Archive for the ‘Film’ category

Oscar Preview 2009

January 31, 2009

The nominations have been out for over a week now, so it’s time to fully digest this year’s Academy Awards and how they should pan out. Thanks to some absolutely dreadful weekend weather in Chicago this January, I was able to see pretty much everything up for any of the major categories.

BEST PICTURE

What Should Win: Frost/ Nixon. Ron Howard’s brilliant biopic about the David Frost-Richard Nixon interviews plays more towards the competitive spirit than it does towards a portrayal of the television industry. The film manages to create such intensity almost as though you were watching the last few minutes of a tied-up Super Bowl, and benefits from the performances of its leads. But where the film succeeds most is in its portrayal of Nixon, played to perfection by Frank Langella, as a man filled with a deep sorrow and remorse that seems lifted once he finally confesses his sins. Symbolic on so many levels and appropriate in today’s political atmopshere as well, we are reminded what a great sacrifice leading our nation can be, and how much more massive the repercussions from mistakes can be when the person who makes them is the President.  To me, this was clearly the best film of 2008.

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What Will Win: Slumdog Millionaire. The momentum is there, and the general feel-good nature of the film has Oscar written all over it. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the movie is incredibly well made from a directorial standpoint, adding in some brutally true footage of life in India’s slums, and that the performances from relatively unknown actors across the board still manage to strike a chord with the audience- we care deeply about what happens to them. It wasn’t my very favorite film of the year due to some serious plot flaws, such as the convenient coincidences of the questions asked on the game show, and most notably the instability of the Salim character’s development throughout the film, but I can see why it will win. Slumdog is certainly an entertaining film organized in an unorthodox fashion, and that is probably enough to win Best Picture this year, considering that at this point The Reader and Button have to be real long shots for this category. I’d give Milk the nod for the Silver Medal in this race as it also plays more to the Academy’s preferences, and is just loaded with powerful performances that also tells a relevant story for these times.

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Biggest Snub: The Dark Knight. Amazingly, the Academy chose to overlook the year’s highest grossing picture that also happened to be one of the year’s most critically acclaimed films. The most recent in the Batman movies took the story, and superhero movies as a genre, to a new level thanks to killer performances and a storyline that delved deep into the humanity of its characters. I wonder if this omission is more of a result of the Academy’s changing preference towards smaller, less accessible films or because of the arguably strong right wing message of the film? In either case, if you liked The Curious Case of Benjamin Button better than The Dark Knight, consider a cat scan, although it was actually The Reader that stole Batman’s thunder.

BEST ACTOR:

Who Should Win: Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon. This could go to either Langella or Penn and I’d be alright with it, but I’ll give Langella the slight nod here, if for no other reason than that I liked his movie more and that he’s not likely to have another shot at this award. And anytime you can work the line “Did you do any fornicating” into a pre-interview chat with such a nonchalant manner, that gets bonus points from me as well. In all seriousness, Langella took the role he had perfected on Broadway and took it a step further, benefiting immensely from Ron Howard’s directing which got the most out of some tight shots way in on his shadowy face. Some of his best acting in this film comes when he isn’t saying a word.

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Who Will Win: Sean Penn, Milk. Everyone is jumping on the Mickey Rourke bandwagon, and that performance was exceptional in The Wrestler, but this is Penn’s award to lose, and despite the fact that he’s completely out of his mind from a political standpoint, I can’t deny that he gave the performance of his career in this film, completely transforming into Harvey Milk, the first openly gay American to be elected into political office. I don’t feel that Brad Pitt carried Button the way that a lot of people do, and while I am a huge Richard Jenkins fan and happy to see him here, he seems to be on the outside looking in for this one.

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Biggest Snub: Leonardo DiCaprio, Revolutionary Road. As much as I thought this movie somewhat missed its own point, you can’t deny DiCaprio’s effort, and the film was still better than Benjamin Button.

BEST ACTRESS:

Who Should Win: Meryl Streep, Doubt. Streep always just nails characters in her movies, but her portyayal of a cold, stern, old-fashioned, by-the-book nun in Doubt was one of her best performances in years. Streep carries this movie with assistance from a remarkable cast, but resonates as the key character, and the best analogy for the film’s premise and ultimate question- how much needs to be proven in order for a person to truly believe something? This is one of those moives that I always picture the casting directors sitting around a big table and saying, “Okay, if we can’t get Meryl Streep to play Sister Alyicious, we probably can’t make this movie.”

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Who Will Win: Kate Winslet, The Reader. After her performance in this one earned her a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress, the Academy turned the tables a bit and put her up for the main actress category, probably at the expense of the movie that won her a Golden Globe in that Category, Revolutionary Road. The result of this change is twofold; on the one hand, the Best Actress category is now incredibly deep, and now the Best Supporting Actress category is wide open, as Winslet was a lock to win there for this film. I agree with the Academy on both counts, that her performance in The Reader was indeed a lead performance, and that it was a better, more challenging one than she gave in Road. I’m okay with it if she gets her long-deserved Oscar here, as she gave an impressively dark performance filled with regret and shame in a movie that ponders what lengths people will actually sink to simply to avoid their own embarrassment. Watch out for Melissa Leo to pull the upset for the job she did in Frozen River, but really this is a two horse race in my opinion. I’m glad to see Anne Hathaway here as well but too much of her performance depended on her surroundings, and it would be a real shock to see her steal a statue from seasoned veterans like Streep or Winslet. Angelina and Brad get to walk down the aisle together, but in my book they’re both the last nominee in for each of their respective categories.

