Sunday, February 24, 2008

Oscars 2008: Who Will Win

I was at WonderCon yesterday, sitting in my seat in the big Hall A, when Amy came up to me and starting talking about Jon Favreau and the movie "The Break up" (which I reviewed, see below). I had no idea what she was talking about.

I don't claim to be a know-it-all about movies. I don't claim to know film structure, etc. But what I love about movies is that everybody can talk about it. We all know what we like.

So, this essay is about who I think will win the Oscars in tonight's broadcast, and then again, who should win. After all, I know what I like.

Best Picture:
Will Win - No Country for Old Men. Should Win - No Country for Old Men. I have to say that the only picture I think here who has a chance for second is Atonement, and possibly There Will Be Blood. There have got to be some Oscar voters out there who love old movies and epic quality (Atonement), and others who love biopics about America (There Will Be Blood). But I think Old Country for Old Men is just astounding in its simple idea of good vs. evil. And, layered into that, an interesting idea of, no matter who you're dealing with, they each have their own idea of integrity, things they will and will not do.

Best Actor: Will Win - Daniel Day-Lewis. Should Win - Daniel Day-Lewis.
This one is so simple that I would bet no other actor is preparing a thank-you speech. DDL is on camera the entire time, and we see his character's journey so clearly. This category is really in the superlative: each candidate gives an incredible performance.

Best Actress: Will Win - Julie Christie for Away from Her. Should Win - Marion Cotillard for La Vie en Rose. Julie is the odds-on favorite here, but the movie is a downer. Marion Cotillard was incredible in a role that took her from a 17-year-old girl to a used-up singer of 47. But I doubt if enough people, even academy voters, saw the film.

Best Supporting Actor: Will Win - Javier Bardem for No Country for Old Men. Should Win - Javier Bardem. Bardem captured that film with such intensity. It's possible that Casey Affleck could win with his arresting portrayal of Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James, or Hal Holbrook could win for Into the Wild due to his age and body of work, but I doubt it.

Best Supporting Actress: Will Win - Tilda Swinton for Michael Clayton. Should Win - Amy Ryan for Gone Baby Gone.
The two female categories are the hardest to predict. The academy may go for a lifetime of achievement (Ruby Dee), or vote for the best actress of our generation (Cate Blanchett). But Amy Ryan's powerful and genuine performance is a keeper, especially that last haunting scene.

Director: Will Win - Joel Coen and Ethan Coen for No Country for Old Men. Should Win - Joel and Ethan Coen. I think there's a chance that Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood could win, and a shock that Atonement wasn't even on the list. But I think No Country will win out for its universal themes and interesting way of telling the story.

Other interesting categories:

Animated Feature: Should and Will Win - Ratatouille. And I think this film should have been among the nominees for Best Picture.

Original Screenplay: Will and Should Win - Diablo Cody for Juno. This one's a real toss-up, as a lot of voters may think Juno is just too light to be nominated. But nobody worked harder to turn a comedy into a really satisfying drama with laughs along the way.

Cinematography: Will Win - No Country for Old Men. Should Win - The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Art Direction: Will Win - No Country for Old Men. Should Win - Sweeney Todd and the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Original Song: Will Win - Enchanted
, for something. Should Win - Falling Slowly from Once.

It's plain to see that I believe No Country for Old Men is going to sweep quite a few categories. Unfortunately, although I believe the film should be Best Picture, that halo effect may detract in several categories from films that deserve recognition.

So, Friendo, are you ready for the Oscars? Call it!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Bikur HaTizmoret [The Band's Visit]

Eran Kolirin's first feature film as director and screenwriter is a sweet, funny melody from start to finish, a film about roads taken and not taken, opportunities lost and found. From the first frames of The Band's Visit, in which a driver clangs open the back doors of a white minivan and fishes out an absurd yellow beach ball, it was clear that we were in for 87 minutes of visually delicious film. After a few more minutes wandering the caverns of the new Ben Gurion International Airport with the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra I was laughing and groaning and terribly attached to the members of the band.

A confusion between "Petach Tikva" and "Beit HaTikva" strands our Egyptian heroes in a tiny hamlet somewhere in the Israeli desert, stuck to cope until the next day, when the next bus will drive by. They are lost, and so are their Israeli hosts, caught between generations of viewing uniformed Egyptians as the enemy and normal human pity for the lost and clearly harmless musicians.

