Monday, February 25, 2008

Friday, February 22, 2008

Academy Awards Predictions.

The nerves are kicking in...
My palms are sweaty...
I'm beginning to have Julie vs. Marion internal battles that make me seem like Russell Crowe in "A Beautiful Mind"...
What can all this mean?
It's Oscar weekend!

2007 was arguably one of the greatest years for cinema since the art form was invented.
Surprisingly the Academy's Oscar nominations prove it. While the Oscars have been widely known to pick safe, dull and predictable nominees (just take a look at their Best Picture nominees for 1999 and 2004) this year one almost wishes they'd expanded their five nominees per category rules. Luckily this year, most of the winners will result worthy (except "Norbit" winning anything of course).
"No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood", both revisionist masterpieces, are battling out for Best Picture and in eight other categories. With no film looking as it will sweep, we might end with one of the most memorable ceremonies of all time in which the boldness of the films evokes the freshness of the 70s.
With Iraq/Vietnam parallels, highlighted by the moment which should make Julie Christie a two time Oscar winner and give "No End In Sight" the documentary award, our world has become more conscious if its mortality.
And whether it comes in weird allegorical Javier Bardem look alikes or animated in black and white with French sense of humor, it's a breath of fresh air to see the Academy is finally putting art before business.
Best Picture


Will win: No Country for Old Men
Should win: There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, Atonement

One of the most solid Best Picture line ups in ages (and the best so far this decade) is perhaps characterized by its lack of a single biopic among its nominees.
But with cases like Daniel Plainview, Briony Tallis and Juno McGuff the Academy reminds us that truth isn't always more fascinating than fiction.
A case could be made for any of the nominees. "Michael Clayton"'s entertaining legal thrills have the kind of prestige meant to garner nominations, but no sure wins.
"Juno" covers the annual indie slot, but is also a portrait of zeitgeist worthy of time capsules. "Atonement", my personal favorite is the sort of film Oscars were made for, but with no Director nod, some tech awards are all it will garner.
Then there's the big ones. "No Country for Old Men" is a return to form for the marvellous Coen brothers who should've won this award for "Fargo" more than a decade ago and P.T Anderson's "There Will Be Blood" the kind of movie which is impossible to ignore but the Academy will be too afraid to crown.
Both films are extremely dark and existential. Both are new career highlights by their creators and which ever wins, both are true masterpieces.
Best Director

Will win: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen "No Country for Old Men"
Should win: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen "No Country for Old Men"

I'll try to ignore the fact that they snubbed the brilliant Cristian Mungiu and Joe Wright.
The Coen brothers are undoubtedly one of the most iconic and prolifif American filmmakers. They deserved this award for "Fargo" back in 96 and since now they're both getting shared credits, the Academy will find it fit to share a bit.
P.T Anderson might be a threat, but I'm sure the Academy will want to reward him later in his career. If "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" had been nominated for Best Picture, this might have been Julian Schnabel's.

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Will win: Daniel Day Lewis "There Will Be Blood"
Should win: Daniel Day Lewis "There Will Be Blood"

Johnny Depp will win someday, but his Sweeney Todd isn't Oscar worthy.
Tommy Lee Jones should have been nominated for "No country for Old Men" but as long as the Academy fellates Paul Haggis we'll have to stick to having any Haggis element nominated.
Viggo Mortensen was brilliant in "Eastern Promises" but the nomination is his award.
If George Clooney hadn't won so recently, he might be a real threat. His Michael Clayton is his finest screen achievement so far.
But as achievements go, Daniel Day Lewis' Daniel Plainview is "There Will Be Blood".
A real force of nature, the Academy will think it's rewarding Anderson here as well and with nobody to Adrien Brody Lewis' walk to that podium all we have to wonder is how will he top the beautiful speeches he's been delivering all season long.

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Will win: Julie Christie "Away From Her"
Should win: Julie Christie "Away From Her"
People complained that 2007 was an awful year for actresses, which only makes ironic the fact that the actress categories are the most exciting and unpredictable this year.
On one side we have Laura Linney who got a surprise nomination, that could very well end with a suprise win for her role in "The Savages".
Then we have Cate Blanchett who reprises her role as Queen Elizabeth II in one of the most critically panned films of the year, but remember Jessica Lange in "Blue Sky"? And anyways the Academy has never forgiven itself for not giving her this award back in 98 and they might wanna make it up to her.
Then we have Ellen Page's Juno, who had the tough job to deliver Diablo Cody's words like a real person and succeeded. But if it isn't for a case of split votes, Page only counts on Roger Ebert's support...which again led Charlize, Halle and Hilary to wins in this category.
The big players however are Marion Cotillard for her portrayal of the doomed Edith Piaf in "La Vie en Rose" who gave an absolutely flawless performance in a very flawed movie.
If the film had been edited in chronological order she'd have this in the bag. Against her are also the subtitles and the fact that lazy Academy voters rarely watch movies that demand reading and mind boggling structures. But who says they saw it? Both Keira Knightley and George Clooney are Cotillard supporters and can you imagine how international the Academy will seem with two non-English winners?
Then there's Christie who as a fading woman suffering from Alzheimer's gave the kind of performance that can survive 10 long months after being released! She won 45 years ago for playing a sexy, slutty model and now playing a graceful lady would be the perfect bookend for her other statuette.Again, nothing is sure in this category. Really anyone can upset here. For me a win for either Christie or Cotillard would be a good thing.
Even better if it's for Christie though...

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Will win: Javier Bardem "No Country for Old Men"
Should win: Javier Bardem "No Country for Old Men"

The only real lock of the night.
Casey Affleck should be in the lead category where even I'd root for him, but as far as this goes, all I hope is Javier wears a tie and dedicates his win to Penélope.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Will win: Cate Blanchett "Im Not There"
Should win: Cate Blanchett "Im Not There"
Same as Best Actress: everyone complained how crappy the category was and now nobody knows who will win.
Ruby Dee might win for career achievement. But her "American Gangster" performance was short and unimportant and has only fooled people into buying her because she was indeed the best thing in a very flawed film. But come on, if not even Peter O'Toole got one, a cameo by Ruby Dee does? Really?
Saoirse Ronan's Briony might win if everyone else splits the votes, but then again the Academy loves mean girls, if not ask Anna Paquin.
At one point everyone though Amy Ryan's junkie mom in "Gone Baby Gone" was the one to beat, but despite her great performance, the buzz has been dying.
Some of it transferred to Tilda Swinton, who got huge buzz after winning the BAFTA a few weeks ago. Truth be told this might be the only category where "Michael Clayton" might win big, but is Tilda too weird for the Academy? (That letter to her son, the clothes, the androgyny, the men swapping) One has to love that we still have people like Swinton around.
But their choice for edgy, avant garde-ness seems to have a new name: Cate Blanchett.
Her Bob Dylan in "I'm Not There" is probably the best female performance of 2007 and while she won a few years back for playing Kate Hepburn, is it really her fault that she is so damn good?
Blanchett is pregnant which might get some awww votes, she gives a gimmicky performance (Linda Hunt won for the same here) but for those who see beyond the gimmick Cate might seem threatening.
I'm sure someone else will win this, but for once I'll pretend I live in a world where people simply vote for the best.

