Sunday, December 31, 2006
Judi Dench gives a real wallop of a twisted performance as Barbra, a strict teacher at a London school who befriends the school’s new art teacher, Sheba, (Cate Blanchett) and slowly reveals certain genuinely chilling sociopathic tendencies. When Sheba begins an affair with a young student, Barbra takes it upon herself to use the incident to keep Sheba in her debt. “I could gain everything by doing nothing” Barbara says in her narration. It’s Dench’s movie to control and she makes it something extraordinary. From the scowling, cruel hearted demeanor of Barbra’s darkest moments to the odd, uncomfortable humor of watching the rigid schoolteacher attempt to dance, it’s all just so eerily perfect. It’s rare to find such humanity and complexity in cinematic stalkers. She’s creepy and unsettling, but we still relate to her in an interesting and unnerving sort of way. Despite her obvious issues with mental health, she does have a very keen sense of perception and an initially enjoyable straightforward demeanor. What the film does most brilliantly is quietly disarm her, making us see bit by bit the cracks in her logic and the corruption of her agenda until we realize that we’ve been wooed by a crazy woman. It lures us in as she lures in her prey, with a delightfulness that makes us forget the minor quirks and ticks. Watching the wonderful Cate Blanchett finally explode in agony against Barbra for all of her obscenely vicious abuses of power is like a giant release for everyone observing the film. She’s a sly predator who has trapped us all in her warped little game. This is not so much a story about scandal, as it is about the way people manipulate and betray one another in ways that seem (to themselves) utterly logical. There’s no moustache twirling villain here, but rather merely people selfishly aiming to serve their own needs and destroying others in the process.
The entire story comes with a well rounded sense of adventure, horror, and drama. The war is not merely a back drop, but actually the core of everything that is going on throughout the film. Del Toro not only creates an astoundingly beautiful and eerie dream world of fairies and fauns, but uses it as a vehicle with which to comment upon the events of the time and the characters of the film. He has made such a pure, vital, and entertaining film that it’s hard to question a single frame. It exists in its own league of uniqueness and creativity amongst many other impressive films this year. More importantly, it truly is an emotional and political work of subtle art that uses story and narrative to both playfully and painfully examine humanity, war, and the innocence of children. It’s a perfectly blended mix of exciting entertainment and undeniable artistry. Del Toro looks to be the sort of rare director that can serve piping hot morals wrapped up in a candy coating without seeming duplicitous or manipulative. He’s not hiding from his ideas. He’s effortlessly injecting them into his colorful adventure stories and fierce moments of messy and gruesome war. Del Toro also has the wonderful gift of making fantasies that hurt with as much realism as the most sophisticated contemporary dramas. From the opening frame, it is clear that Pan’s Labyrinth will not have a happy ending and it shouldn’t. There needs to be consequences and difficulties to really connect an audience with the characters they are seeing. In this film, anything is possible and everyone is as real a person as the one sitting beside you in the theater. It’s an uncompromised and perfectly realized vision of complex characters in an elaborate world of mystery. Pan’s Labyrinth is a very beautiful film about a very ugly time in the world, and it is honestly unlike anything you have ever seen.
Saturday, December 30, 2006
Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat play the feuding Empress and Emperor of the nation respectively. Both of the unhappy spouses concoct plans against the other and an all out family feud emerges with tons of twists and surprises. Curse is much more of a straight drama than Zhang’s more high profile films. Much of the movie is packed with wicked manipulations and vicious rivalries amongst the members of the Emperor’s own family. There’s much less fighting and much more character interplay, which makes for something different but a tad disappointing. There was such a thrill to be had with the overwhelmingly beautiful fight sequences in both Hero and Daggers. Here the violence is brief and unpleasant. Zhang handles it all with a masterful eye and there is a twisted beauty to his perfectly choreographed battle sequences, but it’s just not the same as in his past films where characters sliced each other while twirling through trees or prancing across water. Those fights had solid rhythms and dazzling, poetic visual lyricism. Curse is a much more grounded and disheartening experience, but it still musters enough high quality drama and carnage to make for something truly involving and ambitiously hard hearted. The softness of Zhang’s fight style has been tampered with and altered to reproduce violence that feels as brutal as it really would be under actual circumstances. It’s nice to see a fight film with such sophistication, but I had slightly higher hopes for this movie. Despite all its positive attributes, it comes off feeling somewhat stagnant and unremarkable. The pieces are all impressive, but they don’t quite come together in a way that really leaves a mark. That’s not to say that it is not at all a good film. It’s quite good and highly enjoyable. There’s just something a little too average about it and honestly not too much that really carries any sort of exceptional potency. It’s a minor little flesh wound of a movie that impacts you briefly, but ceases to be memorable after it’s gone.