The Reader

Biggest Snub: As I said, the Academy probably got this one right, although Winslet arguably could have been up for her Revolutionary Road performance here as well. I’m happy to see her here for The Reader instead as I didn’t sympathize with her Road character at all; it seemed like more of a film about how to handle an insane wife than it did about the perils surburban cabin fever as it tries to be. I didn’t get a chance to see I’ve Loved You So Long, but Richard Roeper said Kristin Scott Thomas’ performance in that one was the best acting he’s seen by anyone in twenty years, and that has to mean something.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:

Who Should Win: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight. Looking past the tragic death of Ledger over a year ago, no one can deny what he was able to do with this character. I vividly remember when my wife told me she had heard that Ledger had been cast as the Joker for the next Batman movie and my reaction was complete disbelief- this is the same Australian dude from 10 Things I Hate About You, right? But Ledger put a new, eerier, creepier but ultimately more human spin on this villian, which stood out in this category and among all-time diabolical villians. Everything about the show he put on, from the voice he created to the lip-licking and maniacal laughter, was absolutely possessive, and the best element of a movie that was already very good to begin with.  At the risk of making a massive understatement, it’s a shame that he can’t be here to enjoy his accomplishment.

Who Will Win: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight. Mark it down, this one is in the bag. It is slightly concerning that the film was passed over for Best Picture, but who else really even has a chance here? The next best performance was easily Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt, but he doesn’t seem a likely candidate to pull the upset. Probably the best chance for an upset comes from Michael Shannon’s performance in Revolutionary Road, where he steals every scene he is in and begs us to question the definition of true insanity. Josh Brolin was great in Milk as well, but I don’t see him stealing this from Ledger.

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Biggest Snub: Michael Sheen, Frost/ Nixon. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Tropic Thunder wasn’t even a good movie. So Robert Downey Jr. painted himself brown and learned to speak in a dialect that borders on racially offensive–is that what merits a nomination these days? It’s a shame that Sheen’s dynamic portrayal of David Frost was overlooked here; without creating some sympathy for that character’s plight, the best film of the year would not have been as such.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:

Who Should Win: Amy Adams, Doubt. This is somewhat of a tossup for me between Adams’ thorough performance as a naive, sweet-hearted nun named Sister James who tries to see only the best in people, and the devastating ten minutes of screen time from Viola Davis as an emotinal mother willing to make questionable sacrifices to provide her son with a better life. Both are deserving, but Adams had the more challenging role, especially having to hold her own against  the likes of Meryl Streep in nearly every scene. Her best moments come when Sister James comes out of her shell and loses her normally composed tone as a result of the events around her, only to submit back into that tone with a certain sadness. Clearly, Adams is one of the best actresses of her generation, a rare talent with the ability to control entire scenes with only the look in her eyes.

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Who Will Win: Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The omission of Winslet’s character from The Reader in this category renders it fairly wide open. Adams and Davis gave the two strongest supporting performances of the year in Doubt, but I fear those two will cancel each other out. It would certainly be a huge upset for Marisa Tomei or Taraji P. Henson to win here, so that leaves Cruz as the likely winner. Admittedly, she gave one of her most powerful (and often humorous) performances to date alternating between English and Spanish with impeccable timing, and her sheer beauty remains stunning enough to make every scene she’s in jump off the screen.

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Biggest Snub: Rosemarie DeWitt, Rachel Getting Married. Anne Hathaway is getting all of the credit for this film, and she’s deserving of the nomination, but as the movie’s namesake, DeWitt played a vital role in making that performance resonate. As the sister who did everything right but was always in the shadow of the personal issues of Hathaway’s character, DeWitt exhibited remarkable poise and restraint in many of her powerful scenes. She’s not getting the credit she deserves here, although I’m not sure which of the five nominees deserved the get the bump.

BEST DIRECTOR:

Who Should Win: Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon. What Howard did in this movie was use the power of film to add a new element to a story that everyone already knows the ending to. By using such tight shots on Frank Langella’s face, we’re given a different look into Nixon’s inner demons that the actual television interviews in the 1970s weren’t able to give us.

Who Will Win: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire. Using the same off-lit style he used in movies like Trainspotting, Boyle created a choppy, exciting feel here that worked best early in the film during the shots in the slums of India. His use of the flashback signs here also add consistency to a film that otherwise might be difficult to keep in sequence in its later scenes. The momentum is there, and Boyle’s unique style will likely earn him the Oscar here.

Biggest Snub: Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler and Jonathon Demme, Rachel Getting Married. Both directors used hand-held cameras to create a raw atmopshere, which worked perfectly in both movies. In Rachel Getting Married, this style effects the viewing to the point where we almost feel that we are at the wedding, and in The Wrestler it certainly adds to how we connect and sympathize with the main character. It’s a shame that neither of these innovative risks weren’t rewarded here in lieu of the more conventional directing in The Reader and Benjamin Button.

Oscar Preview

February 12, 2008

The writers strike is officially over and it looks like we’re going to get a full-blown Academy Awards program. Here are my thoughts, and picks, on the Oscars.

BEST PICTURE

In a relatively strong year for movies, the five pictures selected weren’t all that surprising:

“No Country For Old Men”– An incredibly complex and suspenseful examination into the depths of inherent human evil, greed and helplessness. The Coen brothers really got back to doing what they’re best at with this film, but I’m not sure they’ve ever made anything quite this powerful before. So many themes run rampant in this amazing adaptation. Between the incredible cinematography, classic suspense scenes and the creation of the most terrifying villain since Hannibal Lecter, this was the best film that I saw this year and the likely winner. The scene in the gas station is as bizarrely terrifying as anything I have ever seen, and executed perfectly. I’ve had more than a couple nightmares where Anton Chigurh has made an appearance. Listen to the film carefully- there is no music whatsoever.

“There Will Be Blood”- A driving, relentless film that follows the life of a self-made millionaire oil tycoon whose hatred for humanity grows proportionately with his wealth. Paul Thomas Anderson enters new territory here and pulls off another epic film that benefits largely from Daniel Day-Lewis and his portrayal of a dispicable oil man consumed with a universal hate for the world that defies reason. The story builds into an unthinkable conclusion that is nothing short of madness. This is the sleeper pick for the win behind its stellar performances and difficult but powerful subject matter. The title doesn’t suck either, nor does the luminous soundtrack from Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead, one of the most brilliant musicians currently alive.