Gradually, over the 24 hours, the band and their hosts get to know one another a bit, exchanging the sort of confidences one tells a person who will be gone tomorrow and never return. Some of these confidences are sad, and some are achingly funny -- I will not ruin any of them by saying too much. This very light little film works perfectly on several levels at once, as a human comedy, as political commentary with a feather touch, and as an exploration of regret and redemption.

The film has won 24 major awards, all deserved, including "Un Certain Regard - Jury Coup de Coeur" at Cannes for Eran Kolirin, a European Film Award for Best Actor for Sasson Gabai, and a sweep of 8 awards out of 13 nominations for Israeli Film Awards (the Israeli equivalent of an Oscar) including Best Actor for Sasson Gabai, Best Actress for Ronit Elkabetz (who is mesmerizing), Best Supporting Actor for Saleh Bakri, as well as Best Film, Best Director, Best Music, Best Costumes, and Best Screenplay. All this, and it is not among the Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film, because too much of the dialogue is in English!

By the way, if I could give an award for Best Subtitles, I would give it to Bikur HaTizmoret. The English translation of the Hebrew dialogue is spot-on and manages to preserve the humor, no small accomplishment. It is not showing on many screens, but it is a gem -- if you have the chance, see it!

Thumbs UP!

Fool's Gold

I fell asleep this afternoon, nodding off in my chair. When I awoke, I wondered why. After all, I got plenty of sleep last night. Then it hit me: I was watching Fool's Gold.

I think most reviewers get a kick out of writing scathing reviews. This one is just too easy, the target the size of a woolly mammoth. But, hey, I'm writing a review about this, so allow me to just list the bad things about this film, which may be too lofty a title for this piece of crap. After all, why take the energy to make complete sentences when you don't have to?

Why Things Went Wrong

1. Not a comedy. If you watch the trailer, Fool's Gold looks like just another romantic comedy, a laugh a minute while the guy gets the reluctant girl in the end. The latter may be true, but the writers forgot to write any comedy. There are a few funny moments, but most of those moments can be filed under "stupid." And the comic portions of the trailer are dramatic moments in the film, e.g., waiting for them to crash their seaplane.

2. The dialogue stinks. Ooh, let me show you.

Finn: We found something. I mean, we found something!
Tess: What if it's a body?
Finn: Well, he was a midget (showing her a small barrel), with very cheap relatives.


3. Having award-winning Donald Sutherland does not a movie make. I can't believe that he's terrible in this, but giving him a role that doesn't suit him (millionaire yacht owner who's very naive) and a fake British accent is a BAD choice.

4. Giving Donald Sutherland a fake British accent. Oops, covered that.

5. Putting together two miserable people who don't like their lives and hoping we'll enjoy their interaction. Uh, no.

That's enough. Here's the only good thing: Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson. They are beautiful people and usually likeable in their romantic comedies. The storyline and the unbelievably inadequate dialogue does them a disservice. I think they do have comedic abilities; it's just not evident here in this non-comedy.

If someone forces you to go with them to see Fool's Gold, insist on popcorn. It may keep you awake, at least for a little while. Then again, maybe sleep will be a better choice.

Thumb's down.

Oscars 2008 - Who Should Have Been Nominated?

It's time to put all those categories to rest in the Academy Awards, categories like Best Foreign Film and Best Animated Film. Let's just have Best Picture. They won't because Hollywood is afraid some picture made in Italy will steal the big financial prize.

Best Picture nominations this year include Atonement, Juno, Michael Clayton, No Country for Old Men, and There Will Be Blood. I would instantly take out Juno, a very pleasant picture but certainly not the year's best. And There Will Be Blood, which, although it had an epic sense about it, is not the savior of 19th century America. I would rather include movies like Ratatouille. Yes, a movie about a rat. What really distinguishes this film above other animated films, and indeed other films, is that it appeals to all us, shows us we can learn something about human nature, especially with the very satisfying ending it presents. And for the 5th nomination, I would plug in Zodiac, a movie that deserved all the attention it got a year ago (an unfortunate marketing plan), mostly because it had no ending.

And for Best Director, take out There Will Be Blood and Juno, and substitute Joe Wright for Atonement and David Cronenberg for Eastern Promises. And maybe even Brad Bird for Ratatouille.

