Sunday, January 25, 2009

She didn't even buy a dress...

...but Meryl Streep was still queen of the ball and the Queen of Hollywood as she won a SAG award for Best Actress tonight.
She not only delivered one of her brilliantly entertaining speeches (even Angelina Jolie was laughing!), but she once again took a fascinating political stand by reminding the power of actresses on film! She referred to her fellow nominees, and those who weren't nominated, as "the girls" and that if you ask me is precisely the kind of attitude women in the acting business should have!
Meryl not only gave yet another of her incredible performances in "Doubt" (even if I wanted to love the movie not just enjoy it) but she also established her position as a superstar with "Mamma Mia!" (where she was fabulous and worth the price of the entry).
Those who have been complaining about "The Dark Knight" issues have failed to see that it was Meryl who was the actual movie hero this year who single handedly gained box office platinum and universal critics' praise.
Anyways enough about my love for the greatest living actress. The show was alright, I still dislike how comedy gets to be awarded first always as if it didn't matter, but I'm alright with that. I was OK with Kate's win and actually now thank her for spoiling both Actress races at the Oscars for us.
Because of her winning in the "wrong" category for "The Reader" now it's almost impossible to know who will get the Oscar! Will people love her more than Meryl, will Meryl gain from the Weinstein mess or will they split votes and have Anne Hathaway win?
The show was alright, the Heath win was expected, Penn's win was lovely (It had totally slipped my mind that he hadn't won for "Mystic River" here even if I was conscious Johnny Depp had won that year...) and I won't complain ever about Kate and Meryl.
Now that egregious win for "Slumdog Millionaire" was ridiculous! And judging from the look she gave Meryl agreed with me. What's ridiculous isn't that they won, but that it was the people there who voted for them! How the hell can they vote for a cast of amateurs who just sit around and do cute things? This ensemble award should've gone to the editor, G-d knows he was the one who put together their "performances".
If there is something I appreciate from SAG is their time economy, their awards mostly go straight to the point (although I'd be glad if someone explains that "Trailblazers" montage to me), I also loved the wins for "30 Rock" even if they've been on a streak, honestly does any other comedy on TV deserve it more? They're brilliant!
Now on to the fashion...huge improvement from what the actors wore last year where the French seemed to be the only one who looked for stylists.
This year, other than Meryl (but she made a joke about it so she doesn't count), Teri Hatcher's toliet paper gown and Emily Blunt's weird wet hairdo and huge arms (I love her but she looked like a fugitive from an Esther Williams picture) they all made a great effort and looked splendid.
I just loved Kristin Scott Thomas' "whatever" look, I watched with my dad and even after he said he loved the idea of an unintentional boob flash by the low cleavaged starlets he was astounded by Thomas and summed up her style in the only word you need to describe it: class.
Her low key smoking, sexy, messy hair and long jewelry did more justice to fashion than that corny clip from Shirley MacLaine's Chanel biopic.
Now on to some of my faves, observations and random notes.

I love Penélope Cruz, not a surprise for those who read my blog I know, but is it me or is she a bit meh lately? It doesn't seem like she is trying, something in her hair and face (at the Globes and here since she's looked stunning in the critics' awards) isn't as "effortless" as it's lazy.
I love the natural look as much as the next person, but natural for me was that gorgeous color she had at the 07 Oscars, this freshly washed face approach is just lazy.
Maybe with Kate out of the race as incentive she'll bump out of this rut in time for BAFTA and Oscar.

Gorgeous, but she looked hip-pier than usual.

While she's always doing this kind of huge dresses that look good on her, this was the first time I loved Christina Applegate's look. The color, the hair, the dress style and that necklace!

If I'm not wrong Diane Lane had worn almost this same Azzaro to the Oscars a few years ago.
Anne looked just ok in it which is why...

...until I find a picture of Kristin Scott Thomas (even if I also just loved Laura Linney and Marisa Tomei), Diane Lane is getting my "Best Dressed" vote of the night. The color was hot, the dress fits her perfectly and looking better than women half her age she just made anyone drool whenever she appeared on screen.
Just wow.

Now Teri Hatcher is always a great dresser, but I don't know what was wrong with the "Housewives" at SAG, both Eva Longoria Parker and Teri had these ill fitting short looking hairdos that aged them terribly and they both attracted attention to their ruffly, overdone dresses.
I didn't see Marcia Cross or Felicity Huffman, I'm guessing they weren't there but I can only imagine what Bree would've thought of Hatcher's dress which looks like it was being attacked by angry napkins.


I won't even bother with predictions for tonight's Screen Actor Guild Awards, considering this group has rewarded Paul Giamatti, Johnny Depp and Ruby Dee in recent years for performances that were nominated for Oscar but lost, it's obvious that they don't seem to care who'll end up winning a few weeks later (just take a look at their ensemble lineup last year, it was bizarre, but worthy so it made sense).
This year they have a thing for "Slumdog Millionaire" and who doesn't lately? So I expect it to get Best Cast, even if its inclusion in the category is preposterous, but how the hell will they resist those cute little kids' faces via satellite from Mumbai when they win?
They'll think they're doing UNICEF work when in reality they're degrading their craft considering this year we had some remarkable ensemble work from the people in "Rachel Getting Married", "Elegy", "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" heck even "Australia" and "Mamma Mia!" would make more sense than "Slumdog".
But ok, breathe, maybe this is all a crazy rant and the impressive ensemble of "Doubt" will get the award, which they should considering the cast is perfection.
SAG has a thing for sentimental faves (which is why we can expect a looong ovation for Heath Ledger) and unless they're feeling Kate backlash (which I think is limited to Batman fanboys and award bloggers) she will win an award tonight.
But let's analyze things properly, would it matter if she won Supporting for "The Reader" and Meryl or Anne got Lead?
Truth is that SAG history has shown us that these situations are solved by giving the award to the second favorite (see Supporting Actor in 2000 and Supporting Actress in 2001) so I don't see any monumental shocks occurring.
If I could vote it'd go: Kate, Mickey, Heath, Penélope, cast of "Doubt".
But since they don't care what I say, I'll open some wine and have fun with Tina Fey's speech.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Waltz With Bashir ***1/2

Director: Ari Folman

"Waltz With Bashir" is a strange creature in every aspect; it belongs to the odd genre of "animated documentaries" an already contradictory and troubling statement even if the subject wasn't a former soldier's search of redemption.
Based on the memories, or lack of them, of director Folman who served as an Israeli soldier in the 1982 Lebanon War, the plot has him tracking down people who were with him in the army in order to help him put together the pieces of what happened exactly during the Sabra and Shatila massacre.
Visually engaging from the minute it starts the animation, which evokes comic book style, was developed by Folman's team using traditional 2D technique, Flash pieces and some 3D.
The fact that it's not nearly as realistic as CGI gives the entire film a surrealistic touch that might not be the most traditional choice to represent such a harsh subject matter but makes perfect sense in an artistic point of view.
It's not about animation as a gimmick, but as the fullest way Folman found to convey all he needed to say; art after all doesn't have to be a representation of life as we see it.
Perhaps the typical documentary approach of using interviews, archival footage and some reenactments might've gotten Folman's vision lost in the process, the fact that here we can't identify so easily what's supposed to be "real" and "reenactment" only serve to affirm one of the film's most challenging ideas; that there is no right and wrong during a war, just destruction.
"Can't films be therapeutic?" asks one of Folman's interviewees and it's only appropriate given that the director reccurs to advice from psychologists and therapists who try to explain to him the reasons of his amnesia and attempt at interpretations of the dreams he has.
During these interviews we come to know of curious cases about the way in which soldiers cope with their duty using all kinds of mental resources; a photographer who found himself in the middle of a war imagined he was viewing everything through a lense which gave him a sense of protection, another one finding himself alone in enemy territory swims deep into the ocean where he felt he could escape and yet another soldier being showered by bullets erupts into a sudden dance which surprisingly helps him evade the shots being fired at him.
All of these sequences come to life and obtain a haunting kind of beauty which resonates ironically in a man's suggestion to Folman that "it's fine as long as you draw, don't film".
Given the state of the world and how little the situation in the Middle East has changed since the events depicted in the film, "Waltz With Bashir" often dallies on a very thin dangerous line as its implications might result offensive, condemning or just plain biased to either side.
And for a while, when a character gives an all too facile psychological interpretation related to Jewish guilt and the Holocaust, it almost falls for choosing sides.
But Folman picks up on this and turns his film towards the less traveled path pushing his search forward even when the results might dehumanize him; while some of his countrymen find a certain justification in the role their spiritual beliefs have given them, the director goes above this and declares that no God is excuse enough to commit murder.
When the movie is about to reach its most troublesome sequence Folman has what can only be likened to a psychoanalytical breakthrough, he realizes that like the people in one of the anecdotes he listens about, he was also looking at his subject "as if it was a film", perhaps the whole experience of making the project was merely a mechanism he was using to remain outside the events.
Then as if the movie was creating itself in front of our eyes we let go of our preconceived images of war, soldiers, the Middle East and religion, giving path to an utmostly human elegy.
During the last, brilliant, tensely constructed, scene when the actual emotional truth behind them finally materializes the pain is impossible to contain.