“Juno”- What a fantastic story the success of this adorable little indie film has been. As you watch (and re-watch) it, pay attention to the characters and how all of them are lovable to the bone; none of them seem to have negative qualities and all are so well-meaning. This utopia might border on nauseating under normal conditions, but Diablo Cody’s sharp script and Ellen Page’s flawless performance keep the film interesting and enjoyable against a plotline that could have easily delivered heartlessness. Even the scene at the abortion clinic proves this, as the young protester seems legitimately concerned with Juno’s difficult decision rather than preaching at her. This isn’t a pro-life film, but it doesn’t poke fun at pro-lifers either; all the characters have their own redeeming qualties. The movie doesn’t exactly reach the depth of some of the other nominees and it would be a big surprise to see it given the award, but I can’t remember leaving a movie in such a good mood. It deserves to be here.

“Atonement”- The twisting storyline of a young girl’s terribly unfortunate misunderstanding and its subsequent destruction of the lives of all involved is powerful to be sure. The incredibe tracking shot on the Dunkirk beach holds the film together during a war sequence that might otherwise tear its already shaky continuity apart, and deserves recognition as a serious achievement. The “story-within-a-story” revelation leaves a lot open to interpretation in this shockingly depressing tale. My attitude after leaving this film was pretty much the exact opposite of how I felt after “Juno.” It seemed to have early momentum to be the favorite here, but with Keira Knightley and James McAvoy missing out on Oscar nods and the completely inexplainable snub of director Joe Wright, I can’t like its chances.

“Michael Clayton”- Probably the most surprising of the nominees, this high-octane law flick benefits most from killer performances and innovative directing. The script is easy enough to follow, as a multi-billion dollar law-suit begins to turn against a high-profile law firm due to one its top lawyers’ sudden change of conscience (possibly brought on by bipolar tendencies, or perhaps simply a sudden realization), and a “fixer” is sent in to clean up the mess, only to engage in his own self re-evaluation. With a fairly complex script and a crowd-pleasing (albeit a bit of a sell-out) ending, this film delivers one of the better law stories in recent years. The “more-complex-than-Grisham-but-not-as exciting” plotline isn’t mainstream accessible, but the performances by Clooney, Swinton and Wilkinson are.

Overall, there were so many great movies that something had to be left out. I’d like to have seen “The Great Debaters”, “The Kite Runner” or “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead” sneak in here, but it’s a pretty solid five nonetheless.

The Pick: No Country For Old Men

BEST ACTOR

This appears to be over already, as Daniel-Day Lewis, who is famous for completely owning difficult roles, was complex and amazing in his portrayal of a hateful, self-made oil millionaire in “There Will Be Blood.” It would certainly be a surprise if he didn’t get the Oscar. If there is to be a surprise here, it would most likely come from either George Clooney for his pensive portrayal of the title character in “Michael Clayton” or to Viggo Mortenson for his quiet, mysterious role as a driver for the Russian mafia in “Eastern Promises”, not to mention an unforgettable fight scene completely nude. I haven’t had a chance to see “In The Valley of Elah” or “Sweeney Todd”, but I’d have a tough time putting Johnny Depp or Tommy Lee Jones above the aforementioned three. Actually, the former probably deserved a nod for “No Country For Old Men”, but the real snubs here went to previous winners Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, who should have been nominated at least once each for their work in “American Gangster”, “The Great Debaters” and “3:10 To Yuma.”

The Pick: Daniel Day Lewis, There Will Be Blood.

BEST ACTRESS

This category doesn’t seem to possess the normal star power that would usually provide a punch. Instead, the Academy dug pretty deep into this year’s films and chose a unique five nominees, leaving out Keira Knightley for her role in “Atonement” as well as Angelina Jolie for her highly acclaimed performance in “A Mighty Heart.” These were surprises for sure, but the award should go to Julie Christie without a doubt for her portrayal of a woman, not quite elderly, who quickly begins a steady decline after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in “Away From Her.” This heartbreaking film benefits from her ability to convey her confusion regarding her surroundings merely with her eyes and her tone of voice in a career performance. The French film “La Vie En Rose” drew a nomination for Marion Coitillard, who seems to be somewhat of a sleeper in this category for her portrayal of singer Edith Piaf. And then there’s Ellen Page, who captured the hearts of audiences everywhere in “Juno.” Her ability to handle Diablo Cody’s sharply modern dialogue effortlessly earned her a well-deserved spot here, although I’d be shocked to see her actually win. I haven’t seen “The Savages”, although I don’t doubt that Laura Linney’s performance was deserving because it almost always is. The most surprising nominee here has to be Academy darling Cate Blanchett for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth for the umpteenth time in a film that wasn’t well received critically or publicly. Jolie or Knightley probably deserved that spot, especially since Blanchett received a Supporting Actress nod as well.

The Pick: Julie Christie, Away From Her

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

I’m not sure which category is more “over already”, this one or the Best Actor award. If Javier Bardem doesn’t win here for the unthinkably evil yet extremely principled character he created in “No Country For Old Men”, then there is something extremely wrong going on. From the monotone dialogue to the cow-stunner weaponry, murderous rampages, blank stares, cars exploding merely to create distractions and overall screen presence, no one else this year held a candle to Bardem’s performance. If this one isn’t as “over already” as the Best Actor race, it’s only because the competition is full of performances that in any other year might easily have one. Tom Wilkinson, for one, was amazing in “Michael Clayton” in his portrayal of a bipolar lawyer who causes huge problems for his firm after he loses it at a deposition after a sudden change of heart regarding, well…everything. Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is probably the best pure character actor of my lifetime, was hilarious yet incredibly believable in “Charlie Wilson’s War.” In fact, Hoffman was probably even better in the scarcely viewed but gripping “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead”, a film that will be sticking with me for awhile. I’m still waiting to see Hal Holbrook in the critically acclaimed “Into The Wild” as well as Casey Affleck, who had quite a year, in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” Affleck plays the coward, I’m told.