Best Original Screenplay
Will win: Diablo Cody "Juno"
Should win: Tony Gilroy "Michael Clayton"

Diablo will win because she's a stripper. Not any kind of stripper, but one who overcame that sinful world to become an Academy Award nominated lady. The American dream!
Despite the fact that her Juno is a "Gilmore Girls" ripoff , it has some quotable lines and the indie always gets this award.
But it should really go to Gilroy for refreshing the legal thriller in "Michael Clayton".
Best Adapted Screenplay
Will win: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen "No Country for Old Men"
Should win: Christopher Hampton "Atonement"

The Coen brothers are known for their crisp, witty and darkly funny writing. Their screenplay for "No Country..." is no exception.
And while "There Will Be Blood" is an exceptional achievement, it doesn't look like screenplay work. The same goes for "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly".
Sarah Polley's lovely "Away From Her" does a great job adapting Alice Munro's short story into an ellegiac love story, but its effect is perhaps too subtle to take notice.
Then there's Hampton's brilliant, allegorical adaptation of Ian McEwan's bestseller. Hampton's work which tries to figure out the essence of what makes writing so important is perhaps the kind of thing why screenwriters went to strike in order to defend their rights.
"Atonement" elevates the written word to the divine and also makes a greatly entertaining film out of it.
Best Documentary Feature
Will win: "No End in Sight"
Should win: "No End in Sight"
Michael Moore himself noticed how the Academy finally opened its eyes to the Iraq war and "No End in Sight" is every bit as enfuriating and informative as we need now.
It's a truly exceptional lineup, except for "War/Dance" which has the kids' stories the Academy loves and often rewards. Only this one might upset "No End in Sight".
Best Foreign Language Film
Will win: "The Counterfeiters"
Should win: "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days"
Austria's entry has everything Oscar voters embrace: uplifting spirit, mild sense of humor, good performances and WWII.
Too bad they snubbed the marvelous Romanian film for even a nomination!
Best Animated Feature
Will win: "Ratatouille"
Should win: "Persepolis"
Pixar's "Rataotuille" is perhaps their best work to date, but Marjane Saptrapi's story about an Iranian expat, trying to fit into the Western world is the kind of film that reminds us hand drawn animation should be here to stay.
Best Cinematography
Will win: Seamus McGarvey "Atonement"
Should win: Roger Deakins "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"

Janusz Kaminski's work in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" is the best in technical terms and in pushing the camera to new levels, while Roger Deakins' spare work in "No Country for Old Men" recalls "Brokeback Mountain", but if that one didn't win and had greener pastures, this one is out too.
Robert Elswit's magnificent job in "There Will Be Blood" took us to the tunnels and oil fields of turn of the century California.
One of the night's strongest categories (perhaps the best in terms of cinematic quality overall) it's great to see that the cinematographers' branch is nominating the best in their field.
But when it comes time to vote, everyone gets to do it and normal voters probably pick the prettiest, and easiest, thing which is why McGarvey's old style cinematography and the way he shot Keira in the mist with that dress will give him Oscar number one.

Best Editing
Will win: Roderick Jaynes "No Country for Old Men"
Should win: Roderick Jaynes "No Country for Old Men"

If only for the hotel sequence. Slow, yet thrilling. Revealing and somehow cryptic.
It's oure brilliant stuff.
People are saying "The Bourne Ultimatum" will win here, but will the Academy reward this kind of movie when it passed up "United 93" last year?

Best Art Direction
Will win: "Atonement"
Should win: "Atonement"

The prettiest picture usually gets this and "Atonement" also happens to be the most complete ouf of the nominees. It's lush English manor and latter WWII ravaged London scream more art direction than the dusty "There Will Be Blood" and the bloody, but barely there sets of "Sweeney Todd".

Best Costume Design
Will win: Atonement
Should win: Atonement

Why?
Period.


Best Original Score
Will win: "Atonement"
Should win: "Atonement"

Dario Marianelli's inventive score contributes as much to "Atonement" as the acting, directing and writing.
Too bad they snubbed Johnny Greenwood's brilliant music for "There Will Be Blood" and Nick Cave's fascinating score for "The Assassination of Jesse James".


Best Original Song

Will win: Falling Slowly from "Once"

Should win: Falling Slowly from "Once"


Despite the fact that "That's How You Know" almost restores the early 90's Renaissance of Disney, three "Enchanted" songs are sure to cancel each other out, which will leave "Once"'s beautiful love song as the hip and deserving winner, if for no other reason that the film was snubbed everywhere else.


Best Makeup

Will win: "La Vie en Rose"

Should win: "La Vie en Rose"


For making Marion Cotillard look 100 years older.


Best Sound

Will win: "No Country for Old Men"

Should win: "No Country for Old Men"


Best Sound Editing

Will win: "There Will Be Blood"

Should win: "There Will Be Blood"


Best Visual Effects

Will win: "Transformers"

Should win: "The Golden Compass"


Best Documentary Short

Will win: "Salim Baba"


Best Short Film (Live Action)

Will win: "Tanghi Argentini"


Best Short Film (Animated)

Will win: "Madame Tutli-Putli"

The Academy Awards, Sunday February 24 on ABC.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford ***1/2


Director: Andrew Dominik
Cast: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck
Paul Schneider, Sam Rockwell, Mary-Louise Parker, Zooey Deschanel

"Now or never is your chance. If you don't get him now he'll get you tonight."
from Robert Ford's letter to Governor Thomas Critteden (April 1882)