The underrated Matthew McConaughey wields a wonderful, good hearted charm as Jack Lengyel, the man who takes the place of the sadly deceased head coach of the team. His pleasant demeanor and undeniably funny antics help establish an enjoyable, fast paced tone for the film. All of the tired plot points here get an extra dose of life from Lengyel’s fun persona and warm humility. The whole film has a great personality which goes along way when working with such redundant and unoriginal material. It has a sweetly humble pride over very meager moments of minor victory. The newly formed Marshall team does not win easily. It doesn’t even win all that much really. The joy is in watching the effort and the determination that gets the remaining players back on the field and the locals back in their stadium seats. We Are Marshall is a funny and sensitive genre film that keeps itself feeling fresh with some nice twists on the common formula. It’s not extraordinary, but it’s an entertaining film with some honest to goodness heart at its core.
Thursday, December 28, 2006
Cuarón makes the unexpected and brilliant decision to film his sci-fi epic with messy handheld camera work and gritty, realistic costume and set designs. He puts tireless effort into sucking the heroism and grandiosity out of anything that threatens to be conventional or untrue. When Theo (Clive Owen) tries to make a getaway in a stolen car, Cuarón turns the daring escape into a moment that is both comedic and painfully real. The car won’t start and Theo pushes it clumsily along over and over again, losing his shoes in the process. It’s a great thing to do to one’s protagonist. He no longer reeks of bogus efficiency and instead comes off as a sympathetic guy stuck in a tough situation. Cuarón paints Theo as an unlikely but earnest messiah figure, the savior of the world in flip flop sandals. It’s all just so brilliantly pure and simple that I can’t comprehend anyone not falling in love with this film for all of its passion and textured detail.
The main narrative revolves around Theo’s quest to transport Kee, the only pregnant woman in a world that has been infertile for 18 years, to a humanitarian organization working to salvage the human race. The world has stumbled into utter crisis due to its impending demise and England has become one of the few countries remaining with a decent standard of living. Its borders have grown viciously tight and its citizens increasingly antagonistic, but it remains the last surviving civilized society nonetheless.
The story itself is sparse. We’re left with just one objective: get Kee to safety. The rest of film takes shape as a result of the many complications on the journey toward resolution. It’s an insane blend of philosophical angst, harrowing emotions, and outright explosive action sequences. However, everything comes laced with a unifying level of honesty and humility. The movie’s greatest charm is in the way that it defies expectations and occupies a world that feels as complicated and absurd as the one we live in today. Everything going on here comes as a crushing surprise and the way this film sees the year 2027 could rattle just about anyone. There’s still such a hope and such a vivid sense of humanity underscoring all of the devastation, but it remains a difficult sight to behold. It’s nearly impossible to fully describe this movie, but I could not recommend it more. It is honestly a movie experience that you’ll remember not soon forget.
The general story revolves around a Supremes-esque girl group’s rise to fame and the dirty underhandedness that it takes to get them there. Pop singer Beyoncé Knowles plays Deena Jones, the Diana Ross type lead singer who is thrown into the spotlight due mostly to her beauty and easy acceptance by white audiences. Knowles has appeared in lightweight films in the past, but makes her true cinematic debut here with assurance and dignity. It’s not a performance worthy of the Best Actress trophies everyone seems eager to throw at her, but it does prove that she has talent well beyond Pink Panther remakes. Also reminding us that he has talent is Eddie Murphy, who thankfully plays just one character in the film and not generations of family relatives as he seems determined to do in every one of his lame brained comedies. He stars as a James Brown-esque soul man named Jimmy Early who gives the girls their big break as backup singers and goes on to self destruct in a world where soul music has lost its hold. Early’s downfall comes mostly as a result of the dirty tricks of Curtis Taylor Jr., played by Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx. Though he’s the most proven member of the cast, Foxx gives the most underwhelming performance and mostly just modestly scowls his way through the film.
It’s the least known and least experienced member of the cast, Jennifer Hudson, who makes the biggest impression here as Effie White, a member of the group who gets cast out for being an excessive diva with a voice that’s too soulful and a body that’s too curvy to make it in the mainstream. Hudson gives a delightful performance that shuns the sort of glamour plaguing the rest of the film. Her work has provides a whole hearted, full throated passion that really makes this carefully calculated film come to life with messy and spontaneous excitement. Her show stopping number, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” is precisely the combination of emotional theatrics and staggering musical ferocity that this film would have needed throughout to save it from mediocrity. As it is, that scene alone elevates the film above its flaws.
