Monday, January 28, 2008

You Can't Stop What's Coming...

So, last night we got our second, and possibly last, award show of the season that was actually attended by the nominees. The show was pretty good all around, from the speeches to the winners to the entertainment factor, and if the winners are replicated at the Oscars, I'll be (mostly) happy.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Javier Bardem, "No Country for Old Men"

While he may overplay the gracious card just a tad (his stating that the performances of his fellow nominees will be well-remembered and regarded till the end of time might have been a bit much), Bardem generally came off as sincere and gave just the right amount of props to the other nominees and his collaborators on the film. His mention of appreciation at being accepted and embraced as the sole non-American was a particularly nice touch and seemed to play well. With his playing his cards right, paired with his all-season-long momentum, Bardem (deservedly) seems unstoppable at this point in the game. And will someone please tell Casey Affleck to at least make an attempt to not appear like a total douche at these awards ceremonies? At both the BFCA awards and this, he couldn't have looked more miserable to be there, this time even popping his gum as the nominees were read off and when Bardem gave his speech.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Ruby Dee, "American Gangster"

Look, we all like Ruby Dee. How could you not? But this was such a complete bullshit win. While there's always been cases of actors getting career-recognition wins, you could at least make some sort of argument for the performance. There's no excuse, with performances like those Cate Blanchett, Amy Ryan, Catherine Keener and Tilda Swinton in the running, for Dee to have taken this. Yes she's old, yes she's beloved, yes she slapped Denzel, but this is ridiculous. You just don't give a purely-career-recognition award when it's up against four great performances; you do it in a year when the only alternative is Eddie Murphy. And matters weren't helped that Dee's scattershot, if sincere, speech seemed to (literally) last longer than her actual screentime in the film. Her and Mickey Rooney together turned this year's SAG awards into a nationally televised "grandpa rambling at dinner" moment

BEST ACTOR: Daniel Day-Lewis, "There Will Be Blood"

One of the best performances of all time. If anyone else won this award at any other awards shows, it'd be a travesty, and thankfully, no one else will. The real topic of conversation is his speech, an eloquent, passionate tribute to Heath Ledger. Expanding on what he expressed during his Oprah interview, and specifically discussing Ledger's performances in "Monster's Ball" and "Brokeback Mountain," Day-Lewis didn't once seem self-important or even bother thanking people on his own behalf. It came off as the most memorable, as well as the classiest, speech of the night. If one wanted to cynically look at it, this is exactly the sort of thing that could be seen as self-serving or manipulated to catapult one's awards potential (i.e.: Jamie Foxx's repeated invocation of his grandmother; Hilary Swank continually mentioning her trailer park roots). However, Day-Lewis never came off any less than wholly sincere, and seems to have more of a regard for the loss of Ledger and the state of those close to him than any self-obsessed hunger for awards. Then again, the guy may be the best actor on the planet, so he probably could convince me of anything...

BEST ACTRESS: Julie Christie, "Away From Her"

Finally showing up to an awards ceremony, Christie admitted that a took a lot of pushing by Lionsgate to get her to come, and may have inadvertently crippled her Oscar-winning potential with her speech. Staying mostly formal but classy, and acknowledging her reticence to come to such shindigs, Christie gave a respectable, if unremarkable, speech, until she cracked a joke at the last second, revealing a jarring lack of respect for the film's subject matter and Alzheimer's-consumed character she played. Her quip, “If I have forgotten anybody, it’s just because I am still in character,” came off as in remarkably poor taste, and seemed to offend as many in the audience as it amused. Christie will probably still win the Oscar, but as we know all too well, sometimes these early speeches are "auditions" of sorts for the big shows, and sometimes actors fuck themselves with them (like Eddie Murphy just last year). And please, Oscar people, please, show a Christie clip besides that "I want you to make love to me" one. It's becoming the Sissy Spacek "Everything! *plate smash*" of this year.


I actually got a kick just seeing all three of our leading men finally sharing a stage, considering none of them actually share any screentime together at any exact moment in the film; Even when Brolin and Bardem were both in the same scene, we never glimpsed them both in any shot. But I'm getting sidetracked. Josh Brolin, as usual, was snarky, funny and clever. Loved (a) his mention of Javier's 497 award wins this year, (b) proud announcement of the studio system backfiring awfully this year, and (c) "we did a freaky little movie, whether you like the ending or not!" The Ensemble award doesn't always line up with the Best Picture Oscar winner, but I think this time it just might. There's just too much overwhelming wins to ignore, and there's nothing in "No County" to make the skittish Academy uneasy (e.g.: gay cowboys) and blink at the last minute, and go for a "message" movie instead. Who knows, we could see an absurd win for "Juno" and an out-of-left-fielder for "Michael Clayton" (they like their named-after-title-character movies), but I think this win is just another in a seemingly never-ending heap of unanimous support.

Friday, January 25, 2008

"4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" -- * * * 1/2

A bleak, truthful depiction of the limited options available during communist rule in Romania, Cristian Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" is, when simplified, a movie about abortion, but it's really an exploration of larger issues, and a human story above all else. Though never exploitative, and filled with the utmost respect for its characters, weak-stomached/minded/willed viewers may instinctively want to steer clear, and understandably so. It's a grim, emotionally draining work for sure, but it never goes for the pounding-you-into-submission route, and is infinitely rewarding and compelling.

Like sheep who need to clearly divest a "message," I think people are going to feel the need to read their own politics or views on abortion into the film, but Mungiu makes great efforts to not imbue it with his own. It's simply a story about the relationship between two friends, and we're left to to our own thoughts. The film is neither pro-choice nor pro-life, though each side could easily make their case; you could argue it's an examination of the dehumanizing effects of abortion, or that it's about what happens to a society when back-alley abortions are the only option a woman has. Personally, the abortion issue is fairly important to me, but if I learned Mungiu was pro-life or pro-choice, it wouldn't really change my thoughts on the film, and I'd still consider it a mightily impressive work.

Set in 1987 under Russian rule, we start off witnessing two college roommates, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) routinely packing their bag, including soap, cigarettes and homework, for a trip the two are making together. In the first half hour, we're not entirely sure what's going on as we methodically follow Otilia as she has difficulties with transportation and confirming the hotel room Gabita has booked. We only slowly realize that all these arrangements are being made for an underground abortion that's been arranged for Gabita (abortions were a crime in Romania from 1966 to 1989).

The man hired by Gabita is the ironically-named Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), an imposing brute who radiates menace and seems to unsettle the two women with every sentence he speaks. It soon becomes clear that Gabita has so fucked up Bebe's specific instructions, from booking a room at the wrong hotel to lying about the extent of her pregnancy (see the film's title), which promotes the performing of the abortion from a jailable offense to a murder charge. Uneasily pleading and negotiating with Bebe, the two women strive to find an agreement on what would make performing the procedure worth his while, and try to make it through this day with their lives and souls intact.

The film establishes a profound kind of intensity throughout, keying us in to everything these characters are going through. I don't know if I would quite use the word suspense, but there's an always prevalent sense of discomfort and unease established by the unobtrusive, almost clinical approach. Partially due to an uncertainly where things were going to lead, my stomach was in knots for pretty much the entire running time. The screenplay plants tantalizing seeds of thriller/melodrama elements (such as Otilia swiping a knife from Bebe's case), but they don't pay off in any real way, instead being utilized as effective red herrings in a film that's all about real world atmosphere. There are no melodramatic turns here; rather, the film depicts an experience that was likely akin to what many women experienced at the time. Appropriately, there are no stabs at levity whatsoever, and the film seems to have been drained of any primary colors.

Mungiu has stated that he took numerous steps to create a heightened state of truthfulness and get rid of all elements that would create the appearance of filmmaking conventions or anything besides reality. Keeping with this, there is absolutely no music in the film, and Mungiu's minimalist technique strips everything down to its bare essentials, never showing us more than is absolutely necessary in any given sequence. This often results with us just seeing some thing's aftermath, or just enough to determine what has happened without being explicitly shown. However, there's a startling image late in the film that haunts but I still can't determine whether it's utilized cheaply as shock value, or serves a grander purpose. In keeping with the film's unwavering devotion to the truth, every scene is shot in a single take, and in most, the camera doesn't even move.

The approach is extremely effective, but never moreso than during the film's most memorable scene, a birthday party sequence in the third act that's a tour-de-force of unspoken emotion, dread and filmmaking technique. After the initial ordeal she's been through with Gabita, Otilia attends her boyfriend's mother's birthday party, and a wide shot shows her battered, drained presence in a sea of oblivious, beatifically cheerful partygoers. The shot goes on for an almost unbearably long time and the longer it goes, the more palpable Otilia's misery becomes in contrast to the exuberance around her.

