination of excessive school work and excessive releases will result in a paring down of critiques. To give you an idea of how much work I have to do, Monday I decided to stay in to write an "Aesthetics of Film" paper rather than driving to D.C. for a second viewing of "The Savages" with Laura Linney present for a Q+A. *sigh* No matter. On the positive side, in the last week or so I've gotten to see a few of the upcoming fall releases I've been eagerly anticipating, and this weekend I'll be heading home to New York where (if I have time) I'll check out "Sleuth" and "Control."

To answer any hypothetical questions anyone might have:

(1) The paper is on Jon Brion's "Punch-Drunk Love" score and why it's the perfect musical representation of a character in a film.

(2) The "Sweeney Todd" trailer, while horrifically and incompetently assembled, inspires tremendous confidence in me about the actual finished product based on the footage glimpsed.

(3) "Across the Universe's" $4 million take this weekend in 900 theaters, in its 5th week of release, indicates that there is/was an audience for this movie and it could've been a significant grosser had it been given any sort of studio support (in terms of marketing and release pattern).
(4) Not having seen it yet--I'll get a look Thursday-- I'm saying right here, right now, that "American Gangster" will not be the Oscar contender that many are so prematurely dubbing it. (10/19 UPDATE: Now that I've seen it, I still don't think it's the stuff of Oscars, but I'm not as confident about it as I once was)

Oh, and just for fun, let me predict the #1 Movie in America for each weekend for the rest of the year:

Oct. 19-21: "30 Days of Night"
Oct. 26-28: "Saw IV"
Nov. 2-4: "Bee Movie" (alt. possibility: "American Gangster")
Nov. 9-11: "Fred Claus"
Nov. 16-18: "Beowulf"
Nov. 21-25: "Margot at the Wedding"... just kidding. "Enchanted"
Nov. 30-Dec. 2: "Enchanted"
Dec. 7-9: "The Golden Compass"
Dec. 14-16: "I Am Legend"
Dec. 21-23: "National Treasure: Book of Secrets"
Dec. 28-30: "National Treasure: Book of Secrets"

So, yeah. Thanks for understanding. Best wishes to all, and long live Tyler Perry (and yes, this post has been overstuffed as a means of apologizing).

Monday, October 15, 2007

"Why Did I Get Married?" -- * * 1/2

I most relish going to school in Baltimore whenever a new Tyler Perry movie comes out. Granted, I think the man is evil, condescending and I refuse to contribute to his box office receipts (I buy tickets for Clooney movies instead and sneak into Perry's), but there's nothing like the audience experience. Never in a movie theater will you hear more applause, cheers, 'mmhmm's and 'that's right's than when a new Perry comes to your closest "urban" neighborhood theater. The shameless profiteer and egomaniac (his name is listed in the credits 4 times before the title even comes up) may be the black community's answer to Paul Haggis by thinking he needs to have characters speaking his messages aloud, and he may harp a bit too much on the "Jesus heals all" stuff, but damned if the man doesn't know exactly what his target audience wants, and bend over backwards to give it to them.

His latest, "Why Did I Get Married?"... wait, excuse me... "Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married?" is probably his biggest crowd-pleaser to date, and it's also his all-around best movie to date as well. Perry doesn't reach the realm of "good" with his newest venture, but it's probably as close as he'll ever come. He still draws insanely over-the-top characters that behave like no human being, as well as insists Christianity is the answer for everything ("The ruler of all things, Jesus, make it alright!" and "The greatest treasure for any human being is to love god, yourself and others" are two of the more subtle lines here), but his determination to draw raucous scenarios, please his audiences, and throw a bevy characters and ideas at us rarely allow the proceedings to become dull. I wasn't proud of myself, but I couldn't say I hadn't been entertained.

Plot synopsis, courtesy of "A big-screen adaptation of Perry's hit stage play of the same title, "Why Did I Get Married?" is an intimate story about the difficulty of maintaining a solid love relationship in modern times. During a trip to the picturesque snowcapped mountains of Colorado, eight married college friends (Janet Jackson, Tyler Perry, Jill Scott, Malik Yoba, Tasha Smith, Michael Jai White, Sharon Leal, Richard T. Jones) have gathered for their annual seven-day reunion. But the cozy mood is shattered when the group comes face-to-face with one pair's infidelity. As secrets are revealed, each couple begins questioning the validity of their own marriage. Over the course of the weekend, husbands and wives take a hard look at their lives, wrestling with issues of commitment, betrayal and forgiveness as they seek a way forward." I don't know why it says "one pair's infidelity," since I remember at least two, but anywho. You get the gist.