There’s also such a hypocritical irony about this film which kept me from really enjoying it. It’s the story of how the human soul, as represented by soul music, gets shunned in favor of spineless, easily marketed pop music spectacle. Yet, the film itself adores the glittering lights and fancy dance numbers. It champions Effie’s inspiring voice and character, but it wrongly keeps her story residing just beneath the surface. Her moments are unmistakably the most involving parts of the film, but they’re treated as second tier portions of a narrative that highlights the trials of more polished and dull characters like Deena and Curtis. As in the narrative, Effie, the art of the film, gets lost amidst the slick business that puts Deena, and therefore Beyoncé, front and center. Dreamgirls works well as a whirling, fast paced pop musical, but as a sincere film and piece of art, none of its neon lights and high powered sheen can save it from being lackluster.
Tuesday, December 26, 2006
Even with all the excitement of the grand fight finale, the real core of the film is the inspiration Rocky gives to the underdogs in both his own life and in the world in general. As the main event begins, people who’ve been discounted and pushed around rally behind him and support him against all odds. He is meant as a figure that gives hope to the hopeless and the film capitalizes on this to great effect. Rocky’s victory is not so much about what he does in the ring as it is about how he makes people everywhere truly believe in something. Despite its clichés and uncouth demeanor, there’s no way of escaping the fact that this film really excels at captivating and motivating its audience without going over the top. It’s a celebratory film, but it’s never too sensationalistic. Of all the eager to excite underdog sports films in recent memory, this is definitely one of the most well-rounded ones. Stallone keeps a level head and a steady hand, making for a film that is self-congratulatory but still humble. His passion for the story is undeniable and there’s just no way of getting around the fact that Rocky will always be a much loved character in our culture. He represents the timeless ideal that a good heart and ample endurance is all you need overcome any obstacle in life and who doesn’t want to believe that?
Also new to DVD this week is Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia. It's a clever film that closely mimics 1940s noir looks and styles while also adding some striking contemporary touches. Scarlett Johansson could not have a more perfect face for De Palma’s nostalgic lense and the extremely talented Hilary Swank and Aaron Eckhart both get to play around with interesting roles that go against their usual types. Dahlia is vicious campy fun with some real thrills and cool twists. Noir fans and those looking for something a little more exciting this week should be very pleased. You can pick up The Last Kiss on DVD this week as well. It’s a sort of complacent and kind of over glossy dramedy that’s always straddling the line between witty drama and maudlin cliché. It’s not quite pitch perfect, but it’s rare to see such a wise and ambitious relationship drama done for the MTV set. Garden State and “Scrubs” star Zach Braff lends his sad eyes and indie albums to the role of the adulterous lead character with a string of impressive actors including Tom Wilkinson and Blythe Danner rounding out the supporting cast. The Last Kiss may not be perfect, but it still hits many of the right notes and delivers a warm humor that’s lacking in a lot of films. If nothing else, it unleashed the phrase “quarter life crisis” into the pop culture mainstream. In a world where kids grow up faster and adults get mixed up sooner, everyone seems to be pushing the panic button pre-40th birthday. Fortunately, Zach Braff will happily sulk with you.
Saturday, December 23, 2006
I wish everyone who visits a very happy holiday and encourage one and all to settle in with their favorite film for the season. I know I'll be ready and waiting with my copy of Bad Santa come Christmas morning.
It’s this final half of the film that brings together all the strands of narrative and lands itself squarely on target. Without over sharing, I’ll simply say that Matt Damon plays Edward Wilson, a privileged student at Yale who goes on to become one of the founding members of the CIA. His wife (Angelina Jolie) and family become victims of his deceptive business and over the course of many years his own callousness bleeds one into the other to horrifying effect. The real pleasure of this film is its darkly fascinating depiction of a dying soul. Wilson’s concern and compassion slowly diminish over time and with wonderful subtlety, Damon and De Niro chronicle the character from a wide-eyed idealist into a wounded antihero looking only to do his job.
The Good Shepherd is an enviable cinematic achievement, but it’s also a difficult film to really settle into and enjoy. However, even its drifting and unclear moments are handled with such meticulousness that it is hard to critique the film for complexity. It means to be complex and it succeeds. I only wish that it was consistently engaging and more attentive to the needs of its audience. Even the most enthusiastic viewer is not likely to be instantly enthralled or touched by this slick, hard hearted film. It takes time and endurance to find its inner values, much like the secretive man at its center.