Though Vasiliu is good as the pregnant Gabita, Mungiu makes the decision to tell this story from the perspective of Otilia, and the film is more resonant for it. Marinca gives a tremendous, brave performance, carrying the bulk of the film's weight on her shoulders, while drawing us into Otilia's plight in scene after scene. As we witness the gradual disintegration of her sense of hope, while showcasing fearless resilience throughout, the actress fearlessly and unfailingly conveys worlds about her character, often without saying a word. Ivanov is also outstanding as the cold, monstrous Bebe. Whether flying off the handle, or barely raising his voice, we're always convinced that he knows exactly what he's doing, and that makes the predatory surgeon even more frightening. Even though he's only in the film for a short period, his presence carries over the entirety, and his matter-of-fact demeanor leaves a chilling impression.

After winning the Cannes Film Festival's Palme D'or, and given its ecstatic critical reception over the last half year or so, "4 Months" was rightfully considered the frontrunner to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film this year. Well, for reasons only known to the nominating committee, it didn't even make their eligible shortlist (nor did other presumed frontrunners "Persepolis" and "The Orphanage"), let alone their final nominated five. Even putting aside the film's award-level quality, this ignorant oversight is a particular shame because this is the kind of difficult, demanding work that really needed Oscar attention to get the high-minded crowd's butts in seats. IFC Films obviously knew this, as I assume their decision to open the film in the United States this week was made in presumption of the film receiving a nomination on Tuesday. With any luck, the continuation of the film's rapturous reviews will be enough to get at least some people in the theater.

As you've probably gathered, "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" is not a film that can be described as a pleasure; rather, it's a tense experience that will leave most viewers shaken. It asks a lot of the audience, without much of a catharsis or emotional resolution, but it's never less than compelling, and devastating as it casts a haunting spell. This is practically the definition of 'not for everyone' but it's a tremendously powerful, impressive achievement that demands to be seen by any serious filmgoer.

"4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" opens today in two theaters exclusively in New York (the IFC center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas), and expands to major markets (including Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and Long Island) on February 1st. Sadly, if you live in a small town, it's probably never going to open in a theater near you, though the film will be available OnDemand on various cable systems starting today.

"How She Move" -- * * *

Someone like me probably wasn't on the target-demo list for a movie with lines of dialogue like "Maybe y'all been laxin' it, but my shit is always tight." And I'll admit, it's hard for me to give a shit about "steppin,'" that newfangled dance craze that's so popular with the yung'ns in urban areas (or at least that's what the movies tell me). But though I approached the latest movie within this genre, the Caribbean-Canadian Sundance acquisition "How She Move," with trepidation, by the half-hour mark, it had won me over. Much to my surprise, I did give a shit. I was invested in these characters and wanted oh-so-badly for their steppin' to go a'ight.

"How She Move," simply enough, follows Raya (Rutina Wesley), an especially smart inner-city girl, as she strives to make it to a national step-dancing competition with an all-male neighborhood dancing crew. She loves to dance, yes, but in a refreshing turn, her lofty aspirations are driven by her need for the prize-money to gain the private-school tuition (and subsequent enrollment at Johns Hopkins med school) her working-class Jamaican parents (Conrad Coates and Melanie Nicholls-King) can't afford. You see, before her drug-addict sister Pam died, her addiction divested the family of the money intended for Raya's education. Tossed into the mix are an evolving rivalry-turned-friendship with Michele (Tre Armstrong), a platonic thing with geeky, Tolstoy-loving dance partner (Brennan Gademans), romance with Bishop (Dwain Murphy) and a shaky allegiance between Raya and Pam's drug enabler.

The work of a young director (Ian Iqbal Rashid) and screenwriter (Annmarie Morais) , and filmed with an effective grittiness that seems to have bled out most color, "How She Move' has many of the typical contrivances one would expect within the rise-up-and-succeed, as well as the dance-off, genre, but they're balanced by things usually absent from this sort of thing, namely emotional resonance, character development, chemistry between actors, and the feeling that we're watching real people. For every "No she di'int!" moment (a rival group steals Raya's group's routine, calling to mind 'spirit fingers') or unnecessary melodrama (the drug dealer character seems perhaps too much a human embodiment of Satan), there's recognizable human interactions and effective moments of emotion and levity.

However, I'm not going to pretend that this isn't chiefly a step-dancing movie. There are dance sequences to spare here, and they're equal opportunity stimulators, featuring both muscular tank-topped men and girls in gold half-tees and ultratight, booty-enhancing jeans. But distracting physical attributes aside, these sequences (choreographed by Hi-Hat) are enormously enjoyable to watch, offering careful precision, grace and genuine wit. There are more than a few moments where dance sequences are featured for no other reason than they're entertaining, and I didn't mind a bit. And again, I'm someone who doesn't care about dancing.

For a type of film not generally thought of as being a showcase for acting, there are a surprising number of good performances on display in "How She Move."I would assume (though my assumptions often aren't worth shit) that Wesley's performance here will be looked back upon as a star-making one, as she makes Raya a complex character with her largely physical performance that emphasizes body language and silent communications as much as dancing. Armstrong also fills what could have been a one-note, stock role with evolving understanding and depth. But best of all is Nicholls-King as Raya's mother, doing wonders with her limited screentime. Still grieving for her older daughter and determined to not see her younger one go down the same track with the same aimless crowd, she delivers heartbreaking poignance in every scene she's in, providing more depth to the character than initially meets the eye.

In all honesty, based on its marketing, "How She Move" is probably not a movie I would have seen had I not attended a press screening, but I'm certainly glad that I did. Though offering some general familiarity and occasionally choppy pacing, the positives are plentiful enough to make it a worthwhile trip to theater. Infusing a none-too-respected genre of film with well-defined characters and an actual filmmaking sensibility (not to mention those hella cool dance sequences), it should equally appeal to those who ate up "Stomp the Yard," "Save the Last Dance" and "8 Mile," as well as the disinterested cynics like me, as long as they're willing to give a dancing movie a chance.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

"U2 3D" -- * * *

Saddled with a G rating and equipped with the same chunky headgear as "The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl," Catherine Owens and Mark Pellington's "U2 3D" may be the least hardcore/badass rock concert film ever made, but it also embeds us into the heightened, exciting concert-going atmosphere like few other films I've ever seen. While it could be argued that any band/concert shot in 3-D and projected on an IMAX screen could have much the same effect, that doesn't make this one any less of a fun, brisk, awesome sensory experience. It is worth noting however that, like any concert film, if you don't enjoy the music/band in question, no amount of bells and whistles is going to make the movie an easy sit. Thankfully, I like U2.

Directors Pellington ("Arlington Road," "The Mothman Prophecies") and Owens have patched together performances from U2's 'Vertigo' Tour shows in Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Santiago and Sao Paulo seamlessly to make it seem like it's all one consistent concert in front of the same 100,000 fans. There's some interesting decisions made here, most notably that there's much more directorial emphasis on The Edge than enigmatic frontman Bono, who has a tendency to hog the spotlight. Drummer Larry Mullen and infinitely creepy guitarist Adam Clayton get plenty of facetime too, but The Edge's presence seems to dominate every song performance, and the decision seems intentional, if unexplained. There's also a surplus of Bono/U2's politics interspersed into the staging and introduction of a few songs, and the one break in performance is for Bono to recite the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. While it's mildly disappointing that the band's angry leftism has mellowed into vague "Yay Peace and Unity" speechifying, at least they make more of an attempt to get some sort of message out within their shows than most bands.

This is a concert film that's all about the performances from beginning to end, with no interviews, backstage antics, or behind-the-scenes footage, and the stripped-down approach allows for a much more streamlined, in-and-out, sit-back-and-enjoy experience (the movie runs a scant 85 minutes). Filled with seemingly inexplicable energy-- though Bono's borderline-embarrassing dancing at the outset thankfully tapers off as the show goes on-- the band plays strictly their hits and keeps things moving along at a brisk pace, while likely causing an irritating number of feet in your theater to tap away. While I was just happy to see a band with boundless enthusiasm and not going on auto-pilot, the performances of these songs might be a little too "perfect" and polished for die-hard fans of the band, with little of their days-of-yore spontaneity and improvisation. Also, it was maybe a poor choice structure-wise to have all the slower songs bunched together in the middle rather than interspersed, but I doubt it'll deaden many pulses. In terms of sheer performance level, the highlights for me were their anti-Reagan-turned-anti-war "Bullet the Blue Sky" and the always exhilarating "Pride." For those curious, the set list featured in the film is as follows:

1. Vertigo
2. Beautiful Day
3. New Year's Day
4. Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own
5. Love and Peace
6. Sunday Bloody Sunday
7. Bullet the Blue Sky
8. Miss Sarajevo
--. U.N. Declaration of Human Rights--
9. Pride (In the Name of Love)
10. Where the Streets Have No Name
11. One
12. The Fly
13. With or Without You
14. Yahweh

The 3-D effect is simply wondrous, and I'll be highly surprised if other bands don't follow U2's lead, and film their concerts in this format. While the 3-D generally just makes the experience more immersive and sweep over you, rather than cheap theatrics like throwing shit at the camera, there are moments throughout that take advantage of the gimmickry of the medium in rather effective ways. During "Sunday Bloody Sunday," Bono's arm stretches right over the audience, seemingly as a hand reaching out for peace and solidarity, and while the band performs "One," the background displays a collage of South American flags. U2 has always been a band that embraced the idea of 'putting on a show' when performing, with jumbo video screens and various texts and animations, and that approach has made them a seemingly ideal match with the process utilized here.