A film that reveals its plot in its title must have something else up its sleeve. Andrew Dominik's sophomore film is a meditative look at the last days of the outlaw gang led by Jesse James (Pitt), but it is also a raw look at the sinister double moral that served as foundation for the American myth.
The film is set in 1882 where James' reputation has become so vast, that it's making it impossible for him to work without fear of betrayal.
The government has put a price on his head and the members of his gang have become fearful that Jesse will doubt them.
Among them is the young Robert Ford (Affleck) who joined the gang after a life long adoration of James. Under his bed he has a cardboard box filled with Jesse James memorabilia which is object of constant mock from his brother Charley (a great Rockwell).
Robert develops a love/hate relationship with his hero that gives path to his eventual betrayal, powered by pressure from the governor who recruits him as a double agent of sorts.
While the film takes its time taking us there (its languid pace might very well evoke the empty feeling of dread held in those days) it sets points along the road which make the experience feel like so much more than historical trivia.
Pitt has rarely been better than in his unflattering glorification of a man who at one point becomes smaller than his reputation. The actor's unusually beautiful features become enigmatic when the camera concentrates on his slow weathering. The moment that Pitt decided to play James like a normal man, who had an outlandish job, was when his performance became so profound. Driven by anger, violence and a fear he can't hide for long, one has to wonder what made him so fearsome.
Affleck is a revelation whose battles take place inside his head. From the beginning of the film he has a creepiness to him that is only bigger than his admiration for Jesse James. In one of the film's best moments, Robert begins counting all the similarities he and Jesse have. His conviction and shy excitement are terrifying and moving at once, which is why the film establishes a huge dilemma that Ford has to carry.
When exactly did the murder of a criminal becomes betrayal? By film's end, Ford has become infamous, instead of heroic.
The supporting cast creates a more full portrait of the era including a pervy, eager and complex performance by Schneider, a giggling anxiety filled Rockwell and Parker who as James' wife, in a role with almost no dialogue, effectively states gender politics of the era.
The parallels drawn between those early times and our constant public bashing of celebrities we have put on pedestals couldn't be more appropriate or disturbing.
And what better way for Dominik to make his point clearer than by using the American genre by excellence?
This revisionist western dissects the concepts that made its genre rise as a questioning of the system. By the time depicted in the film, the wild west had given path to industrial progress and the characters are also caught in a limbo between playing by their rules or those the world is imposing on them.
Gorgeously shot by Roger Deakins, the film feels like an eye into the past. Deakins' amber palette and unfocused edges recall the stereoscope pictures of which Jesse James' corpse would become an icon.
Filled with melancholic beauty and decaying urgency, the visuals sometimes speak more than any line of the script and their manipulation as means to fit into a contraption (whether it be a stereoscope or a film projector) only make us more conscious of human nature's irrevocable fade out.

Oil Drunk Love.


A true modern masterpiece that will probably be studied for decades to come.
Click on the picture to read my review.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Control ***1/2


Director: Anton Corbijn
Cast: Sam Riley, Samantha Morton
Alexandra Maria Lara, Joe Anderson, Toby Kebell, Craig Parkinson

"You are so depressing" says Annik (Lara) to Ian (Riley), before she embraces him and gives him a kiss. He just stares blankly into the distance. Affected, surprised, scared, somehow moved and indifferent towards these words. This moment could very well sum up "Control", Anton Corbijn's stunning debut feature about the life of doomed Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis.
The film begins with a 17 year old Ian leading a normal life in Macclesfield, England where he dreams of being in a band.
He meets Debbie (Morton) who is dating his best friend Nick (Matthew McNulty) but marries Ian in a heartbeat.
Soon they come to find that the married life is not their thing and while Debbie tries to shape herself as the perfect housewife, Ian begins looking for a band to sing in, while working as a clerk at the local Employment Exchange.
He meets Bernard Summer (James Anthony Pearson), Peter Hook (Anderson) and Terry Mason (Andrew Sheridan) with whom he forms Joy Division. They get a lucky break when they appear in Tony Wilson's (Parkinson) TV show, which brags about being the first to have played "The Beatles and The Buzzcocks" and before long they have become quite famous in Europe, but somehow this fame and the troubles that come with it are more than Curtis bargained for.
With a revealtroy performance by Riley, the film almost works like a documentary. While Riley nails the singing voice, the poise and the dance, his miraculous work lies in the little moments.
Playing Curtis like a manchild, trapped between real life and what he wants life to be, Riley creates a remarkable portrait of loneliness.
"A cloud hovers over me, marks every move" he narrates and perhaps there was nobody who was as conscious of his mortality as Curtis.
Ian was alone, even when he was surrounded by people. Riley somehow gives a perfect performance about a very imperfect person. While Curtis seemed to doubt every decision he took, Riley bravely dives and evokes this mood.
Morton is terrific because instead of playing Debbie like one of those suffering biopic wives, she creates a woman who was in love with an ideal. The pain inside her doesn't come whenever Curtis does her wrong, but in more of a "Madame Bovary" realization that this can actually happen to her.
Parkinson plays a splendid Wilson and Anderson is magnificent infusing the film with a droll sense of humor which it often needs.
Not your typical film about the weight of fame, "Control" is never condescending towards its lead character, since Ian often comes out looking like a real bastard.
He neglects his pregnant wife when he falls for Annik and has no problem confessing his infidelity and later asking for a second opportunity.
But what makes this film such a remarkable portrait isn't its raw depiction of Curtis, but also its selfconsciousness about its limitations.
Corbijn never tries to suggest he knew what was going on inside Curtis' head, instead he lets the events and Joy Division's music speak for themselves.
With the aid of cinematographer Martin Ruhe, the director makes something stunning out of this film. Every frame seems like a lost piece of rock history in a way "Control" is like a musical biopic imagined by Michelangelo Antonioni.
There is not a single image that isn't important and the elements fit into it creating a sort of melodical feel, which is why the result is reminiscent of one of the band's songs: extremely controlled on the surface, but hiding an emotional truth so dark, that it can't be contained.
The restrained pain within the movie has a musical effect on us: we only think we all are listening to the same thing.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Darjeeling Limited ***1/2


Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson
Amara Karan, Wallace Wolodarsky, Waris Ahluwalia, Anjelica Huston

The Whitman brothers haven't spoken to each other in over a year. Their father passed away and their mother (Huston) has vanished. They get together in the title train in India, where Francis (Wilson), the eldest brother, has summoned them to go in a spiritual journey and find their bonds again.
Francis is a control freak who has made an itinerary and carefully had his assistant Brendan (Wolodarsky) plastify it.
Peter (Brody) is torn about the fact that he wants to leave his pregnant wife and Jack (Schwartzman) spends most of his time thinking about his ex-girlfriend (Natalie Portman featured in the beautiful prologue "Hotel Chevalier").
Like in any Anderson film you may come to expect stunning art direction and detailed character creation, Oedipical issues, a great soundtrack (here mostly composed of pieces from Satyajit Ray's films) and a haunting, bittersweet feeling that lingers inside you even after you wonder what the hell the film was all about.
Anyone might argue that the trip is only an element for Anderson to have his characters together, since it's their little misadventures in India that actually make the film so rich.
Peter hits on a stewardess (the lovely Karan), while Francis constantly checks his itinerary for ritual time and just when the film is feeling aimless there's a very un-Anderson twist that makes us reevaluate the whole experience.
While going to India for enlightment has become almost laughable, you know for a fact that Anderson could've set his story anywhere else and it would still be as touching.
The brothers never truly find themselves in a sappy way, but Anderson has found them even before they know it.
Wilson is amazing, his face, covered in bandages from a probable sucide attempt, is as eloquent as ever and Schwartzman's melancholic manner is simply lovable.
At first Brody seems like he doesn't fit the Anderson universe, sometimes you can see he's having so much fun that he can't hide it. But this differences only reassure us of how the Whitman brothers have stopped knowing each other.
Their characteristic distant gaze, the suits they wear, the constant smoking and the specific sibling dynamics always make us know that these men truly love each other and because of their shared traumas don't even know it.
"I wonder if the three of us would've been friends in real life. Not as brothers, but as people. " asks Francis during a key scene. They all look at each other and regret all the secrets they have been keeping, but which obviously speak not so much about distrust, but about trying to keep each other from suffering.
In a filmography that has gotten us used to a certain amount of minimalism, it is only now that Anderson's depth begins to impress. Almost as if it can't be contained anymore by the visual quirks and pitch perfect dialogues of its creator.
There are little events in the film (mostly powered by brilliant cameos) which speak of a bigger universe that Anderson, as his characters here, only now begin to acknowledge.
They say that life is mostly about the journey and never about the destination.
When boarding "The Darjeeling Limited" this couldn't be more true.