Thursday, December 21, 2006
Clooney always makes for a likable screen presence and his chemistry with Soderbergh is quite obvious. They’ve made many films together and have developed what feels like an effortless actor-director relationship. Clooney also has great on-screen chemistry with Cate Blanchett who gives the most mannered performance of the film. Though what she’s doing has all the makings of a hammy caricature, she gives such specificity and such a feeling of life to the role that you believe her every step of the way.
Anyone wanting to rant about how people should be seeing films of the 1940s instead of a film that looks like a film from the 1940s can feel free to do so. However, I think there’s something more to this film than mimicry. It feels stale for only moments before taking on its own life as an exciting and complex political thriller. The film truly has fresh ideas and visual innovations of its own in addition to capturing a classic look and feel. There are so many contemporary thrillers that lift multiple ideas from 1940s noir. At least this one has the nerve to be upfront about its inspirations.
Flags dealt with the complexities of heroism in the eyes of the American cultural and championed humanity over idealized infamy. Letters similarly dissects cultural perceptions by tackling the intricacies of the Japanese notion of honor with respect to the code of dignity that required soldiers who had failed in combat to give their own lives. It's not a safe or flowery depiction of this Japanese tradition either. In one of the most startling and unforgettable scenes in any movie this year, we witness first hand what it is like to see your friends and allies kill themselves violently one by one and be called upon to do the same.
Letters bleeds to its core, providing a darker and more evocative take on the notorious events of that battle. It juggles leaner, faster, and more vivid action sequences with a more harrowing dramatic narrative and even more thematic complexities. Eastwood never settles himself neatly into a clear cut corner. In both Flags and Letters, every scene comes filled with ambiguities. Nothing is simplified here and it is this painful true-to-life murky sense of morality that makes these films so wonderful. Eastwood has literally salvaged the war epic as a genre by stripping away the conventional glamorized one-sided format and introducing such an unsettling sense of messiness and imperfection. Simply by choosing to tell both sides of the story, he is reminding the viewer that the enemies in Flags are not monsters just as their American enemies in Letters are not monsters. He draws lines between the cultures and creates scenes of eerie tension by flashing back to the past lives of these characters, reminding us that they too are hard working family men. In one remarkably unsettling scene we see the General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, (Ken Watanabe) sharing a meal with the American military during a pre-war visit to the country. “So,” says a general’s wife, “If you went to war with America would you shoot my husband?” This scene embodies the sentiment of the film: people are people and they can share meals and bridge cultures, but when in war they define each other as soulless beasts. Why can they not also extend humanity then? Why does life lose its meaning at these times?
Watanabe outdoes his Oscar nominated breakthrough role in The Last Samurai here with a wonderfully restrained performance as the stern but affable leader of the Japanese forces. He’s quite nearly exceeded by relative unknown Kazunari Ninomiya as Saigo, a sensitive soul who wants to live and return home to his family despite what the Japanese code of honor may say.
More than anything, Eastwood has used these Iwo Jima films as a template to celebrate and explore humanity in all of its splendor and all of its grief. People are complicated and flawed and these films go to great lengths to depict these flaws without disrespecting the people. Eastwood shows the utmost respect to the soldiers, but seems cautious of the demands put upon them by their respective nations. He stresses that amidst the publicity and the war maneuvers, people forget all too often that they are dealing with real human beings. So often war films feel torn from pages of history books, but this one is based quite literally and the thoughts and words of the soldiers. It stems from their letters and their feelings. It escapes the filter of society’s watchful eye and tells with honesty and purity what these people really went through with no agenda in sight.
The titular needles come from three separate stories about the AIDS epidemic in various societies. The first features Lucy Liu as a black market blood distributor in China. Shawn Ashmore stars as an infected Canadian porn star in the second. For the third and final chapter, Olympia Dukakis, Chloë Sevigny, and Sandra Oh play missionary nuns in Africa. Each story comes ripe with nuances and complexities that salvage this from being an obvious and unwelcome sourpuss of a film. Despite all the nastiness within the stories, the film still photographs people with warm and forgiving eyes. No one is really cast as a villain here. Everything is done in the pursuit of survival and to survive is quite a difficult thing indeed. The only problem is that in pursuing their own needs, everyone is unintentionally doing damage to the lives of others. That, of course, is the ultimate question of the film. Why can’t we ever seem to work together?