Easily the cast member here who contributes the most life to the proceedings is Tasha Smith as the acid-tongued Angela, self-described as "the ass-kicking one" and by others as "the bitter one." Perry underwrites her character by not knowing quite how to define her, but Smith uses the ambiguity to her advantage. She shifts from being a nasty, trouble-making cunt to a bluntly honest truth-teller, and back again, at the drop of a hat, and her livelier moments are "Married's" most reaction-inducing.

Scott-- who my only familiarity with was from "Dave Chappelle's Block Party"-- finds her way through all the ridiculousness and melodrama to give a genuinely good, impassioned performance as the good-hearted, fat, frumpy-sweater-wearing Sheila. As a character who gets shit on and shit on (her snake of a husband cheats on her and then leaves her, but not before insulting her weight as cruelly and perpetually as possible), and then gets prettified and finds a good, sexy man of course, Scott is frequently heartbreaking and shows chops that indicate she has what it takes to be a legitimate actress.

The same can't really be said for the film's other leading actress with a musical background, Janet Jackson. Now equipped with a creepy plasticized face (her nose especially) that makes her look eerily like her brother, Jackson's acting skills haven't much improved since her "Klumps" days. Throughout all her shenanigans, she has a frozen vacant look on her face, delivering lines as if she's reading them off a cuecard. An exposition-filled scene where she's asked to deliver a crying monologue about her dead son is simply embarrassing.

Okay, I recognize Perry's movies are solely made for and intended for African-American audiences (I was literally the sole white face in a sold out crowd on opening day), and I think that's great. There are enough movies put out there with nary a black person in it that there should be some compensation and balance. But, targeting black people or not, it's nearly inexcusable the level of prejudice and intolerance Perry displays here, especially for a man who disingenuously presents himself as being a proponent of love and forgiveness and acceptance. I'll ignore, for the moment, his depiction of a homosexual couple as lisping, pink shawl-wearing racists toting a chihuaua (named 'Fifi,' no less), since no character explicitly expresses homophobia towards them. Fine, I'll generously let that one slide.

But the depiction of white people here is extremely problematic. Literally every single white person on display here is a latent racist (a dress shop owner spouts, unprompted "We don't keep cash in the store") or exists purely to cause trouble for one of our black central figures. Look, I recognize black people have been oppressed for centuries, while whites have gotten by just fine, and to compensate, I think all of us Caucasians can withstand some mockery. That's fine, I'm not offended, I can take it-- I think we all can. The issue is, movies like this only further divide the rift between the races and only increase views of whites as "the enemy" and people to have animosity towards. So while I don't know if we can add racist to the deplorable list of words that apply to Tyler Perry, at the very least, we can say 'dangerously thoughtless.' But while I could stand on my ivory tower and completely condemn the film for its racism, at the end of the day, it doesn't completely deplete the fun and enjoyment offered up here.

Even on Perry's simplistic terms, the movie doesn't really work as an analysis of any of the marital themes attempted to be tackled. Perry always opts for the cartoonish rather than the real, and it's disappointing that his core audience allows him to spoonfeed them the same shit in movie after movie. Nonetheless, his writing has clearly stepped up here and at least attempts to say things about interpersonal relationships, trust and fidelity, not just a man in granny-drag running around with a "Love Jesus!" thrown in every 5 minutes. Though there may not be an ounce of real/recognizable humanity in here, the over-the-top melodrama and set pieces are fun in a soap opera kind of way, and never fail to rouse a reaction which, let's face it, is most of the fun.

Friday, October 12, 2007

"Elizabeth: The Golden Age" -- * 1/2

Bombast is the name of the game in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," Shekhar Kapur's wretched follow-up to his 1998 Best Picture nominee "Elizabeth." It doesn't quite go all the way to the point of being enjoyably awful and laughable (there are only a handful of giggle-worthy moments), but it's unrelentingly shallow, borderline-incoherent and flat-out boring-- quite a task for a movie that doesn't ever stop throwing shit in your face.

Unsurprisingly, it doesn't care in the least about giving you any sort of history, real human drama, or even cheap thrills. It's totally and completely about the gay-baiting "wow" visual elements that Kapur hopes will distract you from the lack of anything at its core: more costume changes than you can count, elaborate sets, enormous wigs, beams of symbolic/important light. Hell, the only tension lies in what sort of flamboyant headdress Elizabeth will wear in each new scene.

To have some semblance of goings-on, the movie uses its talented actors as pawns in the most infantile ("I hope he likes me!") melodramatic soap-opera fashion, filled with sinister looks and overbearing music at every turn. Here's the history I learned from "The Golden Age:" In 1585, every Catholic was an evil potential assassin of the queen, soon before a big CGI battle filled with stock footage of ships blowing cannonballs at each other happened, while Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) was too busy having a schoolgirl crush on pirate Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen). While she was jerking him around, he made his way to Lizzie's protege Bess (Abbie Cornish).