Giving you an experience that's on par with a front-row seat at a U2 concert for the price of a movie ticket, "U2 3D" is a relative bargain, not to mention a technical marvel. The concept itself seemed like a can't miss, and Owens and Pellington have done right by it, delivering a unique, very entertaining concert-going experience via IMAX and "3ality Digital" technology. It goes without saying that the movie is a must-see for U2 fans, but even those with just a passing familiarity with their music would be hard-pressed to not have a good time here. According to producer/distributor National Geographic Entertainment, there's no DVD release planned for "U2 3D," and who would want to see it that way anyway? Worthy of your money and (minimal) time, this one-time theatrical opportunity delivers on whatever expectations one might have from the title alone.

"U2 3D" opens today exclusively in IMAX theaters until February 14th, when it will move off of IMAX screens and into conventional theaters nationwide in Digital 3-D.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

There Will Be Oscar Nom Reactions...


Nominated for 8 Academy Awards
Best Picture
Best Director
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
Best Editing
Best Cinematography
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing


Nominated for 8 Academy Awards
Best Picture
Best Director
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Actor
Best Editing
Best Cinematography
Best Art Direction
Best Sound Editing


Nominated for 7 Academy Awards
Best Picture
Best Director
Best Original Screenplay
Best Actor
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Best Original Score


Nominated for 7 Academy Awards
Best Picture
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Best Original Score
Best Cinematography
Best Art Direction
Best Costume Design


Nominated for 4 Academy Awards
Best Picture
Best Director
Best Original Screenplay
Best Actress

To steal a line from Larry David, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good. "There Will Be Blood" and "No Country for Old Men" tied for the most nominations, so I really couldn't be much happier right now. Some surprises here and there-- especially "Into the Wild" getting shut out in EVERY major category -- but overall, I can totally live with these nominations.

I've posted reactions below for the categories I actually have something to say about. I don't mean to denegrate the other categories, I just wouldn't want to make a fool out of myself trying to muster up some commentary about sound mixing:

Best Picture
-- "Atonement"
-- "Juno"
-- "Michael Clayton"
-- "No Country for Old Men"
-- "There Will Be Blood"

Yeah, I'm on cloud 9 right now. The two best films of the year actually both got nominated for Best Picture, how crazy is that? I still don't get how anyone could love "Michael Clayton" enough to nominate it, but it's a solid movie and Clooney's involved, so I have no ill will. "Juno" turned out to have enough love going for it to make it, and even if I'm already starting to grow irritated with the positivity on it, I'm happy to see a comedy-- let alone a frothy, well-written one-- make it in. As for "Atonement," okay, yeah, I was wrong. I bought into the de-hype, I thought no Guild love meant no nomination. Although, I wonder if the complete Guild shutout actually helped it in the long run; with all the talk of "Poor 'Atonement'..." I wouldn't be surprised if its mild fans felt bad for it and placed it higher than they might have otherwise

Achievement in Directing
-- Julian Schnabel, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"
-- Jason Reitman, "Juno"
-- Tony Gilroy, "Michael Clayton"
-- Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, "No Country for Old Men"
-- Paul Thomas Anderson, "There Will Be Blood"

The only real major snub here is Sean Penn, though it makes sense when you see how well "Into the Wild" did across the board (*Spoiler Alert: Not at all!*). The Coens and PTA got their incredibly deserved nominations, while strong work by Schnabel and Gilroy were expected to make it. The real surprise here, showing the strength of the "Juno" love (and perhaps setting the stage for a Best Picture win?), is the undeservedly-ignored-all-season Jason Reitman. Comedy directors always seem to get the short shrift, and it's unfair, especially because Reitman has a clear sense of style, tone, pacing and is two-for-two in my book. Also, I got to interview the guy when he made the press rounds for "Thank You for Smoking" and he seemed like a hell of an affable, confident, nice guy. But I digress...

Actor in a Leading Role
-- George Clooney in "Michael Clayton"
-- Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood"
-- Johnny Depp in "Sweeney Todd"
-- Tommy Lee Jones in "In the Valley of Elah"
-- Viggo Mortensen in "Eastern Promises"

Well here we are again. The once-a-lock Jones turned out surviving through the awards season (I'm sure his presence in "No Country" didn't hurt) and making it in here for his excellent performance in the otherwise worthless "Elah." I have a feeling the two young whippersnappers, Ryan Gosling and Emile Hirsch, split the vote as the only potential nominees in their twenties, and made way for old coot Jones's sad patriot turn. Clooney and Day-Lewis were deserved locks, and Viggo had strength throughout the season but I still questioned it. Thankfully, he made it in for his wonderfully subtle performance, netting him his first nomination. I also questioned whether "Sweeney" love had waned to such an extent that Depp might get shutout, but it seems he can get nominated for anything (and has, for "Finding Neverland"), so best not to doubt him in the future.

Actress in a Leading Role
-- Cate Blanchett in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age"
-- Julie Christie in "Away from Her"
-- Marion Cotillard in "La Vie en Rose"
-- Laura Linney in "The Savages"
-- Ellen Page in "Juno"

I let out an "oh, shit!" when they read out Blanchett's name, because I thought it meant curtains for my dear Linney. Thankfully, Angelina was the one to get the boot for her "Nooooooo!" Oscar bait and against all odds, LL got in for "The Savages." Just goes to show you, even if someone's being ignored all season by every single awards body, never doubt Rob's gut. Even if the role is horribly written and the movie's a messy piece of shit, Blanchett really did a fine job figuring out what the fuck to do in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," so I'm not entirely upset she made it in over Jolie. And lord knows Oscar loves double nominations.

Actor in a Supporting Role
-- Casey Affleck in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"
-- Javier Bardem in "No Country for Old Men"
-- Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Charlie Wilson's War"
-- Hal Holbrook in "Into the Wild"
-- Tom Wilkinson in "Michael Clayton"

This is the same five we've been seeing for months now, and while it's boring, it's totally justified. All five performances are completely stellar, though I'd be lying if I wasn't the most excited about the recognition for Casey Affleck. I really worried enough folks hadn't seen the film, and he'd be sacrificed for a bigger name in a bigger movie, but there he is. And please see the movie A.S.A.P. if you haven't already, folks.

Actress in a Supporting Role
-- Cate Blanchett in "I'm Not There"
-- Ruby Dee in "American Gangster"
-- Saoirse Ronan in "Atonement"
-- Amy Ryan in "Gone Baby Gone"
-- Tilda Swinton in "Michael Clayton"

I'm happy for all the nominees here, especially Swinton for her first ever nomination, but it's hard to warm up to Oscar's old reliable let's-give-an-obligatory-nom-to-a-veteran policy. Rather than rewarding the terrific Kelly Macdonald for "No Country for Old Men" or Catherine Keener in "Into the Wild," we got a slot for Ruby Dee's under-five-minutes role in "American Gangster." Why? She's old, she's well-liked, she slaps Denzel in one scene. Presto, Oscar nomination. I actually love Ruby Dee and she's fine in the movie, so I'm not actively angry about this nomination, but it reeks of bullshit.

Adapted Screenplay
-- "Atonement," Screenplay by Christopher Hampton
-- "Away from Her," Written by Sarah Polley
-- "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," Screenplay by Ronald Harwood
-- "No Country for Old Men," Written for the screen by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
-- "There Will Be Blood," Written for the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson

I expected "Into the Wild" and "Zodiac" to place here instead of "Atonement" and "Away From Her," but it's hard to quibble with the choices made. "Atonement," for all its faults, had a very clever, carefully written screenplay, and Polley's "Away From Her" is one of the most underrated films of last year. I guarantee if it had gotten a November or December release date, it would have been a major contender this awards season. Either way, screenplay recognition for it is nice, deserved, and maybe will bring some new viewers to the film.

