Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Date Night ***

Director: Shawn Levy
Cast: Steve Carell, Tina Fey
Mark Wahlberg, Taraji P. Henson, Jimmi Simpson, Common
William Fichtner, Leighton Meester, Kristen Wiig
Mark Ruffalo, James Franco, Mila Kunis, Ray Liotta

Hollywood often has the mind of a child; they often team up rising stars and robots or famous legends and musicals, assuming that putting together A and B will always result in a hit.
More often than not this strategy implodes all over them but when they decided to put together the two funniest people in showbiz things actually worked out in the most unexpected ways.
Tina Fey and Steve Carell star as Claire and Phil Foster, a married couple from the Jersey suburbs whose existence revolves around their house, their kids and their jobs.
Watching their attempts at rekindling their sex life-with only five hours of sleep between the forced foreplay and the time their kids jump on them to wake them- is hilarious but also bittersweet.
As funny as they make the normality of their house scenes (you never see them as something other than the Fosters) they also keep the characters grounded and the comedy sometimes gives way to deep sadness.
After they learn a couple they know is getting a divorce, both decide it's time to relight the flame for good. They decide to venture out of their comfort zone and go have dinner on a Friday night in Manhattan.
They dress up, arrive at the hippest seafood place in the city and are sent to the oblivion of the bar until a table becomes available-if ever.
Trying to impress his wife, Phil steals a reservation from a couple that never shows up, called the Tripplehorns and after their fabulously overpriced dinner is over, they are approached by two men (Common and Simpson) who ask them to walk out with them.
Thinking this has to do with the stolen reservation (and an embarrassing moment involving the Fosters are surprised to learn the two men are actually looking for a flash drive the Tripplehorns stole from a big mobster.
Soon they're on the run across the city trying to clear their name and preserve their lives, in the process having the most exciting night of their lives.
Anyone who says they do not know how this movie will end is lying, the plot's predictability is obvious from its title. The one thing that might surprise you is that Fey and Carell create the chemistry one would've deemed too good to be true.
He's a master at his kind of goofy, heartwarming comedy (when he's called "androgynous" by a guy in a strip club his droll stare is priceless!) while Fey's own kind of dorky sexiness serves her to deliver her OCD bitchiness with enough oomph to make her more likable than not.
Together they have no fear of being absolutely ridiculous (scenes with Henson who plays a police detective make one wonder how did the actress contain her laughter with these two around) and awkward (an often shirtless Wahlberg gets the best out of the dynamic duo).
What's so special about Date Night is the fact that despite your best knowledge of how silly and preposterous the situations might get you are always willing to invest into the main characters.
It's not like one of those movies where you laugh against your better judgment, this one doesn't care to steal a random giggle from the audience, it makes your stomach literally hurt from laughing so much.
Even when they are involved in an oh so typical dance with a pole sequence, you won't be thinking "this is so stupid" but "boy, I wish I could bring someone to see this with me".

Monday, March 29, 2010

Retratos en un mar de mentiras **

Director: Carlos Gaviria
Cast: Paola Baldión, Julián Román, Edgardo Román
Carolina Lizarazo, Ramses Ramos, Ana María Arango

Retratos en un mar de mentiras (an interesting wordplay between either Portraits in a Sea of Lies or Portraits in a Fake Sea) is a road movie that travels from fantasy to fiction, trying to grasp the vast array of problems in modern day Colombia.
Marina (Baldión) is an introverted young woman who lives with her abusive grandfather (Edgardo Román) after her family was killed when she was a child. When her grandfather dies- in a freaky accident that comes off as a botched attempt at magic realism- she leaves on a trip with her cousin Jairo (Julián Román) to reclaim grandpa's inheritance in the town where she was born. Jairo is a womanizing photographer who takes Polaroids using a fake ocean view as stage (hence the film's title) and takes Marina with him only to see what he can get out of it.
As they drive towards the coastal town across the entire country they encounter situations that speak a greater truth than their own story.
One darkly funny episode has them stop in the middle of the road to wait for a battle between guerrilla and military forces to end.
As the drivers wait patiently, bullets fly over their heads threatening their lives and in the scene's oddest moment, one of the men asks Jairo to take his picture to commemorate his first ambush.
Moments like this fill the film with a sense of charm which the main plot never fulfills. Gaviria has trouble letting the story and characters grow for themselves and indulges in oversimplifying turns by practically digesting them for his audience (we don't need a flashback of Marina's family's murder but he does one in sepia and slow motion!).
There's also the sexual attraction that brews between Marina and Julián which could've been explored in much more profound ways but is left as a device to humanize one and enlighten the other.
The director forgets at all times about that richness that surrounds his story and how it tells itself without the need for pointing things out specifically.
The movie somehow becomes a remake of La Strada with the tough, brutish male leading the slow minded weaker female through a life changing journey (Gaviria even sets his redemption scene at a beach) but unlike Fellini's masterpiece which turned realism into poetry, Retratos en un mar de mentiras' attempt to be transcendent makes us want to take a different road.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Southern District ***1/2

Director: Juan Carlos Valdivia
Cast: Ninón del Castillo, Pascual Loayza
Nicolás Fernández, Juan Pablo Koria, Mariana Vargas
Viviana Condori, Luisa de Urioste, Glenda Rodríguez