In the City of Sylvia ****

Director: José Luis Guerín
Cast: Pilar López de Ayala, Xavier Lafitte

"In the City of Sylvia" is an aesthetical study of light, form and perspective, a short genre-bending story under construction and a psychological experiment in voyeurism that as a whole works as wonderful cinema.
Playing with our fascination with the unknown, the forbidden and lost opportunities, director Guerín crafts a poetic piece that functions in mysterious ways.
It opens with a young man (the ethereally beautiful Lafitte) sitting on his hotel bed at night; he restlessly writes and sketches in a notebook, you can guess he's the "artistic" type who would rather remain insomniac than to deny a solution for his apparent creative block.
The following morning we see him sitting in a café where the camera carefully captures some of the other patrons. Then we notice the young man seems to be looking for someone, stretching his neck and staring at some people more than others.
He scribbles "in the city of Sylvia" in his notebook as he sketches some of the girls in the café.
He finally sets his eyes on a girl (López de Ayala), a spark of recognition lights his face, as the girl leaves he hesitatingly decides to follow her and the camera does as well.
For almost an hour we will follow the man as he tries to approach the woman, chasing her all over the streets of Strasbourg.
In the way he bumps into passersby, dead ends, a recurring graffiti scribbled on the walls and a train that more often than not difficults his search.
Can this be the Sylvia from his notes? If so why is he, and why are we, following her? In a bold move Guerín includes almost no dialogue in his film and he makes it obvious that he's not worried in the least about narrative purposes.
Those who wait for something to "happen" will come out frustrated and angry, those who succumb to the possible, but not assured, consequences of the chase will find a lush, sensual experience.
The film is based entirely on our perception of things on several levels.
Natasha Braier's camera work sometimes functions as a study of proxemics, images, planes and perspective. The café sequence is reminiscent of a Renoir because the way in which we look at the people and props affect our ideas of them.
A woman kissing a man in the background seems to be whispering something to a character in a closer plane, a woman sitting between two men forces us to wonder which one did she get there with (or if they even have to be in couples!). This playfulness isn't as obvious in latter sequences but helps sets the mood for all the other ideas.
It also deals with voyeurism and how we sometimes can't help but look somewhere else. While many studies have compared cinema to this practice, this film takes it to a whole new level by making us spy on the voyeur, we're watching a movie about someone who's watching someone and while this plays out in a slightly obvious way it leads to some of the other aspects studied.
Have you ever played that game where you watch unknown people and try to imagine the history behind their faces? As a kid did you ever wonder what lied beyond the corner your parents wouldn't let you go to alone? And growing up did you ever fantasize about the passionate love affair you might've had with a stranger you saw once in the street?
While concentrating on actual voyeurism, Guerín goes a step further and relates this to our need to create. He asks why else would we create art if it wasn't for the reason of having ideas, people and emotions in a determined place where we know we can have unrestricted access to them?
The camera identifies with Lafitte's character, but during some sequences it strays behind or pops up in places he hasn't even walked by, reminding us of the limitations and possibilities we have as artists and as people (and the camera and human eye respectively).
Visually the film, like the male lead, seems to ache with the knowledge that they'll never be able to see it all, to take everything in at once.
Guerín could've concentrated merely on the intellectual and still deliver an interesting film, but the central plot makes the emotional implications impossible to avoid.
Here the director makes us observe what our stances are on love and romance. For some the young man will result a creep, his smile a chilling sign of perversion and the chase will become persecution and stalking.
To some the melancholy of fleeting love and a possibly cyclical, hopeless quest will echo the stuff Greek tragedy was made of.
For others it might come off as breathtakingly romantic and will root for the "hero" to find his Sylvia and for others this will all have been the metaphoric journey of an artist trying to rekindle his relationship with his, perhaps non existent, muse. Yet it works as all of these things.
In the end, not surprisingly, it all depends on how you've been watching.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Doubt **1/2

Director: John Patrick Shanley
Cast: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis

Perhaps not all theater was meant to be adapted into cinema. Even if the notion that both mediums share a fraternal link has existed since movies began, the truth is that they are completely different experiences and the same screenplay performed in each of the mediums will create a distinct effect in the audience.
"Doubt" probably plays better on the stage, with its small cast limited to a reduced space and the omnipresence of the audience whose eyes add weight to the characters' burdens.
As a movie it lacks a certain punch and urgency which ultimately affects its entire purpose.
Meryl Streep plays Sister Aloysius Beauvier, a nun serving as principal for a Catholic school in 1964 Bronx. Conservative in every aspect she commands respect and fear from the students and her fellow nuns including the naive Sister James (Adams).
Intent on maintaining a certain order she sets her eyes on Father Flynn (Hoffman) a revolutionary priest who people like even if he suggests they use a "secular" song for the school's Christmas pageant.
After alerting Sister James to watch out for the priest, she receives notice that Father Flynn has had a private meeting with Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), the only African American student in the school who has become victim to pranks and isolation, convinced that the priest molested the child Sister Aloysius goes on a campaign to destroy him.
Based on his own play Shanley's adaptation offers some moral, spiritual and ethical questions that make for a fascinating piece. "Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty" affirms Father Flynn during one of his sermons and after a too obvious shot of Sister Aloysius and Sister James, Shanley makes it obvious that this is entirely an actor's showcase.
Adams gives an effective portrayal of innocence; she suggests maliciousness when interacting with Sister Aloysius, but ends up being a naive girl torn apart between right, wrong and her commitment to her profession.
Davis has two scenes as David's mother Mrs. Miller, but in just one makes an absolutely indelible impression; as she walks with Sister Aloysius listening to what might be happening to her son she walks through a whole life, Davis' face contains the entire history of this woman who might be the only character in the film who really knows who she is.
Hoffman has the face to pull off both a pedophile and a saint and does so portraying Father Flynn like a man who can only give love, in whatever way the audience chooses to conceive it.
His character could've ended up being a villain or a martyr and Hoffman avoids both making his character completely human.
The film is ambiguous about what really happened and watching Hoffman you have to become judge and decide for yourself.
Then there's Streep who makes sure she commands all the attention as Sister Aloysius, the brilliant actress seems to have trouble getting into character; known for her subtle immersion into her roles, during her first scenes in the film she still seems to be adjusting to the character.
She twitches, purses her lips and provides more affecting mannerisms than a mime but just as you're about to condemn the actress for showing the tactics of her craft you realize that this has been Sister Aloysius all along.
Like a diva, she is so sure about her ability to cause fear, her self imposed superiority and her overall power that she lets us know she can do whatever she wants to do with it.
Those who know people raised in Catholic schools will recognize Sister Aloysius in stories they've heard or people they know.
If she wants to offer grandiose displays of histrionics who among her congregation will dare to tell her she's wrong? Streep finds a certain vulnerability in Sister Aloysius because more than the other characters she is the one with the crisis of faith, more precisely who or what to have faith in.
Should it be her pride, her position, her God or her need to do good even if she must hurt others?
She proclaims herself as the one to "outshine the fox in cleverness", but Streep knows better than to reduce this woman to a psychopath, a woman with penis envy looking for gender equality or a villain.
It's a shame then that Shanley doesn't seem to know his characters the way his ensemble does. While it seems he's putting his faith in them, his directorial skills prove otherwise as he uses every trick in the book to convey ideas and emotions.
He directs with the insecure eagerness of someone who landed a movie star for the high school theater production.
Big scenes are done with tilted Hitchcokian angles and moments of revelation are accompanied by storms and wind.
While it's understandable that the director would want to highlight dramatic moments, truth is all along you feel almost as if Shanley was hovering above the screen with little puppet strings, then running off to bang the metal for the thunder effects, then run again once more to play the wicked organ music and so on.
For a subject which deals so much with our own power to choose, and a last scene that relies heavily on this, it's a shame that for his film Shanley has no belief in free will.