Across the Universe *1/2


Director: Julie Taymor
Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson
Dana Fuchs, Martin Luther, T.V. Carpio

Julie Taymor lets you down in this overblown cornucopia of visuals, the Fab Four and faux political statements dressed in film clothes.
Jude (Sturgess) is a Liverpool dock worker who leaves home to find his dad who works in Princeton.
Max (Anderson) is a WASPy type who despises his wealth and drops out of college to take the bohemian life.
His sister Lucy (Wood) has just graduated from high school and lost her boyfriend in Vietnam.
Prudence (Carpio) is a young lesbian who develops a new crush in every scene, but seems to have trouble coming to terms with her sexuality.
Before you can say Yoko Ono, all of these people have come together to live in a Greenwich Village apartment where they go through civil uprisings, war and heartbreak.
Lucy falls for Jude, Max gets drafted and Prudence develops an infatuation over Sadie (Fuchs) a Janis Joplin inspired crooner who was inserted into the plot to play voice for JoJo's (Luther) Hendriz-esque guitar.
Done specifically to play "spot the reference" with fans of The Beatles, the plot revolves around their songs and what moment and visual statement Taymor finds appropriate for each of them.
While you get an inkling that the film was trying to remind us of the timelessness of the songs and the parallels we can draw between the 60s and this decade, the point gets lost or muffled under the images and sounds.
None of the characters get believable emotional archs. You wonder where did all of Lucy's grief go and why does she fall in love with a British womanizer who apparently couldn't care less about his father's rejection.
But when you're beginning to take notice of the obnoxious shallowness of the film, Taymor throws another unnecessary musical number at you.
Just when everything seems as if it's "borrowed" enough from "Moulin Rouge!"'s aestehtics and The Beatles' songs, the film comes and delivers its supposed universal message of how to fix everything: all you need is love.
While the characters sing that and we reflect on how they never seemed to have been affected by anything that occured to them and all they care about is behaving like irresponsible hippies with empty agendas, we sadly realize that nothing's gonna change their world.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

4 Stars, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.


Click on the picture to read my review.

27 Dresses *


Director: Anne Fletcher
Cast: Katherine Heigl, James Marsden, Edward Burns, Malin Akerman, Judy Greer
Jane (Heigl) is always a bridesmaid...literally. She has become the perpetual best friend who always helps other brides in their big day, while she only dreams of her own.
She fantasizes about the day when her boss George (Burns) will finally realize he loves her and propose, but when Jane's younger sister Tess (Akerman) arrives in town, she's the one who ends up living Jane's fantasy.
Now she must plan her sister's wedding to the man she loves.
What should be a cute romantic comedy about making your dreams come true, turns into a parade of bitchiness where each character outodes each other in dislikeability.
Tess is the kind of character you know will eventually evolve, but she's such a liar that you wonder why does Jane put up with her.
Jane's a pushover, but instead of making us root for her, because of her noble qualities all you wanna do is slap her (which, scene stealer, Judy Greer's character eventually does).
Even Jane's eventual Prince Charming, a cynical journalist (Marsden) who unbeknownst to her is the author of her favorite wedding stories, results more stalker than romantic.
But when Jane starts taking her life on her hands, she becomes an awful person, the one who you hope never gets married!
Not since Lars von Trier had a director made the lead actress suffer so much, so it's good that Heigl possesses an incredible charm and next door beauty that make us look at her and smile regardless of the tortures she's being submitted to.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Four Stars.


Click on the picture to read my review.

The Jane Austen Book Club **1/2


Director: Robin Swicord
Cast: Maria Bello, Amy Brenneman, Emily Blunt, Kathy Baker, Hugh Dancy

A group of women begin a book club to get one of their friends out of depression.
They realize that what they all have in common is an unmeasurable love for the books of Jane Austen.
Soon they have formed a club in which each month they will discuss one book and there is a lot that can happen in six months (they skip "Lady Susan" which is rather odd).
As one of the characters says "reading Jane Austen is like walking through a minefield".
Before the film, and the books are over, they have gone through divorces, deaths and newfound loves.
While the film is an exemplary "chick flick" its bases go beyond the cliché of female bonds, since Austen proves an intellectual output for this women to prove they too can be the sort fo heroines she wrote of.
But more often than not the film tries too hard to draw parallels between the Austen characters and the women in the plot, so while the Emma in Maria Bello is both sexy and hilarious, the Margaret Dashwood in Amy Brenneman is far from compelling.
Also, for people who don't share the passion for Austen this film might result as bewildering as the very first time when Elizabeth Bennet goes to Pemberley...

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Band's Visit ***1/2


Director: Eran Kolirin
Cast: Sasson Gabai, Saleh Bakri, Ronit Elkabetz

The Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra led by Lt. Colonel Tawfiq Zacharya (Gabai) arrives in Israel. They have been invited to play in the inauguration of a new Arab Cultural Center, but when nobody comes to get them at the airport, the men decide they can find it by themselves.
A small pronounciation mistake takes them to a small town in the middle of the desert, where the bus stops by only once a day.
They encounter Dina (Elkabetz) a kind restaurant owner who arranges accomodations for their overnight stay and feels excited about the breath of fresh air that has arrived in her quiet life.
A group of sky blue uniform clad men, stranded in a small town where they don't speak the language would make for a funny comedy, starting with the oddity of the image.
Add to this the fact that it's about Arab and Jewish characters who in their history have enough themes to fill a thousand movies and not only this but the characters are also separated by the fact that policemen and civilians are separated by different codes of conduct.
Without much effort director Kolirin could've made himself a harmless, albeit stereotyped film about why people are the same and what not.
That he chooses to take a completely different path and deliver a beautiful chamber piece about the nature of loneliness is just one of the films many miracles.
The members of the band vary from the quietly loyal (Imad Jabarin), to Fauzi (Hisham Koury) who gets inspiration for a converto he's writing in the most unexpected places, to Khaled (Bakri), the womanizing stud who sings "My Funny Valentine" whenever his hormones call and stands for everything Tawfiq is against.
Town people feature the sweet and lovable Papi (Shlomi Avraham) who gets flirting tips from Khaled in what turns out to be one of those awkwardly romantic scenes that seem to be extracting images from your memory.
Filled with cute subplots and never a preachy moment, the plot isn't about social themes as much as it's about the universality of feelings.
When some of the actors erupt into a spontaneous performance of "Summertime" it's never about how much their world has been invaded by Western culture, but about how despite what they thought they have music to bond them.
The cast is wonderful, Elkabetz takes hold of the screen with her raspy voice and exotic, earthy beauty that cast a spell on you and Avraham steals every scene he's in.
Gabai's performance is a study of restrain and keeping your things to yourself in order to avoid suffering, he gives one of those rare selfless performances that let everyone else take the spotlight but is ultimately the thing you can't take your eyes away from.
Kolirin masterfully build backgrounds for these people that reminisce the richness with which Robert Altman impregnates his characters and while the film's mood is more Eastern European than New American, you can sense the start of a new voice in Middle Eastern film.
That in the space of a night, summarized in a little over an hour, Korilin lets us take a peek into the lives of the people in the town and creates new dramatic archs, including a bittersweet love triangle, without forcing it upon us, remains almost magical.
Based on the idea that life is what happens while you're waiting for it, you know for sure that these people will never forget these events, in the very same way you may never forget this film.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Margot at the Wedding ***