The Pick: Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Always an exciting and uncertain category, this race appears to be the only one of the main awards that could easily go any of five ways. To me, Tilda Swinton had the best performance in “Michael Clayton” as an ice-cold, career-driven attorney who will stop at nothing to get what she wants, but doesn’t feel good about that. However, Cate Blanchett played Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There.” That’s right, she played Dylan! Saorise Ronan was nearly perfect in “Atonement”, creating an impossibly and immediately unlikeable character in the young Briony. It can’t be easy to make such a young character seem so unforgivable, but Ronan pulled it off with beauty. Ruby Dee received somewhat of a surprising nomination for her role in “American Gangster” as the mother of a druglord who slowly realizes what her son has gotten himself into. Being somewhat of a surprise, and amazingly the lone nomination for a film that three months ago was at the top of most people’s Best Picture contender lists, I’d be shocked to see her win, but in this category crazier things have happened. I haven’t seen Amy Ryan in “Gone Baby Gone.”

The Pick: Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton

BEST DIRECTOR

The Coen brothers literally created a piece of art with “No Country For Old Men.” Between the long, early shots of the western landscape to their patented work with creating suspense out of what the eye can’t see, this film may go down as their greatest achievement, and they have to be the favorite to get the Oscar here. Still, Paul Thomas Anderson looms large. “There Will Be Blood” was not an easy movie to make on any level, and Anderson used a variety of daring shots to substantiate its overwhelmingly massive tone. I personally really enjoyed the shots in “Michael Clayton”, as Tony Gilroy used tight, up-close angles on all of his actors, which really allowed for facial expression to dictate the story’s tone, and also helped immensely with flow. The circular shot that follows Clooney around as he stares into the eyes of three horses standing peacefully but forebodingly on the side of the road just before his car blows up is purely awesome. I haven’t seen “The Diving Bell and The Butterfly” and I thought that the success of “Juno” as a film should be attributed less to a directorial accomplishment but on second look, I suppose Jason Reitman did quite a job with what he had to work with. The real shame here is that the year’s most spellbinding scene, the amazing ten-minute tracking shot on Dunkirk Beach in “Atonement” (the timing alone is unthinkable, not to mention the backdrop of defeat, despair and disorientation intertwined with unrepenting beauty behind) didn’t earn Joe Wright a nomination. He was robbed.

The Pick: Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country For Old Men

BRIEF PICKS OVER THE OTHER CATEGORIES:

Orginal Screenplay: Juno

Adapted Screenplay: No Country For Old Men

Cinematography: No Country For Old Men

Oscar Preview

February 24, 2007

Sunday night, the Academy Awards will be presented. I have to admit, they really snuck up on me this year– was anyone else under the impression that the Oscars were always in March? In any event, I was scrambling a bit to see as many movies as I could that were up for nominations so that I could fully and accurately predict and enjoy the awards. To me, it seems that a lot of the likely winners are being treated as foregone conclusions. There doesn’t seem to be much question as to who will win the major awards, which of course will make the unlikely event of an upset in any of the major categories every bit more dramatic. However, this is my breakdown of not only who will win each category, but, more importantly, who should win if the world was just.

BEST PICTURE

I’ve seen all of the films nominated except for “Letters To Iwo Jima”, although I feel fairly certain that there is no way on planet Earth that this movie will win Best Picture. In fact, this film’s nomination is probably the most surprising of the five nominees, as it is completely subtitled and arguably better suited for the foreign language film category. Much to the dismay of the connections of “Dreamgirls”, “Iwo Jima” somehow made the cut. It must be good, but I can’t see it having a chance to win after all of the surprise from its simply being nominated.

The rest of the contenders make for an interesting race in my opinion. “Babel” took the Golden Globe for Best Drama, which would seem to indicate a strong shot at the very least. Personally, I didn’t find “Babel” to be as deep or meaningful as it seemed to find itself, and am geniunely shocked by its victory at the Globes. Ebert seems to be talking it up, but I’ll play against it. Even more surprising was “Little Miss Sunshine” winning Best Picture at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. This is admittedly a heartwarming film, but if there weren’t any better, more meaningful pictures made this year, I can’t imagine what that says about the year. Both of these films have big shots to win, but I’ll be sorely disappointed if either does.

That leaves “The Queen” and “The Departed.” I thoroughly enjoyed “The Queen”, but it seems evident to me and virtually every other movie-goer I know that “The Departed” was purely awesome and basically in another league than any other film made this year. The star-studded cast, intriguing storyline and flawless directing by Martin Scorsese combined to create the full package. It seems kind of silly to me to even compare any of the nominees to “The Departed” on any level, which makes it even more surprising that it has been upset not once but twice between the Globes and the Screen Actors Guilds. I think that the Academy will get it right here though, just as they did last year.

Who Should Win: The Departed

Who Will Win: The Departed

Sleeper: Little Miss Sunshine 

BEST ACTOR

I truly believed that Leonardo DeCaprio would finally get his Oscar for his brilliant performance in “The Departed.” Imagine my surprise, then, when the nominations were announced and DeCaprio received a nod for his other highly acclaimed film, “Blood Diamond”, which I have not yet seen. Whatever the case, this can’t bode well for his chances, as the choice is as confusing as it is disappointing. I would have loved to have seen a real battle between the two truly great performances of DeCaprio and Forest Whitaker. Instead, the latter seems to have a stranglehold on the award, although I hope Whitaker is a bit more prepared to speak than he was at the Golden Globes.