Original Screenplay
-- "Juno," Written by Diablo Cody
-- "Lars and the Real Girl," Written by Nancy Oliver
-- "Michael Clayton," Written by Tony Gilroy
-- "Ratatouille," Screenplay by Brad Bird
-- "The Savages," Written by Tamara Jenkins

These were the expected five (at least by me), and I'm not sure I could have picked them any better myself. "The Savages" and "Lars and the Real Girl" have really missed out on any real recognition or box office momentum this season, and I'm happy to see their excellent screenplays given nominations here. As for the win, I won't be upset when Diablo Cody takes the stage, but I'm pushing for a surprise win by Bird's "Ratatouille" screenplay.

Film Editing
-- "The Bourne Ultimatum," Christopher Rouse
-- "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," Juliette Welfling
-- "Into the Wild," Jay Cassidy
-- "No Country for Old Men," Roderick Jaynes
-- "There Will Be Blood," Dylan Tichenor

Can't argue with these choices, but what's most interesting for me is that it would seem these nominations are an indicator of "No Country" or "Blood" winning Best Picture, which I'm not quite sure if I can buy just yet. It's extremely rare for a film to win Best Picture without an Editing nomination, and these are the only two films that scored in both categories. Hmm...

-- "La Vie en Rose"
-- "Norbit"
-- "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End"

And "Norbit" is now an Oscar nominee, ladies and gentlemen.

Original Score
-- "Atonement," Dario Marianelli
-- "The Kite Runner," Alberto Iglesias
-- "Michael Clayton," James Newton Howard
-- "Ratatouille," Michael Giacchino
-- "3:10 to Yuma," Marco Beltrami

I was informed late last night that Jonny Greenwood's jaw-dropping, destined-to-be-legendary score for "There Will Be Blood" was disqualified for too much unoriginal content at the very last second (as were "Into the Wild" and "Enchanted"). This is complete and utter bullshit, and not only because Greenwood's score was the best of the year. Apparently the roadblock here was that Greenwood wrote a piece called "Popcorn Superhet Receiver" that included some of the same themes from "There Will Be Blood." But the thing is, composers do this ALL the time. To steal a line from a friend, hell, James Horner's discography is practically nothing more than consistent self-theft. But regardless, this is a truly amazing score that leaves such an incredible impact on audiences, and it's a disgrace that it won't be recognized. It's a tough choice among the eventual nominees-- I hated the "Kite Runner" score, and "Clayton's" only stuck out to me in the opening sequence. Ultimately, I'll have to root for Marianelli's masterful work on "Atonement" (the likely winner) or Giacchino's delightful "Ratatouille" score.

Original Song
-- "Falling Slowly" from "Once"
-- "Happy Working Song" from "Enchanted"
-- "Raise It Up" from "August Rush"
-- "So Close" from "Enchanted"
-- "That's How You Know" from "Enchanted"

Um, do I really need to say which one deserves to win? "Falling Slowly" was the most beautiful song of the year, and it deserves every award coming to it. Though three of these nominees may be a joke, I actually am happy "Happy Working Song" got nominated, considering it's the one time I smiled during "Enchanted." What can I say, it's on my iPod.

Art Direction
-- "American Gangster," Arthur Max, Beth A. Rubino
-- "Atonement," Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer
-- "The Golden Compass," Dennis Gassner, Anna Pinnock
-- "Sweeney Todd," Dante Ferretti, Francesca Lo Schiavo
-- "There Will Be Blood," Jack Fisk, Jim Erickson

While I can't say I was particularly impressed with the Art Direction in "American Gangster" or "The Golden Compass," "Atonement's" presence here is justified. Jack Fisk's work on "There Will Be Blood" is simply amazing, and Ferrett's "Sweeney Todd" sets were magnificent to look at. I have to go with Fisk's "Blood" work for the 'will win' and 'deserves to.'

-- "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," Roger Deakins
-- "Atonement," Seamus McGarvey
-- "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," Janusz Kaminski
-- "No Country for Old Men," Roger Deakins
-- "There Will Be Blood," Robert Elswit

The work by all four of these gentlemen were glorious to behold, and I'm have a tough time deciding who I would vote for. Elswit's photography on "Blood" was stunning, and Deakins' work on "No Country" was a masterpiece of careful light and shadows, but I'm going to have to go with the ethereal, dreamlike hues Deakins gave to "Jesse James" in its best moments. Any of these are deserving winners, but in "Jesse James," Deakins was one of the stars.

Costume Design
-- "Across the Universe," Albert Wolsky
-- "Atonement," Jacqueline Durran
-- "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," Alexandra Byrne
-- "La Vie en Rose," Marit Allen
-- "Sweeney Todd," Colleen Atwood

Colleen Atwood deserves the win (and just may get it) for her "Sweeney" costumes, particularly during the "By the Sea" number. As for Alexandra Byrne, her costumes seem to be the only justification for "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" to have even been made, so I wouldn't be surprised if her flashy, non-stop work (I think Cate Blanchett changes costumes 126 times throughout the film) pulls out a win.

Sound Editing
-- "The Bourne Ultimatum"
-- "No Country for Old Men"
-- "Ratatouille"
-- "There Will Be Blood"
-- "Transformers"

Sound Mixing
-- "The Bourne Ultimatum"
-- "No Country for Old Men"
-- "Ratatouille"
-- "3:10 to Yuma"
-- "Transformers"

Visual Effects
-- "The Golden Compass"
-- "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End"
-- "Transformers"

I hated all of these movies, but I have to admit, "Transformers" may have featured the best visual effects I've ever seen, so when that wins here, I won't be grumbling too loud.

Best Animated Feature Film
-- "Persepolis"
-- "Ratatouille"
-- "Surf's Up"

"Ratatouille" and "Persepolis" were, by far, the two best animated films of the year, so I'm tremendously happy that they nailed two of the three placements here. And while yes, "The Simpsons Movie" should have gotten that third slot, "Surf's Up" was an underrated, surprisingly clever little movie that floundered at the box office, so I'm not entirely upset about it getting some recognition.

Documentary Feature
-- "No End in Sight"
-- "Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience"
-- "Sicko"
-- "Taxi to the Dark Side"
-- "War/Dance"

Michael Moore is probably winning another Oscar this year for "Sicko," but I've heard tremendous things about "Taxi to the Darkside," and "No End in Sight" is one of the most important films of the year, and should be required viewing for every American. Given how strong that one is, and the Academy's tendencies to make political statements, I wouldn't be shocked to see it deservedly take the win. Still, this is probably Moore's show.

Documentary Short Subject
-- "Freeheld"
-- "La Corona (The Crown)"
-- "Salim Baba"
-- "Sari's Mother"

Best Foreign Language Film
-- "Beaufort," Israel
-- "The Counterfeiters," Austria
-- "Katyn," Poland
-- "Mongol," Kazakhstan
-- "12," Russia

Since the nominating committee stupidly left the three best foreign films of the year-- "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," "Persepolis" and "The Orphanage"-- off their shortlist, I've seen none of these nominees, and no one seems to have any enthusiasm about any of them. I have a screener of "The Counterfeiters" that I've been putting off watching, but I'll make sure to get to it soon. But as of right now, regretfully, I've nothing to say.

Animated Short Film
-- "I Met the Walrus"
-- "Madame Tutli-Putli"
-- "Même Les Pigeons Vont au Paradis (Even Pigeons Go to Heaven)"
-- "My Love (Moya Lyubov)"
-- "Peter & the Wolf"

Live Action Short Film
-- "At Night"
-- "Il Supplente (The Substitute)"
-- "Le Mozart des Pickpockets (The Mozart of Pickpockets)"
-- "Tanghi Argentini"
-- "The Tonto Woman"

Monday, January 21, 2008

FINAL Oscar Predictions

Wooooooooo! It's been a long strange road. I've predicted things on whims, then recanted, then re-instated. Remember some films I called as sure bets for Oscars across the board? If you can't remember, let me remind you: "In the Valley of Elah," "Atonement," "The Savages," "Sweeney Todd." Oh, also, remember this one? "'Michael Clayton' just isn't an Oscar movie. Even Clooney's performance is probably too subtle to be recognized, and the film's only real hope is for Tom Wilkinson and Best Original Screenplay." Woopsie-daisies. In my defense, I did call "Into the Wild" from way back, as well as had the foresight of Viggo Mortensen and Amy Ryan awards love, when few others even mentioned the latter in their reviews of the film. Oh well, no matter. Oscar nominations are tomorrow, and I'm fucking excited. Why? Because if the stars align, this has the potential to be the happiest I've been with the Oscars years.