Director: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Jack Black, Ciaran Hinds, John Turturro, Zane Pais, Flora Cross
What would a family reunion be without that relative nobody can stand? Since times immemorial, families engage in longtime feuds, in the old ages they killed each other or started new countries, nowadays they move far away and don't phone or email you.
Such a case is Margot (Kidman) a short story writer whose ironic sense of humor, extremely honest remarks and snobbery make her terrifying to everyone she knows.
When the film begins she is on a train with her son Claude (Pais) heading to her sister Pauline's (Jason Leigh) wedding.
She has an agenda that includes making Pauline see what a mistake she's making and also go to a book signing she was asked to do; when her son innocently asks what's wrong with the wedding, she replies "would you marry someone you'd known for a year?".
When Margot meets Malcolm (Black), the groom, a part of her might've been extremely pleased to find that he is all she feared, and expected.
He has no paying job and uses his extreme intelligence to write letters to magazines he likes. Margot describes him as "not ugly" but very "unattractive" and it's perhaps a very good thing that the film lets us know so much what exactly its title character is thinking, so that we can compare it to how the people she describes actually act.
After the painfully honest "The Squid and the While" writer/director Maumbach returns with another incisive look at the dynamics of a family.
Baumbach relinquishes so much of his ideas to the creation of his characters that most of them escape tags. This makes them real and in the case of Margot as uncomfortable as her existing counterpart might be.
The film has a small debate on how much autobiography can you squeeze into artistic creations without losing all privacy and Margot encounters an obstacle when someone asks her about this. While it may or may not be a selfobservation about Baumbach himself, his keen eye for capturing little awkward details about the characters and the actors might serve as a key to know where Margot came from.
Very few performers would be willing to climb trees (both literallt and metaphorically) to the levels where Kidman takes Margot. She is ugly and cold in a sense that she seems as if she has stopped feeling altogether. The thing with Kidman is that while she could've made this obvious and given us cues about the moments where we should react to her ugliness, she chooses the road less travelled.
Margot says things without thinking them, before they leave her mouth and much worse afterwards. Kidman's ease at playing the part has us only later analyzing what a mess this woman is, because truth be told her offensive nature results entertaining, as long as she keeps away from us.
Jennifer Jason Leigh is a perfect compliment to this, she encourages Margo's behavior by continue to treat her in the same way we assume she always has. When she becomes victim to the brutal comments her sister emits, she doesn't remain indifferent, but it's possible that to her, even this destructive relationship is better than to have nothing at all.
Leigh's organic beauty makes a beautiful contrast to Kidman's more classic features, cause in a way both Margot and Pauline are complete opposites of each other, yet they try their best to look past this and only concentrate on their blood links.
Most films with lead characters like Margo work towards a catharsis of sorts that will inspire the change that utlimately will steer said character towards good and empathic behavior.
By the time this film ends, we haven't gotten even close to that. Then again why would we expect that from a film that never even told us why Margot and Pauline had become estranged in the first place.
Something in their behavior tells us that perhaps they're not even so sure of it anymore and have chosen to revel in the roles they've had since they were young. Too scared to aim for something different and too hurt to just forgive, it's no wonder that the sweetest moments in the film are when the sisters share secret stories that nobody else knows and then laugh and fall into each other's laps.
It is the one thing not even they can take away from each other.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Lars and the Real Girl ***


Director: Craig Gillespie
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer,
Paul Schneider, Patricia Clarkson, Kelli Garner, Nancy Beatty

"You are who you love. Not what loves you."
Charlie Kaufman

Lars Lindstrom (Gosling) is a 27 year old who lives in the garage of the house he shared with his recently deceased father. The main house is inhabited by his brother Gus (Schneider) and his wife Karin (Mortimer) who worry about Lars' constant loneliness.
One day Lars knocks at their door to introduce them to his girlfriend Bianca, a human size sex doll he purchased after a guy from work showed him the website.
Not knowing how to react to this, Gus and Karin seek help from Dagmar (Clarkson), the town's psychologist who tells them to let Lars exorcise whatever demons he has and play along with his delusion.
Before long they have also seeked help from all the townspeople, who are so fond of Lars that they follow along and treat Bianca like a living human being.
And then before our very eyes, a movie about a sex toy turns into a beautiful romance about how being different has nothing to do with right or wrong.
To avoid making a story that would fall into Farrelly brothers territory, the filmmakers and cast tap into a state of utter sincerity that make everything plausible.
Gosling's performance is a thing of pure beauty, he gives Lars a soft voice, a heartbreaking smile and a blink now and then, which seem to give him confidence that he isn't dreaming.
Lars is a man who has suffered much and is so delicate that human touch causes pain, which is why Bianca, who he can manipulate at his will, becomes the perfect companion. With any other actor you would've doubted Lars' real intentions and expect some sort of betrayal after you trusted in him, but with Gosling you find yourself within the character.
Mortimer is particularly moving as she evolves from a nosey young woman into someone who has found intense love for others within her impending motherhood.
Schneider makes his best to try and play the skeptical, proud older brother, but he can never hide the pain and guilt that make him feel responsible for his little brother.
And while everyone in the ensemble is terrific, Beatty as the wise and brutally honest Mrs. Gruner steals every scene she's in.
It is she who reminds the church elders of their flaws in order to let them accept Lars for who he is.
Gillespie's ethereal direction avoids falling into extreme indie territory and all of his elements recall the places where Frank Capra set his tales of problematic, but ultimately hopeful redemption.
But the film would be nothing without Nancy Oliver's detailed, wonderful screenplay. She makes you believe in fantasy beyond the sexual connotation originally intended for Bianca.
Her script, a product just as much as the doll, reminds us that life constantly shows us new perspectives on even the worst things.
Her fantasy extends into a time and place where people not only help each other, but in the realm of acceptance, company and understanding also have become to deeply love each other.
If a plastic doll can move you to tears and inspire compassion, just imagine what the grumpy downstairs neighbor might do!