"The night time is the worst time."

Thursday, January 22, 2009

M.I.A at the Oscars.

That title of course has a double meaning, since not only will the British dance artist M.I.A get a chance to perform at the show (two songs from "Slumdog Millionaire" made the cut for Best Original Song) but it's also meant to analyze what happened to those missing in action, because as usual there were some whopping snubs (like Bruce Springsteen not getting a nomination for "The Wrestler"!).
Yes this all means that Academy Award nominations are finally here! (Or here for a more efficient read)
And boy were there a shock or two. As usual it was a mixed bag, since there will always be detractors and supporters for the nominees.
Biggest whoa of the morning: Kate Winslet getting one nomination and not for the movie she was campaigning, apparently AMPAS doesn't love her enough to give her a double nod.
I sadly haven't seen "The Reader" but now am dying to, especially because of the sneak attack it gave to other films. It remained under the radar up until Kate's Golden Globe win, but when I saw that Stephen Daldry got nominated in Best Director my jaw dropped to the floor.
He's three for three now, getting a Best Director nomination for each of the movies he's made (can he win it this time? Nah. Maybe if Danny Boyle and David Fincher split votes...).
Boyle and "The Reader" got in Best Picture and Best Director over Christopher Nolan and "The Dark Knight" who everyone assumed were getting in the lineup.
I never got in the Batman bandwagon, yes, it's a very well done film and yes anything is better than "Frost/Nixon", but the arrogant way fanboys, "journalists" and some critics handled this movie made the backlash understandable for me, those threats and beliefs that the movie was the Holy Grail made me actually annoyed by it.
On the other side it pissed me off a little that the Academy still has that genre aversion and if only for that I would've liked having seen it nominated.
My little brother, who loved "The Dark Knight", wisely said yesterday that the Academy would never nominate it for Best Picture. I was rooting for "WALL-E" to get in.
Heath Ledger got in of course and unless G-d himself comes down from the skies, there is no way he will lose this.
I was amazed to see that even if "Revolutionary Road" was snubbed in a major way, Michael Shannon got in for Best Supporting Actor!
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" led the nominations with 13, the film is indeed impressive in the technical department, so much that its effects convinced the Academy that Brad Pitt had given a performance worthy of a nomination...
I was thrilled to see Anne Hathaway get in, but she was a lock, and even if I'm not a fan of Melissa Leo and Richard Jenkins' movies, it was nice to see low key actors get a chance in the spotlight.
Ugh and someone should shut Ben Lyons up; in less than 30 seconds he threw out two of his facile praise blurbs declaring that both Ledger and Benjamin Button have determined before and afters in the history of their respective categories.
The race is shaping up to be rather predictable so far (that seems to happen on those rare occasions whe Director and Picture are exact matches...only happened four times with this one), there is no movie that musters real passion from me this year and the only good thing for me about the Winslet snub is that now Penélope has a sorta clear path to nab Supporting Actress (even if Woody was snubbed in Screenplay).
I was mostly pissed at the fact that Sally Hawkins wasn't nominated for Best Actress, especially when Mike Leigh's screenplay for "Happy-Go-Lucky" did, which is kinda silly considering that Hawkins was the one who brought all the words to life!
But then when all looks bad you see that Werner Herzog is an Academy Award nominee and everything seems to be alright in the world.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Dear Oscar,

I've been a good boy all throughout the year. I've stayed during several movies up until the last credit rolled, I went to the theaters and saw even the worst garbage that was put out in order to support the industry. I also did my share of catching up with some of the classics you've endorsed and am thankful for your advice about "The Shop on Main Street", "You Can't Take It With You" and everything involving Gene Tierney and Ingmar Bergman.
Therefore I would be very happy if tomorrow morning you gave me the following things:
Best Actress nominations for Sally Hawkins, Kristin Scott Thomas and Kate Winslet, especially if it means leaving that awful Angelina Jolie woman out of the race.
I also would be thankful if you gave "WALL-E" a Best Picture nomination (especially over the one you know annoys me the most) and maybe muster enough votes for "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" or "Happy-Go-Lucky" to sneak in.
I know asking for a sudden attack by "Hunger" would be just too much, even though Michael Fassbender should win Best Actor and you know I don't mind Clint Eastwood getting in as long as it's for "Gran Torino" and not "Changeling".
I also promise to behave even better this year if you can get Rosemarie DeWitt and Debra Winger nominated in Supporting Actress for "Rachel Getting Married".
And don't forget Penélope!
Oh, can you put Jonathan Demme in Best Director too as well?
Gosh, I'm asking for quite a lot aren't I? But I promise I'll leave a martini and an extra special plate of snacks on the mantel when you come on February 22 and see even more movies this year!



She should be a lock for a Best Actress nomination tomorrow.
I don't know why did the buzz around her die so easily.
Too subtle? Enough with the French performances? Anyone?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Wendy and Lucy *

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Cast: Michelle Williams, Walter Dalton
Will Oldham, John Robinson, Will Patton

Some of the greatest films of all time have dealt with the simplest kind of situations and have found universal truths in their quest and resolution.
Like the man looking for his bicycle without which he's unemployed, the sick man who won't get medical care for bureaucracy and the single mother trying to protect her daughter in a war savaged country, Wendy (Williams) is looking for a new job in Alaska taking only her dog Lucy, that is until her dog disappears in a strange town, leaving Wendy heartbroken.
What Neorrealist masters, modern Romanians and documentary makers have found in similar situations, director Kelly Reichardt never even comes close to achieving.
Williams gives a subtle performance as Wendy and her scenes with the dog achieve a kind of urgency most people who've owned pets will recognize.
But when she tries to touch social problems in which we find her stealing groceries, sleeping in her car and washing herself in public restrooms, Wendy comes off looking as an arrogant woman looking for the easiest way out.
Williams doesn't give her enough of a background for us to understand why is she putting herself through this misery and when an offended clerk tells her that people who can't afford food for their pets shouldn't be owning one, it's impossible not to agree with him.
The film's problem might be then that Wendy's struggles stay at a very local level and people outside the United States will find her hassles as those of a drama queen who always had another option to fight her poverty.
Who cares that Wendy can't start her car to travel when there is people around the world who don't even have the dream of owning a car?
Who can understand her shoplifting for food when later we find out she has money to pay her bail?
Eventually the situations Reichardt puts Wendy through come off looking as "now what?" instead of being empathic buildups to the film's climax.
When the movie reaches its final scene it strikes a chord but for all the wrong reasons, instead of having worked harder to show that Lucy meant the only love left for Wendy in the world, it highlights her selfishness.
The plot also has trouble convincing us that this trip would help Wendy, what if there was no job in Alaska? There is never much of a clue that Wendy has thought of anything before we meet her, it's as if the character started existing once the cameras started rolling.
Sadly the film begins rather well, even hinting at some moments of greatness and inventive cinematic qualities.
One scene particularly has a great transition where Wendy observes a group of homeless people, the camera shifts from her face to the people she's watching and immediately the camera becomes her eyes.
During this scene Williams proves what a great actress she can be as she simply listens to everyone else and doesn't try to hog the spotlight.
Despite Williams' best efforts, for Reichardt Wendy never materializes beyond gender studies and economic critiques.
She's thesis material, not an actual person.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Valkyrie **

Director: Bryan Singer
Cast: Tom Cruise
Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Carice van Houten
Thomas Kretschmann, Bill Nighy, Terence Stamp, Eddie Izzard