Set in an upper class zone of the Bolivian capital, Southern District takes us inside the house of a family as they go through their daily lives.
Carola (del Castillo), the mother and head of the house, lives with her children Patricio (Koria), Bernarda (Vargas) and Andrés (Fernández).
They also share the house with Wilson (Loayza) the butler, who has become a conflicting father figure of sorts and Marcelina (Condori) the maid.
We see as Carola deals with her daughter's disdain for her social class, Patricio's overpowering sex drive (his girlfriend is played by Luisa de Urioste) and little Andrés' fantastical existence.
Within their problems we encounter a microcosms of what Bolivia has become, as social classes shift and indigenous people begin to regain the place they have been denied for ages (notable mostly with the complicated relationship between Wilson and Carola who have trouble dividing the lines between service and family).
If at first glance the plot sounds familiar, the director gives it a new perspective relying on a camera formalism that might recall Godard and Antonioni.
Valdivia takes this soap opera concept and transforms it into a fascinating study of concealment and alienation.
Aided by cinematographer Paul de Lumen, the director comes up with a visual plan during which the camera never leaves the family house.
Every scene is composed of long shots, dollies and crane shots that move around the sets, sometimes in complete disregard of the characters (which leaves us with beheaded actors, dialogues heard behind closed doors and a restless mobility that both explores and seeks escape).
The director, who has worked in Mexican soap operas, has no trouble creating dramatic tension in the obvious set up of family quarrels and confrontations but Southern District's brilliance lies in its reevaluation of the familiar.
The film's key scene might be one where Patricio wants to tape a sexual encounter he has with his girlfriend. At her reluctance he tries to ease her into it by telling her to imagine "there's two people", one who makes love to her and the other who films it.
Valdivia's camera works in the same way as it moves throughout the house caressing the mementos and characters, while it tries to absorb all the information it can to help us understand, if not empathize, with these people's superficial existence.
During one chilling moment the camera shows us how all the characters, except Andrés, stand inside the house looking out behind clear glass windows.
We are instantly reminded of an earlier moment where we saw a bunch of bottled butterflies in Andrés' room.
Valdivia gives us the idea that he's exploring autobiographical territory, if not directly at least in ways of inspiration, particularly with Andrés.
The little boy who wants to fly away (literally with a pair of wings he built) and figuratively as he dreams of becoming a filmmaker and discusses this with his imaginary friend appropriately called Spielberg (the nods to E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial and other Spielbergian themes speak for themselves).
Andrés is the only family member who at one point leaves the house-learning about a social reality he practically ignored-and as such we wonder if Valdivia is perhaps suggesting that art is the most efficient way to escape the harshness of reality.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Dirty Mind **1/2

Director: Pieter Van Hees
Cast: Wim Helsen, Robbie Cleiren
Kristine Van Pellicom, Peter Van den Begin, Maaike Neuville

In the most obvious exploitation style, Dirty Mind gets a cinematography treatment that turns every image into a grainy, almost kinky, voyage into the mind of Diego (Helsen); a shy, introverted stuntman who after an accident is transformed into the cocky, outgoing Tony T.
For his brother and colleague Cisse (Cleiren) this boosts business, as the new version of Diego has no regards for safety and will do anything to get the job.
For doctor Jaana (Van Pellicom) who's doing research, Diego becomes the perfect test subject to prove her theories about something called lateral syndrome.
Things get complicated when she realizes she might be falling for her patient and her scientific duty is to revert his condition.
Playing with notions of right, wrong and the power of science over emotions, the film mostly rides on a smooth, pleasant wave during which the director creates some priceless comedic sequences along with intriguing romantic turns.
Unfortunately soon enough we discover this is the same film we've seen a million times before under more traditional storytelling.
For all of Van Hees' postmodern use of title cards and Tarantino-esque homage, Dirty Mind remains rather innocent and for all its "we're more reliable than Mac and we crash better than Windows" quirk, the film can't hide the fact that it's all stunts and no action.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Garapa ***

Director: José Padilha

Garapa is a film about contrasts; it focuses its attention on the lives of three Brazilian families whose major ailment is extreme hunger.
When they can't afford milk, one of the families relies on garapa (a drink made out of water and sugar cane) to satiate its hunger. While a mother from another family has to hide milk so her alcoholic husband won't sell it to buy cachaca (ironically nothing more than fermented garapa).
This might be a too obvious example of contrast but director Padilha makes sure that his movie becomes more of a clash of ideas and emotions than a mere "let's save the world" documentary.
The film might have United Nations bookends but it's center is pure out-of-the-box filmmaking that dares us to see how much we can take.
Most of the scenes are made out of moments where filth, human misery and despair might provoke actual physical discomfort in audience members who, with reason, would run away from a similar scene in real life.
Padilha asks us then why is it easier for us to confront moments of pain like this on a movie screen than out in the streets. It's especially interesting to see the dichotomy he creates between our ability to remain seated while we watch people suffer and the relation this has to the fact that it's being filtered through film (just how much have our notions of non fiction have to do with a certain disbelief on what we see onscreen is a different matter altogether).
He cleverly shoots the film in high contrast black and white, which tricks our mind into thinking we might be watching a neorrealist film in the tradition of Luchino Visconti's La Terra Trema.
The milky texture of the whites is unsettling enough to make us aware that the intensity of the light sometimes helps conceal darker truths.
During some scenes the image turns almost completely dark except for little creases inside the shacks that allow glimmers of light to show us reality in subtle strokes.
It's mostly this contrast between the strange, almost primitive, beauty of the images onscreen and the raw tragedy they portray that encompass what Garapa is all about.
Like the problem it deals with, you can't just watch it and establish what's right, what's wrong or how to fix it.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Why the FICG Rocked My World.

So yes, I'm finally back and blogging after ten days of pure movie bliss. I had no idea film festivals could be so exhausting and between the screenings, drink-until-early-hours-of-the-morn' parties, conferences and sight seeing I honestly had no chance to write a single word about any of the films I saw.
I did see wonderful things which you will learn all about in the upcoming days (I have a theory about an alternate Oscar win now) and I gained new faith in the art of the short film (why oh why don't we get more of them?).
The overall experience was fantastic and I really urge everyone out there to make sure they visit Guadalajara at least once; it's such a wonderful city!
Not only is it breathtakingly beautiful but it is also one of the most cultural places I've ever been to. Few things have given me as much pleasure as watching a bunch of 14 year olds walk into the screening of an Israeli film and actually stop texting while the movie played.
But that wasn't the only great thing about Guadalajara;
  • It was fascinating to learn about the different takes on film criticism between Europeans and Americans.
    While screenwriter Michael Tolkin all but declared that criticism was irrelevant in the face of Twitter and blogs, European festival organizers saw this as an opportunity to reaffirm the need of leading voices in film criticism that actually contribute to the overall experience of watching a film.
    There was a debate between important Latin American film critics that stimulated me intellectually in shamelessly pleasurable ways.
  • I had no idea how old Matt Dillon actually was. He sure looks good though.
  • I attended the world premiere of a movie which didn't even have an IMDB page yet! More about that soon...
  • Ugh it's so ridiculous to think of the amount of movies that never get distribution in most countries. Out of the dozen or so films I saw there are some that have only premiered in festivals and Norway!
  • The screenwriter of Goodbye, Lenin! bought me a beer!
  • A Prophet is nothing short of majestic on a giant movie screen.
  • Diego Luna has got to be one of the nicest movie people out there, I wasn't even starstruck when I was in the same room with him!
  • Kinatay was a letdown in terms of I becoming too difficult to surprise?
  • Nothing like Europop to uplift a so-so movie and make it more entertaining than it has any right to be.
More to come about the fabulous festival movies after I get a much needed rest...
How have all of you been?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