Cloverfield ***


Director: Matt Reeves
Cast: Michael Stahl-David, Mike Vogel, T.J Miller, Odette Yustman, Lizzy Caplan, Jessica Lucas
"Cloverfield" started as a well marketed project, taking cue from suspense masters like Hitchcock and Spielberg in "Jaws". The way its destruction was caused by something we couldn't see, sparked a morbid interest to find out what the monster was like.
But once the curiosity was satisfied, it would seem appropriate that along with a huge sigh of disappointment (which most horror movies cause nowadays), underneath it all there would also be a bad movie which had been trying to cover up its flaws with good advertising.
Turns out, it's nothing like that at all.
Taking cue from "The Blair Witch Project", the film uses handheld camera footage which was found after an incident that distroyed New York City.
That nobody had used this technique in mainstream cinema as effectively as this, results surprising in this day and age.
The footage was taken by Hud (Miller) on the night of his best friend Rob's (Stahl-David) farewell party. Rob is going to Japan to become vice-president of something and his last night there is overshadowed by a fight he has with the girl he likes (Yustman).
Rob's romantic drama gets its thunder stolen, when a giant creature begins to attack the city, creating erathquakes with every footstep and throwing down skyscrapers with a terrifying ease.
This is where "Cloverfield" really begins; you will first have to believe that in the middle of this chaos, Hud never throws away the camera "people will want to know how this happened" he explains, but one could argue he's probably thinking more about getting millions of hits in YouTube.
Reeves is an apt filmmaker that allows his direction to become invisible and the fact that an average Joe is carrying the camera, removes all the privileges we're given by conventional multicamera cinematography.
We are seeing what the characters are living and the fact that it takes them so much to find out what the creature actually is (although its origins are never revealed) makes the fear reach brilliant proportions.
Keeping the monster from the audiences as much as it can is a wise move, but the filmmakers also please fans of instant gratification by giving them whole scenes where the creature is the star and perhaps not even them will come out with full knowledge of what they're facing.
In a way this plays out as an accurate metaphor for terrorism which comes full fledged and desperate, destroying lives indiscriminately.
But even as the images of a destroyed Manhattan bring shudders of a historical kind, the film is in fact a very dark comedy.
The characters have motivations that include heroism, love and survival, but one can instantly assume that this is the first time that they encounter a problem bigger than anything in their limited world (one suggests they should run away to Brooklyn...).
The film disposes of them in the same way their generation gets rid of fads, history and people.
That it takes a monster for them to realize there is much more out there is both funny and very, very frightening.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

WGA strike is over!

This time for real!
Read here.
Bravo!

Elizabeth: The Golden Age **


Director: Shekhar Kapur
Cast:
Cate Blanchett
Clive Owen
Geoffrey Rush Abbie Cornish Samantha Morton

It is the year 1585 and Queen Elizabeth I (Blanchett) faces some of the most difficult times in her reign.
The Vatican has begun a Holy War against all impure religions and Protestant England is the biggest enemy.
Spanish King Philip II (Jordi Mollá) has begun to conspire against Elizabeth with the help of her cousin Mary Queen of Scots (a subtly dignified Morton).
She also must deal with constant pressure from her advisors about remaining unmarried.
Things begin to look better for her when explorer Walter Raleigh (Owen making his best Errol Flynn impression) arrives in the court, stirring her sense of adventure, along with her hormones.
But dutiful to her self appointed Virgin Queen title she channels all sexual desire engaging in war to defeat the Spanish armada and trying to survive in order to lead her country to its eventual Renaissance.
A film completely in love with its own beauty, this "Elizabeth" has lost the brutal beauty of its 1998 predecessor and has dedicated all of its efforts into looking voluptuosly beautiful.
The biggest example might lie in its lead star, by the time depicted in the film, the Queen was in her 50s, yet the only thing that hints at her age might be her menopausic rage and fixation on invisible wrinkles.
Historical accuracy hasn't been perhaps the best feature in Kapur's films, but while in the original one his liberties served as necessary metaphors, here they all are in service of what would make the most extravagant shot or how much soap opera worthy drama the audience can handle.
When it could've drawn interesting parallels with the Holy War and our times, the plot instead worries about how Elizabeth will react when she learns Raleigh has a thing for one of her ladies in waiting (Cornish).
When it could've explored so much about the Queen's internal drama, it chooses to show us how her ladies take care of her wigs. It seems she has one in every style and size, including a long one, complete with tresses for when she must get in armor a la Joan of Arc and inspire her troops with a "Gladiator" speech (No wonder that the young Spanish Infanta has an action figure that looks like her).
The script does a great disservice to the brilliant lead actress; Blanchett must've realized how the grandiosity of the settings and costumes, along with the campy lines, drowned the drama and literally tried to give an even bigger performance.
In some scenes, like when she condemns Mary to death, Blanchett taps into the fear and insecurity that made Elizabeth a person above all things.
But when minutes later she is screaming "I keep my bitches on my collars" you wonder when did Blanchett stop playing Elizabeth and a deranged Norma Desmond arrived to play the Queen of Hearts from "Alice in Wonderland".
A film that promised so much and delivered pure camp, probably doesn't bode well for part three "Elizabeth: The Golden Girl".

Monday, February 11, 2008

Les Prix en Rose.


How can you hate someone who wins an award and reacts like that?

Beaufort **1/2


Director: Joseph Cedar
Cast: Oshri Cohen, Itay Tiran,
Eli Altonio, Ohad Knoller, Itay Turgeman
Set in the midst of the Israeli army retreat from Lebanon in the year 2000, the film, tells the story of the last group of soldiers who had to guard the title fortress; which has been a battle site since the Crusades.
Based on real life experiences of the people who lived through it, the plot mostly concentrates on Liraz Librati (Cohen) the bunker commander, who has to make the hardest decisions and is mediator between his soldiers and his superiors.
Considering that the soldiers desperately want to leave and the high rank officers, who dispatch their orders from Israel, infuse their decision making with lethargy, the soldiers must wait there trying to avoid being hit by enemy missiles and surviving until they can go home.
Other soldiers featured include Ziv (Knoller) a bomb specialist who at first we think will be the film's lead, Koris ( Tiran) a sensitive medic who becomes especially affected by casualties, aspiring musician Zitlaui (Turgeman) and Oshri (Eltonio) who seems to be the only guy who likes Liraz.
All of the actor's performances are superb and must've been quite demanding considering that most of them served in the army, but you don't really get to know them enough to single out anyone; perhaps for the film's need to feel universal.
While sometimes the pace drags, along with the soldier's patience, the moments between the men feel real and express perfectly the anguish of people trying to serve their country, even when it asks of them things they would rather avoid doing.
But sometimes the film falls into genre clichés: everyone knows what will happen to a soldier who tells everyone he is getting his leave soon, especially when the film has him reminding us of it all the time.
And sometimes Liraz's character is handled more as a spoiled brat, than a bruised soldier trying to be tough.
Everyone by now, is aware of the horrors that come with any sort of war and director Cedar provides this with some interesting stylistic choices that include not showing any physical enemies.
But in trying to be extremely proactive, he has forgotten that wars aren't started by the people who fight them, but by powers above, who in this film are removed of every ulterior political interest and become some sort of cinematic villains whose weapon is indecision.
While the film ends on a high, if too sappy, note, it has made no use of its strongest asset: the fortress of Beaufort itself, which with its centuries standing is a powerful, albeit sad, reminder that war has existed for as long as mankind has inhabited the planet.
That the soldiers (and filmmakers) wander through it, without ever considering its rich history and that of its rightful owners, with the very same authority as every country that has ever invaded another does, is perhaps the best example of how a wronged sense of justice always leads to pain on both sides.