Forest Whitaker absolutely nailed his performance in “The Last King of Scotland” as the eccentric, murderous Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, and deserves the statue for this one. Whitaker remains in firm command of the character throughout, oscillating between raving, raucous laughter and soft, serious speech like an on/off switch. He brilliantly demonstrates the contrast between the complex elements of good and evil going on inside of Amin’s head. As the character grows, becomes more eccentric and begins to border on insanity, Whitaker’s screen presence carries an air of fear that had to be felt throughout the entire nation of Uganda in the late 1970s.

Another film that I didn’t see was “Venus”, but the general consensus is that Peter O’Toole is the main sleeper in this category for his performance here. I hate it when an actor gets an Oscar simply because he has made a lot of movies and hasn’t ever won before, so hopefully if he does pull what would be a huge upset here it will be well deserved. Will Smith is always insanely likeable on screen in any role, so it is not a surprise that is portayal of a struggling working father in “Pursuit of Happyness” earned him a chance here. Smith did a great job in this movie, but will likely fall short just as he did for “Ali.” Ryan Gosling took a challenging role in “Half Nelson”, but I’m not sure the script was there for him to win this award. He certainly carried the movie as a lost man trying desperately to overcome his drug addiction and frustrations with the world, but after awhile viewers have to feel that an entire movie of acting subdued can’t hold a candle to a performance such as Whitaker’s.

Who Should Win: Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland

Who Will Win: Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland

Sleeper: Peter O’Toole, Venus 

BEST ACTRESS:

There does not appear to be much discussion over who will win this award. If Helen Mirren does not get the award for her portayal of Queen Elizabeth II in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death in “The Queen”, it surely will be considered one of the greatest upsets is Oscar history. Mirren played this role to perfection in every element, and is a special talent who deserves recognition. But just for fun, I’ll investigate the other candidates, knowing full well that this one is in the bag.

I didn’t get to see “Little Children” or “Volver”. I was surprised to learn that Kate Winslet has more Oscar nominations (now 5- “Titanic”, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, “Iris”, “Sense and Sensability perviously) than anyone else at her young age of 31. It is unfortunate for her that it doesn’t appear she’ll get a statue here, but certainly she will have many more opportunities. As for Penelope Cruz, it is nice to see her nominated after many of her bigger films failed to achieve great success. It is difficult to see her having any chance here in a foreign language film on her first nomination, and I am sure she is just happy to be nominated at all.

The other two nominees are no strangers to the red carpet, and both gave performances that in a Mirren-less year would be deserving of the win. Meryl Streep has made more trips to the Kodak Theater than any actress in history, and her performance as a tough-as-nails fashion editor in “The Devil Wears Prada” deems her worthy of yet another. However, her odds have been better in past years, as pulling a rather shallow chick-flick back into watchability isn’t likely to match up well against the depth of the character portrayed by Mirren. Judi Dench is here every year for something, and this year she took on a role that showcased her diversity, starring as a lonely, aging and obsessive lesbian school teacher intrusted with a secret that she attempts to use to her full advantage. The way that Dench can carry a scene simply by casting a glare is beyond measure, and her turn as a terrifying manipulator in the deliciously watchable “Notes on a Scandal” deserves recognition. But this Oscar is still all Helen Mirren’s.

Who Should Win: Helen Mirren, The Queen

Who Will Win: Hellen Mirren, The Queen

Sleeper: Nobody 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:

Eddie Murphy certainly seems to be the favorite here for his portrayal of young motown star turned drug-addicted-has-been Jimmy Early in “Dreamgirls.” Is there some kind of a rule in Hollywood that any time an actor makes a gigantic leap in movie genre and is successful that the actor is automatically nominated for an Oscar? For me, Murphy played the part well, but certainly didn’t steal the show. Am the only one that can’t imagine seeing Murphy with a staute? We all love the guy, sure, but can you really give an Oscar to someone who has a film such as “Norbit” currently in theaters as the awards are being given?

Murphy was a great addition to this film, but there were better performances given this year. However, having won this category at the Globes and the SAGs, he appears to be the front-runner. To the contrary, Dreamgirls missing the nom for Best Picture was a surprise, so perhaps the Academy found less favor with the film than the others. If that is the case, the race should be wide open, which it deserves to be. If Murphy gets this Oscar, I for one will have to consider it a lifetime achievement award, much like when Denzel Washington was given the Oscar for “Training Day” after being snubbed for much better performances. By contrast, Murphy has never been snubbed since he doesn’t tend to involve himself with movies that get nominated for Academy Awards, further advancing the peculiarity of his presence here.

I didn’t get to see “Blood Diamond” or “Little Children.” I am sure Djimon Hounsou was brilliant because he always is, and I am intrigued by Jackie Earle Haley’s comeback to play a hatable pedophile. Neither appears to be getting very much support though, and if either wins it will make me even more excited to see these films that I am already very disappointed to have missed. Alan Arkin gave a dynamite, profanity-laced performance and added hysterical moments to “Little Miss Sunshine”, and certainly has a shot here.

Having said all of that, if there is fairness in the universe, Mark Wahlberg will win for “The Departed.” I have already voiced my praise for this film, and if the Academy greets it with open arms, he has a chance. After I left this movie, as great as I thought it was and as many great performances as were given, I couldn’t help thinking about how Wahlberg stole every scene he was in. Integral to the story he was not, but his performance as a mean-faced, no nonsense hot-shot cop added more tension to a movie that was already tense up to its ears. This performance didn’t have the complexity of his lead role in “Boogie Nights”, but this award is different. And one need only watch the final scene to realize how much “support” Wahlberg provided.

Who Should Win: Mark Wahlberg, The Departed

Who Will Win: Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls

Sleeper: Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:

This category is shaping up to be the most interesting and wide-open of them all. For starters, I have to throw out Abigail Breslin. Honestly, I am still a little surprised that “Little Miss Sunshine” is getting so much run, but even so, children have not generally fared well at the Oscars. And if they had, Breslin’s performance didn’t exactly strike me as earth-shattering they way, say, Haley Joel Osment’s did in “The Sixth Sense.” (And he didn’t win, either).