As usual, there's still a few opportunities for extreme disappointment, but I'm more optimistic this year than most. I'd been playing it safe/pessimistic all season, and against all odds, movies I love have been getting increasing amounts of support. There seems to be equal potential for pleasant surprises (e.g.: "Pan's Labyrinth" receiving 6 nominations) and horrible ones (Paul Giamatti getting snubbed in favor of Johnny Depp and Clint Eastwood). Either way, as the winners are usually much more predictable than the nominees, tomorrow is the most exciting (and my favorite) day of the year for the film industry, and I can't wait. Here are my final predictions for the 2008 Academy Award nominations; see you tomorrow at 8:30 Eastern time:


1. "No Country for Old Men"
2. "There Will Be Blood"
3. "Michael Clayton"
4. "Into the Wild"
5. "Juno"

6. "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"
7. "Atonement"
8. "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"

Mmmm, what a year. As of right now, the general consensus seems to be that the nominees will be any five out of these six: "No Country for Old Men," "There Will Be Blood," "Michael Clayton," "Into the Wild," "Juno" and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." While "No Country" seems to be locked-in above all else, I wouldn't necessarily be surprised if any one of the other five missed out on the list tomorrow. Technically the weakest potential nominee of the six (in terms of Guilds) is "Juno," as it missed out on the DGA and the SAG Ensemble award, but the groundswell of love for it just seems too strong to ignore. If it misses out, it won't be a huge surprise to me-- if never really felt like an Oscar movie-- but I think we can count on it.

Meanwhile, "There Will Be Blood," "Michael Clayton" and "Diving Bell" all received DGA, WGA and PGA nominations, so by all logical reasoning, they should be in, but I don't know if "Diving Bell" has the chops to make it. People who love it LOVE it, but a surprising pocket of viewers seem to be indifferent to it, and I think it still might prove too arty/foreign for the Academy. Still the Guild support is hard to ignore, and I wouldn't be shocked if it makes it in over "Juno;" in fact, it probably deserves to. Ultimately, I'd bank on "No Country," "There Will Be Blood" and "Michael Clayton" as the safest bets, and I'd count on either "Juno," "Into the Wild" and "Diving Bell" being one of the ones that misses.

"Into the Wild" missed out on the PGA award, but if this makes any sense, it struck me as less of a 'Producers' movie than the others. I think it was fighting for its slot with "Clayton," which struggled for its funding and ended up being successful, and "Juno," which has the appearance of being an "indie" even though it's not, and is a huge box office hit-- both big Producers selling points. "Wild," on the other hand, (a) didn't really have difficulty amassing its budget, (b) just did okay-to-poor at the box office, and (c) was much more centric on Sean Penn's writing/directing than any sort of production/producing values. The enthusiasm for it at other Guilds, including the massive bukkake session it received at the SAGs, shows the love is there, and when receiving it from SAG, the largest voting branch of the Academy, I think it's in.

Like I said, all six are equally strong contenders, and seem to have enough props to get them in, but alas, only five can make it. Picking which one doesn't is as arbitrary and futile as picking one out of a hat, but "Diving Bell" seems the most likely to miss out at this juncture, the final race to the finish line. As for "Atonement" and "Sweeney Todd," I think they're both just as dead as their leading characters by the closing credits, but never say never. Best to keep them in at the bottom of the list as a safety net.

In terms of my happiness, I think "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood" were the two major cinematic benchmarks of the year, and the ones most likely to make an impact on cinematic history, so as long as those two make it in, I don't give a shit what else happens. It'll be the equivalent for me of if "Pan's Labyrinth" and "Children of Men" both got Best Picture nominations last year (if you don't recall, neither one did). Oscar taste rarely, if ever, seems to be in line with mine, so if by some weird aligning of stars, the films I adore get recognition, I'll be thankful and grateful.


1. The Coen Brothers, "No Country for Old Men"
2. Julian Schnabel, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"
3. Paul Thomas Anderson, "There Will Be Blood"
4. Sean Penn, "Into the Wild"
5. Tony Gilroy, "Michael Clayton"

6. Sidney Lumet, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"
7. David Cronenberg, "Eastern Promises"
8. Joe Wright, "Atonement"
9. Tim Burton, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"
10. Ben Affleck, "Gone Baby Gone"
11. Jason Reitman, "Juno"

Possibly the least exciting category, with four of the five slots seeming all-but-locks, with the fifth nearly there, Best Director seems like it will be full of deserving, if unsurprising candidates. The Coen Brothers, Schnabel, Anderson and Penn all seem good-to-go. The fifth slot seemed a little more up in the air, with the chance for Sidney Lumet or Tim Burton, but Gilroy's film seems a lock for a Best Picture nomination AND he clinched the DGA, so I think he's nearly as much of a lock as the other four. I'm still holding out for an out-of-left-field surprise like Ben Affleck, but it's probably for naught.


1. Daniel Day-Lewis, "There Will Be Blood"
2. George Clooney, "Michael Clayton"
3. Viggo Mortensen, "Eastern Promises"
4. Johnny Depp, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"
5. Ryan Gosling, "Lars and the Real Girl"

6. Emile Hirsch, "Into the Wild"
7. James McAvoy, "Atonement"
8. Denzel Washington, "American Gangster"

Tricky, tricky category. Day-Lewis and Clooney are locked-in, 100%. The other three have strong indicators going their way, but have just as many potential drawbacks. Mortensen got love from the Globes, BFCA, SAG, and Focus has been campaigning him like crazy; but he also keeps a low profile within the industry, and said "fuck you" to the Academy when they offered him membership in the past. Depp is beloved by the Academy, and they've shown they'll nominate him for anything (*cough* "Finding Neverland" *cough*); however, "Sweeney" isn't too well-liked, has lost much support over the last few weeks, plus Depp missed out with the SAG, who are usually his homeboys. Gosling got the Globe, BFCA and SAG love too, but it's hard to find people who've seen the movie, and Emile Hirsch seems to be riding along his coattails very, very closely with his HFPA, BFCA, SAG nominations.

This line-up could easily turn out to be (a) Day-Lewis, Clooney, Mortensen, Depp, Hirsch, (b) Day-Lewis, Clooney, Mortensen, Gosling, Hirsch, (c) Day-Lewis, Clooney, Depp, Gosling, Hirsch, or (d) Day-Lewis, Clooney, Mortensen, Depp, Gosling. Still, I'm still thinking/hoping that the Academy will see what I see, and fail to be impressed by Hirsch's fine-but-nothing-exceptional-except-for-his-weight-loss perfomance. Day-Lewis, Mortensen and Gosling gave the three best male performances of the year, and the three of them, plus Depp and Clooney will be a line-up I'll be extraordinarily happy with.


1. Julie Christie, "Away From Her"
2. Marion Cotillard, "La Vie en Rose"
3. Ellen Page, "Juno"
4. Angelina Jolie, "A Mighty Heart"
5. Laura Linney, "The Savages"

6. Amy Adams, "Enchanted"
7. Cate Blanchett, "Elizabeth: The Golden Age"
8. Keira Knightley, "Atonement"
9. Jodie Foster, "The Brave One"

Another fifth-slot toughie here. Christie, Cotillard and Page have been getting round-the-clock love and support all season, and Angelina has been close behind. At most other awards, Blanchett has been filling slot number five, but I just refuse to believe/accept that this is going to happen. She has to have just been a slot-filler for some unbeknownst reason, to be rectified later. Amy Adams has been beloved by everyone, and could make it in, but I'm going to have to go with my gut, my wishful-thinking choice of 2007, the performance that's been overlooked by every single awards body all season, Laura Linney in "The Savages."

When I first saw this performance, I thought it had a chance to be the one to take the awards season by storm, finally getting recognition for the always superb Linney, who's never won an Oscar. But alas, whether the film just wasn't seen enough, or the passion just wasn't worked up for the performance, nothing has happened thus far. But I believe now, that screeners are being widely seen/circulated, people are bound to start appreciating this performance, and I think/hope she'll get in as a "surprise" nomination. My gut has a tendency to have shit-for-brains (e.g.: my no guts, no glory prediction for Joan Allen for "The Upside of Anger" two years ago), but I'm going to go with it nonetheless and see what happens.
(11:21 Literal Eleventh Hour Commentary: I've just been informed that Entertainment Weekly also predicted a surprise nomination for Linney and I'm perceived as jumping on some sort of 'bandwagon'-- this is not the case. I haven't had a subscription to EW for over a year, so I didn't get a chance to see their predictions. Not that anyone cares, jus' sayin'.)


1. Javier Bardem, "No Country for Old Men"
2. Tom Wilkinson, "Michael Clayton"
3. Hal Holbrook, "Into the Wild"
4. Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Charlie Wilson's War"
5. Casey Affleck, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"

6. Tommy Lee Jones, "No Country for Old Men"
7. Paul Dano, "There Will Be Blood"
8. John Travolta, "Hairspray"
9. Max Von Sydow, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"

Boring, but nice. These five have been the same ones we've been seeing all season, and they're all pretty excellent. The only real tension lies in seeing if Affleck or Hoffman get snubbed in favor of surprise pop-ups from Jones or Dano. But I really hope it's these five, and it's looking like it's going to be.


