Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Re: Oscar's Haters

It has now become a seasonal tradition for a slew of Monday Morning Quarterbacks (usually newspaper columnists who have no business covering the film industry) to begin second-guessing the broadcast decisions and deride the quality of the Oscar telecast mere hours after its completion. This year is no different, save one small fact: this year's show was great.

I have talked at great length about the strengths of this year's Oscars--I will not beat that dead horse. Now is time to dissect what has become a blind repetition of negativity aimed towards Hollywood's biggest night.

Of the journalistic critics, I must say that the majority of the reporting has been shallow at best, idiotic at worst. It it symptomatic of the same disease that makes journos continually use Lindsay Lohan, Will Smith, Tom Cruise, or Jennifer Aniston as punching bags--it has become standard operating procedure to lambast the Oscar ceremony each year, and so that is what happens. The comments most are making ultimately mean nothing, because while Condon and Mark brought something new to the table this year, most fierce critics of the telecast have not. Most offensive of them all is Richard Roeper, longtime Chicago Sun-Times columnist and former Ebert & Roeper co-host and Hollywood conspiracy theorist, who wrote a somewhat smug piece yesterday that lauded the accuracy of his prognositcations and derided the ceremony. This line in particular made me cringe: "Until/unless they cut the ceremony to two hours and eliminate the broadcast of the "minor" categories, the numbers will continue to go down."

Um, no. I've already had to put up with two years in a row of a severely-trimmed version of the Indie Spirits on AMC on Oscar Eve (I keep telling K that we need to re-up for IFC) purposely truncates the fabulous speeches, it demands an awkwardly-edited program, and yes--very importantly--it limits the number of categories home viewers get a chance to see (for instance, last year AMC failed to broadcast the Best Documentary award at the Spirits, where two of my film mentors were nominated. I didn't even get to see them lose). So...eliminate the broadcasting of "minor categories"? Simply make the Oscar telecast a quick, business-like show that only further aggrandizes the celebrities we see every day? And therefore tear down what is supposed to a celebration of filmmaking--that most collaborative of art forms--by relegating "minor" categories as not worthy of being celebrated? A true film lover would never posit such a theory.

The Oscars will not, cannot be completed in three hours, let alone two. Sunday's was one of the most brisk Oscar shows in recent years, and it still clocked in at about three-and-a-half hours. That is just how it will always be. What matters is that the producers took care to see that the show did move faster, but also that what we saw was interesting and entertaining to sustain a long ceremony. Make the show move as briskly as possible, but film lovers will never stand for a hacked-up Oscars. Neither will the majority of the viewing public--who, according to early numbers, have put this year's ceremony up by 6 percentage points from last year, one of the higher numbers of the decade. So much for Roeper's notion of "numbers will continue to go down."

This is the bottom line: boring presentation plus boring nominees plus out-of-his-element host will equal a ratings drop. New, more appropriate presentation plus exciting nominees plus Best Host in Years will make for a strong showing. It is, without fail, about the movies. And this year featured some great ones--Slumdog in particular is a lightning rod that people want to get behind--that were featured in a telecast where they were given just respect. The Oscars became a celebration of movies once again on Sunday.

If any of the journalists currently throwing eggs at Oscar's front door actually started to care about celebrating movies themselves, maybe they would see things differently. Until they do, however, while the ratings may rise, the level of discourse will keep on sliding.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Big Night

There is a lot to say about last night's Oscar telecast. I'm not quite sure how to say it all without the piece becoming a Stream-of-Consciousness Rant Gone Wild. As a result, I will try to take it one step at a time.

It has been, very honestly, a wonderful Awards Season. In many ways, I am happy to see it end. In others, I am sad it is all over once again, with eight-plus months between now and the kick-start of Oscar Season '09. There was a lot of predictability going on, as has become the standard order of business. But there was also a lot more uncertainty and surprise this year than in years past. My heart started beating pretty hard during three of the four major acting categories--that is a rare feat for a jaded film connoisseur. I also had a smile on my face for the majority of the ceremony, perhaps an even rarer feat. And finally, most importantly, the quality of the films and performances being honored was much higher than most journalists liked to say it was.