All the boys love Julie.


And seriously who can blame them?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Into the Wild ***














Director: Sean Penn
Cast: Emile Hirsch
Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone
Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, Hal Holbrook

After graduating from Emory University, Christopher McCandless (Hirsch) donates his savings to OXFAM and leaves on a journey to Alaska where he intends to live without the hypocrisy of society and the evil within materialism.
Along the way, he meets people that influence him and his attempt at some sort of postmodern enlightment becomes instead a moving, ultimately tragic, rite of passage.
The film features some of the most beautiful, poetic images shot on the American wilderness reminiscent of the great, generation-shaping, road movies of the 70s.
Led by what is an obviously demanding lead performance by Hirsch, the plot takes its time to win over you, mostly because it isn't trying to do that at all.
At first McCandless comes off looking like a selfish brat with idealistic dreams. He is condescending to the people he meets and most of the time acts as if his presence and example should be taken as some divine message.
Hirsch conveys this convincingly precisely because he doesn't act like some cult leader, but possesses a cockiness that makes everybody believe in what he thinks.
Considering that most of the film consists of Hirsch hunting, swimming, building fires and all other kinds of survival activities, his performance never exhausts you.
Slowly though his venture begins to shift into more of a revenge fueled by pride and anger. The plot accuses his parents (played by Hurt and Gay Harden who both make the most out of their limited roles) of being the reason why he fled "normal" life, but Hirsch easily avoids easily detectable motivations and remains so enigmatic that by the end, the pain his parents caused on him shifts from being perceived as weakness and arrogance, turning into the kind of excuses people come up with to cope with unbearable loss.
The supporting performances make up a beautiful collage that includes Keener as a grieving, hippie mother and Vaughn as a rowdy farmer.
But just as the film is coming off as a selfgratifying ode to McCandless' narcissism, Hal Holbrook appears playing Ron Franz, an army veteran who finds in Chris both the youth he lost and the chance to make it right again.
A performance that carries sorrow and loneliness, Holbrook gives the last act a heart that isn't coercive, but possesses the kind of wisdom that counterpoints everything the young man feels to be true.
If good actors are measured by the way you wish you could influence their character's fate, then Holbrook is among the best.
At the center of it all, other than the fact that it is based on a true story, what ends up affecting you the most is the palpable truth that director Sean Penn found in the film.
One could say that McCandless' pride can be compared to the way in which we perceive Penn.
Like its character the film begins with a self assuredness that makes it seem almost invincible, whether you care about what it's saying or not.
The adventure is terrifying, but you can't help but admire Chris, and Penn's crew, for going to such places to deliver cheap philosophy.
And just when it's about to turn all forcedfully transcendental on you, the whole mood of the film shifts into a meditative place that make us wonder if this is necessarily at all.
While the beauty of the outdoors is undeniable, it is no coincidence that most of the beauty found here lies in the people who go and capture it for us to see.
When McCandless is ultimately "betrayed" by that he thought would never harm him, instead of feeling like poetic irony of a feral kind, the events remind us that there is beauty to be found in both wildernesses: the one untouched by humans and the other one, where skyscrapers and corporations still harbor some kind of hope.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street **

Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter
Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Sacha Baron Cohen
Jamie Campbell Bower, Jayne Wisener, Ed Sanders

Based on Stephen Sondheim's beloved musical, Tim Burton does a great job adapting it into cinematic form, but in the process has lost some of the urgency and majesty of the source material.
Johnny Depp plays Benjamin Barker, a barber who is sent to prison by Judge Turpin (Rickman) so he can keep his wife and daughter.
Fifteen years later, Barker, who has now taken the name of Sweeney Todd, returns to London and sets shop above Mrs. Lovett's (Bonham Carter) pie store, where he begins to device his revenge.
But as Mrs. Lovett reminds him the best part about this would be to "plan the plan" and while Sweeney sharpens his knives (who he calls his friends), Mrs. Lovett finds herself content with the company of this man who she loves.
On the other side of town, a young sailor (Campbell Bower) has become infatuated with Johanna (Wisener), Sweeney's daughter who is being held captive by Judge Turpin. Luckily for Sweeney, he becomes involved in a plan to rescue her, but more than having his daughter back his mind is set in revenge and after a failed attempt to murder Judge Turpin, he decides that now he will take revenge on everyone.
Just like that and the film's flaws begin with this rushed decision; if it wasn't for the fact that the music becomes louder, Burton sets the visuals and Depp raises his voice we wouldn't know that a big twist has occurred.
More than character development, this event just pushes the plot forward, because soon Sweeney is slashing people's throats so that Mrs. Lovett can make pies out of the deceased.
Depp does fine work as Sweeney, but whoever thinks he is proving his versatility is blinded by the fact that now he sings. Someone should give the man a role that doesn't require for him to be covered in makeup and act weird.
His lackluster performance is the film's biggest detractor. Perhaps he shouldn't have been loud and morbid, but he is nothing. You can not detect a single emotion in Depp's Todd. And it wouldn't be fair to say that to be soul-less was the intention, because you should at least feel the rage that inspires his revenge and turns him mad.
The best thing in the film, along with the gothic visuals, might be Bonham Carter's performance.
You never know what on Earth this woman sees in Sweeney, but the actress, whose singing voice is a whispery tease, brings the only life the film has.
While she might seem like "The Corpse Bride" come to life, you miss her when she's not onscreen. Her scenes with little Toby (Sanders), who develops a protective crush on her, are the only times when the film achieves any evidence of real emotion.
As grotesque and morbid as it all may sound, the monochromatic color scheme, the dreariness of the settings and the overtly Tim Burton-ness of the film can't cover the dark satire contained in Sondheim's work.
When the film reaches its complex final twist, where there should be tears and gasps, you feel a void which is covered by buckets of fake blood that fill the spaces where emotions should've been.
It should feel appropriate that a film so filled with death had been extracted of all its life.
Somehow it just doesn't.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Brilliant, See it!


Click on the picture to read my review for "Lust, Caution" or as I will call it from now on "thanks you Ang Lee for making me forget the cowboy movie".