When Raleigh knocks Bess up, Liz has them banished and then straps on armor to give a rousing speech to her soldiers. All the while, two of the most ominous, sneaky motherfuckers I've ever seen in a movie (Jordi Molla and Rhys Ifans) attempt-- and fail-- to assassinate our golden lady; given all the liberties taken here, I was half convinced they were actually going to succeed in killing her. I'm leaving out about half of the madness that goes on here, but needless to say, my head was spinning and by the end of it all I was just staring at the screen with my mouth agape.

The awful, awful, awful script is filled with lines like "In another world, could you have loved me?" and "As humans, we feel too much... but we do have the chance for love." The screenplay also gives us no chance to settle in, shifting us from event to event so rapidly that it'd be disorienting if it wasn't so dispiriting. Here, the tone only veers from campy to self-important, but all with the gloss of pretty cinematography on top.

The film's one saving grace, as you probably predicted, is Blanchett, who is terrific in a ridiculously-written role. Elizabeth has so many things to do, go to, wear and has to play so many different disparate shades that it's more of an acting endurance test than a real character, and I'm still in disbelief at how well Blanchett pulls it off. Granted, we never believe her as a real human being-- the screenplay is too fucked from the get-go for that to happen-- but Blanchett's depiction of the dozen different Elizabeths we get is always mesmerizing and fiercely played, and if she gets an Oscar nomination for this mess, it'll be well-deserved.

I figured for Rush to return they'd had to have beefed up his role from the first film, but the opposite is true. While he's still torturing people for Elizabeth's benefit, he's even more in the background here, standing by her side glowering more than actually having anything to do. Owen is as dashing as ever in his period garb, and can't help but be naturally charming; Kapur even affords him an underwater swim late in the proceedings for no reason other than he looks damn good doing it. Given the crap he's asked to do and say here, it's amazing he doesn't embarrass himself, but this is most definitely a part of his filmography he'll rather have forgotten.

"Elizabeth" wasn't a great movie to begin with, but at least it made the (adjusted/fabricated) history of Elizabeth I entertaining, interesting and moderately paced, while also being a showcase for Blanchett's star-making performance. "The Golden Age" is, simply, a mess that wants to up the stakes of the original at every level, but does it at the detriment of coherence, realism, or interesting characters/situations. Someone really should tell Mr. Kapur that pretty costumes and austere floods of light can't make people forget they're watching trash.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: Best Actress (Cate Blanchett), Best Costume Design

"We Own the Night" -- * * 1/2

James Gray's third feature, the crime/family drama "We Own the Night," is more entertaining than it really has any right to be considering how many cliches and genre conventions fill up its running time. Despite the talents abound, it can only really be recommended as a rainy day DVD watch or a matinee showing if there's nothing better to go see. It's almost refreshing that the movie dares to be as corny, earnest and unhip as it, but not quite; while there are moments to be savored here, at the end of the day the plot contrivances and character shadings are too familiar to rouse any enthusiasm over.

Taking place in Brooklyn in 1988, the film opens with disco-owner Bobby (Joaquin Phoenix) fingering his girlfriend (Eva Mendes) and proceeding to suck on her titty, before heading downstairs and having a drug-fueled night at his club; he's living a life of irresponsible decadence, you see. Needless to say, his brother Joey (Mark Wahlberg) and father Burt (Robert Duvall)-- both cops-- disapprove. After busting Bobby's club and arresting him and his Russian mafia patrons, Joey gets shot in the face and spends a good portion of the film lying in a coma. This event causes Bobby to re-evaluate his crime-infested lifestyle; mucho lurid plot twists and graphic violence follow.

Though creativity in his writing, and soundtrack selection (for a film set in 1988, the songs used here were popular about a decade earlier) may not be his strong suits, Gray clearly has a sense of style and his talents come out the most in the more visual sequences. There's a completely brilliant-- and I mean that-- car chase sequence midway through that is staggeringly staged and almost warrants the admission price. Taking place completely from Bobby's point of view through his car windshield during a torrential downpour, the scene in a genuine white-knuckler that really makes you wish the rest of the movie was up to its level.

Mendes and Wahlberg are used basically as living, breathing props (which I'm sure Mendes is used to), so fans of theirs shouldn't rush out to the multiplex based on their involvement. Duvall has a tendency to be solid even when he's phoning in a performance-- which he definitely is here-- so as the rock-solid citizen his kids long to be, he's just fine.

Phoenix is terribly strong here, as per usual, and gives more depth and complexity to a movie that doesn't necessarily deserve it. Bobby goes through so many different changes over the course of the film and Phoenix plays every one to the hilt. He's best in his scenes with Wahlberg and Duvall, as Bobby's physical and emotional discomfort around his "better" brother and father is fascinating to watch. While he's even better in the upcoming, significantly more somber "Reservation Road," Phoenix continues to prove here he's one of the most interesting and best actors working today.