From today until next week the blog will enter a short hiatus while I indulge in everything Carrie Bradshaw refused to enjoy while visiting Mexico.
I'm in Guadalajara for a workshop during the International Film Festival. Might get to meet Diego Luna and Matt Dillon (random combination I know...)
So keep an eye for a random update on Twitter and be back here next week! May you all have a wonderful, film filled time!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Oscar Fashion: Best Dressed.

10. Demi Moore

I still have no idea what she was doing there (when did she last release a movie?) but Demi Moore was as usual a treat for the eyes.
Dressed in a ruffled Versace that matched her sublime tan she was one of the night's best (in a night that also happened to have very few-if none at all-disasters).

9. Cameron Diaz

Diaz had never been as beautiful and classy as she was in this beaded Oscar de la Renta. At first it reminds you too much of the gown Reese Witherspoon collected her Best Actress Oscar in but Diaz was a bit more playful with the loose hair and makeup.
She's a total surfer princess.

8. Sigourney Weaver

Lanvin can do no wrong and this design in deep red makes Weaver look both sexy and regal.

7. Zoe Saldana

The following two entries have offered perhaps the most polarized opinions in terms of fashion. Both are huge gambles that might work in a runway but have to pull a little something extra to work in a red carpet but they also worked in my opinion.
First is Saldana in Givenchy. The dress was made out of three main parts which all seemed to be made by different designers.
The top was sparkly joy, the middle was deconstructed delight and the bottom was flamenco fiesta, however, the three elements have beautiful synergy and for someone like Saldana who remained so committed to her character in "Avatar" the dress, with its magical sea creature with sparkles details, seems to have been made by the best couturiers in Pandora.

6. Vera Farmiga

Marchesa gowns at red carpets have become as common as Meryl Streep appearances and the truth is that it's the house that more often pushes the boundaries in terms of what to add to dresses (remember that one Anne Hathaway wore three years ago?).
Farmiga had already donned Marchesa this year for the BAFTA's, where she looked angelical, and this berry colored creation might either take your breath away of bring you memories of 80's proms.

5. Meryl Streep

During the last few years the greatest living actress has been challenging our notions that she wasn't such a good dresser (what she wore the year she was nominated for "The Devil Wears Prada" is still unforgivable) but last year and especially this one she has been amping her fashion cred.
In a simple, but stunning white creation by Chris March she instantly recalls "Now, Voyager" (this and this) and it makes total sense that the legend would want to recall Hollywood's studio era.
Best of all though are her beautiful shoes (which she said she was dying to take off) and that gem encrusted clutch which embody timeless elegance.

4. Penélope Cruz

She might always play it safe (and sometimes even dull) to previous award shows but Pe always saves her best look for Oscar. Wrapped in burgundy Donna Karan she was two parts old school European glamor, one part quintessential American classic.

3. Jennifer Lopez

Some dresses seem to take on a life of their own once they're put on (J. Lo sure knows about this) and this Armani Privé was a perfect example.
She called it "iridescent pink" as she showed anyone who cared to see how the enormous tail moved (OK I know that sounds bad but you know I'm speaking of the dress...).
Not anyone can pull off the kind of dress that doesn't even fit in a seat and J. Lo did it with class and incredibly sensual grace.

2. Sarah Jessica Parker

If last year she was a 1950's princess, Sarah Jessica Parker is all about the wild 60's in this stunning pale canary yellow column dress with jeweled appliques.
Everything about this Chanel Couture dress is perfection. The subtle transition of the pastel to the stronger metallic tones is to die for and the jewelry goes so accordingly that you almost think it's part of the dress.
The whole look is as if SJP had been possessed by a younger version of Julie Christie (the whole thing is straight out of "Darling").
If the clothes goddess is doing a decade theme at the Oscars I'm already salivating at what she'll do for the 70's.

1. Diane Kruger

You don't have to be an expert to know instantly that Diane Kruger is wearing Chanel. If the petal inspired middle section of the dress doesn't tip you off, then the black flowers will or the creamy color that you could almost swear has a faint No. 5 or Coco Mademoiselle scent...
In a nutshell this delicate but imposing work of couture art does more to evoke the legendary house than that dull biopic with Audrey Tautou did and Kruger shows that runways and red carpets sometimes can be the same.

Oscar Fashion: Split Decision.

Carey Mulligan

I was a big supporter of the mid length thing Carey did at the BAFTA's but this Prada dress doesn't work precisely because of that effect.
Mulligan is very petite and while the top (including makeup and earrings) is perfection, the bottom looks too wide for her to carry.
Plus if you're gonna show the world the shoes you're wearing you should make sure they're gorgeous creations not the clunky, strapped platforms she chose.

Sandra Bullock

The embroidery in this Marchesa gown was stunning and Sandra accentuated the paleness of the color perfectly with the best use of lipstick in the whole event but something about the fabric reminded me too much of an old Chinese purse I saw somewhere.
Extra points for not being subtle at all about the fact she was going to win and making Oscar look great with the color she chose.

Kate Winslet

Simplicity is usually a really good thing, but the tight bodice and pantsy looking shape of this dress make Oscar winner Winslet look as if she didn't even try.
The makeup and Veronica Lake hair are perfection but the rest isn't half as memorable as she has us used to.
Kudos for looking so fresh and gorgeous though. She's been radiant since last year's red carpet run. That newly found sense of freedom makes Kate look more gorgeous than ever.

Oscar Fashion: Worst Dressed.