Friday, February 8, 2008

War/Dance **


Director: Sean Fine, Andrea Nix
Set in the Ugandan village of Patongo, this documentary follows a group of school children preparing for the National Music Festival where they will be competing for the first time.
For a region of the country that has been ravaged by war for decades, this event seems to bring hope which the filmmakers exploit to the ultimate level.
Three of the kids become "protagonists" and share awful stories about how they lost their families and were forced to live in a camp away from their birthplaces, but the scenes are so glossy and beautifully shot that it becomes possible to doubt the veracity of the subtitles.
In one scene, one of the kids learns that a rebel leader has been captured and is being held in a local military camp.
He heads out there and, after getting in with no restrictions, he sits down with the prisoner and in a moment that would make Oprah proud asks him to explain why are they so evil.
A moment that could've been more effective with simple narration becomes so staged and manipulative that it loses all of its potential effect.
Later the same boy reveals to the camera how he was forced to kill some farmers, "you are the first I tell" he confesses. Not anymore kid.
After a first half that gives us every possible reason to pity these kids and feel moved by their situation, the second part portrays them as a "Bring It On" group of mildly vicious competitors who move on the idea that they have to win by all means.
And after all how could one not root for the war torn team, with a film crew following them?
While they're at the competition, which features some beautifully shot cultural performances, one of the trainers proclaims how the children "exceeded their own expectations".
The children overcome insecurities (sparked by insults relating to their origins), defy curiosity and give good performances that have no connection to the sappy anecdotes the filmmakers shot.
And here you realize that you have been watching a film that had absolutely no faith in the talent of Patongo and relied on cheap sensibility to make us root for them.
Too Benetton like to feel explosive and too dark to be "The Sound of Music", the film was made by grabbing every possible social theme (war, Africa, orphans, education, violence, competitions) mixing it in a pot and trying to work with whatever came out of it.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

It's over!

In the Valley of Elah *

Director: Paul Haggis
Cast: Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron
Susan Sarandon, Jason Patric, Josh Brolin

Someone has got to tell Paull Haggis that it's time for him to stop oversimplifying life and people.
His newest venture as writer/director feels like what would've happened to the immigrants from "Crash", if they'd joined the army and gone to Iraq.
Tommy Lee Jones plays Hank, a Vietnam veteran, who lost one son in the army and is faced with potential tragedy when he learns that his son Mike (Jonathan Tucker) has gone AWOL after returning from Iraq.
After going through some bureaucratic troubles regarding jurisdiction, he teams with detective Emily Sanders (Theron) to discover what happened to his son, in the process learning about how much the army changed since he retired, how much of his son's life remained unknown to him and the emotional consequences brought on by war.
What begins as a promising, if necessarily, desolate account of a country unprepared to face the return of the men it sent off to fight for freedom, quickly reveals itself as another shallow attempt at depth that has become Haggis' trademark.
Just what is this man's necessity to make everything a complete extreme? For example when Hank encounters a school worker who is raising the US flag, he just has to ask him his nationality, which turns out to be El Salvadorean, later Hank becomes suspicious of a soldier because he is Mexican and must have connections with drug dealers.
While we never come to think that Hank himself is a bigot, Haggis' need to remind us of the multicultural population of his country make for an awkward statement. He doesn't need to portray an example of every minority to remind us of their existence.
Add to this a Biblical reference (the Valley of Elah is where David fought, and defeated, Goliath) and Haggis has got himself a way to please every pseudo thinker out there.
Just what the metaphor has to do with the movie is never quite clear (is it about Iraq and the USA? about the army making the investigation tough? about justice vs injustice?). But hey, if you got a spiritual reference you can wash your hands from the responsibility of having to justify it. (Best represented in an unintentionally funny line where Hank says the story is true because "it's in the Koran").
Later we have his take on Theron's character; the lone woman detective (who is also a single mother) in a man's world. She is disrespected, has a tough time being taken seriously and has to cook dinner and read a bedtime story to her son every day. But perhaps it's a nod to Theron's capacity of playing these roles, where her beauty should repel the person she's portraying, but she's become quite good at it. Nor the tomboy or the sex icon, she underplays her scenes, perhaps out of disinterest, but maybe just maybe, out of her seemingly growing capacities as an actress. She makes the most out of cliché quips and sometimes achieves the look of exhaustion and disappointment one would detect in someone like Emily.
The one reason why the film remains watchable is Tommy Lee Jones. His rugged face could've pretty much expressed everything we would need to know about Hank.
But the actor digs deeper and comes up with a slowly evolving performance. Hank begins as a movie character, but Jones turns him into the unsung voice of parents everywhere who are just beginning to cope with the consequences of their vote, their children's decisions or their blind belief in a system that doesn't care about them.
Jones makes this conversion feel transcendental.
If it was up to Haggis he would've made it about someone who goes from being a Republican to a Democrat.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

We Own the Night *1/2

Photobucket
Director: James Gray
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Eva Mendes, Robert Duvall

How to judge a movie in which Eva Mendes' character is the sanest of the bunch?
During one key scene she points out to her boyfriend why everything he's involved in, is just plain wrong and unnecessary.
Her boyfriend is Bobby (Phoenix) who works as manager in, "El Caribe", a notorious club owned by a Russian mobster (Moni Moshonov) where they only seem to play Blondie songs.
His father , Burt(Duvall), and brother, Joseph (Wahlberg), are policemen, but Bobby has been able to maintain his family connections hidden just by using his mother's maiden name.
Things change, when Joseph is shot after raiding "El Caribe" and Bobby learns that (surprise!) it was the guys he works for.
Bobby has a change of heart and decides to make the family proud by becoming a double agent which makes the film turn into a lazy version of "The Deaprted" with biblical undertones.
Before things turn into a soap opera, which they do in the second half, you are already trying to convince yourself the characters' motivations are sparked by the least amount of coherence.
You never really know why Bobby became estranged from his family and why would he betray the people who treated him so well, even if they are drug dealers and murderers.
While Phoenix is such a good actor that he can convince you of almost anything (see this in an especially good scene where he sheds an unexpected, very Method, tear) you can't help but try and diagnose Bobby with some very serious Oedipal issues.
Duvall's performance seems to be fueled by an awkward patriarchal pride measured by how much his sons risk their lives and Wahlberg certainly has
The film's twists are constructed just for the sake of being twists and when one of the last ones happen, the real surprise is that you didn't even know you were supposed to be expecting a twist.
When more questions regarding the characters' motivations start circling your mind the only reasonable conclusion you may come to is the fact that you are witnessing a movie that has put every last ounce of coherence at the service of its plot.
How can you take seriously a movie that has a whole system (in this case the NYPD) working around its characters' redemption?


P.S: I carry matches and a lighter as well!

So it begins...

While I may not be as popular as most film sites out there, and this blog would seem unnecessary, I find the hassle of building a specific page for each review to be quite, well "hassling"?
So, I'm joining the bandwagon and creating a blog for all my movie related thoughts, awards predictions, film blog-a-thon participations and tiny reviews to which I can't dedicate hours and "serious" writing.
Think of it as a "green" version of "Movies Kick Ass" (saving resources, unclogging the busy cyberspace, saving a tree now and then).