The narrative is a fascinating one and everything about the film is perfectly done, but none of it really clicks into place in the way that you’d hope. Norton and Watts make great comedic sparring partners and later in the film get to utilize their dramatic skills wonderfully, but I’m not sure that I ever really believed their performances. They never quite slipped perfectly into their roles and often gave a sense of falseness to it all. Director John Curran does a nice job here shaping the rhythms of the spouses’ arguments and photographing lovely Chinese scenery, but he too seems a little heavy handed and lacking in earnestness. It’s a film that is much prettier to look at than it is to endure. In fact, it’s so austere and so elegant that it sometimes forgets to breathe. Though the dysfunction in the characters’ lives is ample, it does not seem in any way vivid or relatable. The Painted Veil is not so much a harrowing movie experience as it is a rigorous one, the kind that leaves you exhausted but unmoved. It’s definitely worth a look, but it’s not something you need to run out and see immediately, especially during such a busy movie season filled with much better film possibilities.
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Also new to DVD is Richard Linklater’s trippy, innovative and weirdly animated A Scanner Darkly. The story, based on the work of Phillip K. Dick, follows a futuristic drug inspector getting lost in addiction and losing himself within the guise of various identities. It’s dark and unpleasant, but it’s something very much worth seeing.
Monday, December 18, 2006
In perhaps one of the most wrongly comedic deaths in a long while, Winkler has teen dream Chad Michael Murray gunned down from behind in an unbelievably exaggerated slow motion shot. It embodies very much what he is doing wrong here. He is stretching the material. He tries to make it so clear and so obvious that it loses realism and intensity. Honestly, though, who wouldn’t chuckle at Chad Michael Murray being shot in slow motion? You know you would. Besides, that doesn’t even begin to cover all of the badness here. There are even more laughs to be had over soap star Brian Presley’s heinously over the top grieving or the sheer bogusness of wannabe actor 50 Cent grunting “I’ll cover you” just seconds prior to all of this. Seriously, has a slow motion death ever been effective? Seriously?
This leads sort of into the next problem here. Winkler assembled a pretty mediocre cast who cannot truly carry the weight of the story. Nearly all of them try so hard to emote that you can physically see them straining their eyes to form tears. Samuel L. Jackson carries himself well enough and Jessica Biel is slowly improving over time, but I don’t think either of them really suited the material well enough to make it work. It helps that they had the most effective stories of the film and got to play the better moments here, but they still outclass their costars by a mile.
It really is gutsy to make a film about the events and the effects of a current war, especially one that is the cause of so much debate and controversy. That being said, if you’re going to tackle an issue that is this important and socially relevant, then you really need to make something special out of it. It has to be poignant and articulate filmmaking that brings insight to all that is going on. To just casually film devastation and wait for the tears that follow is a useless and tedious exercise in unnecessary moviemaking. I believe that everyone at work here, including Winkler and his cast, mean well and are trying their best, but none of them deliver enough to really make me feel like this film has any reason to exist.
Saturday, December 16, 2006
Friday, December 15, 2006
My main complaints are towards its by the numbers structure and complacent writing. There’s not a second of surprise here and not even the most desperately sad moments really sting. Everything that goes wrong just seems like a means of postponing the happy ending to come. What makes this otherwise mediocre film worthwhile is an impressive performance by Will Smith. He brings both resilience and charm to the role of a father struggling to support his young son. He also brings his actual dynamic with his son Jaden to the film as well. This is not just a case of Hollywood nepotism, but a real opportunity to capture an authentic connection between father and son on the big screen. Credit also goes to Italian director Gabriele Muccino who does great work here and often exceeds the quality of the material. He shoots a wonderfully vivid and gritty indie style film and then sees his vision dimmed by Smith’s all too hokey voice over and corny lines that are best left forgotten. It would have been a much better film if Muccino had loosened up the heavy handed script structure and let us enjoy his much more appropriately subdued visual style instead.
I’m not sure how much I would recommend this film on a general level. It’s mildly enjoyable and generally pleasant, but its not really compelling or exciting cinema. Though, for those in pursuit of a meager dose of happiness and some sugary low stakes drama, this will certainly do the trick. It’s good at what it is, but it’s not much at all.
Thursday, December 14, 2006
BEST MOTION PICTURE – DRAMA
- The Departed
- Little Children
- The Queen
I can't really attack anything here. This is a respectable list of nominees and at least 3 of the 5 films on it will probably fall into my Top 10 for 06. The remaining two (The Departed, The Queen) are both very strong films as well, but I still haven't quite bought into the buzz around them. I think they're good, but not quite the best of the year. Certainly, their inclusion here still makes for a satisfying, well rounded category.