Then there is Jennifer Hudson, and what a story she is. If ever there was proof that American Idol is relevant, this is certainly it. Hudson was cut earlier than she should have been on the popular television show only to resurface in “Dreamgirls” and basically steal the show. She is considered the favorite here in her first film performance ever, and if she wins I could live with that. I just compare her performance to the other nominees and wonder how much she benefitted from her incredible singing ability relative to how much actual acting she really had to do. She certainly portayed a strong woman and delivered her fair share of punch-lines, but I suppose you could argue that there were other performances with greater emotional depth. In short, I wonder how she will ever fair in a movie that doesn’t involve singing. Cate Blanchett is becoming one of the most versatile actresses working today, and her portrayal of a married teacher involved in an affair with her fifteen year old student was riveting in “Notes on a Scandal.” Blanchett really takes control of the role towards the end of the movie as the scandal unfolds and the life of her character is destroyed by a friend with a hidden agenda.

If ever there was a film where the sum of its parts somehow failed to add up, “Babel” was it. Nevertheless, standing alone, those parts are worthy of recognition. I fear that the two actresses nominated here will split each other’s votes, but both have solid claims to the award. It won’t happen, but my choice is Rinko Kikuchi, who in her first American film managed to act soley through facial expressions and sign language in her portrayal of a deaf-mute adolescent girl struggling with the suicide of her mother and her growing curiousity in her own sexuality. “Babel” is essentially about barriers to communication between the human race, and nowhere in the film was this theme more prominent than in Kikuchi’s performance. Adriana Barrazza was equally brilliant in her role as a nanny living in the United States illegally and watching over two children. Her character demonstrates caring motherly instincts even when her own judgement puts them all in grave danger. It’s kind of a toss up, but I give Kikuchi the edge. And I still think Vera Farmiga should have been up for “The Departed” instead of Abigail Breslin, who if somehow was to win would basically condemn the Academy through eternity in my eyes. This one is going to be interesting.

Who Should Win: Rinko Kikuchi, Babel

Who Will Win: Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls

Sleeper: Cate Blanchett, Notes on a Scandal 

Movie Review: Borat- Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

November 9, 2006

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (directed by Larry Charles, starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Ken Vavitian, 82 minutes) *** out of 4 stars

When I first saw previews for this movie months ago in theaters, I jumped out of my seat with excitement. Having been a huge fan of Sacha Baron Cohen’s hilarious “Da Ali G Show” on HBO and generally feeling that anyone at this point who has not seen the show must be living under a rock, I was prepared for the hype. As it turns out, there are several folks out there who indeed have never seen the show, and my guess is that they are going to enjoy this movie even more than I did.

When I first heard that Cohen was going to turn arguably his most hilarious alter-ego, Borat, into a full-fledged feature film, a few questions came immediately to mind. For one, I wondered how on earth he was going to make a whole movie about this one character alone. Was there going to be a plot or was he just going to randomly shock unsuspecting Americans with his often unfathomable antics? And how was he going to get enough material to fill an entire feature-length film? Don’t most Americans know who Borat is anyway from the HBO series?

For those who still have no idea what this movie is about, it is a pretty simple concept and it is easy to see how funny it can be if certain aspects of it are pulled off correctly. Cohen stars as Borat, a fake character who lives in Kazakhstan as a news reporter and is sent to the United States to learn about its culture and make improvements in his homeland based on his findings. From there, he encounters the melting pot of diversity that is America and basically every stereotype about every possible ethnicity in America and beyond is magnified and pushed to the limit in unprecedented comedic fashion. I have heard people say that it is the most offensive movie that they have ever seen, while still admitting that they couldn’t stop laughing over the course of the film.

For those that can take the otherwise offensive ethnic stereotypes lightly, this movie is worth seeing. And those who are offended by this movie probably need to loosen up and recognize its decided lack of targeting any one particular group. Cohen’s Borat is from the Middle East and hates Jews, but Cohen himself is of course Jewish. In fact, the incredible amount of anti-Semitic commentary is actually more of an insult to Borat’s religious beliefs, as they come off appearing ignorant and unfounded. Over the course of the movie, every other imaginable group is mocked, from homosexuals and crazy Southern Baptists to extreme right wing rodeo men, left wing feminists, African-Americans, misled fraternity boys and even prostitutes. The dialogue is incredibly politically incorrect and is so far over the line that a rational person can’t help but guffaw uncontrollably from start to finish, recognizing the underlying comedic element of Cohen’s character: All of our stereotypes are utterly absurd.

The funniest moments of “Borat” are undeniably his unstaged encounters with Americans who have no idea what or who he is or that any of his antics are a joke at their expense. These are the moments that are most reminiscent of “Da Ali G Show.” Highlights include attempts to kiss random men on both cheeks in public, relieving himself in multiple ways in broad daylight, the always popular dinner party, “accidentally” releasing a live hen out of a suitcase on a public train, and of course, hitchhiking with some fraternity boys on an RV. Just as was the case on the HBO series, what makes these scenes even more funny than they are intrinsically is Cohen’s ability to somehow maintain an unwavering straight face.

Unfortunately, the movie isn’t able to stand alone on these unstaged encounters. Cohen’s major obstacle in turning this character into a full movie was certainly continuity, and as a result a “plotline” was worked into the madness. With plot comes staged situations, and while funny, some of the obviously pre-written scenes take away from the overall hilarity. The Pamela Anderson plotline couldn’t possibly be any more absurd, and while I suppose was necessary to make the movie work, the staginess of the scenes setting it up reminded me a bit of home-made mockumentary short-lengths I have been a part of.

Of course, probably the funniest scene in the movie is staged. It involves Borat and his producer Azamat, and suffice to say that the men are both naked. I will leave it at that. Aside from that scene, having Azamat’s character in pretty much any other part of the film seemed like filler. The two men speak pre-written foreign dialogue with subtitles for much of the movie. My wife, who is Armenian, noticed that Azamat’s character was speaking Armenian while Borat’s character was speaking another language. What’s more, the subtitles didn’t even translate remotely to the Armenian being spoken. I could have done without any of this.