It takes but a slight knowledge of history to know how "Valkyrie" will end. The film chronicles the attempt to kill Adolf Hitler led by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Cruise) on July 20th 1944.
Teaming with high rank members of the German Army Stauffenberg planned a coup that would use the Fuhrer's very own "Operation Valkyrie" to take over Germany and make a truce with the Allies putting an end to World War II.
When the key members of the army are played by character actors like Branagh, Stamp and Nighy the idea of the kind of prestige drama this could amount to would get any film lover salivating.
But when this remarkable team is led by Tom Cruise, it works in a completely different way. Not even attempting to have a German accent, Cruise doesn't make a clown out of von Staffenberg, because we never even get to see past the actor playing him.
Whenever Cruise tries to be serious and muster some sort of gravitas, all we really see is Tom Cruise wearing an eyepatch and trying to kill Hitler.
Rarely has the public perception of an actor affected so much the outcome of an entire movie, but it seems that deep down Cruise has come to terms with the fact that he's a movie star and if you stop taking the film as a serious historical piece and choose to view it as an action thriller the results can be obscenely entertaining.
Singer, who directs like a stock filmmaker under the studio system, just goes with the flow and lets his star shine.
The director's meticulousness is outstanding in the small flashes he let's us see, like the care he has taken in showing us bureaucratic and logistic methods of the era.
Since there is absolutely no regard for character growth and background, scenes with extras and unknown actors in small roles showing the chilling efficiency of the Nazi regime make for a treat.
Singer choreographs the action sequences with just as much care, giving the plot an actual tension even if you know how everything will end.
"Valkyrie" often plays out like an appointed B movie made for propagandistic reasons, after all movie stars were used to draft people during WWII and watching Tom Cruise battling the Nazis, although preposterous and somewhat disrespectful, still is able to engage the audience on a primal level.
When it comes to entertainment "Valkyrie" is an effective, if inconsequential, accomplished mission, as cinema it stays merely as a drill.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Love Songs ***1/2

Director: Christophe Honoré
Cast: Louis Garrel, Ludivine Sagnier, Clotilde Hesme
Chiara Mastroianni, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, Brigitte Rouan

"...and these songs that we sing, do they mean anything to the people that we're singing them to?"
"The Songs That We Sing" by Charlotte Gainsbourg

From its title sequence reminiscent of "The 400 Blows" to its odd sense of existence, without falling into self awareness, Christophe Honoré's refreshing musical "Love Songs" just exudes nouvelle vague-ness.
"I'm sick of movies alone" sighs Julie (Sagnier) to her boyfriend Ismael (Garrel) over the phone, while she waits for him outside a theater. They have been together for, what we can assume has been, a significant amount of time and have fallen into the kind of rut they try to solve by adding a third person to the relationship.
Said person comes in the shape of Alice (Hesme), Ismael's co-worker, who shares their bed and unusual sexual life.
But the film isn't about their unorthodox way of life, nor how they got there or what the social/moral implications are, it's about the way in which people deal with love nowadays, searching for new options in whatever shape they come, it deals with a youthful world view where everything seems possible.
That is until reality comes and spoils everything. The reality here comes in the unexpected death of one of them, who literally drops dead, sending the other two in opposite directions trying to get back in a game they thought they'd already won.
Using Alex Beaupain's delightful songs to craft this musical, director Honoré comes up with an invigorating way of approaching what has become a feared cinematic style.
"Is it your pretty bum, fear of loneliness?" sings Garrel to his girlfriend wondering what is it that makes him attracted to her. The directness of some of the lyrics smooths the suspension of disbelief, but Beaupain equally falls into epically romantic lines, "have you ever loved for the sheer sake of it?", that make for a curiously effective combination of harsh reality with fablesque optimism.
In his previous film, Honoré paid homage to Jean Luc Godard and here he continues his tradition with a liberating outlook on relationships straight out of "A Woman is a Woman", but unlike that film's obtuse technique with musical scenes, "Love Songs" owes its fluidity to Jacques Démy who indulged the viewer with epic song and dance moments that felt inherent to the story being told.
Godard-ian in spirit but Truffaut-esque in execution the director's biggest misstep might be in the feeling of disconnectedness perceived in the transitions from musical sequences to dialogue.
He never musters up the same emotional flow, but is that actually a bad thing or can it be argued that by making this disconnection so obvious he's in fact making a point?
When looking back at life most people will forget names, places and persons but they somehow never forget the music that accompanied them.
In the very same way the characters sing, not because they are aware of it, but as if they'd become possessed by an other worldly force.
Garrel gives his most complete performance to date, making Ismael both lovable and sort of an asshole, while the divine Sagnier seems to float over the film (both have sweet, honest singing voices).
Yet the real find is Leprince-Ringuet as Erwann, whose baby face and innocence give the film its entire sense of meaning. His character becomes infatuated with Ismael, going to the point of following him just to convince him that he is the one.
Again, sexuality becomes completely irrelevant as the camera sweeps us and the film finds an intense, but unadorned, emotional sincerity as it tries to find love amidst grief.
In the same way Erwann dives fearlessly into the the unknown with the hopes of love (even in the face of heartbreak), Honoré throws us and himself into this gorgeous film.

Getting Off This Merry-Go-Round.

G-d how I missed it.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Up the Yangtze ***

Director: Yung Chang

Can you imagine the surreal experience of working in a boat over the place where your house used to be?
For sixteen year old Yu Shui it's a reality; growing up poor in the Yangtze riverbank forces her to take a job in a tourists' cruise to save money for high school. Her parents are being relocated to the city before the place where they live is flooded due to the construction of the Three Gorges Dam.
Now the largest hydroelectric dam in the planet, its construction which encompasses almost a century of planning has become controversial because of the social, ecological and cultural implications.
Director Yung Chang deals mostly with the social and psychological issues that come to people who have to adjust to the fact that their world is changing.
He cleverly juxtaposes Yu Shui's story with that of Chen Bo Yu, a middle class nineteen year old who also gets a job aboard the cruise.
By following their parallel stories the director is able to create what feels like a full bodied portrait of modern China as seen by members of the social circles more affected by change.
Yu Shui and Chen Bo Yu receive Western names, Cindy and Jerry respectively, and are trained in etiquette to serve tourists better.
Cindy is a shy, introverted girl who has probably never been away from her family and knows without the job she won't finish school, Jerry on the other side is an energetic, outgoing people's person who enjoys being the center of attention and is working for the extra cash (and to be the biggest earner in his family).
They are given a three month probation aboard the ship and the film draws from the audience fascination with competition to see if both will make it through. Although they are not savagely pitted against each other, their struggle for survival in the workplace gets you interested in the story.
Once Chang grabs your attention with this he will also introduce profound dilemmas that range from the spiritual to the monetary.
Being Canadian, Chang is able to detach himself from the reality of his characters and acknowledges that he went to see the China his grandfather talked about. But upon finding himself in a nation on the verge of economic boom he finds he is in an even stranger place where his features may feel appropriate, but his mind is in another hemisphere.
It's no coincidence that you feel his identification when he mentions that tourists "come here to see an ancient version of China that doesn't exist anymore".
Both unaware and in awe of their effect in this society the tourists arrive with completely different expectations. But this isn't a film about the Western way of life applied to China or one that would simply blame Capitalists (although a moment when cruise workers are lectured about not calling the people "old, pale or fat" comes off as unintentionally funny), but of the country's necessity to keep up with this world it doesn't fully understand.
When asked by some tourists about how people are dealing with being displaced from their homes, a smiling tour guide replies "they are all happy".
Reality is that the look of discontent and fear in the people we see comes far from that description. "Up the Yangtze" isn't critical of the Dam, because what can be done after it's been built?
Chang mostly relies on a humanist approach that makes of his movie a moving experience. In one of the film's most striking moments Yu Shui's father has to carry an enormous piece of furniture up a hill before the flood.
Chang doesn't intervene or help and you wonder if he is merely adding to the drama or is in fact avoiding an intrusion because he knows his help would strip the moment of its documentary quality.
With all of its ghost towns, poverty and sadness, the film has an undeniable beauty that is captured by cinematographer Shi Qing Wang who gives some images a truly haunting quality.
When all is said and done, the film doesn't come up with life changing revelations or moral lessons, but it will raise questions that it knows it can't answer.
Perhaps Chang's need to reencounter himself with his history is what gives the film it's most personal and general moment.
Thinking of his grandfather's stories and the rich mythology of the country he says "the Mountain Goddess, if she is still there, will marvel at a world so changed".
It's in the doubt in that sentence where the film's soul lies as it wonders if there can be progress without sacrifice.

Fashion-al Board of Review.

The stars came out once again for the National Board of Review Gala and as I saw the shallow coverage in E! News I found my attention curiously drawn to someone I can barely stand, no, make that someone who is perhaps one of the only people who would make not see a movie if she is featured.
It's none other than Ms. Salma Hayek whose movies I can't stand, whose Oscar nomination still pisses me off and whose disdain for the press in her country make me wanna slap her, but something (perhaps "30 Rock" goodwill?) made me see her twice and for once actually appreciate what she was wearing.
I know she's had more famous outfits, but the simplicity and color of this one are the first time I've ever caught myself going "she does look nice". I guess her marriage is doing some much needed good for her image in my eyes. That caramel degradé is just mouth watering.