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A MOTION PICTURE – DRAMA
- Penélope Cruz - Volver
- Judi Dench - Notes On A Scandal
- Maggie Gyllenhaal - Sherrybaby
- Helen Mirren - The Queen
- Kate Winslet - Little Children
This is another flawless category. One problem with the Golden Globes is that they come so early in the year and therefore people have not seen some of the films prior to the nominations. I'll just have to take their word that Judi Dench is brilliant in Notes On A Scandal. Although, I think that's probably a safe bet anyway. I'm especially happy to see Magggie here since her performance has been losing buzz and really does deserve consideration. I also really enjoy seeing Kate Winslet who has been so good in so many films and also Cruz who has been so bad in so many, but really shined in her stellar performance this year.
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A MOTION PICTURE – DRAMA
- Leonardo DiCaprio - Blood Diamond
- Leonardo DiCaprio - The Departed
- Will Smith - The Pursuit of Happyness
- Peter O’ Toole - Venus
- Forest Whitaker - The Last King of Scotland
Flaws? Flaws indeed. Did we really need to see DiCapio twice? I would easily nominate him for his convincing work in The Departed, but not so much for his ho hum accent and tough guy swagger in Blood Diamond. Why not offer a nomination to the also impressive Matt Damon if the Globes are so keen on tossing awards at The Departed this year? Their biggest shame is shutting out indie dream Ryan Gosling for Half Nelson. Whitaker may be this year's golden boy, but at least he deserves it. There are some names there that maybe aren't worth the price of admission. Plus, no one has seen that Peter O'Toole performance that's supposed to be his best yet.
BEST MOTION PICTURE – COMEDY OR MUSICAL
- Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
- The Devil Wears Prada
- Little Miss Sunshine
- Thank You For Smoking
I'm psyched about Sunshine and Smoking. But Prada? It's silly fun, but is it award worthy silly fun? I'm not sure. However, I am sure that it was a great move to nominate Borat despite its prickly edges and lack of award show prestige and sophistication.
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A MOTION PICTURE – COMEDY OR MUSICAL
- Annette Bening - Running with Scissors
- Toni Collette - Little Miss Sunshine
- Beyoncé Knowles - Dreamgirls
- Meryl Streep - The Devil Wears Prada
- Renee Zellweger - Miss Potter
There's not too much that's exciting about this category. Collette is a nice surprise and a deserving actress. No one has seen Miss Potter yet, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Zellweger's name just got tossed in there for the the hell of it. Why do people like her so much? I'm not sure if Catherine O'Hara submitted under this category or as a Best Supporting Actress contender, but either way, she was robbed.
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A MOTION PICTURE – COMEDY OR MUSICAL
- Sacha Baron Cohen - Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
- Johnny Depp - Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man't Chest
- Aaron Eckhart - Thank You For Smoking
- Chiwetel Ejiofor - Kinky Boots
- Will Ferrell - Stranger Than Fiction
Nominating Johnny Depp for kinky pirate role is kind of an old novelty by now, but nominating Sacha Baron Cohen is a much welcome new novelty. I also love the nomination for the often underrated Eckhart who gets my vote for the best of these five. Plus, I at least understand the nomination of Ferrell for his first real role as an actor, but I enjoyed the work of Maggie Gyllenhaal and Emma Thompson much more in that film and wish they'd been acknowledged in their respective categories.
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MOTION PICTURE
- Adriana Barraza - Babel
- Cate Blanchett - Notes On A Scandal
- Emily Blunt - The Devil Wears Prada
- Jennifer Hudson - Dreamgirls
- Rinko Kikuchi - Babel
I'm extremely happy to see Barraza and Kikuchi nominated for their amazing work in Babel. The state of Hudson and Blanchett is unclear to me since those films have not yet been released. Blunt is a fun little surprise nomination, but there are more deserving performances out there. I have an understanding that my film radar differs from that of a major award show, but I think anyone who has seen Emily Watson in The Proposition would agree with me that she deserves consideration. Unfortunately, almost no one has.
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MOTION PICTURE
- Ben Affleck - Hollywoodland
- Eddie Murphy - Dreamgirls
- Jack Nicholson - The Departed
- Brad Pitt - Babel
- Mark Wahlberg - The Departed
This category seems a little bit full of people making comebacks and getting their careers back on track. I don't particularly dislike any one nomination, but they're not the most interesting choices. Okay, maybe I do dislike just one: Wahlberg. He's not bad in the movie. I just don't think it's good enough to be nominated. Plus, it does kind of embody the sweepiness of The Departed's future awards trajectory. More importantly, none of the three deserving supporting actors from Little Miss Sunshine got nominated. Steve Carell, Alan Arkin, and Paul Dano all deserve recognition for their work.