The Best Actor category this year was a plethora of riches. I can't argue with the choices made, but I wish it were possible to include Ryan Gosling (Lars and the Real Girl), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Lookout), Tom Hanks (Charlie Wilson's War), James McAvoy (Atonement), Casey Affleck (Gone Baby Gone), and, yes, Javier Bardem, who was nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category.

For Best Supporting Actor, I'd add in Vincent Cassel, who played the explosive Kirill in Eastern Promises.

There seemed to be a dearth of good roles for women -- gosh, what a surprise! -- this year. One can only imagine that Cate Blanchett was included because, another gosh, she's a fine actress, but in a dud of a film. Ditto for Best Supporting Actress -- and there may be a few I'd toss out, like Tilda Swinton, whose acting was fine but not spectacular (having read what was apparently in the script very well, but nothing inventive). But who would replace her?

Still, it was a good year for movies, if a violent one. If you counted up all the people killed in the Best Picture nominations alone....well, you'd better not, mostly because World War II, the one seen in Atonement, counted for too many. Almost as many killed in No Country for Old Men.

It was a violent year. It will be a good Oscars.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

My first thoughts upon seeing this film were: (1) The cinematography is just brilliant, making it almost a shadowy black-and-white film, and (2) Damn, this film is long!

At 160 minutes, "Jesse James" could have been cut judiciously and still have made its points. Make that "drastically." If the extra footage had accomplished a deeper study in character, we could have forgiven its sloth-like, day-in-the-life approach. But, instead, we're treated to dramatic scenes of Jesse staring down (fill in the blank with any character's name).

In truth, this portrayal does a good job of showing Jesse James later in his life (well, as old as he got, 34), seemingly at his most eccentric and paranoid. He was already a legend in the midwest, having killed 17 men. Some for purpose, some for preemptive strikes, none for, it seemed, sport. Along comes Robert Ford, and, through his brother, Charley, joins the gang. Nineteen-year-old Bob grew up reading about the exploits of Jesse James, painted as a hero in the nickel novels, and he, too, wants to make a name for himself.

However, in close-up affiliation, Bob begins to dislike and then resent the killer, and plots a way to make himself famous while betraying his once-hero.

This is a story not only of friendship, trust and betrayal, but of a celebrity and the problems it can bring. It's an all-too-familiar stalking story in modern day: young man worships an icon, comes to see him as human, and is bent upon destroying what was once a hero to him. The fact that this story takes place one hundred years ago is intriguing.

James is definitely a cold killer, and the setting for a lot of his kills is the lonely plains, often blanketed with snow, and the way it's photographed gives it a loneliness and coldness that's truly extraordinary. While we see a lot of Jesse, played by Brad Pitt, the story is clearly about Ford (actor Casey Affleck) and his equally cold plan to lay Jesse in his grave.

Unfortunately, it takes forever to get to the moment where Ford makes his move. The most interesting part of the movie occurs in the last half hour, when Ford discovers how the world will receive this information, the fact that Ford killed Jesse James. He expected applause, he tells his stripper girlfriend. Instead, the world branded Ford as a coward, as noted in the famous song.

There's a lot to recommend about the film if you can spare a chunk of your life for the film. The cinematography, photographic shots, settings and costumes are incredible art on film. The acting is superb. And Casey Affleck deservedly is up for a Best Supporting Actor for this film. It's actually hard for me to choose between this performance versus the one in Gone Baby Gone.

Thumb's up.

Friday, February 15, 2008

No Country for Old Men

A lot has been written about No Country for Old Men, which is up for an Academy Award for Best Picture this year. I won't bother repeating. What I will do instead is tell you what I learned from this movie. So here are the Top 10 Things I Learned from This Movie:

1. There are a helluva lotta guns in Texas. Long ones, short ones. Rifles. Automatic weapons like AK-47's. Just lying on the ground. And, if that doesn't suit you, you can just walk right into a gun shop and buy one. Without I.D.

2. Nobody smiles in Texas. There's humor, but there's nobody laughing.

3. Everybody owns a pickup in the southwest. I have now discovered why. They need their pickup to (a) run loads of dope across the border, (b) take bodies out to the cemeteries, and (c) withstand that onslaught of the bullets from all those guns.