3. Tina Fey

It's not that the leopard print was a bit off putting or that it took a while to figure out it was actually leopard print, or that she was trying too hard to copy Kate Winslet last year (who wasn't at her all time Oscar best for that matter).
It was just that the amazing comedienne looked so uncomfortable in this Michael Kors creation. I've complained a million times she always looks the same but one's got to face the fact that if she tries too hard she looks like the geeky girl her parents forced to dress up for prom.

2. Nicole Richie

I get the whole disco nostalgia vibe this Reem Acra dress is trying to pull off, I just don't get why Nicole Richie looks so constricted in it when it should be all about love and dancing.

1. Charlize Theron

You have got to give it to Charlize Theron for pushing the envelope at these award show red carpets (remember that disastrous bow from the 2006 Oscars?). She's one of the most beautiful women in the planet and could really wear a banana leaf and still look amazing.
The thing with her though is that you never really know if she's trying to make fashion statements or actually thinks the overdone details she chooses actually are aesthetically pleasing.
This Dior Haute Couture creation was made exclusively for her by John Galliano (she's one of his muses) who came up with the dress inspired by an old Marilyn Monroe picture (this perhaps?).
However fashion is usually an instant gratification thing for most people who don't give a damn about history or statements and just think "pretty" or "ugly".
Those in the Marilyn joke may choose to see how Charlize is paying tribute to one of Hollywood's most beloved icons while making a pronouncement all her own.
It's as if the post feminist Theron is saying "I know you're looking at my breasts instead of my face-and mind-but it's my choice!" like the infamous Madonna conical bra.
Most others though will be thinking she's trying too hard.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Bright Side.

When all is said and done the 2009 Oscars will be remembered because the best nominated movie won.
"The Hurt Locker" might not be the most popular movie ever made but popularity isn't always the best way to appraise art and Kathryn Bigelow's historic win contributed to make a night whose winners we might remember, but the ceremony already stands as one of the dullest.
Most of the winners were set in stone despite their lacking quality and the "suspenseful" race between "Avatar" and "The Hurt Locker" was over before it even began.
Apparently Adam Shankman's tactics which aimed to make the Oscar more tween friendly paid off in terms of viewers (41.3 million tuned in, compared to 39 the year before) but the show lacked coherence and respect for what might be Hollywood's most irrelevant honor but also the most respected.
When Shankman insisted on bringing out the "Twilight" kids, Miley Cyrus and that sweet natured but very random tribute to John Hughes (He gets a special tribute and Eric Rohmer barely got applauds during the In Memoriam?) it was obvious that this wasn't an Oscar ceremony meant for grownups.
Shankman might have meant well but his talents are more appropriate for a Nickelodeon awards show not the Oscars.
It all was even funnier-in a bad way-when the acting winners amounted to being one of the oldest set of winners all decade long and the youngsters- like Martin and Baldwin quipped about two young presenters-probably didn't even know who they were.

The show overall proved to be a step down from the elegant ceremony Hugh Jackman hosted a year ago. The fact that they even went back to saying "and the winner is" resulted in one of the tackiest twists the Shankman posse could've mustered, especially when some of these winners resulted so meh.

It was a year of experiments at the Oscars and with the song performances and honorary awards removed from the telecast one would've expected them to be refreshed for the best. What we got instead was an awkward ceremony filled with odd details (that sudden Tom Hanks announcement sucked! No drumrolls even?) all for the sake of rewarding more films.
Who knows if the whole ten slot thing worked? Sure it got Pixar finally nominated for Best Picture but it also got Sandra Bullock an Oscar (she won the second "The Blind Side" was nominated) so the effects might still not be win-win.
And seriously they have got to give up that "The Dark Knight" guilt, the use of it to explain the difference between the sound categories (which they seem to have to do every single year) was preposterous and more obnoxious than all the white guilt in "Precious", "District 9" and "The Blind Side".

No One Wants to Do It alone Award
Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin did a great job as hosts (if only because of how much they made the glorious Meryl Streep laugh). It's obvious that Alec was mostly there to counter Steve's zaniness (he had never been funnier!) And together they had amazing chemistry that was perfectly encompassed by Neil Patrick Harris who called them "the biggest pair since Dolly Parton".

Best Speech(es)
Mo'Nique showed them it can be achieved without the media circus and it "can be about the performance and not the politics" as she collected her Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
While Best Costume Design winner Sandy Powell dedicated her win to "the costume designers that don't do movies about dead monarchs or glittery musicals" reminding AMPAS that she already had two statuettes back home and they really should start widening their limited views.
Both smug girls showed them how it's done!

Kathryn Bigelow
It was delightful to see her so surprised even when she was the favorite for the win since January.
Babs presenting the award pretty much sealed the deal and honestly it was "the moment of a lifetime indeed".

Most WTF Best Picture Presentation
To have Chris Pine introduce "District 9" when his own "Star Trek" was viciously passed over was truly uncomfortable.

Best Revenge from the Audience
When they reminded them that the honorary awards had been given last year (done to save telecast time...) and introduced recipients Lauren Bacall and Roger Corman in the audience, Eywa herself couldn't have prevented the roaring standing ovation they both got, giving us a moment Oscar almost stole from us.

Geekiest Aww Moment
When a winning art director from "Avatar" told James Cameron "this Oscar sees you".

Best Introduction
Steve Martin faked a teleprompter error but correctly introduced Tom Ford and Sarah Jessica Parker as "two world renowned clothes whores".

Least Use of Subtlety
Demi Moore was introduced with "Unchained Melody" to introduce the In Memoriam section.
Eeesh for a minute or two I thought Shankman would have zombies perform "Thriller" as well.

Best Reminder of What the Oscars Used to Be
Quentin Tarantino and Pedro Almodóvar present Best Foreign Language Film accompanied by Nino Rota's score from "Amarcord". It was an exquisite touch in a rather cheap night.

Best Sight for Sore Eyes

The So You Think We Care About Dancing Award
Really Shankman?
Remove the Best Original Song presentations (and rob us of the opportunity to watch Marion Cotillard) but by all means bring back interpretative dancing to present Original Score.
What was up with the choreography to "The Hurt Locker"?