Now can someone please explain this to me:

Anne herself called this Chanel "a risk", but what the hell is it with stars wearing grass? (see Madonna in Louis Vuitton) We get that they love the planet and are worried and want the rest of us mortals to be "green" and what not, but there are much more efficient, and better looking, ways of reminding us about going natural (streaking doesn't count).
Anne went the extra mile by wearing fallen leaves, burnt grass and wrapped it all with a subtle dominatrix belt. Is she going to spank me if I don't recycle?

RocknRolla **

Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast: Gerard Butler, Tom Wilkinson
Mark Strong, Thandie Newton, Idris Elba, Tom Hardy, Jeremy Piven, Jimy Mistry

Tom Wilkinson seems to draw immense pleasure from unleashing his inner sleaze playing Lenny Cole, a London crime boss negotiating a multimillion deal with a Russian property dealer (Karel Roden).
There’s also One Two (a hilarious Butler), Mumbles (Elba) and “Handsome” Bob (the scene stealing Hardy) a group of crooks trying to intercept the money from the deal with the aid of a sly accountant (Newton). Add to this an allegedly dead junkie rock star named Johnny Quid (Kebbell), a stolen painting (and ingenious McGuffin), carnivorous crawfish and a duo of Russian hitmen. Put all of those characters, situations and items together and you end with this movie, where the plot is the last thing that matters, but that doesn’t keep Lenny’s assistant Archie (the wonderful Mark Strong who by far owns the movie with his mixture of tough and coolness) from trying to narrate everything.
Guy Ritchie has a knack for brutal comedy (and his writing isn’t half bad) that gives the movie its intense energy and entertainment value, but he also has some deep rooted issues that make the movie lack something.
One of them is his insistence with gay jokes; from Brad Pitt’s ultra toned physique in “Snatch”, to Adriano Giannini’s scruffy appeal in “Swept Away” Ritchie has a weird ability to capture the beauty of the male body that would make Derek Jarman’s eyebrows give an ironic raise (and who can blame him when he was married to the gay icon by excellence…).
In this film he makes one of his characters gay, but instead of using this to stereotyped, yet effective, comedy purposes he has several other characters become fascinated by what this homosexuality implies about them.
This discomfort would’ve been effective (gay crooks!?! A riot!) if the director wasn’t drawing unintentional homoerotic attention to random moments of the film.
Ritchie turns a chase sequence of ACME proportions into a Hugo Boss perfume ad by having a very fit thug take his shirt off to reveal his extremely ripped physique…in slow motion.
The same two characters will later become involved in a torture scene which includes gagging, policemen hats and vodka. And “I’m not gay” becomes almost a catchphrase within the movie.
Another of Ricthie’s problems is his need to create his own language and untie himself from other currents. While it’s immediately obvious that “RocknRolla” draws heavily from the filmographies of Tarantino, Scorsese and even the Rat Pack (going by way of Steven Soderbergh), Lenny often reminds other characters and the viewers that they aren’t gangsters.
This constant need of Ritchie to reaffirm his role, which here evokes vintage James Bond and Sam Peckinpah, only comes off looking as a slightly pathetic fear of being emasculated (again…he was married to Madonna, one can’t blame him entirely).
“RocknRolla” spends far too much time worrying about what it’s not that it ends up not knowing what it actually is.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

BAFTA: or How Slumdog Got Out of Control.

...yes Freida Pinto is absolutely gorgeous. And yes, she does make yellow stand out in a rather distinctive way. And yes, she does become a key instrument to the last plot twist in "Slumdog Millionaire". And yes she does dance beautifully.
But how the hell does anyone nominate her for Best Supporting Actress?
"Slumdog Millionaire" led the British Academy Award nominations with 11, followed by "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" with the same amount.
If I had been counting on an award group to shake things up a bit, or at least turn them less boring it was BAFTA, but no, they went almost for the same stuff everyone else has been voting for and their Best Picture lineup was one film shy of the feared "Oscar five" to be.
Of course they didn't kick out the worst movie in the bunch ("Frost/Nixon") instead bumping the Batman and inserting "The Reader".
I get that they love their country and what not, but they seem to have chosen the most blah in their island.
How's this for an example: "Slumdog Millionaire" gets 11 nominations while "Happy-Go-Lucky" gets 0.
Yes, not even for the divine Sally Hawkins who couldn't be more British even if she wore one of those hats guards in Buckingham Palace wear, or dressed with the Union Jack or had been in the goddamn Spice Girls.
This means that Mike Leigh was not nominated either which I find quite strange, considering how they love him and not even that, but considering what a magnificent film "Happy-Go-Lucky" was!
Instead we have double nods for Brad Pitt, "Mamma Mia!" in for "Best British Film", Dev Patel for "Best Actor" (yes Lead...) and a nomination for Tilda Swinton even she would accept is a complete "wtf".
But wait, there must be something good in this mess...
Not really. But I have to say I'm very pleased Penélope Cruz got in for "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" and Marisa Tomei for her beautiful turn in "The Wrestler", now if Pinto beats them I'll have a stroke.
Oh and I'm happy someone finally remembered Kristin Scott Thomas for "I've Loved You So Long" (as well as the movie in Screenplay and Foreign Film), if there was any justice she'd be a lock a week from now for Best Actress.
The rest of the rather dull nominees are here.
Oh and I can't believe I stayed up so late for this rubbish.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Still Life ***

Director: Jia Zhangke
Cast: Han Sanming, Zhao Tao
Li Zhubing, Wang Hongwei, Zhou Lin, Ma Lizhen

A clash of contrasts, ideas and symbols Jia Zhangke's evocative "Still Life" is the kind of film that can linger with you indefinitely because of all the meanings you can find in it.
Narratively simple and direct it follows a husband and wife looking for their respective spouses in the small Chinese town of Fengjie, which is being demolished to give path to the construction of the Three Gorges Dam.
Han Sanming (Sanming) is a coal miner from the province of Shanxi whose wife (Lizhen) ran away sixteen years before taking their daughter. Once in Fengjie he finds that the street where she used to live is now underwater; he decides to wait until she comes back and finds work with a demolition company, paving the way for the subsequent flood.
Later we meet Shen Hong (Tao) a nurse looking for her husband (Zhubing), who works in the Dam, to deliver some news.
Even if the stories are never meant to intersect, you can draw parallels in them that go beyond the obvious search each character is doing.
There will be no dramatic climaxes, big twists or unexpected arch in the plot, Zhangke's objective was not to tell a story but to represent life under the modern China.
Shot in high definition digital video by Yu Lik-wai, the film proves once and for all that the inability to grasp beauty with the medium is up to each filmmaker.
This film could've looked like a documentary or like a home movie, instead Zhangke finds a strange beauty in the starkness of digital video. The images acquire a kind of texture that evokes frescoes, but upon realizing that what we find in them isn't antique but rather new, it makes for an interesting debate.
The director wants to take it all in and does so with stunning 360 degree vistas where the camera doesn't just pan, but glides taking in the majestic nature of the landscapes and the violent shock of the decaying infrastructure.
The characters walk while buildings collapse behind them which, more than symbols for their collapsing emotions, become evidence of an ever changing world.
There is political content within the film but the director just implies it, one of the characters laments "a city with 2000 years of history was demolished in 2 years" regarding his town and several other moments lead us to ponder on how the people living in current China inherited the dreams of past generations.
The Dam becomes the best example as a monument to progress that demands destruction in order to be erected (perhaps an analogy for the country itself?) and using it as backdrop Zhangke creates all kinds of interpretations to his film.
The director has a fascination with transcendence and while you can argue that every moment in life is impossible to repeat, the film makes its uniqueness more obvious because these places knowingly would case to exist to these people.
It is no coincidence that Han says "you never know who will survive" regarding his line of work and hinting at the cruelty of life.
"Still Life" also deals with language and perception. Several characters have trouble understanding each other because of their accents (microcosm?) and how could they not when they live in such a giant country that most of their citizens will never know in its entirety.
"My part of China is on a banknote too" says someone to Han and with this we are reminded of how many of these people have traveled far from home and the people they left behind are still connected to them (if by no other reason than the eventual effect of the dam in the Yangtze).
The movie offers its most fascinating element in its title, where the union of two words gives path to as many answers as it offers questions.
Does the "still" in the title refer to lack of movement or continuous existence? It may serve both purposes because at some point or other the characters' lives become stuck because they can't complete their missions. They are unable to go anywhere until they find their purpose.
The same can be said for the setting which are still, but changing and its only the characters living their lives that pass through them.
The word also serves the purpose of a life that hasn't ceased to be despite its shortcomings. The characters are poor, emotionally and/or economically, but they are still alive, while the town they are in will soon cease to exist.
Does the still imply a level of complacency or in fact invites them to gratitude? The issues regarding this probably are easily solved by anyone who knows Chinese grammar, but for those who know only the English title and are perplexed by the meanings, the mystery remains.
After watching the movie, it becomes just as tough to decide if it was coincidence or not.