The rather conventional "We Own the Night" offers little new to either the crime or family drama genres, but at its worst, it's eye-rolling yet watchable, and at its best (though rare), it's exciting filmmaking. While the moments of the latter make one regret that the movie's ultimately no more than a decent way to kill two hours, that's really all it is.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

"Lust, Caution" -- * * * 1/2

"Typical director... never listens to anyone else."

The above dialogue is uttered in Ang Lee's new film, "Lust, Caution" and the line could easily apply to Lee himself. A knack for being perpetually interesting and artful, even in his missteps, is the prime reason he's regarded as one of the finest filmmakers working (and working consistently too-- like Cronenberg, Spielberg and the Coen Brothers, his breaks between movies are never very long). He's also one of the most unpredictable filmmakers out there right now, hopping between martial arts films, quiet family dramas, superhero movies and western-themed tragedies. Considering his versatility, it's questionable whether Lee even has a particular style to his filmmaking that one can nail down, or qualities that one could watch and immediately identify as his.

"Lust," his enthralling latest, serves best as a companion piece to "Brokeback Mountain" in sheer terms of tone, pacing and themes. Those who found that masterpiece boring should most definitely sit this one out, since it's even more methodically paced, as well as a half hour longer. However, in a season of perpetually looooong movies, it's worth pointing out that the intellectual stimulation will make up for what hardships your butt may withstand. At two hours and forty minutes, "Lust, Caution's" buildup is long (one could argue too long), but the payoff of conflicting morality and consequences wouldn't have anywhere near the power it does without it.

Beginning in 1942 in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, the film's first sequence centers on an extended mahjong game that's real significance will only be revealed later on. The seemingly rich and sophisticated Mrs. Mak (Tang Wei), is playing among an elite social circle before exiting to a coffee shop to make an important phone call. It's here we flashback to four years previous, where we discover Mrs. Mak is really Wong Chia Chi, a college student who becomes a part of a political acting troupe inspired by a boy she has a crush on, Kuang (Wang Leehom). Wong quickly becomes the group's leading lady, able to move and inspire both audience members and the troupe itself.

After deciding that acting "can't compare with eliminating a flesh and blood traitor," Kuang hatches a plan to use their skills to assassinate highly placed Japanese collaborator, Mr. Yee (an excellent Tony Leung). Wong ends up being the central figure in said scheme, infiltrating herself the social circle of Yee's wife (Joan Chen) and eventually, becoming embroiled in an affair with Yee himself. As Wong's feelings for Mr. Yee begin to merge with her mission, the film's primary tension derives from if, how and when the assassination will take place.

It's telling that the film opens with a mahjong game considering how much of the running time is occupied by them, and how important they are. While nothing substantial is discussed during them (the dialogue is relatively superficial), they speak worlds about the characters, what's going on underneath, and social hierarchy. I wouldn't necessary advise it, but one wouldn't be misguided to not even bother reading the subtitles for these scenes and just looking at the actors' eyes.

The extremely similar plots have understandably brought comparison to Paul Verhoeven's lurid "Black Book," but while that film was more relentlessly entertaining/ludicrous/lowbrow, "Lust, Caution" is significantly more affecting, emotionally complex and a more satisfying whole. In other words, if you prefer a bucket of shit dumped on your main character rather than unrequited emotion and vague moral implications, Verhoeven's is the one to go with. As always, Lee goes for the subtle or understated, and delving into the meaning underneath things; Verhoeven's style has its fans, I'm just not one of them.

Even if it's not the most fast-moving affair, "Lust" is consistently glorious-looking, and the period detail is exquisite. Technically the film is a marvel, and the screenplay (co-written by Focus Features head James Schamus) makes for a perfect pairing of material and filmmaker. As someone who never read the Eileen Chang short story it's based on, I was taken off-guard by the directions it went, and the little details in the storytelling linger as much as the grand moments. However, while small moments like Wong applying perfume behind her ears and weeping while watching "Intermezzo" stay with you, the film's final chain of events is the sort of haunting filmmaking you're unable to get out of your head.

It's impossible to talk about the film without bringing up what's given it 95% of its publicity: the sex scenes which resulted in earning the movie an NC-17 rating. They're extremely graphic, hot, and for the most part, necessary. They're important for the characters, considering the only times they're not putting on some sort of face for the other is during them (or at least during the later ones). From the first one, which is a sort-of consensual rape that closes with an ambiguous smile, to the last, which is significantly more sensual, they also perfectly show the progression of Yee and Wong's relationship. Without them, we'd never have a complete understanding of what goes on between them. And at the risk of sounding naive and immature, these things do not look staged; I swear I saw penetration at one point, though I can't be certain.