The "Didn't Find it Funny the First Time, Find It Sad Now" Award
When Sandra Bullock won Best Actress as expected (in what's sure to become one of the worst wins in the category's 82 years) she once ahead brought up her feud with Meryl Streep.
And really I know Streep is above all a good sport who knows she's way better than all these women who keep winning her awards but am I the only one who finds she's been losing some class with the whole making out with SaBu shtick?
I felt bad for Bullock, because even she knew she was robbing all the other nominees and in the end her speech was more of the "you really like me" variety than a great Oscar moment.

Best Use of Meryl Streep
Steve Martin referring to her record setting nominations as "most losses" was hilarious and sadly very true. When he said this I hoped every person in that theater felt guilty for not voting for her!
Also when he asked "what's up with all that Hitler memorabilia?" [Meryl supposedly collects] I thought I was going to die from laughing so hard.

For a complete list of winners go here.


What do you think these two talked about?
I choose to think Pe was asking Sigourney for sci-fi heroine tips to use in "Melancholia"...

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Quick Oscar Predix.

I wasn't planning to sit and write mine down (not my fave Oscar year...) but my OCD won and here are my short takes on each category.

Best Picture
Will win: "The Hurt Locker"
Personal preference: "The Hurt Locker" (only because "Up" stands no chance in hell)

Best Director
Will win: Kathryn Bigelow for "The Hurt Locker"
Personal preference: Kathryn Bigelow for "The Hurt Locker"

Best Actor
Will win: Jeff Bridges for "Crazy Heart"
Personal preference: Jeremy Renner for "The Hurt Locker"

Best Actress
Will win: Sandra Bullock for "The Blind Side"
Personal preference: Carey Mulligan for "An Education"

Hey, I figured if we all predict Sandra, maybe we'll jinx her?
Probably not happening though. Meryl winning would thrill me but it's Ms. Mulligan who should have this in the bag. Best nominated performance.

Best Supporting Actor
Will win: Christoph Waltz for "Inglourious Basterds"
Personal preference: Christoph Waltz for "Inglourious Basterds"

Best Supporting Actress
Will win: Mo'Nique for "Precious"
Personal preference: Penélope Cruz for "Nine"

I'm perhaps the only person out there who isn't head over heels about Mo'Nique's performance, she sure was the best thing in the very flawed pic but something about her performance fails to transcend into the human for me.
She's merely a prop for Lee Daniels' disturbed vision of violence and consequent redemption.

Best Original Screenplay
Will win: Mark Boal for "The Hurt Locker"
Personal preference: Quentin Tarantino for "Inglourious Basterds"

Best Adapted Screenplay
Will win: Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner for "Up in the Air"
Personal preference: Nick Hornby for "An Education"

Best Cinematography
Will win: "Avatar"
Personal preference. "The White Ribbon"

Best Editing
Will win: "The Hurt Locker"
Personal preference: "The Hurt Locker"

Best Art Direction
Will win: "Avatar"
Personal preference: "Avatar"

Best Costume Design
Will win: "The Young Victoria"
Personal preference: "Bright Star"

(although who can complain with Sandy Powell having another Oscar?)

Best Original Score
Will win: "Up"
Personal preference: "Up"

Best Original Song
Will win: "The Weary Kind" from "Crazy Heart"
Personal preference: "Take It All" from "Nine"

Apparently country=instant Oscar (unless your competition is a hip hop song about pimps) and it's a shame that AMPAS has completely forgotten about the power of showtunes.

Best Sound and Best Sound Editing
Will win: "Avatar"
Personal preference: "The Hurt Locker"

Best Documentary Feature
Will win: "The Cove"
Personal preference: "The Cove"

Best Foreign Language Film
Will win: "The Secret in Their Eyes"
Personal preference: "The White Ribbon"

Ah what a category!
Two new masterpieces of world cinema (including my favorite movie of the year), a superb genre flick, an avant garde take on Latin American history and even the usual "important" entry is better than you'd expect.
If there was any justice (read if this were the 1960s) Michael Haneke's "The White Ribbon" would have this one in the bag!
It's such a remarkable film that works as political essay, complex sociological study and even whodunit. Of course it's too heavy and intellectual for the way this category has gone in the last decades so expect Juan José Campanella's excellent "The Secret in Their Eyes" to win.
The movie isn't only fun and romantic it also includes mild political subtext that make it seem important without being harrowing. Also Campanella lost in this category and they might wanna make him justice.
I wouldn't be upset about this win, although I'd be ecstatic if "The White Ribbon" took it.

Best Documentary Short
Will win. "China's Unnatural Disaster"
Personal Preference: N/A

Best Animated Feature
Will win and Personal preference: "Up"

Best Animated Short
Will win: Logorama
Personal preference: N/A

Best Live Action Short
Will win: Kavi
Personal preference: N/A

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Ajami **1/2

Director: Scandar Copti, Yaron Shani
Cast: Fouad Habash, Youssef Sahwani, Ibrahim Frege
Ranin Karim, Eran Naim, Scandar Copti, Nisrine Rihan, Abu George Shibli

"Ajami" is a well intentioned film that tries to say more than it can grasp. Its fractured storytelling and docudrama qualities try to evoke the way in which gritty subjects have been discussed cinematically for the last decade or so but because of this the film's themes come off as forced and cliché.
The extensive plot of the movie can be divided in four different stories that eventually intersect.
There's Omar (Kabaha) a young Muslim Israeli Arab who becomes the target of Bedouin gangsters who threaten to kill him unless he pays them fifty thousand dollars. Malek (Frege) is a young Palestinian working illegally in an Israeli restaurant to pay for his mother's surgery. Dando (Naim), a Tel Aviv cop trying to find the Arabs who murdered his brother and Binj (Copti) a modern sort of Palestinian who does drugs, techno and Jew girls.
Their lives and many others interconnect in the Ajami neighborhood in Jaffa where life is worth a penny and people hate each other because it's tradition.
Co-directors Copti and Shani, a Jew and a Palestinian themselves, are able to convey this sense of multiculturality that one would find in such a place and there are intimate scenes with Arab and Hebrew dialogues spoken at once that resonate because they seem firsts on film.
However with their tiresome techniques of flashbacks and multiple points of view, the movie makes it obvious that for the directors it was never about empathy but about delivering the same message we've heard a thousand times before.
Not that the message is bad (for who supports the Middle Eastern conflict?) but by now it should be clear that the ways in which it's been tried to be solved have proved completely unsuccessful.
Why for example are the characters at the film's center essentially good but morally inclined to wrong others?
Whatever happened to the notion of the existence of people who are immoral and have no humane reasons to justify their behavior? It's these kinds of people who should be studied in "Ajami".
Copti and Shani even attempt to introduce a Romeo and Juliet like story-complete with severe parents who unwillingly provoke death-that still never help the movie seem more than a modern take on an old story.
To top it all off there's also a sense of confusion that prevails over the film not because the filmmakers planned it this way but because it's their debut film and they still have details to polish. The running time isn't only too long but there are lots of loose ends, sloppy edits and unnecessary twists which make the characters hard to connect to and also fail as detached microcosm studies.
"Ajami" has some stirring moments and others that break your heart but as a whole it's as thematically disconnected and confused as the people it talks about.