Similarly, the quality of the Oscar ceremony was also much higher than most of the Monday Morning Quarterbacks are giving it credit for. In fact, I would submit that last night's show was easily the best Oscar ceremony of the decade, and really even longer than that. Hugh Jackman, one of the best stage performers I have ever seen, took his job seriously and also allowed himself some room to have fun--the kind of fun that made him so effortlessly charismatic on Broadway. He was the perfect host, and the best host we've seen on the Oscar stage in years. The only stumbling block that could keep him from coming back year after year will be Jackman's own schedule and desire...and eventually the conflict of interest that will arise when Jackman scores an Oscar nomination of his own (I've said it for years now...put him in a quality musical adaptation and he will become the shoo-in Best Actor winner).

Regarding the nay-sayers who offer that the musical numbers were strange, the presenters flubbed their lines, and the show was overlong...those are the same types of criticisms we hear every year at this time. They are stale, bitter arguments, especially this year, when the show was reinvented by Bill Condon and Laurence Mark as a passionate celebration of the films and nominees (more on those pesky Oscar critics in a forthcoming post). The majority of the revamps worked brilliantly--the celebration of separate genres, the joining of a handful of similar technical categories in order to present the awards more quickly and in a more structured fashion, and especially the abandoning of boring clip packages in favor of five past actor/actress winners coming together to present each acting trophy. Most viewers get most excited about the major acting prizes anyway, but for lovers of film, followers of great actors, and viewers who cherish the Oscars through all its rocky incantations, the new presentation was absolutely golden. Rather than re-watch the same old clips--which can never fully encapsulate the power of an actor's performance in the first place--each of the five previous winners offered words of praise for each of their corresponding nominees. As a result, the presentation was not simply a rote announcement in which four blank-faced losers sit and clap once a winner is announced, but rather was a moment to celebrate each individual nominee, to put the power and importance of each body of work in proper perspective before announcing the winner. Beautiful stroke.

Each of the new ideas can be--and should be--tweaked and improved upon with each subsequent year, but what Condon, Mark, and Jackman have given us is a new template for what the Academy Awards show can be, and on which the Oscars can and should base the next decade of ceremonies. If they're willing, bring Condon and Mark back to retool and learn from their few mistakes, to continue this evolution they set into motion. As each idea is refined--with the biggest duds dumped in favor of newer, fresher, more effective ideas--the show will once again become as respected for its presentation as it is for the prestige of its awards.

The one element that could certainly be improved was the direction. There were plenty of swooping cameras, alright, but there were times--particularly during the "In Memoriam" segment--where we weren't seeing what we needed to be seeing at the moment we needed to see it. That is a live television directorial issue--since directing a live show such as the Oscars is essentially using several cameras and editing in real time--and one that I'm sure will be rectified next year.

Then, there were the winners. Slumdog Millionaire is about as deserving as they come, and its eight trophies are all well-earned. Danny Boyle was gracious as happy for him. Kate Winslet was fabulous as ever, and the moment when her father whistled out to her will be replayed in future Oscar montages. Penelope Cruz offered more wonderful words. Heath Ledger's family spoke very eloquently on behalf of their now-iconic son. Sean Penn continued to impress me with his words--after a very gracious and emotional SAG acceptance speech, Penn once again gave a very gracious, sometimes funny, slightly self-deprecating, and highly impassioned speech. And he gave a very important shout-out to his "brother," Mickey Rourke (even if he failed to mention his wife...the speech's one low point).

On that note, my one big disappointment was that we didn't get to hear Mickey speak. It would have been an acceptance speech for the ages, I'm sure. And in truth, I was pulling for Rourke all along, but I don't think I truly grasped the level of my passion for both Mickey and The Wrestler as a film until the moment before the Best Actor envelope was opened. I was really hoping to see the Big Dog win, and was very disappointed when it didn't happen. I hope that we see more great work--and more acceptance speeches--from Mickey in the future.

So...another year, another long and arduous Awards Season behind us. Now, we will chew on the results for a little while longer, go through the typical Oscar withdrawal stage, and then get back to where focus should be placed: The Movies.

Because soon enough, we will do the Oscar Thing all over again.