Tang Wei gives one of the best performances by an actress this year as Wong; it's a truly brave, breathtaking debut performance, and it really deserves recognition come year's end. She convincingly pulls off an astonishing character transformation, and she manages to be hugely emotionally affecting while being remarkably subtle. As the film goes on, we're not always sure about how we feel about character, so it's a credit to her stunning performance that we always feel involved and caught up with how she'll end up.

"Lust, Caution" is a film that requires patience from its audience, but those who can withstand its pacing will find it fits comfortably into Lee's increasingly impressive filmography. Emotionally and morally complex, wonderfully performed, and always beautiful to look at (and listen to), it's one any serious filmgoer really doesn't have a right to miss it.

"Lust, Caution" is now playing in New York, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago and expands to additional cities this Friday and slowly throughout October and November.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: Best Actress (Tang Wei), Best Score, Best Cinematography

Friday, October 05, 2007

"The Heartbreak Kid" -- * *

For a comedy that doesn't really allow the jokes to ever stop flying, let alone the Farrelly Brothers' first return to R-rated raunchy comedy in over 7 years, "The Heartbreak Kid" offers appallingly few genuine laughs, though it can't be faulted for trying. It's a rather hit-and-miss affair, and when it hits, it hits hard, but there's significantly more misses in store. Though I'm sure it will be a relatively big hit, I'm sad to report that this remake of the Charles Grodin classic registers as my least favorite movie in the Farrellys' ouvre.

Our "hero" Eddie Cantro (Ben Stiller) has a history of dumping girls for the slightest details (one because she thought the gopher in "Caddyshack" looked too fake), and the movie kicks off with him going to the wedding of a former girlfriend. Tired of singlehood and dismissing girls for trivial reasons, he takes a leap and marries his latest girlfriend Lila (Malin Akerman) after dating her for only six weeks. Almost immediately after the wedding, on their honeymoon in Cabo, all of Lila's flaws come out. Not only is she wildly stupid and irritating, she also has a (literally) violent sexual appetite and has insane debts she's neglected to tell Eddie about. Being driven nuts by Lila, who's confined to the hotel room with a horrible sunburn, Eddie meets Miranda (Michelle Monaghan, meh as usual) at his resort, and begins to fall for her.

The Farrellys mined huge laughs in "There's Something About Mary" and (more debatably) "Me, Myself and Irene," from blue, R-rated material, and a big problem with "Heartbreak Kid" is that much of the raunch and gross-out material feels extremely forced, as if they're desperately trying to re-create "Mary's" success. Hearing Jerry Stiller asking "You crushing any pussy?" or calling someone "pussydick" might have seemed hilarious on paper, but in execution it's just lame, as is virtually all of the elderly comedian's material (an old person being foul mouthed! What originality!). Most of the R-rated stuff falls flat, including what is clearly meant to be the film's big word-of-mouth scene (a la "hair gel"), involving urine, a vaginal piercing and a tuft of pubic hair. The lone exception to this rule is the outrageous sex scenes, which are quite funny and demand an R-rating; it's certain lines like "Fuck me like a black guy!" couldn't have passed muster in a PG-13 film.

But it's not merely the forced raunchiness gags that are sub par, even the less dirty jokes and set-pieces don't really work. A running gag involving a mariachi band seems to just fizzle out, and an extended sequence late in the movie of Eddie trying to cross the Mexican border is ill-conceived and serves only to make the movie longer. Also, Lila's deviated septum causes things to inconveniently come out of her nose, and we get three separate gross sequences devoted to it (SPOILER! Apple juice, a big tylenol pill and seafood).

The chief problem, and what I suspect is a big contributor to the lack of funny, is that this is the Farrellys' first movie that merely uses the character as props for the carefully orchestrated (by FIVE writers) set-pieces. Say what you want about their films, but from "Dumb and Dumber" to "Me Myself and Irene" to "Fever Pitch," they have always had an affection for their characters in everything they've done. Here they're too caught up in trying to re-create past success to remember to give us anyone we care about. Though he was rumored to have been "softened" from the original film, our lead here is still problematically unlikable, which might be more of a problem if he was fleshed out at all.

Stiller isn't at fault for this. He's completely game for the character's assholic actions, and though people seem to be getting tired of him playing similar roles, he still has a knack for delivery and certainly has his moments here (his outburst at the mariachi band is much funnier in context than in the trailer). Him appearing in raunchier fare is definitely a step in the right direction though, as he's better and more creative when unhinged than as his neutered self we usually get.