Friday, March 5, 2010

(My) Best of 09: Picture.

10. Where the Wild Things Are (read my review)

You can be the biggest cynic on earth and you will still let out a big "aww" the second Karen O's enchanting score appears accompanying the studio logos which Max (Max Records) has scratched and made his own.
When seconds later we meet the hyperactive child we can't help but fall in love with his ambition to make the world his own. As he travels to the island of monsters unaware of the creatures he will meet we're reminded of times in our childhood when nothing made us afraid and life was an adventure waiting to be conquered.
How Spike Jonze made a film that penetrates the armor of childhood while examining the bittersweetness we carry on to adulthood is a wonder upon itself.
An exercise in nostalgia that still manages to refresh our days in unimaginable ways.

9. Police, Adjective (read my review)

Like Steve McQueen's "Hunger", this Romanian film might become known for a bold setpiece that has the camera fixed while three characters talk inside an office.
Police officers Cristi (Dragos Bucur) and Nelu (Ion Stoica) sit in opposing chairs while Captain Anghelache (Vlad Ivanov) questions them about the ongoing case they've been working on.
Up to that point in the film Anghelache has only been a ghost who Cristi tries to avoid and when we meet him we understand why.
With a single sentence Anghelache shatters Cristi's idealistic methods and questions Nelu's stoicism, then in the film's most controversial moment dedicates more than ten minutes to a dictionary entry!
But then and there director Corneliu Porumboiu establishes that his film is not the pretentious nod at academia it often seems to be but a dark comedy that mocks the power language has obtained in our societies.
Its examining of the absurd however has utterly terrifying repercussions.

8. Antichrist (read my review)

Despite Lars von Trier's efforts to make "Antichrist" something everybody would squirm, cry and complain about, the film might very well be the most moving and personal work he has done to date.
Those willing to see beyond the mutilation, bloodied genitals, talking foxes, poetic deaths and medieval allegories will find themselves peeking at the psyche of a man who likes to call himself the greatest director in the world but is filled with as many doubts, insecurities and problems as the rest of us.
The obvious facade of "Antichrist" perhaps is saying that he might be all bark and no bite, but take the time to peel its layers and you will see a courageous attempt at dialogue with the divine.

7. Bright Star (read my review)

Watch how Jane Campion turns this...

"I almost wish we were butterflies
and lived but three summer days
three such days with you
I could fill with more delight
than fifty common years
could ever contain"

...into cinema.

6. The Hurt Locker (read my review)

Before it became an awards juggernaut and the center of ridiculous claims, "The Hurt Locker", like some of the best films of 2009, was a small picture that reminded us of the power that lies in genre.
Action flick expert Kathryn Bigelow refreshed our notions of the war action film as something that can be profound without losing its thrills.
In the process proving Michael Bay, Clint Eastwood, chauvinism and war mongers were all wrong.

5. Broken Embraces (read my review)

Who knew Michelangelo Antonioni's infamous tennis ball could take on the shape of Penélope Cruz? Apparently Pedro Almodóvar did and in "Broken Embraces" he uses his muse to break our hearts and open our mind's eyes to the notions of what's real and what's not.
Unlike the cold Antonioni, Pedro proves that intellectual stimulation can also be warm and affective as he frames his theories in a melodramatic plot that recalls "Notorious" and "Voyage to Italy".
The film's title is an homage to neorealism but its structure and reach couldn't be more postmodernist if they tried.

4. Vincere (read my review)

What's the best way to tell a story that deals with rumors about the life of a historical figure? To answer this question Marco Bellocchio looked back at art history and came up with three influential movements that used aesthetics to dig into larger truths.
"Vincere" therefore is a romantic melodrama inspired by silent films, expressionist opera and Eisensten-ian editing.
Bellocchio is able to keep these currents from clashing and succumbing to their own grandiosity, like a masterful conductor using a storm to make music he makes "Vincere" thunderous and big but keeps it from sinking under its own weight.

3. A Prophet (read my review)

Speaking of genre as a way to connect to more profound subjects, Jacques Audiard's "A Prophet" may look like a gritty gangster flick at first glance-and it sure works like one-but the underlying themes of racial empowerment, spiritual search and criminal coming-of-age at its center are worthy of discussing with your shrink your social worker and your priest.
But the movie is never as "Officer Krupke" specific as that description, Audiard makes the story of Malik (Tahar Rahim) mean something different to whoever's watching and while some will be inspired to call it the best thing since "The Godfather" others will be more intrigued with figuring out the theological meaning of the title cards Audiard inserts throughout the film.

2. Up (read my review)

An adventure film in the very essence of the word, Pete Docter's "Up" is another winning entry in the Pixar canon that makes the studio the most consistently brilliant factory in Hollywood or a good luck streak waiting to crash.
The creativity in this film makes it seem more like the former though, especially in the way the screenwriters and director make the oddest elements work like magic.
Beyond its obvious homages to classic cinema, Buck Rogers and Indiana Jones, "Up" owes its most precious moments to the machinations of old studio Hollywood where people seemed to sit around a desk, throw things inside a giant pot and come out with a film that had romance, drama, comedy, adventure and even room for various analytical readings.
"Up" is the rare kind of movie that still happens to have it all.