81st Academy Awards--The Winners

Slumdog Millionaire - Christian Colson, Producer

Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle

Sean Penn - Milk

Kate Winslet - The Reader

Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight

Penélope Cruz - Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Milk - Dustin Lance Black

Slumdog Millionaire - Simon Beaufoy

Departures - Japan

Man on Wire


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - Art Direction: Donald Graham Burt, Set Decoration: Victor J. Zolfo

Slumdog Millionaire - Anthony Dod Mantle

The Duchess - Michael O'Connor

Smile Pinki

Slumdog Millionaire - Chris Dickens

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - Greg Cannom

Slumdog Millionaire - A.R. Rahman

Jai Ho from Slumdog Millionaire - Music by A.R. Rahman, LyricS by Gulzar

The Dark Knight - Richard King

Slumdog Millionaire - Ian Tapp, Richard Pryke and Resul Pookutty

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - Eric Barba, Steve Preeg, Burt Dalton and Craig Barron

La Maison en Petits Cubes - Kunio Kato

Spielzeugland (Toyland) - Jochen Alexander Freydank

Saturday, February 21, 2009


***Unless we decide to change them.

Well, even this very shortened Oscar season has gone on forever. But finally, all the shopping is done we've arrived at Christmas Eve. I should be jaded by now, having religiously followed the Oscars for a decade-and-a-half....but I'm still a giddy kid. Only now I look forward to drinking while I watch the show.

Pay close attention to the ceremony tomorrow night. This year's producers, Bill Condon and Laurence Mark, have done some retooling in an effort to reignite some Oscar excitement. Hugh Jackman is hosting, and he is one of the most fabulous stage performers I've ever seen. If he's allowed to do his thing, he will be an impressive host. But the inclusion of a brand new host is not the only change you can expect to see. Exactly what the changes will be remains unknown. I hear rumblings that certain disreputable outlets are leaking information, which (1) is unfair, and (2) should not be trusted. My Cardinal Rule as a critic is to always go into a film as fresh as possible. I am doing the same with this year's Oscar ceremony.

Another wonderful thing about this year's Big Show: all the uncertainty. Yes, Slumdog will string 'em together. Yes, Ledger is a shoo-in. But outside of that, several races are still up in the air. In fact, even with Slumdog and Ledger as locks, four of the eight major categories are still up for grabs.

Here are our final predictions...and by "final," we of course mean "we can change our minds at least four more times between now and tomorrow at 8pm eastern."

Lady first...


Best Picture:
Will Win: Slumdog Millionaire (No real dark horse...but if there was, it would be Milk)
Should Win: Slumdog Millionaire (The only film that should come close isn't even nominated--The Wrestler)

Best Director:
Will Win: Danny Boyle
Should Win: Danny Boyle, only because Darren Aronofsky wasn't nominated

Best Actress:
Will Win: Kate Winslet
Should Win: Meryl Streep (Pains me to say, because I want Winslet)

Best Actor:
Will Win: Mickey Rourke (Obviously this is the closest race...Sean Penn is the dark horse, and he isn't even that dark)
Should Win: Mickey, Mickey, Mickey

Best Supporting Actress
Will Win: Penelope Cruz (Dark Horse: Viola Davis)
Should Win: Marisa Tomei

Best Supporting Actor
Will Win: Heath Ledger
Should Win: Heath Ledger

Best Original Screenplay
Will Win: Dustin Lance Black, Milk (Even though there isn't anything original about was based on real life!)
Should Win: Courtney Hunt, Frozen River

Best Adapted Screenplay
Will Win: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog (Dark Horse: None, and there shouldn't be any)
Should Win: Simon Beaufoy

The rest to come after...


Best Picture:
Will Win: Slumdog Millionaire (Milk is the only possible challenger, but it's not putting up much of a fight)
Should Win: Slumdog Millionaire (The Film of Destiny couldn't be a more perfect winner)

Best Director:
Will Win: Danny Boyle (Just about the surest bet of the night, even moreso than Best Picture)
Should Win: Danny Boyle, the perfect director for the perfect material at the perfect time. It Is Written.

Best Actress:
Will Win: Kate Winslet (-slash-Meryl that possible? No, I'm going with Kate, but it's about a 51-49 contest)
Should Win: Meryl Streep (Incredible work from acting's Queen...and she was better than her heir apparent, the Great Kate, this year)

Best Actor:
Will Win: Mickey Rourke (Another tough one, but I'll go out on this limb...Sean Penn is running about 50/50 with the Big Dog)
Should Win: Big Mickey, with loads of respect to Richard Jenkins...and of course, Sean Penn

Best Supporting Actress
Will Win: Penelope Cruz (Closer than you think: Viola Davis)
Should Win: Marisa Tomei

Best Supporting Actor
Will Win: Heath Ledger (Um...duh)
Should Win: Heath Ledger, because even though it's easy to get lost in the hype surrounding the film in the context of Ledger's death, this was actually a career-defining, film-defining, genre-defining performance. 