4. It's possible to actually live next to the border and not speak any Spanish.

5. You can be the son of James Brolin and actually be able to act.

6. Sheriffs in them parts get really old. Tommy Lee Jones is getting up there, and has bags packed under his bags. However, his character could be 45, but maybe he's just been rode hard and put up wet.

7. You don't really need doctors in the great Southwest. You can patch yourself up. Even with a chunk of flesh gone from each extremity.

8. All those motels look the same. And they all cost $24/night. And all are dangerous.

9. You really don't need a proper ending to a movie. You can just get away with....well, with scenes that are implied and a monologue at the end.

10. Killers have strange haircuts.

Did I like the movie? Hell, yeah. Look at all I learned.

Thumb's up.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Miss Austen Regrets

There's so much to ponder about Miss Austen Regrets, a T.V. movie that recently debuted on PBS. What do women who never marry do with their lives, particularly if their talents are deemed inappropriate for women to display? And, more specific to this film, what regrets might a woman like Jane Austen have felt, a woman who wrote about love lost and found, but a woman who never married?

Jane Austen, who wrote six notable novels in her short life, died at age 41, some say of stomach cancer. As we watch the film, which traces Austen's last few years, we realize that most of her letters, the chronological tracings of her life, were destroyed by her own mother upon her daughter's death. And that it's impossible to know what really happened in her day-to-day routine, and especially what she was thinking when a beau might appear only to be sent packing.

We do know that she accepted a proposal of marriage, but recanted a day later. You have to wonder what internal argument took place.

And that's what Miss Austen Regrets tries to do: re-enact those moments for us in Austen's life, without hard evidence to show they actually really took place. Jane is surrounded by family at the old homestead, and is asked by her niece to help her judge a possible marriage proposal. This is the basis for the film's examination of Jane's own life.

The film has an epic feeling about it, wide, sweeping as we look at the brilliant English countryside with its old, stately mansions where families have lived for centuries. It's certainly a place at which we'd like to spend a few hours. But in the end, we realize it's a difficult life for a single woman, even those with a gift like Jane Austen's. Her very comfort is at the whim of Jane's brothers, who control the family's finances, and in those last few years, they are forced to sell off the cottage in which she wrote most of her novels. She's derided by her peers, who look past her writing to see a woman who flirts shamelessly, drinks among the men, and doesn't quite obey the law of the day to be demure and invisible in that world. This portrayal is quite intriguing.

It's a fascinating look. Much of this film may be considered fiction, but it's a plausible fiction, with sparkling dialogue and credible acting, particularly by actress Olivia Willams who plays Jane.

Thumb's up.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Deja Vu

Deja Vu is a great title for this murder mystery, although it's been used many times before. This is a movie with a sci fi bent, a film that asks you to suspend disbelief a lot more than the normal movie. The advertisements, and, indeed, the film itself, promote supposed scientific probablities for this kink in the film, but let's not kid ourselves: it's sci fi.

An ATF agent, Doug Carlin, played by Denzel Washington, is assigned to investigate a terrorist act in New Orleans. He is invited by the FBI to join their surveillance team and helps them focus their attentions on a woman who was washed up on the Algiers shore before the attack began. Technology, or, rather, a scientific accident allows the team to look into the past four days prior, and allows them to see how the young woman is involved in the tragedy.

While suspending disbelief is always fun, the trick works better if it refers to a minor moment in the drama. You go back in time, for instance, and you absorb that and your mind works with it. But Deja Vu asks us several times to do this, and thus asks too much. As soon as you get used to the four-hour lookback, it asks you to take another leap in faith, and then another. And the holes these leaps create cannot be filled. There are some really obvious gaps in reality. One of them involves a gun that appears in Carlin's hands even though he just came out of the ER unit in a hospital -- as a patient. But there are many more.

I get the feeling from watching the movie and being jarred by its transitions that the film had many more scenes that weren't included, that the director opted instead to show us an exciting yet interminable car chase. We know that director Tony Scott is famous for his action films, and we realize that having your surveillance team just watch its targets gets to be pretty boring. But more time spent on developing the killer's backstory, as one instance, would have been fruitful.

It's still an exciting film. The visual effects offer something we've never seen before, and are stunning. The ending is telegraphed, but rightly so: in a good mystery, we should be able to put the facts together and enjoy the denouement. And it's a wonder that the film holds together at all, with all of its writing and editing problems, and that's due to Denzel Washington, who is a real power here.

Thumb's up, minimally.