1. Amy Ryan, "Gone Baby Gone"
2. Cate Blanchett, "I'm Not There"
3. Tilda Swinton, "Michael Clayton"
4. Saoirse Ronan, "Atonement"
5. Kelly Macdonald, "No Country for Old Men"

6. Catherine Keener, "Into the Wild"
7. Ruby Dee, "American Gangster"
8. Jennifer Garner, "Juno"
9. Leslie Mann, "Knocked Up"
10. Vanessa Redgrave, "Atonement"

While three out of these five (Ryan, Blanchett and Swinton) can breathe easy, the fight for the final two slots should be a knife fight in the street. Ronan seemed a sure thing, but I could see "Atonement" suffering from a group mentality wanting to deny the film anything; Macdonald has got no recognition at all these season, but I just think her performance will stick with people and be helped by her making the rounds with Bardem, Brolin and the Coens on the campaign trail. Catherine Keener's been popping up on all the shortlists thus far, though I wonder if her wonderful work is too subtle, and nobody's been talking about her-- at all. Ruby Dee is old, well-liked, has one really good scene, and she got nominated by SAG; it's feasible, if not probable.

Jennifer Garner has gone the whole season without being mentioned, but if "Juno" love gets spread around, I could see a surprise nomination for the one grounding/emotional performance in the film. Leslie Mann's a long shot, but she's really terrific in the movie, the film's been getting some love (particularly by the WGA), and Universal has been smartly spending money on trade ads for Mann, knowing Supporting Actress is a very weak category this year. Vanessa Redgrave delivers a single-scene knockout, but she seemed a lot more likely before the film started getting rejected left and right. The safest bets for those last two slots are probably Ronan and Keener, but I'm getting a Macdonald feeling in my heart of guts, though as she was my #1 in this category, I'm a little biased. Still, I think her final scene in the film is really going to linger with people, and hopefully will result in her getting swept along with the "No Country" fervor.


1. Diablo Cody, "Juno"
2. Tony Gilroy, "Michael Clayton"
3. Tamara Jenkins, "The Savages"
4. Brad Bird, "Ratatouille"
5. Nancy Oliver, "Lars and the Real Girl"

6. Kelly Masterson, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"
7. Judd Apatow, "Knocked Up"
8. Adrienne Shelly, "Waitress"
9. Todd Haynes and Oren Moverman, "I'm Not There"
10. John Carney, "Once"


1. Joel and Ethan Coen, "No Country for Old Men"
2. Paul Thomas Anderson, "There Will Be Blood"
3. Sean Penn, "Into the Wild"
4. Ronald Harwood, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"
5. James Vanderbilt, "Zodiac"

6. Sarah Polley, "Away From Her"
7. Ben Affleck and Aaron Stockard, "Gone Baby Gone"
8. Aaron Sorkin, "Charlie Wilson's War"
9. Christopher Hampton, "Atonement"
10. Andrew Dominik, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"

Friday, January 18, 2008

"Cloverfield" -- * * * 1/2

After months of viral marketing, beginning with an attention-grabbing teaser before "Transformers" last summer, the J.J. Abrams-produced monster movie "Cloverfield" finally hits theaters today, and while it's not perfect, I've got to say, it's significantly better and weightier than the hype would indicate. In the dog-days of January, known for dumping inferior product, "Cloverfield" emerges as a new kind of event movie, one that dares to do something adventurous and different rather than the same old shit, and that's refreshing as hell. It challenged my ideas of what genre filmmaking could do, and also satisfied my most basic impulses/desires as a moviegoer. The film may or may not be what you're thinking it is-- it certainly defied all my expectations-- but it's an altogether remarkable experience.

As you're probably aware, "Cloverfield" (directed by Matt Reeves) is purported to be "found footage," a la "The Blair Witch Project," shot all through the perspective of a handheld camera. Though this is obviously a monster movie, this, sort of like "Titanic," is much more of a human story with the monster as a backdrop, and the opening 20 minutes are our exposition. Rob (Michael Stahl-David) is going away to Japan for his job, and a surprise party is being thrown for him by his brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and best friend Hud (T.J. Miller), who's the one holding the camera for the bulk of the movie. Midway through the party, word filters out that Rob and Beth, who've crushed on each other for a long time, finally hooked up a few weeks ago, but now are not on such good terms after Rob got weird after the one night together. Beth shows up at the party with some other guy, Rob gets in a fight with Beth, she storms out. Rob's in the midst of reeling from this on the terrace, when out of nowhere, there's a decibel-shattering roar, a rumbling from the ground up, and massive power outages around New York.

Something is attacking the city, and nobody knows what it is. Everyone flees the party, and Rob, Jason, Hud and a few others race through the city struggling to figure out what's going on. Soon enough, it becomes apparent there's some sort of building-eclipsing creature rampaging through the city destroying everything in it's path. As the city's going to fuck, Rob gets a crying voicemail from Beth; she's trapped somewhere, and can't move. The bulk of the film is chiefly about the group's search to find Beth in an increasingly dangerous environment. Oh, and lest I neglect to mention, this all is being taped by Hud over an older tape that Rob shot of him and Beth together the morning after they finally hooked up. Each time Hud has to stop or rewind the tape for some reason, we see part of the tape Rob and Beth shot together, which provide nice moments of relief from the intensity, and set up a very effective moment later on.

Opening with an unsettlingly long period of black screen and silence, before cutting to color bars and announcing this is government-found footage (discovered at the "area formerly known as Central Park"), "Cloverfield" cleverly utilizes the handheld camera conceit for its maximum potential, turning what could have been an ostentatious gimmick into an integral storytelling device. Our first images in the movie are of Rob and Beth's tape, shot on April 27, 6:42a.m., and then cuts to the new camera wielder, Hud, at Rob's party on May 22. Like anyone who's ever seen video a friend shot with a handheld knows, there are occasionally jarring jump cuts, sometimes mid-sentence or mid-word. While the handheld approach serves a narrative purpose, it mostly functions to provide a remarkably intense, visceral, you-are-there feeling that infuses the film with a sense of realism (no matter how unrealistic the content) at every turn.

While that concept does define the film the most, even without it, the direction and script (by Drew Goddard) here is of a much, much higher quality than something like "Godzilla." Made on a relatively low budget of $25 million and running a fast and furious 74 minutes (sans credits), the immediacy and propulsion of the narrative on display makes the film feel like it ended just as soon as it began. There's not an opportunity for boredom, and the directorial approach is all the more impressive considering how different our end result might have been had this been a big-budget summer blockbuster. It's important to note that this is the story of the people on the ground running away from the destruction and the monster, not the people fighting or attempting to destroy it. While the January release date still doesn't quite make sense to me, I think there's a very specific reason "Cloverfield" wasn't released in the summer: this is not a "fun" movie. It's thrilling, yes, it's exciting, yes, there's special effects, yes. However, this is a thoroughly and consistently bleak, intense experience that plays things very real and is significantly more disconcerting than "enjoyable."

There are numerous moments throughout the film where I was legitimately frightened, and they weren't due to "boo" scares or conventional horror movie moments, but rather, due to us being thrust right in the middle of situations that we wouldn't expect to be so close to/in. The initial roar/rumble scene at the 20-minute mark is genuinely unnerving, and there's a bridge destruction sequence early on that is viscerally terrifying. But possibly the best sequence in the film is one hinted at in the trailers, where our group is forced to walk through the tunnels from one subway station to another in pitch black, relying only on the sounds around them and the eventual use of night vision. There are a handful of sequences built on silence except for footsteps and sounds of foreign things moving, and every one hits their mark.

However, for a film so intent on providing an intense experience, I was caught off-guard by how well the emotional.human elements work. The idea of going back for someone, particularly a loved one, during a horrible, ongoing tragic event is a relatable one, and it completely worked for me here, never feeling manipulative, and avoiding cheap sentiment throughout. Though I initially thought I might have trouble identifying with all these distressed beautiful people, it didn't take long, and Reeves goes for some real, heartbreaking moments I personally wasn't prepared for.