Akerman is frequently hilarious and obviously has genuine talent. She's also conventionally great-looking, but unfraid to make herself look awful for the good of a joke. While fellow blonde Cameron Diaz was charming and goofy in "Mary," she doesn't have the chops or comedic skill to pull off what Akerman does here. Despite her one-dimensional character being written as an irritating psycho, Lila's still the most sympathetic character in the film, and that's a credit to the actress, not the screenplay.

The supporting cast varies in levels of quality. Seeing Carlos Mencia's name in the opening credits should've been a warning sign of what was to come, and sure enough, he's awful, annoying and giving a gratingly-repeated catchphrase ("Screw off!") On the other hand, Rob Corddry gets the film's funniest moments as Eddie's best friend who insists on marital bliss despite obviously being terrified by his wife, and it's a shame he's not in the movie more.

Perhaps I'm mildly overreacting because I'm usually such a big fan of the Farrelly Brothers, but I was really let down by "The Heartbreak Kid." Running a very long hour and 50 minutes, it isn't an awful film, just a mediocre one with far too many laughless stretches. In my book that puts it in the same catalog as "Wedding Crashers" and "Bruce Almighty," both of which made over $200 million so, hey, shows you how much I know.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

"The Darjeeling Limited" -- * * * *

It's always taken me more than one viewing to decipher how I really feel about each of Wes Anderson's films, so it might not be the best idea to formulate a review of "The Darjeeling Limited" after watching it just once. But I was so remarkably satisfied, I dare say delighted, by every one of its 91 minutes on the first go round, that I'm certain future viewings will only further my appreciation of it.

Anderson's trademarks are all here: extraordinary attention to detail, offbeat characters with personal problems to overcome, use of Kumar Pallana, strategically utilized soundtrack, as well as little eccentric quirks (including a character afflicted with alopecia and repeated use of a perfume "Voltaire #6"). But there's also a startling sadness at work here, as well as a significantly smaller (almost claustrophobic) scale, and a propensity for symbolism unseen in his previous works.

In the first of many symbolic images to come, the film opens with an old man (Bill Murray) missing a train due to his being unwilling to part ways with his luggage, while being outrun by young, spry Peter Whitman (Adrien Brody) to the sounds of The Kinks' "This Time Tomorrow". The train, the Darjeeling Limited, carries Peter's two brothers, Francis (Owen Wilson) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman). It's been over a year since the brothers have seen each other-- at their father's funeral-- and the reunion has been orchestrated by Francis, who wants the three to take a "spiritual journey" to India and heal their past wounds.

Francis, who's become wealthy from his unspecified business, was nearly killed in a motorcycle accident and is heavily bandaged, short story writer Jack is heartbroken over his last girlfriend and keeps checking her answering machine messages, and Peter has no idea how to deal with his imminent baby ("I always expected to get divorced, so having a child really wasn't a part of my plan.") Francis' chief intention for the trip, which he's neglected to tell Jack or Peter, is for them to visit their estranged mother (Anjelica Huston), now working at an Indian convent.

One of the ingenious things Anderson does here is not explicitly tell us about the brothers' relationship in the past and what exactly caused the rift, nor exactly what the deal is with the mother. There are little hints dropped throughout that give us one vague idea or another, but it's not spelled out and we're left to make our own decisions about what led the brothers to where they are now. This is something that probably won't sit well with mainstream audiences, as is Anderson's shrugging off of such conventions as a substantial plot and conventional climax. "Darjeeling" is very much a character-driven affair, and it lives and dies by them. Thankfully, they're engaging characters that we feel for despite their flaws, and even with all the Anderson-esque quirk on top, their interactions are achingly recognizable.

There's an emotional resonance here that sneaks up on you, not with a big release moment but with character evolutions, and also a sensitivity towards the world outside of our central characters, a response to complaints some have leveled against Anderson in the past. With "Darjeeling," he maintains a mournful, elegiac tone that reflects his maturing sensibility, but he never abandons his signature dry humor. As usual, there will be more smiles and caustic chuckles than belly-laughs, but there's a notably inspired sequence of physical comedy involving fighting, running and a can of mace that's extremely reminiscent of the chase throughout the house near the end of "The Royal Tenenbaums."

The three actors have excellent chemistry together, and despite their disparity in looks, they're completely believable as brothers. Brody blends in remarkably well with the Anderson ensemble, showing a previously unutilized flair for comedy as well as bringing those Oscar-winning chops to the table. He, arguably, has the most complex character and makes Peter's shifts from warm to hurtful (he lies and says his father declared him his favorite son as he lay dying) effortless and believable. Schwartzman conveys a wounded innocence throughout, but his character is vastly enriched by the short, "Hotel Chevalier" (more on that in a bit).