BEST DIRECTOR – MOTION PICTURE
- Clint Eastwood - Flags Of Our Fathers
- Clint Eastwood - Letters From Iwo Jima
- Stephen Frears - The Queen
- Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu - Babel
- Martin Scorsese - The Departed
It's weird to see Eastwood nominated twice without a Best Picture nomination. I haven't seen Letters yet, but I would have ranked Flags above both The Departed and The Queen. I'm also really happy about Iñárritu getting nominated. He's gone unrecognized for far too long already.
BEST SCREENPLAY – MOTION PICTURE
- Guillermo Arriaga - Babel
- Todd Field & Tom Perrotta - Little Children
- Patrick Marber -Notes On A Scandal
- William Monahan - The Departed
- Peter Morgan - The Queen
Novelist Todd Field and playwright Patrick Marber make their mark as screenwriters with nominations in this category. It's a fine list of complex scripts from elaborate and mostly exciting films.
For a complete list of nominees go here: ComingSoon.net - Golden Globe Awards
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
Monday, December 11, 2006
For those of you with a taste for featherweight cinema (which World Trade Center is most certainly not), this week also marks the release of one of the most brisk and efficient lightweight films of the year: The Devil Wears Prada. Its skill is in its direct, uncomplicated, and unpretentious demeanor. Its creators are completely aware that they are making something meant solely to be an enjoyable, humorous romp and rightly craft a fast paced and utterly silly film. Meryl Streep is bound to get yet another Oscar nomination for her work here as the cold and conniving Anna Wintour-esque editor of a fashion magazine and young actresses Anne Hathaway and Emily Blunt shine with just as much luster in less demanding roles. If you need to see something with no depth of any kind, then this is about as well as you could possibly do this weekend.
Sunday, December 10, 2006
Saturday, December 09, 2006
What’s lacking in Apocalypto is the storytelling done within the engaging world that Gibson has made. Plot seems secondary to bloodlust here as Gibson paints the downfall of Mayan society as a bloodbath that goes beyond realism and into something ugly and atrocious. The sheer amount of time spent filming fields full of mutilated corpses says something strong about Gibson’s psyche. He’s not making a justifiably violent film. He’s filming a slaughter. The scene in which Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) notices his village is coming under attack begins with a creepy amount of suspense, grows into a horrifyingly visceral moment of utter violence, and then keeps going and going and going. We see so much screaming and bleeding that it actually becomes dull. I was reminded frequently while watching Apocalypto of a quote from the fabulous Showtime series “Weeds” in which Jenji Kohan writes this regarding Gibson’s brutal The Passion of the Christ: “Religion my ass, it’s a straight up snuff film!” While I also felt that The Passion was grisly, it had an objective and a sense of sobriety that’s lacking here. In The Passion violence took on a dark and mournful tone. By comparison, Apocalypto seems like some sort of primeval slasher movie.
Conversely, there is some wonderful stuff done with these characters and their relationships in the first half of the film. Though we are forced to watch them be tortured over and over again as their captors lead them toward an unknown destination, the endurance of their spirits on this trip is probably the only bit of story that resonates with actual depth. There’s also a brilliant sense of association with these characters forged by the shape of the film’s script. It makes us as clueless as the captives with regard to where they are being taken. We know little of this society and their fates could be as gruesome as the mind could foresee (and maybe much worse). However, by the time we’ve reached the second half of the film, there is almost no story left to tell. Jaguar Paw is being hunted by various people with knives as he attempts to make the journey home to his wife and child (he hides them away during the earlier invasion to keep them safe). This entire portion is mostly filled with frenzied handheld shots of people running through trees while Jaguar Paw and his pursuers play cat and mouse games with one another. It’s a very tedious and very long section of the film that stretches much too far and surpasses even surrealistic levels of logic. At one point, a character is hiding from murderers while giving birth and drowning simultaneously.
Gibson is constantly playing with all kinds of themes and ideas, but never really narrows in enough to let us know what he’s aiming for with this movie. He just massacres people before our eyes and says nothing more about it. I was often reminded of The Proposition while watching this movie. That was an even more aggressively cruel film, but it examined with brilliantly unflinching eyes the cost of justice and the dangers of unquestioned morality. Brutal deaths were tragedies that spoke greatly of the flaws of mankind. In Apocalypto, brutal deaths aren’t fun either, but there’s no real sense that any of this serves a purpose beyond popcorn spectacle.
I clearly have some venomous feelings toward this film, but it is undeniably better than most action adventures of our day. If you love bloodthirsty evisceration films or similarly minded films of plotless brutality, Apocalypto will seem like a dream come true. For those of us with less of a taste for blood, the film still works in many ways. There’s the aforementioned sense of connection to these characters as well as a really exciting visual style that elevates the material well above the rest of the pointless action romps of the year. My anger toward it comes from a disappointment that it is not something even better than what it is (an above average thriller). There are small moments of actual meaning and just the faintest hint of a poetic touch here and there, but none of it gets used to the best of its potential. I did enjoy this movie, but it’s simply too torturous and too pointless to receive a more enthusiastic recommendation.