Here Today.

Getting a Little Bit Hot.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Edge of Heaven **1/2

Director: Fatih Akin
Cast: Baki Davrak, Nurgul Yesilcay, Hanna Schygulla
Tuncel Kurtiz, Patrycia Ziolkowska, Nursel Kose

The entire plot of "The Edge of Heaven" is contained in its first sequence. College professor Nejat Aksu (an efficient Davrak) enters a service station in Turkey where he asks the cashier who is the singer on the radio. He answers and provides Nejat with some pop culture trivia revealing that the singer had died a few years ago, and quite young, from cancer.
"It's all Chernobyl" he adds.
With this statement director Fatih Akin sets in motion an ambitious film that chooses the interconnections of human beings as its axis. Just because we don't know something it doesn't mean it won't affect us. A character later adds that only "God is entitled to solitude" making this interrelationships inevitable.
We later move to Germany where we meet Nejat's father Ali (a wonderful Kurtiz) who has just begun a "business" relationship with middle aged prostitute Yeter (Kose who is detached yet moving).
Yeter's daughter Ayten (Yesilcay) lives in Istanbul where she is short of becoming a terrorist. Soon she will become romantically involved with German student Lotte (a naive Ziolkowska) who lives in Bremen with her mother Susanne (Schygulla).
Travelling constantly back and forth between Istanbul and Bremen, Akin structures his film around two major deaths and the relationships between three sets of parents and children, all of which will become linked before the end in completely unexpected ways.
Akin's intentions are obviously not to show off how many degrees of separation he can find between these people and his film obtains a certain beauty because of it, but the scope of what he's trying to say becomes redundant and obvious because he doesn't trust his images as much as he trusts his words.
Akin has trouble conveying believable space/time situations, which become more obvious in Lotte and Ayetn's relationship.
While supposedly they have been together for a year, the actresses don't muster this kind of connection. Their lust is forced and their eventual love comes off looking awkward and impossible to understand. You can't blame this on the limited screentime of the "year", because cinema after all is supposed to condense vastness, but on the situations Akin chooses to show us.
When Lotte eventually leaves her mother to go help her girlfriend, what we find in her is ingratitude and stupidity instead of admiration.
Then again you can't blame Akin, because only after this happens do we see the wonderful work of Hanna Schygulla who steals the film with a moving portrayal of maternal love and dignity.
It is with her with whom Akin makes his palindrome of a film work at its best, whenever she's onscreen even the most ridiculous plot twists make sense and the forced dialogues become moving.
The actress has the sort of familiarity (even for those who don't know her work with Fassbinder) that make her seem the only one whose life you believe existed before the screenplay was written.
In what could've been one of the film's most moving moments her Susanne goes to Istanbul where she remembers a trip she had made to India decades before.
Those who had been paying attention to the movie carefully will draw parallels between her life and her daughter's without an eventual journal narration that steals the moment of its intimacy.
With this, and a tacky Biblical metaphor about sacrificed children, Akin seems to have forgotten that, while we might all indeed connected by a mysterious force, the moments of utmost spiritual realization often occur quietly inside each of us.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Yes, It Really Happened.

I don't know which of the two is my fave.
I just LOVE when she thanks her makeup people for "The Reader" because nobody ever does, it's as if they put it on themselves and think of acknowledging makeup as something shameful to their thespian skills.
Well watch as one of our greatest actresses thanks them and accepts she wouldn't have done it without them.
Later the look Cameron gives her just kills me and Kate is just so sincere in her emotions. The Leo love thing is just adorable and I'm thinking Meryl Streep is perhaps the best loser of all time. She is just so gracious and always looks so honestly pleased about people who defeat her (take note Angelina).
Now bring Kate the BAFTA, SAG and Oscar!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Kate Kraze.

"Oh G-d, who's the other one?"
- The gorgeous Kate Winslet congratulating, and forgetting, her fellow nominees upon winning her second Golden Globe of the night.

I never thought I'd feel so happy to see Meryl Streep, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Penélope Cruz and Anne Hathaway lose an award until they all lost to the lovely Kate Winslet.
When she first won Best Supporting Actress for her work in "The Reader" I realized she'd go and win 'em both (I'd predicted her for Drama Lead despite Hathaway-gate) and when Cameron Diaz gave her that look my heart stopped as Kate came to collect her Best Actress award for her brilliant performance in "Revolutionary Road".
And really she was the highlight of the show, one that had some of the worthiest winners I've seen in ages. Mickey Rourke and Colin Farrell got Best Actor in Drama and Comedy respectively and were in fact the best in their categories (toss up between Sean Penn and Rourke for me) and the lovely and extremely Amy Winehouse-like Sally Hawkins got Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy (who'd guess they're both so shy and quiet when in their professional lives they seem just so fiery?).
"Vicky Cristina Barcelona" got Best Picture Musical or Comedy and that made my day despite Penélope losing, but back to Kate for a minute...
She single-handedly put some spice into this season again. Best Actress has been extremely tough to guess this year and with this double whammy what the hell will happen at the Oscars?
Ballots are due tomorrow so tonight won't have any effect anymore, but will the Academy also get her a double nod? And if so can she actually go ahead and win them both?
I shiver with excitement and if she eventually gets both awards the thing is that she would be perfectly capturing what seems to be the spirit of this awards season which is rooting ecstatically for your favorites.
Not only with Kate, but with Heath Ledger obviously and on the TV side this was captured perfectly with "30 Rock" and "John Adams" rightfully sweeping, but if a crossover appeal was ever more obvious it was "Slumdog Millionaire".
Whenever the nominees for the film were announced there was thunderous applause and cheering and each time it got an award the room just exploded.
When the film eventually won Best Picture-Drama and the camera captured Christina Applegate going "it's soooooo good" it was obvious that everyone there wanted this film to win.
There is no way this movie can lose that Oscar now. The energy of people who like it is contagious, even if I didn't love the movie I was happy it was winning things.
And don't even get me started about Dev Patel and Freida Pinto. They are just so cute and rootable (?).
They did this silly Bollywood dance class on the red carpet and instead of making me laugh at them I went "aww" and that is exactly what the movie is doing to everyone else.
Can it be so wrong that we have the need to share joy? And why is joy only as obvious in crowd pleasers?
The answers to those questions are too deep for tonight...for now I'll leave you with my favorite fashion of the night (ranked in no particular order).

Finally. What the hell is this?
I'm one of the only people who still likes her, but this is just impossible to defend.

Golden Globe Predictions.

If there's something we can thank the Hollywood Foreign Press for, besides the delicious way they get stars drunk, is that they often have the balls to do stuff Grandpa Oscar would only dream of.
Their choices for Best Picture can go from the silly to the groundbreaking and while they're starfuckers of the highest caliber they usually reward the best in their categories.
I don't think Meryl Streep will win anything tonight even if she's up for two, but if I had a request it would be for all the winners to ask her graciously to give their speeches for them or at least have her go through their notes before going up the podium.
Sigh, now I'm wishing she wins them all..

Best Motion Picture-Drama
Will win: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Should win: "Revolutionary Road"

"Slumdog Millionaire" might take it because it's been sweeping, but Globe voters might feel this is too happy to be in this category for starters. They've loved their epics in the past which is why it's easy to predict Benjamin for the win. But out of the nominees, Sam Mendes' film about marital discomfort is probably the best, a film that stays with you even if the first time it wasn't quite what you expected and even when you know it wasn't a masterpiece.
Can it be one of those movies that grows better with time? The Globes could want to say they predicted that before everyone else.

Best Actor-Drama
Will win: Mickey Rourke "The Wrestler"
Should win: Rourke or Sean Penn for "Milk"

The battle of the bad boys as Penn and Rourke take on a couple of sensitive dudes.
If I could hope for a tie, it would be for these two who are spectacular in a beautifully quiet way.
But if I have to put my money on one I guess Rourke is the comeback story and he's probably give a drunker speech.
Who cares if he was last good in the 80s? These people after all awarded Pia Zadora back then.