Wilson had really begun to grate on my nerves in recent years with his "who, me?" shtick. He seems to play the same character in every movie since "Wedding Crashers," and it's a rather uninteresting, irritating character. It's only in Anderson's movies that he seems to step out of the box, really play real characters and seem to have his heart in what he's doing. As such, he's terrific here, and Francis has significantly more depth than Eli Cash or Ned Plimpton. Given his bandaged-up appearance, and revelations about the character late in the proceedings, it's nearly impossible to not have at least vague thoughts of Wilson's recent suicide attempt. However, it really doesn't overwhelm the content, and even if it does for you, it only casts a slightly hopeful shadow over the real-life situation.

Preceding "The Darjeeling Limited" at film festivals and critics' screenings, but NOT during its theatrical release, is the 13-minute-long "Hotel Chevalier," a two character piece featuring Schwartzman as Jack, and Natalie Portman as his ex-girlfriend. The short, which works incredibly well even on its own, takes place before "Darjeeling," and features Jack holed up in the titular hotel until his ex pays a surprise visit. The two exchange some heated words before screwing (yes, horndogs, Portman appears mostly nude, with the particulars carefully obscured), and than gazing upon the hotel room's view of Paris. In the closing credits of the short, it's billed as "Part 1 of The Darjeeling Limited," and rightfully so. This isn't just a short that enhances certain elements of the feature; not watching it will cause many a "huh?" during "Darjeeling," as well as negate an important character moment for Schwartzman. "Chevalier" is available for free download on iTunes, so I have to insist anyone who plans to see "Darjeeling" download and watch the short beforehand, but Fox Searchlight really should be attaching this to every print of "Darjeeling."

Though Anderson's films seem to be consistently divisive-- just as many seem to hate them as love them-- I don't think there's a filmmaker today who puts as much joy, originality and meticulous craft into his work. Every three years (the rate at which Anderson delivers a new work), the same old gang comes out screaming from the tallest tower "too clever/hip/smart for its own good," and the Wes fan base seems to grow smaller with each new outing.

Me? I find Anderson's output consistently wonderful, and in new and interesting ways each time around (the much-maligned "The Life Aquatic" was on my top 10 of 2004). So, while "Darjeeling" is possibly the auteur's least accessible film, it's also probably his most mature and humanistic effort to date.

"The Darjeeling Limited" is now playing exclusively in New York, and opens in additional cities on Friday. It expands to 90+ theatres on October 12th, 200+ on the 19th, and nationwide on the 26th.


Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Oscar predictions... 5 months out

So, Toronto's come and gone, as has Telluride and Venice, and it appears to not have changed the Oscar situation much. What's made the most impact is non-festival films starting to be shown, and others doing well or poorly at the box office.

"American Gangster" has begun screening, and those who have seen it seem to think it's a sure-fire nominee. I don't know exactly why, but I'm feeling a stylish, hard-boiled crime epic won't strike the Academy's fancy two years in a row. Each time I see the trailer (which seems to be attached to literally every movie I've seen since July), I acknowledge it looks good, but it also looks mighty familiar. I don't get a look at it for another two weeks, so who knows, maybe seeing it will change my mind, but for right now, I'm sticking with my guns.

Paramount Vantage also had secret screenings over the last week of Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" and the instantaneous word-of-mouth was what we all hoped for. The word "masterpiece" was used countless times and everyone seems all but sure that it'll garner Oscar gold. I figured straight away this would be Anderson's shot to finally get appreciation from the Academy, who've always overlooked him before, and the buzz seems to solidify that. Now if only we didn't have to wait till December 26th...

"Into the Wild" has also climbed over many awards contenders now that it's been released and people seem to going head over heels for it. Combined with the fact that it's doing rather well at the box office, is written and directed by a well-liked Oscar-winning actor AND it's a true story, its prospects are looking great. The only stumbling block for it may in fact be "Blood." Both films are Paramount Vantage, and it's increasingly rare that a studio (let alone a specialty division) can get multiple films nominated among the five slots-- ESPECIALLY considering Vantage also has the possibly-awards-friendly "The Kite Runner" on the horizon as well.

While it's not completely dead yet, Paul Haggis' anti-Iraq "In the Valley of Elah" is eating it hard at the box office, and being completely gone from theaters before November is something that usually can't be overcome in awards season. I feel about sheepish about jumping the gun and assuring it a Best Picture nomination. "Babel" had an uphill climb at the box office its entire theatrical run as well, but that at least had the benefit of not opening till November; being released the second week of September and dying at the box office is a combination that just might be insurmountable. While I could've sworn the ever-liberal (except when it comes to *gasp* homosexuality) Academy would make sure they got one of the Iraq films in among the nominees, it looks like even "Elah's" loudest supporters have gone quiet. There's still a chance of resurgence later in the season if the film evokes passionate response at screenings, but as of right now, it looks like Tommy Lee is its lone survivor.