1. The White Ribbon (read my review)

If "The White Ribbon" is the year's coldest film, it-ironically- might also be the most inviting. Long gone are the days when going to the cinema was an interactive experience in which the filmmakers and the audience made the movie together.
We have grown used to sitting in the dark, munching on our pop corn and leaving all the problem solving and idea digesting to the people up on the screen and behind the camera.
Leave it to Michael Haneke to bring this sort of event back with a film that might seem like an over analytical allegory at first but also happens to be the most delicious mystery of the year.
One which we're invited to participate in because it reaches beyond the film.
The strange crimes occurring in the German village are enough to keep our brain working throughout the movie looking for clues and suspects but Haneke makes sure we also have fun on the way back home from the theater and makes us see that despite our universe being in true color, it might just be an extension of the black and white world we've just left.
The burning of that barn we saw might be that mysterious explosive that just blew an Afghan building halfway across the world and the bullying of a young disabled child might explain why certain kids grow into violent adults that solve everything with violence.
"The White Ribbon" might work as a prequel to every movie Michael Haneke has ever made but it also works as warning to the world we've yet to see.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

(My) Best of 09: Actress.

5. Giovanna Mezzogiorno in "Vincere" (read my review)

Love is the devil for Ida Dalser (Mezzogiorno), her devotion to Benito Mussolini is such that she sells her goods to support his newspaper and when he refuses to acknowledge the existence of their son and sends her to a mental institution she assumes he's just testing her love.
Few actresses would convince us this insane looking behavior would be real and Mezzogiorno does so with enough inspiration that we even find her plea romantic sometimes.
Her eventual realization that the man of her life might be the monster the rest of the world thought him to be is heartbreaking as few things you've seen.

4. Charlotte Gainsbourg in "Antichrist" (read my review)

Seeing how she plays an archetype more than an actual character, it's remarkable to see what Charlotte Gainsbourg does in "Antichrist".
As a woman grieving the loss of her young son she embodies some of the most heart wrenching pain put on screen (watching her physical reactions to sadness makes your blood cold and punches your gut).
And when she goes all von Trier on Willem Dafoe's ass-and genitals-in the controversial ginocyde chapter she is so convincing that we can't just judge her for her actions.
Few actors commit themselves so fully to their performances in the way Gainsbourg does in this film. Despite the horrors she subjects herself to her work is a thing of beauty.

3. Penélope Cruz in "Broken Embraces" (read my review)

As the obscure object of desire in Pedro Almodóvar's "Broken Embraces", Penélope Cruz gives the most mature performance of her surprising career.
She plays Lena a secretary/actress/mistress/lover/muse that sets the film's labyrinthine plot in motion. Considering how she represents something different to almost every character in the movie, Cruz's ability to maintain a definite personality for Lena is magical.
Pedro often concentrates on her beauty and her look in the movie has often been compared to Audrey Hepburn. However the essence of her performance here is owed to another classic beauty, the great Ingrid Bergman who the movie refers to more subtly than Hepburn, but in the end becomes the moral, aesthetic and emotional axis for Lena.

2. Tilda Swinton in "Julia" (read my review)

Once every couple of years comes a performance with the kind of raw energy that the movie around them becomes elevated to the point where it makes the film seem much better than it actually is.
In 2009, awards groups decided to acknowledge this element to the more conventional choices and have all shown unanimous marvel for the work of Sandra Bullock and Mo'Nique.
Sadly it's the thunderous work of Tilda Swinton in "Julia" that should have gotten this recognition. Unlike Bullock's one note performance-and probable one time awards opportunity-we already knew Swinton could act, the only surprise here being that she could push herself even further and use genre in her favor.
And unlike Mo'Nique who made a big deal about the ugliness of her character, Swinton's Julia is the kind of monster that's never merely a prop like something out of a Spielberg blockbuster, but an actual human being who happens to lack any morality and sense of decency.
It's a shame her performance went by so unsung but Julia probably wouldn't give a damn about what others thought of her.

1. Abbie Cornish in "Bright Star" (read my review)

If you have never been in love you will want to have the kind Fanny Brawne (Cornish) has in "Bright Star", tragic ending and all.
And if you have been, you'll doubt the nature of your own feeling upon seeing the intensity of the one Ms. Brawne has for John Keats (Ben Whishaw).
She has the kind of movie love that doesn't even require physical intimacy but still convinces us of its overwhelming spirit.
But perhaps more marvelous than her love for Keats, is Fanny's love for herself. Cornish plays her like a free soul ages ahead of her time-the kind which Jane Campion has always specialized at-but the actress makes Fanny appropriate for her time as well.
There is not a single anachronistic detail in her revolutionary methods; her clothes, her designs, the forward way in which she addresses people she dislikes, her equality with John...all are time specific yet timeless.
It helps of course that Cornish has the ability to make harshness seem delicate and part of Fanny's charm is how she sees herself as more mature than she actually is. But Cornish succeeds in all the unexpected moments, she pulls off a butterfly sequence with enough innocence and airiness to make us sigh with her and later in the film she provides a moment of grief with emotional pain that overflows into the physical.
Abbie Cornish gives in to Fanny's romantic whims with such conviction that you never doubt she inspired Keats.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

(My) Best of 09: Actor.

5. Filippo Timi in "Vincere" (read my review)

Filippo Timi is so effective as Benito Mussolini, that when the actual historical footage of Il Duce is shown on the movie, you will wonder for a second or two-despite your best knowledge-if this isn't the actor playing him.
Timi may not really look like Mussolini and he plays him during a part of his life from which few records exist but he does so with such an overpowering energy that you don't dare disbelieve his choices. Whether it's Benito's violent love making or his tempestuous mood swifts, Timi owns the man.

4. Ben Whishaw in "Bright Star" (read my review)

As British romantic poet John Keats, Ben Whishaw has the difficult job of transforming an introverted, sickly man into the ultimate sort of romantic hero.
For how can a man write some of the most breathtaking poetry in English literature and not be a dashing lad the kind of which Laurence Olivier would've played?
Whishaw takes the exact opposite road we would've expected and makes Keats almost as subtle as his work. He wraps himself in the excessive romance Keats wrote about and becomes a figure worthy of Thoreau who is at his best surrounded by nature. His face lights up amidst vast flower fields and he becomes one with a tree he climbs.
His scenes with lover Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) contain such delicateness that it's impossible for us not to sigh without falling into the lustful desire we often attribute to muse/artist duos.
Whishaw's sensitive approach makes you believe that Keats was perhaps too beautiful to remain for long in the mortal world.