Despite the relative lulls that the necessity of carrying out a “plotline” in such a film requires, the movie still works well. There are enough moments of unparalleled hilarity to merit many re-watches. That anyone can put so much effort into such insanity and maintain his calm in the midst of such indisputable comedic moments while all the while taking an intelligent stab at American culture is a credit to Sacha Baron Cohen.

Movie Review- Marie Antoinette

October 31, 2006

MARIE ANTOINETTE (123 minutes, directed by Sofia Coppola, starring Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Rip Torn)  *** out of 4 stars

In her latest film, “Marie Antoinette”, promising director Sofia Coppola takes a personal look at the life of the controversial female figure of 18th century France. While slightly lacking the development and depth of her landmark picture, “Lost In Translation”, this film is nevertheless a massive undertaking, impressively cast, constructed and written.

Dunst stars in the title role and gives an above-average performance as a woman forced from her home in Austria at a young age to marry a French prince, Louis XVI, who is destined to become King of France. Louis XVI is played with great regard for comedic effect by the incomparable Jason Schwartzman, a brilliant casting decision in my opinion. The normally silly Schwartzman takes on a challenging role as the oddball prince, who has initially little to no interest in his new bride sexually or emotionally. The early part of the film addresses the struggles Marie Antoinette faced by her inability to become pregnant and produce an heir through no fault of her own, as her husband simply refused to consummate the marriage. 

The film is presented more as an examination of Marie Antoniette as an emotionally isolated woman than it is a historical recap of the 18th century French royal family. Elements of history are there, but viewers unfamiliar with this history are likely to find themselves confused by the movie’s final half hour. Why does the majority of the French population dispise Marie Antoinette after she becomes queen? Why is there a revolution? And why are the king and queen forced to leave their Versailles palace? Clues are there and students of history will have no problem with the progression, but I can imagine that other will be lost.

Her legacy, of course, rests in her excessive partying, the misquoted “Let them eat cake” comment, and hereventual execution by guillotine. While the former two are addressed, Coppola interestingly chooses to end the movie well before the executions of the king and queen, focusing instead on a life made no more or less tragic by her death.

Several things jumped out at me as I watched this movie. For starters, the costumes were among the best I’ve seen in recent memory. Additionally, Coppola’s integration of modern music into the soundtrack and modern accents into the dialogue both worked well and aided the movie’s progression. Coppola paints Marie Antoinette as a woman with flaws indeed, but moreover conveys the image of a strong, principled woman who was unjustly scrutinized by a country full of people who she loved dispite never determining the fate of her own role in their lives. The portrait of the isolated female has been a popular theme for Coppola’s films, and here she develops such a character with complexity.

The film only falters by what seems to me to be a hurried climax with little explanation, but perhaps this leaves more open for consideration to the viewer. In my opinion, a lot of development was sacrificed by rushing through some of Marie Antoinette’s most painful personal losses and challenges. Nevertheless, the general consensus at the movie’s conclusion is to feel sympathy for this woman, which is in itself an accomplishment.

Movie Review: The Departed

October 9, 2006

THE DEPARTED (149 Minutes, directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Vera Farmiga)      ****/ 4 stars

Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” is everything that I hoped it would be, a smart, intensely thrilling tale of gansters, deception and murder played to perfection by the star-studded cast. In all, this film, Scorsese’s first since 2004’s incredible “The Aviator”, adds up to about the best cop movie since “L.A. Confidential” combined with the easily the best gangster story since “Goodfellas.”

Of course, any movie that casts Jack Nicholson as an Irish mob-boss would grab my attention immediately. Nicholson stars as Frank Costello,  an aging but still fiercely intimidating crime boss who runs illegal operations in the Boston area including everything from drugs to gambling to stolen micro-chip processors. As Costello, Nicholson shows moviegoers why he may be the greatest actor who ever has been, as he turns this challenging role into one of his most memorable performances. Not without his own patented comedic moments of facial expression (check out the scene where Nicholson is imitating “a rat”, priceless…), Costello is portrayed as hard-nosed, no-nonsense psychopath with little to no empathy for his enemies.

The story’s immediate intrigue rests in its design within the police department. Matt Damon stars as Colin Sullivan, an Irishman who has been bred since his youth working under Costello. Now, working his way high up in the Massachussets police department, he is able to tip Costello off whenever he is in danger of police interference. Therefore, Costello is able to continue his illegal activities with little fear of prison. Meanwhile, Leonardo DiCaprio, who seems to have become Scorsese’s DeNiro of this generation, stars as Billy Costigan, a reckless, mildly disturbed young man with a nothing to lose attitude. Costigan is assigned a dangerous and top-secret duty: to work with Costello inside his crew while providing information back to the police department so that the long sought after crime boss can finally be put away.

This plotline provides immediate intensity and the story flies along like a race with amazing situational parallels. Costigan is infuriated to learn that there is a rat (Sullivan) within the police department working for Costello who is putting his life in danger by prolonging the investigation. Every time Costigan’s hard work leads to information that could lead to an arrest, Sullivan tips Costello off. And Sullivan learns through Costello that there is suspicion of a rat (Costigan)within his crew as well, and Costello charges him with the task of uncovering the informant’s identity. Both men franticly search to try to prove the other’s identity while concealing his own, as the failure to do so has fatal consequences in both situations. If Costigan is found to be a rat, Costello will surely kill him. And if Sullivan is unable to find the rat, Costello will kill him instead. And what secrets is Costello keeping from both of them? The film is brilliant in its circular plotline in which no one can be trusted.