So here goes with my five months out predictions:


-"Atonement," Focus Features
-"Charlie Wilson's War," Universal Pictures
-"Into the Wild," Paramount Vantage
-"No Country for Old Men," Miramax Films
-"There Will Be Blood, " Paramount Vantage

I acknowledge that Vantage getting two films nominated is terribly unlikely, but as of right now I can't think of any other factor keeping "Wild" and "Blood" from getting in here. "Atonement" and "There Will Be Blood" seem like the surest bets among these five and the rest are wild cards. I've read the screenplay to "Charlie Wilson" and it's terrific and there's no reason to think the finished product won't be too; the film's only drawback is being seen 6 months away as the front-runner, which can only result in unfair expectations (remember "Munich" and "Dreamgirls"?). "No Country" is being called the Coen Brothers' masterpiece (or second masterpiece) by many, and just as many people are saying the way the movie closes is going to infuriate mainstream audiences. Will the Academy fall into that category or will they jump on the hailing bandwagon? And yes, I do realize I'm predicting this to be a year when every nominee is an adaptation.
Strong Possibilities: "American Gangster," "In the Valley of Elah," "Sweeney Todd," "The Savages"


-Paul Thomas Anderson, "There Will Be Blood"
-Mike Nichols, "Charlie Wilson's War"
-Sean Penn, "Into the Wild"
-Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, "No Country for Old Men"
-Joe Wright, "Atonement"

Strong possibilities:
Tim Burton, "Sweeney Todd;" Paul Haggis, "In the Valley of Elah;" Ridley Scott, "American Gangster;" Tamara Jenkins, "The Savages"


-Daniel Day-Lewis, "There Will Be Blood"
-Johnny Depp, "Sweeney Todd"
-Tommy Lee Jones, "In the Valley of Elah"
-James McAvoy, "Atonement"
-Joaquin Phoenix, "Reservation Road"

Strong possibilities: Denzel Washington, "American Gangster;" George Clooney, "Michael Clayton;" John Cusack, "Grace is Gone;" Philip Seymour Hoffman, "The Savages;" Emile Hirsch, "Into the Wild"


-Cate Blanchett, "Elizabeth: The Golden Age"
-Julie Christie, "Away From Her"
-Marion Cotillard, "La Vie En Rose"
-Laura Linney, "The Savages"
-Ellen Page, "Juno"

I subbed in Page for Nicole Kidman based on how positively "Juno" has been received and every single rave has mentioned Page. The category loves nominating breakout roles as well as ones in warm-hearted crowd-pleasers. On the other hand, "Margot at the Wedding" has been proclaimed even by its fans as intensely unlikable and full of self-absorbed characters. Now that doesn't diminish Kidman's performance, but Oscar will take a young likable ingenue over a past winner playing an unlikable twat anyday. I still think "The Savages" could be a secret weapon for Searchlight come December, but at the least, it should get Linney her third nomination for her already much-praised work in it. The shakiest nominee is, believe it or not, Blanchett, given the film's chilly reception, but I still think the much-beloved actress revisiting the role that made her a star will be too much for voters to resist.
Strong possibilities: Keira Knightley, "Atonement;" Nicole Kidman, "Margot at the Wedding;" Amy Adams, "Enchanted;" Angelina Jolie, "A Mighty Heart;" Jodie Foster, "The Brave One"


-Casey Affleck, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"
-Javier Bardem, "No Country for Old Men"
-Paul Dano, "There Will Be Blood"
-Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Charlie Wilson's War"
-Hal Holbook, "Into the Wild"

Strong possibilities: Mark Ruffalo, "Reservation Road;" Tom Wilkinson, "Michael Clayton;" Philip Bosco, "The Savages"


-Cate Blanchett, "I'm Not There"
-Helena Bonham Carter, "Sweeney Todd"
-Jennifer Jason Leigh, "Margot at the Wedding"
-Vanessa Redgrave, "Atonement"
-Saoirse Ronan, "Atonement"
I was considering Sarandon here for a while given "Elah's" momentary heat, but I'm counting on a total "Atonement" lovefest so I think both Ronan and Redgrave will get in here, even though Redgrave supposedly has little more than an extended cameo.
Strong Possibilities: Susan Sarandon, "In the Valley of Elah;" Amy Ryan, "Gone Baby Gone"

-"Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"
-"I'm Not There"
-"The Savages"
Strong Possibilities: "Once," "Margot at the Wedding"


-"Into the Wild"
-"Charlie Wilson's War"
-"No Country for Old Men"
-"There Will Be Blood"

Strong Possibilities: "American Gangster;" "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford;" "In the Valley of Elah;" "Sweeney Todd"