Best Actress-Drama
Will win: Kate Winslet "Revolutionary Road"
Should win: Kate Winslet "Revolutionary Road"

If that Anne Hathaway incident a few days ago wasn't an accident, then she deserves her award for her beautiful performance in "Rachel Getting Married". But I have chosen to take that as an html Freudian slip, the HFPA wants to award Hathaway but they owe it to Kate and guess what, unlike those overdue people she is breathtaking in "Revolutionary Road".
Even if it seems she's done the same role a million times before, her performance feels everything but old.

Best Motion Picture- Comedy or Musical
Will win: "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"
Should win: "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"

The Globes have a ball in this category because they never ever choose the one everyone expects (just look at last year for example). This year they might reward "Mamma Mia" because it was huge at the international box office, but the movie itself was mediocre at best. "Happy-Go-Lucky" which is a masterpiece might have a shot at it, but the award for its actress will be seen as an award for both categories. That leaves us with Woody Allen's luscious love letter to Barcelona, which beautifully combined sex, angst, heartbreak, food poisoning and murderous ex-wives and still made us crave to be a part of it.

Best Actor - Musical or Comedy
Will win: Dustin Hoffman "Last Chance Harvey"
Should win: Colin Farrell "In Bruges"

Farrell had a wonderful year with this and "Cassandra's Dream" where he proved that beyond the attitude, sex tapes and smoking we first got to know him as an actor.
I'm guessing he splits votes with his co-star Brendan Gleeson and we'll end with a sweet victory for the legendary Hoffman.

Best Actress - Musical or Comedy
Will win: Sally Hawkins "Happy-Go-Lucky"
Should win: Sally Hawkins "Happy-Go-Lucky", Rebecca Hall "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"

Poor Rebecca Hall had to go and give her brilliant performance the year Hawkins delivered one of the greatest performances of the decade in Mike Leigh's transcendental, beautiful ode to hope.
Watch out for Meryl Streep who danced and sang beautifully in "Mamma Mia", but the movie sucked and maybe the reward was proving once again she's G-d in actress form.

Best Supporting Actor:
Will win: Heath Ledger "The Dark Knight"
Should win: Heath Ledger "The Dark Knight"

I've made my peace with the fanboys and now I don't desire they get their asses kicked for their arrogance, so I agree with Ledger getting his posthumous reward.
Although I have to confess I did love Ralph Fiennes in "The Duchess" and thought Robert Downey Jr. was splendid in "Tropic Thunder".
Oh and Tom Cruise. Seriously?

Best Supporting Actress:
Will win: Penélope Cruz "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"
Should win: Penélope Cruz "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"

Not only is she a definition of what makes the HFPA, she also gave a ferocious, beautiful performance in Woody Allen's gorgeous film that nobody saw coming.

Best Director- Motion Picture
Will win: Danny Boyle "Slumdog Millionaire"
Should win: Sam Mendes "Revolutionary Road"

This one's pretty much a lock and the HFPA does love spreading the wealth.

Best Screenplay - Motion Picture
Will win: Simon Beaufoy "Slumdog Millionaire"
Should win: Simon Beaufoy "Slumdog Millionaire"

I'm abstaining from passing judgement towards "The Reader" and "Doubt" because I haven't been lucky enough to watch them, so who knows if they might be good adaptations.
But with what I've got, Beaufoy's gimmicky narrative makes a much better story than whatever Eric Roth was thinking by grabbing Fitzgerald's moving and funny "Benjamin Button" and turning it into a cornier version of "Forrest Gump".
And as much as I love what Peter Morgan does to legendary leaders' biopics, "Frost/Nixon" annoyed me more than anything.

Best Foreign Language Film
Will win: "Gomorrah"
Should win: "Gomorrah"

Everyone stopped talking about "I've Loved You So Long" ages ago even if it's such a good film and "Waltz With Bashir" will feel like it's cheating in this category, so expect the Globes to go for Matteo Garrone's epic, brilliant mafia saga.

Best Animated Film
Will win: "WALL-E"
Should win: "WALL-E"

There's just no other way this can go.

Best Score
Will win: Alexander Desplat "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Should win: Desplar or A.H Rahman "Slumdog Millionaire"

Am I the only one tired that one of our greatest living composers is snubbed time after time after time? (He's only been nominated for an Oscar once!) His beautiful score for "Button" should do it, unless the voters are feeling more Bollywood.

Best Song
Will win: "The Wrestler" by Bruce Springsteen from "The Wrestler"
Should win: "Down to Earth" by Peter Gabriel from "WALL-E"

If Bruce Springsteen or Peter Gabriel get it I'll be a happy camper, just keep this away from Miley Cyrus' "song" from "Bolt".

On the TV side expect "30 Rock" to sweep and Anna Paquin to join the ranks of Jennifer Garner and Keri Russell (babes who get the Globe during their freshman season) for her work in "True Blood".
And may we all get as drunk as the stars tonight. Happy Globes!

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button **1/2

Director: David Fincher
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett
Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Elias Koteas, Jason Flemyng

There is something unnatural about watching a child die, which is why from the minute this film sets its premise you just know it's headed for a difficult place where you will be either deeply moved or disturbed.
Benjamin Button (Pitt) is a man who is born old and ages backwards, meaning that he will die young. As a baby, his father (Flemyng) conveniently abandons him in a nursing home where he is raised by Queenie (Henson in full Hattie McDaniel mode) who looks after the residents of the house.
He meets Daisy (Elle Fanning) with whom he develops a crush all the way until she becomes Cate Blanchett (who not so curiously gives the film's best performance).
The romance between Daisy and Benjamin is supposed to give the film its epic feel and while it certainly makes for some of the most compelling drama the plot offers it isn't completely able to shake off the awkwardness of the movie.
Penned by Eric Roth as an extension from F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story, the screenplay takes only Fitzgerald's twist and crafts something completely new, a sort of requiem for the 20th century shaped after a classic Hollywood epic.
Roth who also wrote "Forrest Gump" seems to be the go-to-guy for stories about life-through-the-eyes-of-out-of-the-ordinary-men and with Benjamin is never able to justify what exactly makes the world through his eyes seem worthier than through anyone else's.
Why is the story relevant only when the narrator isn't ordinary if later the film will try to convince us that what matters the most is what we have inside?
The suspension of disbelief is awkward because the audience at first takes for granted the fact that nobody seems to make an issue out of Benjamin's situation.
Nobody ever thinks it's weird that a little girl and an old man are hiding under a table or that this same girl will grow old and have feelings for a child. If nobody makes a deal out of it, why to even use the gimmick, why not make Benjamin an average Joe?
Roth aims to make the doomed lovers approach the one that makes the story easy to sell, but with David Fincher directing this never materializes, especially because they never make it through to the fact that if it wasn't for the growing backwards novelty, there isn't much of a story to tell here.
With Claudio Miranda's cinematography which bathes everything in a golden fablesque light, the look of the film makes us view at the cruelty of death under a honey dipped innocence.
The movie also becomes a benchmark for visual effects and makeup (Pitt's entire performance is owed to these departments), as the digital process used to manipulate Pitt's look is pure cinema magic and we never doubt what we're seeing is actually happening.
Production wise, it's a real treat for the senses as every aspect is carefully taken care of, but at the center of it all lies a colliding contrast between what we watch and what we feel, or don't feel.
Fincher who is more cerebral becomes fascinated with the essence of time and visually makes a motif out of the way it passes us by (a beautiful prologue starring Elias Koteas encompasses what the latter two hours and forty minutes never come close to).
The director who is an expert at creating moods goes for the least expected road here and practically obsesses with the need to control time.
When the plot becomes too extensive, it's as if Fincher is so fascinated by controlling the lives of his characters that he just looks for more ways to manipulate their lives.
While in "Zodiac" he practically recreated the frustration of not getting where you want, in this movie his reluctance to accept the passing of time and what can be taken as fear of death makes him completely detach from his material. The film like Benjamin has the wrong soul in the wrong body.
While Roth is giving us conventional, somewhat contrived and lazy, storytelling (including tacky Hurricane Katrina references), Fincher is tackling on to the metaphysical so much that he refuses to even care for his characters.
What is the point if they too will go away once the projector stops running?

The Meryl Wins BFCA.

"I'm so happy my gums are receding."
Anne Hathaway quotes her screenwriter Jenny Lumet accepting her Best Actress award.

