Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Oscars 2007: Who Will Win, Who Should Win...and Who Was Left Out

I had a really good time this year seeing movies, and made a point to see as many nominated films as I could.

Okay, well, I didn't really succeed as well as I hope academy members did, but I think I saw more films than I usually do. It doesn't really help that the Oscars telecast has been rescheduled for February instead of March.

But there seemed to be better films this year, don't you think? And some awards almost seem to be guaranteed. We might be surprised....but that would be a thrill, too, only because of the high level of performances we found.

BEST PICTURE: It seems to be a tight race between Scorsese's The Departed and Babel. I vote for Scorsese, not only because the guy is definitely due, but because The Departed told a complicated tale of two Irish men and how they went separate ways. However, Babel is definitely a contender featuring four storylines and some very talented actors. The Queen also has its fans, and Little Miss Sunshine is the independent film here, screeching for respectability. It's The Departed, at least from where I'm sitting.

DIRECTOR: This particular race seems to be between oldtimers Scorsese and Clint Eastwood. Since Eastwood has won, most recently for the incredible Million Dollar Baby in 2002, I think Scorsese will carry the night.

BEST MALE LEAD: Another tough category, but I think Forest Whitaker will win for his portrayal of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. What may hurt Scotland is that only three people saw it. But Leo Dicaprio was nominated for the wrong movie, Peter O'Toole was being, well, Peter O'Toole, Will Smith didn't really garner enough talk, and Ryan Gosling, as amazing as he was, was in another unwatched film. I must say, in a postscript here, that I am amazed Jack Nicholson wasn't nominated for his incredible over-the-top performance in The Departed. Perhaps it was too over-the-top, or perhaps the academy voters are a lot younger than they used to be.

BEST FEMALE LEAD: If you're in Vegas, go for Helen Mirren. Even the other actresses have admitted they'll be going home empty-handed. However, it was an amazing year for women in film. There are many more one could nominate in this category.

BEST MALE SUPPORTING ACTOR: The Best Male and Female Supporting Actors are the most contentious categories, but you can't argue that the nominees turn in stellar performances on every count. From Dirk Diggler to a detective in the New York State Police department, Mark Wahlberg has come a long way. But is it enough to win? Probably not. My money is on public favorite Eddie Murphy, who took a surprising turn as an early rhythm-and-blues singer in Dreamgirls. However, Alan Arkin, overdue perhaps for his inventive role in Little Miss Sunshine, should take home the little gold guy. We'll see. This is also a category where it's so tough to pick because there were many great performances this year. One in particular I enjoyed was Alec Baldwin's in The Departed; sure, it wasn't a big role, but it really made a punch.

BEST FEMALE SUPPORTING ACTOR: Another tough one. I would really love to see Rinko Kikuchi win for her devastating role as the deaf Japanese teenager in Babel, but she mostly likely will not win due to the fact that her costar, Adriana Barraza, will split the vote. It looks like Jennifer Hudson will take it, but being a newcomer may hurt her. But Cate Blanchett has already seen a few awards thrown her way. I think Hudson will take it, but each of the others is deserving.

That's it for the major categories. I'm already in front of the T.V. four hours before the broadcast, just soaking up the color and pomp and glitter. It's gonna be a great night.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Half Nelson

Half Nelson is a movie so achingly true, so perfect. Most of the press these days is on Ryan Gosling’s anchoring performance as Dan Dunne, junior high history teacher and girls’ basketball coach in an inner-city school, but I believe that the actors surrounding him are just as good.

But Gosling is certainly worthy of the praise. He’s brilliant. Every movement by Dunne looks to be painful, every note scored on those sunken eyes of his. We watch his life, and we watch his descent. We watch it painfully.

But we also watch it through 13-year-old, African-American Drey, who strikes up a strange, demanding friendship with her teacher and coach Dunne. And at the end of the day, although he wants it, he can’t handle the demand. He’d much rather sink into his degrading life and take a snort of the line. Some days are so bad he can’t wait until he gets home to indulge. And that’s when Drey finds out his secret.