3. Jeremy Renner in "The Hurt Locker" (read my review)

"The Hurt Locker" is a wonderful thriller that also happens to be an insightful character study and judging from the raw performance of Jeremy Renner we wouldn't have it be otherwise.
His work as Sgt. William James is so powerful that you don't know if to be more scared of the bombs he works with or his very own explosive nature.
As the kind of smartass who lives by his own rules he becomes a charming jerk but it isn't until we see him lost in a supermarket that we finally begin to see him as a human being as lost and scared as anyone else.
How he manages to go through a whole movie rarely showing sensitive emotion to have him all of a sudden pull the rug from under our feet is a remarkable feat.
That he becomes a mystery anew seconds before the film is over is just mindblowing.

2. Joaquin Phoenix in "Two Lovers" (read my review)

The first time we meet Leonard (Phoenix) he jumps into the bay at Brighton Beach to see if he dies. When he doesn't it's curious to detect a sarcastic disappointment in his face, as if he's saying "next time I'll succeed".
He reaches his parents' house where his mom (Isabella Rossellini) looks at him disapprovingly but used to this sort of behavior. Like a ten year old boy Leonard goes straight to his room as if he knew this was the thing to do when he misbehaved.
In a few scenes Joaquin Phoenix gives us the complete history of this man-child who moves through life propelled by inertia until his existence is defined by his love for two women.
Phoenix, who rarely has been so moving, evokes Dean and Brando while coming up with an internal conflict the kind of which most young actors would only dream of.
If his announcement to quit acting after this film is true he delivered the kind of swan song every artist would dream of by teasing us with all the potential he had stored within.

1. Tahar Rahim in "A Prophet" (read my review)

Story goes that director Jacques Audiard met Tahar Rahim almost by accident when they ended up sharing a car on a movie studio. The director saw something so special in the young man that he cast him as the lead of his planned prison saga and in the process a star was born.
Rahim who is as far from being a movie star as Audiard is from being a commercial director, imbues Malik el Djebena with such naturalism that the raw power of his performance truly takes us by surprise.
Even if he's in almost every scene of the film, he tries not to be there, the actor is like a chameleon who we notice only when he wants us to. He gives Malik all these details and nuances that we fall into that awful way of measuring brilliance and ask ourselves how much of him is in the character.

A Prophet ****

Director: Jacques Audiard
Cast: Tahar Rahim, Niels Arestrup
Adel Bencherif, Hichem Yacoubi, Jean-Philippe Ricci

"For We assuredly sent amongst every People a messenger."
Qur'an 16:36

The power of the signifié is at the front and center of Jacques Audiard's "A Prophet"; a film layered with such rich interpretations that you might even forget to be entertained by its refreshed genre conventions.
Malik El Djebena (Rahim) is nineteen when he lands in prison for assaulting cops (it's never clear if he committed the crime or not), he gets a six year sentence and is thrown to the wolves without a minimal sense of regret from the authorities.
Soon he's being abused by other inmates who steal his shoes and beat him and being a French Arab he doesn't know where he belongs in the courtyard.
He's approached by Reyeb (Yacoubi) an older Arab prisoner who offers him dope in exchange for a blowjob; he refuses, ignorant that this proposition has reached the ears of César Luciani (Arestrup); the Corsican mobster who runs things on the inside.
He needs Reyeb dead and Malik is the perfect guy for the job. Suddenly Malik is faced with two options: either he kills Reyeb or he's killed by Luciani's gang.
Without spoiling any plot twists, Malik finds an opportunity to become someone in this hostile environment, his rise to power being in direct opposition to the subjugation he endures under Luciani's command.
He starts relying on the Corsican protection arguing he's merely doing a job and as such remains in constant limbo, refusing to identify himself with any specific group.
It's this behavior that turns him into a messenger who can travel between gangs, races and social classes but keeps him completely isolated.
If Malik's story can be taken as an exploration of racial identification in young French Arabs it might also be approached as a take on the spiritual apathy in newer generations.
In this way Audiard makes his film a surprising amalgam of ideological and aesthetical currents, that can work as contemporary sociopolitical examination, Oedipal tragedy, spiritual reinvention or old fashioned gangster flick in the vein of Hawks' "Scarface".
By taking on the chameleonic properties of Malik, the movie might be the ultimate kind of character study which shares just as much as it conceals.
Rahim's performance is a naturalist beauty given how much his character evolves from the first scene up to the parabolic finale.
The young man seems completely unaware of the camera and allows it to enter his most intimate moments even when they occur in the most public of paces.
In one of the film's most symbolic scenes Malik is checked by airport security and almost instantly opens his mouth and reveals his tongue, giving the security guard the opportunity to check him like they do in jail.
This moment isn't interesting only because of the obvious way in which prison has inhabited Malik's psyche but also by the underlying theological symbolism it carries.
We realize that by standing with his arms extended parallel to the ground not only does he remind us of the crucifixion but the eventual ascension to the skies, in the plane of course, is literal enough to speak for itself.
Rahim never caves in under the allegorical weight Audiard puts over him and he carries the film in more than one way.
We can never really say we know who he is for sure (does he know himself for that matter?) and Rahim has the ability to become a vessel for our distinct perceptions in the same way Marcel Camus' lead character from "The Stranger" does. Is it a coincidence that they're both French Arabs? Perhaps not.
When to this you add the nuances Audiard puts into Malik's backstory to augment his symbolism (he's illiterate like the Qur'an suggests the last prophet was) you reach what might be one of the films most exciting ideas: can Camus become Muhammad?
If you were to reach this dilemma you will find yourself at the essence of what makes "A Prophet" such a brilliant work of art.
Different people will reach very different conclusions and Audiard's intention of "creating icons" for Arabs might come off as extreme blaspheme or brave postmodern intention.
Whatever your stand is, the director never digests your thoughts in advance, giving the film a profound ambiguity that sends audiences wondering about whether Malik deserves redemption or if he in fact has done himself justice.
If "A Prophet" indulges itself with excessive running time you can't put too much blame on it; it has so much to say that its power can not be contained.