...but it's co-winner Anne Hathaway for "Rachel Getting Married" who steals the show for once.
"I don't know how to win awards, I know how to not be nominated for them" she says as she sets the bar for the kind of Julia Roberts speech that will get a voter or two picking her just to see how gracious, funny and natural she'd be up the podium.
This got me thinking about her performance in the movie which might count to some as deglam, but is in fact more of a study in subtlety.
She does right thanking her director as you know it was him who chose the quiet scenes where Kym just takes a punch at your gut (dancing with her eyes closed during the party, it should be her Oscar clip!).
I wasn't taking her chances so seriously but she makes sense in the way Academy voters have been making their choices lately and with no huge biopic contestant this year, it looks like the path might be clear for her, unless they have the sudden urge to be nice to the vastly underrated (yes she is...) Kate Winslet.
Now, if they'd only start taking Rosemarie DeWitt into consideration as well...if your Best Actress winner calls someone "incandescent, intelligent, loving, exquisite celluloid sister" you should be listening!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Gomorrah ***1/2

Director: Matteo Garrone
Cast: Toni Servillo, Salvatore Cantalupo, Nicolo Manta
Marco Macor, Ciro Petrone, Gianfelice Imparato, Carmine Paternoster

In its opening sequence "Gomorrah" states why it borrows its title from the infamous Biblical city when several mafia members are assassinated while they have manicures and instant tans, out of all things. With this combination of decadence and perdition the film sets its mood, but it cheats the audience because those expecting "fire and brimstone" in the end will be essentially disappointed.
Matteo Garrone chronicles the effect of the Camorra (organized crime) in Naples and Caserta through a mosaic consisting of five stories, which are interconnected but never intersect in the way we've come to see in recent films that reccur to this narrative style.
The stories involve people from all the circles of life: Don Ciro (Imparato), a middleman, who makes payments for imprisoned bosses finds himself in the middle of a raging war; in another one, 13 year old, Totò (Manta) becomes involved with a group of gang members who he wishes to join; Roberto (Paternoster) a recent college graduate becomes disappointed with his job as the assistant of businessman Franco (Servillo) who works in toxic waste management; Pasquale (Cantalupo) is a haute couture tailor who compromises loyalty to his company (as well as his artistry and trade) when he aides a rival Chinese mass producer; finally we have Marco (Macor) and Ciro (Petrone) two wannabe gangsters who steal a stash of weapons to make a reputation of their own.
There isn't much of a narrative to follow as "Gomorrah" becomes a sinister "slice of life" kind of film that suggests we could've started watching at any moment and still would get the same results in the end. Garrone's audatious style pays off in unexpected ways (there won't be instant gratification here) as he ends up weaving an epic tapestry that reveals the way in which crime has seeped under the very notions we have of society.
While Hollywood films have always romanticized the mafia, this film has absolutely no glamour and becomes almost vicious in its documentary like approach.
The gangsters here don't wear luxurious clothes or live in ivory towers, they wear flip flops and football team jerseys; death to them comes as an every day thing, which is why bullets here are as unexpected as they are effective.
The film was inspired by the best selling book written by Roberto Saviano, who revealed so much about the Camorra's practices that he has remained under police guard after the book was published.
Garrone takes this idea and gets really close to the action as well, his work with cinematographer Marco Onorato captures this reality as something urgent. The places where the camera is placed suggest it might be the eyes of one of the mafia members because the plot unfolds from within.
The idea that the police or the government will become involved at some moment isn't of concern to the characters here who have become members of an unofficial system.
Still there is haunting beauty to the film, which takes a Neorrealist aesthetic that somehow still manages to feel detached.
Most of the scenes are accompanied by an eerie silence that scares because we never know what to expect. But don't confuse this with suspense, it's just that the we're nothing but foreigners in this land, the people who live there probably don't even notice this.
The scariest thing about "Gomorrah" is that you can't deny there is a certain kind of lawfulness to the way these people live; they all know the set of rules and should live in accordance to them.
For those who don't, like the main characters in each of the stories, the consequences come as no surprise and the idea that they chose to defy these rules makes them seem stupid.
In this way Garrone succeeds, because while he doesn't make the violence justifiable, he makes it understandable within its context.
In the trademark sequence Marco and Ciro fire machine guns in a desolated river, the camera captures their playfulness as if they were little kids building sand castles, they might be criminals but they have not been depraved of their humanity.
For the people in "Gomorrah" death and crime have become the norm.

BFCA Predicts the Oscars.

The Critics Choice Awards were held tonight and as their main goal and whole raison d'etre seems to predict who will win the Oscars they went with most of the favorites.
Best Picture, Director, Screenplay and Score went to "Slumdog Millionaire" as well as their bizarre juvenile award (which went to Dev Patel).
Heath Ledger paved his way to the Oscars (they just won't resist the need for a standing ovation) winning Best Supporting Actor and Kate Winslet was a sorta unexpected winner for Best Supporting Actress in "The Reader".
This award interests me a lot, because not only am I rooting for Penélope Cruz as anyone who reads me knows by now, (I've yet to see Winslet's film though...) but it might be one of those awards overdue actors get.
Like the time when Cate Blanchett won for "The Aviator" (who also happened to be terrific in her movie), it's like one of those "rules" that say give them the supporting award because they're never getting the lead one, unless you're Al Pacino.
Proving they need to force themselves as Oscar pronosticators Best Actress was a tie and went to Meryl Streep for "Doubt" who is the one everyone thinks should win and Anne Hathaway for "Rachel Getting Married" which is the one horny Academy award members would choose.
See, the BFCA isn't as frisky with ties as AMPAS, but I don't see this happening ever again.
As usual, once the BFCA show is over we're still left with the same old questions and boredom as before.
Bring the Globes on!

It's a Sealed Deal.

The Directors Guild of America has announced its nominees for the year 2008.
Lo and behold as they are exactly the same nominees everyone expected and that everyone is bored of listening about.

David Fincher, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
Christopher Nolan, "The Dark Knight"
Ron Howard, "Frost/Nixon"
Gus Van Sant, "Milk"
Danny Boyle, "Slumdog Millionaire"

A respectable list absolutely, but really were these the only five movies worthy of awards last year?
I can not only think of at least ten better directed movies than "Frost/Nixon", but the fact that this movie is getting the "everyone nominates but has no chance of winning" slot makes me bored about how people have been voting like cattle.
Before the Oscar nominations come out (just 14 days left...) I'd love for these people to see their screeners and actually grow a unique voice.
If this will be our Best Picture, Best Director lineup count me in for bored as hell, I'll just tune in on February 22nd to watch Hugh Jackman sing and Penélope Cruz's speech.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Bolt **

Director: Byron Howard, Chris Williams

Bolt is like the 21st century version of Rin-Tin-Tin; geared with super canine powers and undying loyalty towards his master Penny he's always ready to battle the evil Dr. Calico and save the day.
At least until the director yells "cut" because Bolt is the star of a television show, something which he has no idea of. Everyone in the show makes sure that Bolt believes everything in the show is real, including his superpowers,
When network executives demand the show worries more about the feared 18-35 demographic, a cliffhanger that involves Penny being kidnapped sets Bolt loose on a cross country adventure where he does everything to reunite with his "person".
The film is the kind of family friendly fluff we've come to expect from Disney sans-Pixar which have become great looking, fun to watch, with a slight edge but without any transcendence.
"Bolt" features some truly breathtaking animation (the action scenes are better than most things released during the summer season) and the characters are homogeneously likable.
But the movie often turns too referential, something that has arguably become a thorn in the back of recent CGI animated films, instead of focusing on more timeless values to be funny or touching.
And at the center of everything is a conflict of interest between the message it sends out and the one it wants to send, because after glamorizing Hollywood life (every little kid watching this will want their pet to shoot laser beams out of their eyes when they get home) regardless of whether it's in a show or in real life and then the movie comes and demonizes the shallowness and lack of love within the industry.
If it can point fingers so easily why do we never find out how did Penny and Bolt get in the TV show in the first place?
For the whole movie to have happened, and its message of the evil in corporations who deem creatures as disposable, to have worked, we should trust Penny all the way through and truth is that it's hard to believe someone who forces her dog into Method acting for who knows what reason would mind him getting lost.
You can't even blame the studio mom this time (Penny's mom is actually a very ineffective, passive character) but hey if the kids don't notice it, maybe the fun action and facile laughs will suffice.