I will not spoil the many tense moments that are sure to keep you at the edge of your seat before this situation is resolved, but suffice to say that the plot becomes much more complex than a simple survival race to discover the identity of an enemy. In classic Scorsese form,  killings a plenty result, and here they seem to become almost overly gory to the extent that it borders on comical. But what it really does it put into perspective the depth of insanity of these homicidal characters. One of these brutal and out-of-nowhere murders, involving a central character, is one of the most shocking moments in recent cinematic history.

Vera Farmiga gives a powerful performance as Madeline, a psycholigist who is dating Sullivan but treating Costigan, and who is attracted to both of them. The two men never make the connection that the man they are searching for is also involved in a relationship with the woman they love, and this creates a hysterically creative irony. Her connection between them eventually plays a pivotal role in the plot’s turn,  but I will not divulge that here either. Meanwhile, Mark Wahlberg gives perhaps the film’s best performance as Sgt. Dignam, a tough-talking, impossible-to-please officer who gives Costigan the deadly assignment, and eventually becomes the only man left who knows Costigan’s true identity. Wahlberg literally steals every scene that he enters.

Overall, the cast turns in gripping performances across the board. DiCaprio is as effective here as ever, especially as he begins to fear for his own life as Costello begins to uncover the truth. Damon is always interesting when cast in a “bad guy” role, but it works here because we don’t believe that he is really an evil character until the film unfolds in all its glory. And of course, Nicholson plays the role of Costello perfectly in a way that only Nicholson can, and to describe the character as “scary” doesn’t quite do him justice. There is one scene in which Costello enters the bar inexplicably covered in blood up to his arms and all over his shirt, the source of which is never explained nor discussed.

This film is certainly an early front-runner for Best Picture in my book and is also likely to score several nods for its superb cast. It has been awhile since such a complex crime story was brought to life with such grandeur. The film certainly keeps you guessing with its brillantly devised plotline, and the final shocking scene provides the audience with much satisfaction. I can’t wait to see it again.

Movie Reviews: Hollywoodland and The Last Kiss

September 27, 2006

My wife and I decided to see a couple of movies last weekend, as this fall is already being touted as one of the best for movies in recent memory. Briefly, here are my thoughts on them:

HOLLYWOODLAND (126 minutes, directed by Allen Coulter, starring Adrien Brody, Diane Lane and Ben Affleck)       *** out of 4 Stars

“Hollywoodland” is an intelligently written look at the life and death of George Reeves, who played Superman in the original television series in the 1950s. To its credit, the film does not play like a suspense or a mystery, as its point is to examine rather than resolve to circumstances surrounding Reeves’ mysterious death in his home. Affleck does a respectable job of portraying the troubled Reeves, who openly dispised the Superman show and the fame he gained as a result. However, I found myself wishing his portrayal was given more depth by the script. Affleck’s most telling scene comes at a carnival where he is dressed up as Superman and is approached by a young boy pointing what appears to be a real gun at him, not understanding that what he sees on television does not carry over to reality.

The best performance is given by Brody starring as cocky private eye Louis Simo who is hired to investigate the mysterious death, which was ruled a suicide by police. The movie consists of Simo’s investigation and his fearless public disapproval of the police department’s closing of the case as a suicide without further investigation. Throughout the movie, he imagines all of the different circumstances that could have caused Reeves’ death, eventually settling on one that eases his mind about a case that had driven him mad.

Diane Lane gives a powerful performance as Toni Mannix, the wife of MGM studio head Edgar Mannix and girlfriend of Reeves. Did Mannix have Reeves killed for his relationship with Toni? Did he have Reeves killed for breaking Toni’s heart? Was Reeves killed by his moderately unbalanced fiancee? Or had Reeves simply decided that he’d had enough of the Hollywood lifestyle? “Hollywoodland” doesn’t answer any of these questions, and to do so is not its purpose. Instead, it provides an accurate portrayal of the facts along with insight into the tendency for corruption and mental instability in the land of Hollywood.

THE LAST KISS (104 minutes, directed by Tony Goldwyn, starring Zach Braff, Jacinda Barrett and Rachel Bilson)    ** 1/2 out of 4 stars

Being a man who married at the age of twenty-five, I have trouble connecting to such commitment-phobic characters as Zach Braff’s character represents here. However, I knew the plotline going in, so I digress. Braff stars as Michael, a thirty-year old man who lives with his pregnant girlfriend Jenna who he has dated for three years but does not want to marry yet. This isn’t exactly a shocking state of affairs in the world today, so I suppose the movie attempts to become interesting when Michael and Jenna travel to a friend’s wedding and Michael, having escaped Jenna’s supervision, lays eyes on Kim. Played to perfection by the intelligently cast Rachel Bilson, Kim is a twenty-two year old college student who thinks, talks and acts exactly like a co-ed should. (So do you like, want my number or something?)

Predictably, Michael is tempted by Kim. He tracks her down on campus, not knowing exactly what he is doing or what he hopes to gain. The character of Michael is frustrating in that he never completely understands his own intentions, but I suppose that this is the point of the film, that temptation happens. But everyone who has ever been in a relationship on any level knows that already. Where the film fails is in its lack of resolution on this point- can succombing to temptation be forgiven? Or is letting your guard down and devastating someone who loves you unforgivable? I suppose the movie also succeeds in letting the audience determine this for themselves, but it is difficult when Michael’s character deserves little to no sympathy.

I am, of course, getting ahead of myself, and the point of the movie where the predictable plot unleashes itself is painful to watch. One thing leads to another, Michael is unable to resist Kim’s advances, Jenna figures it out and Michael’s world comes crashing in. As Jenna, Jacinda Barrett gives an impressive performance as a young woman trying to balance her feelings of extreme anger and sadness against each other, and as the film ends, these feelings are still unresolved.

Overall, the film is well-acted and mildly entertaining but its premise does not generate a lot of intrigue.  To me, a thirty-year old man who has a pregnant girlfriend and cheats on her is a pretty horrible person and a loser, and I didn’t need to watch this movie to decide as much.