Leonard DiCaprio is mostly good here as Daniel Archer, a drug smuggler with a tendency to lose his temper and a dark past that has left him morally bankrupt. Archer sees a major financial opportunity when meet Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), a man forced to work the diamond mines who discovers a large and rare diamond. The scheming Archer then goes on to convince Vandy into a partnership and the two proceed to go after the diamond (which Vandy hid from his murderous rebel overseers) with the help of a well connected journalist named Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly).
The greatest strength of the film is not so much its political message (which is quite blunt and clear throughout), but the way it crafts complex characters and murky situations that mirror those of real lives in the real world. There’s a triangle manipulation set up between the three characters that’s delicate and vicious all at once. They are all using each other, but unexpectedly genuine bonds form between the them that threaten their ability to execute planned betrayals. More importantly, the film examines closely the motives of each of these three people. It would have been easy to portray Vandy as the sole victim here and turn Archer and Bowen into one dimensional exploitatious profiteers. Instead Zwick gets to the heart of their motives and ensures that they have solid reasons for their actions. It really is a study in the gray areas of morality and the ways in which a persistently violent situation can tear into people’s sense of humanity.
The film’s action sequences are distractingly common, but Zwick uses them to simultaneously thrill his audience and portray the political chaos of the nation at this time. However, during many of its chase sequences and gunfights, the film just seems to dip too far into the pool of action movie clichés. Regardless, Zwick has molded something bold and original here. It can be tedious in its length and exhausting in its excessive need for spectacle, but for the most part it is an enjoyable and fascinating look into a horrific time in our recent history.
Thursday, December 07, 2006
Tuesday, December 05, 2006
Friday, December 01, 2006
However well her visual palette flatters the dramatics and her talented cast, Hardwicke cannot overcome the fact that this is a tired and lifeless recounting of a story that has been done many times before. The Nativity Story is no better than an utterly cut and dry Christmas special on the Prayer Channel or some cheesy History Channel reenactment done with a grander budget and a better director. It cribs the good ‘ol lines of Bible lore and photographs them nicely without ever digging into this tumultuous tale for its potential as a riveting dramatic experience. For example, when the ridiculous looking angel (worth quite and undramatic titter unto himself) tells Mary of her fate, she uninterestingly mutters “Let it be done unto me as you have said.” This is a line that stings with boring Bible translation and does so very little to humanize the character. Where is her fear? Her concern? Her passion? We do not connect with Mary. We do not understand her feelings. We just see the same old story once more, with less feeling.
I’m a huge fan of Hardwicke’s previous films and I wanted very much to like this one as well, but this is a disastrous misstep for an otherwise audacious and inventive director. Her creativeness withers here as she becomes strangled by a general sense of rigidity and an ill advised plunge into goofy Church pageant theatrics. Her greatest skill is her ability to make films feel genuine and natural, but this movie feels more insincere than most of the others that I’ve seen this year. Even the gifted cast (including Oscar nominees Keisha Castle-Hughes and Shohreh Aghdashloo) can’t muster decent readings of these cold lines or create interesting characters out of such poorly crafted parts. This is like a hollow shell of a film. It looks appealing on the outside, but there’s no heart beneath the surface.
The main story (a thin one indeed) is about an actor (Morgan Freeman) who is researching a potential role as a grocery store manager on location at a cheapo retail store where the aggressive clerk at the “10 items or less” line (Paz Vega) catches his eye. As with Translation, this is not an unsightly stab at paltry romance, it’s the story of a passionate friendship that bridges generational, cultural, and occupational gaps. Both the wealthy actor and the struggling checkout clerk have much to share with one another and their day spent together offers much in the way of underplayed drama and authentic cinema fiction.
It’s also exquisitely enlivened by Freeman’s unexpected turn as the humorous and likable lead. As a talent most associated with stern supporting roles as world weary veterans of various kinds, Freeman has never (to my knowledge) been such a lovable fool as he is here. Paz Vega is also a pleasant surprise. She’s every bit the worldly spitfire here that she was supposed to be in Spanglish. It’s a performance of utter effervescence and quiet melancholy. The two of them could not be more enjoyable than they are in this film.
There is an unfortunate amount of slow spots and some tediously low brow humor in the opening scenes, but once the film settles down and its characters loosen up, it becomes a completely funny and endearing journey that one hopes will never end.