Though I was informed after watching the movie that it was actually filmed on a soundstage in Los Angeles, the film genuinely fooled me with its New York setting. From an early-on view out the window at Columbus Circle to our central character hiding out at Spring Street's subway platform to running through the torn-up streets of the Lower East Side, this matte and green screen work is terrific. And don't believe for a second that Reeves/Abrams setting the film in New York is a coincidence, or simply a way to pay homage to monster films of yore. "Cloverfield" intentionally and explicitly is meant to recall the events of 9/11, and the echoes are positively chilling. There aren't just little hints, there are blatant, specific references that are going to hit certain people hard (starting off with a soft mention in a background of chatter of the phrase 'terrorist attack'). An early image of a building collapsing, resulting in dust flying towards the camera, enveloping over people as our protagonists take refuge in a ground-level store, seems to be an actual re-creation of 9/11 footage I recall seeing. From the panic/fervor in the streets of New York to people covered in dust hacking up blood to residents seeking escape over the Brooklyn Bridge to cell phones not working, the similarities are unmistakable and extremely effective.

Anyone who's expressed interest in the film seems to be asking the same question: what about the monster? Yes, you see him and you see him clearly. The creature is only seen in its well-lit entirety once; the rest of the time we just see it in quick glimpses and fragments. Needless to say, the latter moments are much more effective than the former. The policy of 'the less you see, the scarier it is' certainly holds true here, and I almost wish Reeves had the balls/restraint to not show us everything. Still that doesn't undercut how teasingly scary the monster is for the majority of the film, including when we're not seeing it at all. The fleeting moments when we do are the most effective, whether we're just seeing its tail, or its head turning and roaring at the camera. Best of all, there is literally no attempt to explain the origins or background of the creature, and why should there be? It's just not what the movie's about.

While I was mostly extremely satisfied by "Cloverfield," it has a notable flaw/distraction in our cameraman, Hud. Acting as our sort-of-narrator throughout, Hud often serves as comic relief in a film that didn't need any. While he thankfully isn't talking non-stop, he mostly serves to provide commentary such as "This shit is crazy, dude." It's nothing particularly bad or irritating, but he's the one thing that detracts from the realism on display. Also, while the first hour is thoroughly impressive and inventive and gripping, in the third act, the film starts to lose some momentum and credibility. I was still totally into the proceedings, but as opposed to the perpetually-raised tension throughout, I started to get relaxed, and some of the turns in the last 15 minutes or so (at least, before the excellent, powerful ending) sort of broke the 'what you're watching is reality' conceit and felt more akin to a silly monster movie.

I don't know if the film will hold up on repeat viewings, or it's just an incredibly exciting, first-time experience hinging on the element of surprise and appreciation of the new, but from where I sit right now, it's really something special. More than fulfilling the promise of its innovative marketing campaign, and actually showing a love for the medium, it grabs us by the throat and takes us along for the sort of ride that we all-too-often forget movies can deliver. "Cloverfield" may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it's hard to argue that it's not thrilling moviemaking.

"27 Dresses" -- * *

I wish I could work up enough passion to truly damn Anne Fletcher's "27 Dresses," I really do. But at the end of the day, it's just such remarkably average chick-baiting fare that I can barely bring myself to have a response to it, let alone a strong one. While it is an achievement in and of itself that the by-the-numbers romantic comedy is surprisingly painless (I never cringed, just blankly stared at the screen), it's difficult to ignore that it's also completely flavorless with nary a single element to make it stand out from the mediocre pack. Those looking for light, fluffy fare as respite from all the serious, thought-provoking films dominating movie theaters throughout December will find it here, but they shouldn't expect anything the least bit original or memorable.

"Dresses" follows Jane (Katherine Heigl), who's played bridesmaid at friend's weddings 27 times while hopelessly fantasizing about her supposedly saintly and attractive boss George (Ed Burns). Always having a desire to please everyone, even if it means sacrificing her own happiness, Jane gets a visit from her younger model sister Tess (Malin Akerman) right when Jane's starting to think about telling George how she feels. Of course, Tess ends up charming the pants off George-- albeit by lying about herself to appeal to his sensibilities-- and Jane has to plan the pair's imminent wedding, while making herself miserable. All the while, Jane is dogged by Kevin (James Marsden), writer for the 'Commitments' section of the 'New York Journal,' who wants to write a story about her. A wedding-hating cynic who's forced to write about them, Kevin slowly ingratiates himself to Jane, and the pair start to fall for each other-- even though it felt to me more like a friendly relationship than a romantic one (the two have no chemistry).

The film is written by Aline Brosh McKenna, who wrote "The Devil Wears Prada," but brandishes none of that movie's wit or clever dialogue in the Streep-Blunt segments, and instead is more reminiscent of the pedestrian Hathaway-Grenier material. The screenplay seems to be literally working off of a checklist and filled with "of course" moments. For instance, when an estrogen-filled comedy introduces a closet full of 27 bridesmaid dresses, you know it's only a matter of time before we get an extended montage of them all being tried on. However, it's ultimately a draw as to which scene is more eye-rolling: said montage, or a corny, entire bar sing-along to "Benny and the Jets." Dress-alternating montages and sing-alongs among strangers are just some of the sequences on display here that are unlikely anyone has ever experienced outside of a romantic comedy; I'm impressed they had the restraint not to include a last-second race to the airport.

Heigl is fine here, but overplays her delivery and doesn't seem to have much sense of comedic timing. She's likable enough, but consistently feels like she knows she's smarter than the material. I've never seen "Grey's Anatomy" so I can't evaluate her work there, but between this and "Knocked Up," I don't know if comedy should be her forte; she seems to be much more convincing in scenes where she's asked to cry or emote. Perhaps she just needs the right role, but I'm not willing quite yet to jump on the Heigl bandwagon. She clearly has some sort of popular pull-- virtually every girl I know wants to see this-- but I don't really get it.

I'd like to believe that I'm not being seduced purely by Marsden's looks, but I can't be certain. The actor is charming as hell here (much as he was in "Hairspray" and the similarly-contrived "Enchanted") and manages to never feel like a stock male love interest. After his mezzo-mezzo turns as Cyclops, he's evolved into an actor I truly like and automatically makes films more watchable just by being in them. I'd like to see him tackle more meaty roles,rather than repeatedly playing variations on Prince Charming, but for now, it'll do.

Burns isn't a bad actor per se, but I always have trouble seeing him as anything other than smug, making his do-gooder schtick here difficult to buy. I think the guy generally radiates cockiness, and it may just be me, but I'm pretty sure he didn't make any facial expressions throughout this entire movie. Then again, maybe he just had trouble working up any discernible interest/enthusiasm now that he's back in Hollywood movies (you can also see him in "One Missed Call"), as it's clearly just a paycheck gig to attempt to make enough money so his directorial efforts don't go straight-to-iTunes anymore.

Akerman was one of the few good things about "The Heartbreak Kid," but while her over-the-top style was perfect for that potentially-breakout role, she really should've been reigned in a bit here. On the other hand, the wonderful Judy Greer makes the stock role of "sassy best friend" funnier and more entertaining than it has any right to be, and I particularly liked the touch of making her aggressively horny, not just cheeky.

I must say, however, and this may be nit-picking, but one of the film's early scenes features some of the worst acting by an extra that I've ever seen. In a scene after Heigl falls and is revived by Marsden, as she's getting up, a female extra is trying way too hard to express for the camera to compensate for her lack of dialogue. From miming drinking a bottle of booze referring to Heigl, to repeatedly clutching her chest and gesturing over, this woman was consistently distracting as she was trying ever so hard to get noticed this, her illustrious screen debut. An extra's job is, by definition, to slip into the background, but in this case, I couldn't keep my eyes on Heigl or Marsden; tell me if any of you find her as distracting as I did.

Never irritating, the direction is pedestrian and occasionally boring but never goes over-the-top or overdoes gags. Fletcher, a former choreography who previously directed "Step Up," does a relatively pedestrian job directing (as she did with that film), but I suppose deserves commendation for not indulging the broad impulses this genre usually has, nor does she overdo the gags. It's never shrill or bland like many rom-coms, just toothless and run of the mill. Within this genre, to surpass the tinges of mediocrity, you need something to compensate, like a charismatic star, great chemistry or sharp dialogue; "Dresses" has the presence of Marsden and Greer but that's not nearly enough. While Heigl publicly decried "Knocked Up"'s supposed sexism after its release, this is exactly the sort of middling romantic comedy that made that one so refreshing. There are a lot worse movies than this guys could be dragged to (e.g.: "P.S. I Love You," "Enchanted") but there's also better ones for ladies to drag them to ("Atonement," "Juno").

"Mad Money" -- * * 1/2

Callie Khouri's "Mad Money" is not a particularly good movie, and I don't know if I could quite tell you with a good conscience to spend ten dollars to watch it. However, maybe it's attributed to astronomically low expectations (the trailer was awful), but I was surprised to find myself kind-of enjoying it for the most part, despite never really laughing or being completely won over by it. Almost despite itself, the female-skewing, middlebrow comedy is surprisingly entertaining, consistently pleasant and engenders goodwill with enough small charms to mostly overlook the faults. It shouldn't be your first choice at the multiplex this weekend, but it's not a bad back-up.