Drey has another dilemma, deciding between the two men in her life, in a troublesome life. Her mother works some long hours as a security guard. Her brother is in prison, and although she has a good relationship with him, his bad choices are rubbing off on the family. The brother's best friend, Frank, the one not caught during their last job together, has promised to take care of the family, but his influence on young Drey is something we watch with dual fascination and dread. And we wait and hope for Dunne to step it up a notch in the face of this situation.

Dunne’s is an inner struggle while Drey’s is an outer one. Both journeys are hazardous, dangerous, and we fear for each of them.

Newcomer Shareeka Epps is wondrous as young Drey. And Frank is played by actor Anthony Mackie; although he has several chances to be stereotypically bad in this role, he rejects that. His warmth towards Drey feels genuine and leaves us wondering.

The screenplay is skillfully written (by Anna Boden and director Ryan Fleck). Every scene involving Gosling shows Dunne’s progression down this hole, an amazing feat. Dunne is a wonder in the classroom, reaching beyond the unusable textbooks to really teach his passion for history. His work on the basketball court with these girls is terrific, and provides a powerful contrast to his life after school. And I found a poignant moment in Dunne’s treatment of the women in his life, when he uses them when he needs them and not before or after.

The movie really is quite depressing during some parts, and yet hopeful, largely due to the relationship between Dunne and Drey. You find yourself hoping that Dunne can pull himself out of a drug-induced, life-reducing fog to redeem his life.

This little film that only took 23 days to film is one of the best I’ve ever seen, let alone seen within the last year. It continues to amaze in its scope, its acting, its statements.

Gosling is so young that you wonder if he’s found the role of a lifetime or whether he’s really at the beginning of an incredible, long career. I believe it’s the latter.

"Half nelson" is a wrestling hold where the opponent's hand is over the top of your head, holding you in a vise-like grip where you can't move. A term that perfectly describes Dunne's life.

Thumb's up.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Letters from Iwo Jima

As I said to Cat as we walked into the theater, my favorite movies are those that take me inside an experience utterly foreign to me. It might be a time in history, or another culture, or a point of view.

Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima qualifies on all three points: it is the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima from the point of view of the Japanese soldiers fighting there. It does all that, and more: it tells the story in the capsule of a story perfectly told, with all its plotlines knitted together in elegant symmetry.

Eastwood made it possible for me to care deeply about the fates of several soldiers, some of them seasoned, cultured professionals of samurai descent, others the rawest of recruits. His decisions to shoot in black and white and for all the dialogue to be in Japanese must have driven the studio mad, but instead of creating distance between the audience and the story, they brought us in close: I felt that I was there, crouching in the tunnels under Mt. Suribachi.

The actors' performances are superb: Ken Watanabe has finally been given a role in an American film worthy of his craft. In Memoirs of a Geisha and The Last Samurai he played stereotypes, cardboard roles. His performance of Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi is a richer, fuller role, a portrayal of a complex soldier, a genuine samurai, of whom Marine Corps General Holland Smith said, ""Of all our adversaries in the Pacific, Kuribayashi was the most redoubtable."

Saigo, the Everyman character, is played by Kazunari Ninomiya in his first appearance in American cinema. Unlike The Last Samurai, which provided us with an improbable American character with whom to identify, Eastwood and the writer, Iris Yamashita trusted the audience to identify with a baker who was inclined to think a little too much for his own good. Ninomiya's expressive face gives away the portions of the story usually lost to film.

The voices of this film, recorded in Japanese, translated for us in subtitles, remind us relentlessly that war is not the natural occupation of humanity. We belong with our families, in our places of business, in the normalcy of everyday life. It is a great evil, indeed, when ordinary people, and good people, even when great soldiers, are sent into battle simply because the Powers that Be have decided to send them. The soldiers in this film know that they will never return home alive. For some of them, it is enough to die for honor, to die to make the invasion of the Japanese islands a bit more expensive to the American troops. For others, it gradually dawns that they may be dying for nothing.

Clint Eastwood has given us another brilliant film. Thumb's up.