Beginning with Bridget (Diane Keaton), Nina (Queen Latifah) and Jackie (Katie Holmes) disposing of and/or destroying large piles of cash, "Mad Money" soon flashes back three years to show us how we got to this point. Told largely through police confessions of the parties involved (which admittedly undercuts any sort of tension), the story starts out with Bridget and her husband Don(Ted Danson) floundering financially after he's fired from his job. As a last resort, Bridget gets a job as a janitor at a major bank where she meets single mother Nina and wacky diabetic Jackie. Despite a watchful, anal boss (Stephen Root) who makes sure to tell her "Don't want anything, Don't even think about wanting anything"), Bridget gets the bright idea to steal money from the bank-- the worn-out money that's going to be destroyed anyway-- and gets the other two ladies in on it with her. After a first heist that reaps $91,000, the three (with the help of Don, and Jackie's husband Bob) decide to keep going, and then the fun/trouble begins.

Khouri won an Oscar for writing "Thelma and Louise" and has always shown a fondness for femme-friendly fare (she also wrote and directed "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood"), though the focus here isn't really on female empowerment. Sure, it's nice that it's ladies involved doing the stealing, and they do in turn, stick it to "the man," but the gender element isn't at the forefront. Perhaps that can be attributed to the script being written by apparent man Glenn Gers, who also wrote the extremely forgettable "Fracture" last year. The screenplay here doesn't cling to the memory much more than that one did, but it generally avoids dumb gags, at least for the most part (there's a lame joke perpetuating Bob's already-established idiocy when he spells aloud "lawyer" L-A-Y-W-E-R).

Perhaps sadly, this is a step up for once-reigning Diane Keaton after embarrassing turns in "Mama's Boy" and "Because I Said So." Even if she starts to get too loopy and frenetic around the hour mark, she mostly emerges unscathed and doesn't seem on autopilot like she's been too often in recent years. Meanwhile, Latifah is probably the most likable presence here, giving warmth and humor to the one character who's given any real semblance of depth. When these actresses share the screen, we get a look at what might have been; the two clearly have chemistry together, and perhaps might be suited for a buddy comedy down the line. Regrettably however, whatever the two have together is tarnished whenever the unfortunate Ms. Holmes shows up.

Look, I hate when the media unfairly piles on a celebrity for whatever's going on in their personal life. I think it's really unfair how people have been going after her since her marriage to Cruisazy and I feel some sort of (maybe unwarranted) sympathy for the girl. However, it has to be acknowledged that something has happened to her since the relationship began. Really, what's become of Katie Holmes? She was solid in "Go," and significantly impressive in Sam Raimi's "The Gift" and Peter Hedges' "Pieces of April." However, she was embarrassingly off in both the talented ensembles of "Thank You for Smoking" and "Batman Begins." Here, she sucks completely, and literally can't speak one line of dialogue convincingly. While it doesn't help that the script gives her one sole defining trait (she dances), the performance is genuinely bad; I'm concerned for the young actress and wish her all the best, but something must be done.

In smaller roles, the men fare significantly better. Ted Danson gets a lot of good lines here, and it's always nice to see him in movies again (I don't think I've seen him on the big screen since the way underrated "Mumford," but I could be wrong). As the one voice of reason within the group, he plays nicely off of Keaton and is a welcome presence whenever he's on screen. Still, the always great Stephen Root manages to steal every scene he's in as the villainous bank manager with refined phonetics. As he always seems to be, Root (also currently seen in "No Country") is having a lot of fun here, and brings significantly more to the part than was on the page.

Of course, there are a plethora of contrived directorial decisions that perhaps make the movie feel a couple decades older than it is. Did we really need multiple scenes of the three women throwing money at each other and dancing in it to tune of "Money (That's What I Want)"? "Money" is only one track on a very dated soundtrack filled with songs that were overused even 30 years ago when they debuted. And I can't quite put my finger on what it is about the production values exactly that does this, but everything looks resoundingly cheap (from the sets to the cinematography), giving the impression of a production done on the fly.

Still, these drawbacks aren't considerable, just noticeable. While the pacing, and the chemistry of Latifah and Keaton are the film's strong points, its light-hearted feel and charm goes a long way, especially for a movie that's ultimately about grand larceny. In fact, the initial heist sequence is probably the high point of the film; with just a slight hint of suspense, the sequence is cleverly executed and the plan itself seems borderline-ingenious, and I, at least, was eager to see how it was pulled off.

The first movie from Overture Films, "Mad Money" could've been a really strong piece of entertainment. Instead it's a diverting, flawed time-killer, and that's okay. Some people don't like their movies intelligent, highbrow or witty, and this crowd-pleaser doesn't deliver any of that; but it also avoids insulting the audience's intelligence (for the most part), and is certainly more of an entertaining, easy sit than you might have imagined from the marketing. Rather than shooting for the moon and falling flat, "Mad Money" has modest aims and good intentions, and for the most part, they're fulfilled. If you go in with low expectations to a matinee (or renting it when it arrives on DVD), it's hard to imagine you'll be very disappointed.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Golden Globes. B'gak.


"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"

"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"

Julian Schnabel, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"

Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, "No Country for Old Men"

Daniel Day-Lewis, "There Will Be Blood"

Johnny Depp, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"

Julie Christie, "Away From Her"

Marion Cotillard, "La Vie en Rose"

Javier Bardem, "No Country for Old Men"

Cate Blanchett, "I'm Not There"


"Atonement," composed by Dario Marianelli

"Guaranteed," performed by Eddie Vedder - "Into the Wild"

So, um, yeah. Whether or not the Globes actually mean anything in the long run, I think I'd feel more comfortable if we just said they didn't, how bout you? Some of last night's winners might be red flags, but in terms of Best Picture, I think we can rest easy that they don't mean shit. What were their big winners last year, "Babel" and "Dreamgirls"? The latter was snubbed completely, and while "Babel" at least eked out a nomination, I'm guessing this year both of the Globes' Best Picture winners won't even get nominated come Oscar time.

Given "Atonement's" complete shutout at the guilds, I'd say this is the case of a film that was right up HFPA's alley but won't translate to Oscar. Some people have asked me why I'm rooting so hard against "Atonement," a film I genuinely like. Well, in all honesty, it's because I think if "Atonement" gets nominated for Best Picture, it has a very good chance to win, and in a year with "No Country" and "There Will Be Blood," that'd be a travesty.

Now, these may mean nothing like everything else, but three wins in particular made my head cock to the left. One was obviously Julian Schnabel's win for best Director for "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." Could support for the film be stronger than I thought? Could it manage more than just a Best Director nod on nomination morning?

Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy also made me think. I actually was rooting for Cotillard since I think, theatrics and all, it's a much better performance than Ellen Page's very strong but overly-jizzed-on work in "Juno." But she seemed to have lost whatever steam she had earlier in the year till now. The Best Actress race started as a two-woman show between Christie and Cotillard, than became three when Page's popularity started to surge... could we be back to two?

And, most interestingly, "No Country" taking Best Screenplay may mean more than anything. While the HFPA has been way off on this category before ("About Schmidt" won in 2003 and then didn't even get a nomination from Oscar), this may be a sign that the "Juno" backlash is beginning to settle in. Winning zero of its three nominations, this was the one that was a sure bet for the big-film-masquerading-as-a-little-film-that-could. If "Juno" was a lock for anything, it was Best Screenplay and it somehow didn't make it. I don't know exactly what it indicates, but it certainly can't be good.

Day-Lewis' win was expected, and I'm extremely happy that he's emerged as this season's far-and-away front-runner. It's truly a performance for the ages, and one the Academy will be proud they rewarded decades from now. And hey, doesn't somebody need to finally break their streak of giving Best Actor to performers playing real-life people? Daniel Plainview sounds like just the one to do it. The wins by Christie, Depp and Bardem were also wholly predictable and, for the most part, deserved. Supporting Actress was thought to go to Amy Ryan, as it has been all season, but I had a feeling the star-fucking HFPA would give it to Blanchett or Julia Roberts.

So what's to be made of all this? Well, like it or not, it's the first real sign of weakness for "No Country," even if it did pick up two major awards (and even if the HFPA does have a tendency to avoid rewarding violent male-skewing films). And at the very least, the "Atonement" and "Sweeney" camps have got to be grateful for whatever boosts these wins will give them, more likely at the box office than anything else. My opinions seem to be changing each day, but now I think "No Country" and "Into the Wild" are the only real (pretty) sure bets for Best Picture nominations. Then it would seem to be "There Will Be Blood," "Michael Clayton," "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," "Juno" and "Atonement" (in that order) fighting it out for those last three slots. We'll know for sure in a week.