Best Original Screenplay
Will Win: Dustin Lance Black, Milk (A close race between this one and WALL-E, but I think Black has picked up momentum; but the robot could upset)
Should Win: Andrew Stanton & Jim Reardon, WALL-E (The year's best, most original and wonderful film should win this award going away)

Best Adapted Screenplay
Will Win: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog (Another pre-destined winner)
Should Win: Simon Beaufoy


Foreign Language Film
K: Waltz with Bashir
J: Waltz with Bashir

Animated Feature

Documentary Feature
K: Man on Wire
J: Man on Wire

Art Direction
K: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (should be Dark Knight)
J: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

K: Slumdog Millionaire
J: Slumdog Millionaire

Costume Design
K: The Duchess
J: The Duchess

K: Slumdog
J: Slumdog

K: Ben Button (should be Dark Knight...again)
J: Ben Button 

Original Score
K: Slumdog
J: Slumdog (Thomas Newman's work on WALL-E was indeed the year's best, but Slumdog comes in a close second, and will win)

Original Song
K: Jai Ho from Slumdog Millionaire (where is Springsteen's The Wrestler?)
J: Jai Ho from Slumdog Millionaire (even though it could go to Peter Gabriel's Down to Earth from WALL-E, which I love...and I also love an un-nominated song, Springsteen's The Wrestler)

Sound Editing
K: The Dark Knight

Sound Mixing
K: The Dark Knight
J: The Dark Knight

Visual Effects
K: Ben Button (Makes me want to should be Dark Knight)
J: Ben Button  (I actually think this should go to Iron Man...but it's all about Button here)

Animated Short Film
K: Presto
J: This Way Up (My rule when predicting the short categories is to bet against the while Presto has the Pixar prestige, that's enough for me to bet against it)

Live Action Short Film
K: Spielzeugland (Toyland) (They joke that "anything Holocaust...", but it's true)
J: Spielzeugland (Toyland)  (What she said)

Documentary Short
K: The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306
J: The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Friday the 13th

Yeah, we saw it.

Yeah, it was the worst movie of the year.

I don't know why I put myself through this. Every time I opt to see a Modern Horror Film, I come away feeling sad, angry, and repulsed. Is this really what our culture has come to? Is this really the type of film moviegoers contribute over $40 million to on opening weekend? What is wrong with the world?

I suppose it is easier to turn a blind eye. Perhaps it is good to know

"Horror Porn," as a genre (if we must apply a beautiful word like "genre" to this style of filmmaking), is not terrifically new. It has been around for over a decade, when films like Saw and Hostel pioneered (?) the form of turning horror and suspense into increasingly morbid, brutal, unnecessarily graphic exercises in blood-spattering and carnage. There is no way to find enjoyment out of any such movies other than taking enjoyment out of watching heinous acts unfold as violently as possible. In that way, this material moves beyond entertainment, beyond circus freakery, and into the pornography of violence.

The new remake of Friday the 13th may well be the most revolting entry in the Horror Porn canon. It is the first Horror Porn film I've seen (and I try not to see too many of them, so I may be behind the curve here) to blend the Horror Porn with actual porn. The nasty and dangerous blending of sex and violence has been around for years in horror films--even some of the good horror movies, past and present, have committed that sin. But Friday the 13th takes the notion to a new height, ensuring that nearly every female who gets killed strips naked and, often, engages in wild, softcore sex for an inordinate period of time before being burned, stabbed, impaled, or facing some other form of brutal torture.

The men in the film don't get much better treatment...most of them are depicted as repugnant horndogs whose only activities are getting drunk, smoking weed, and trying to score. Of course, many young men are indeed like that, and I'm sure the twenty-seven or so different writers on this film most likely fit that description. So maybe there is an element of truth to that depiction...go figure.

The "plot" of Friday the 13th is fairly simple to describe: a motley group of pretty young people go on a camping trip full of boozing, drugging, and screwing, they end up getting hacked to bits in a variety of unnecessarily repugnant ways, and then we pick up with a new group of even prettier young people going on a similar trip with similar results. The film rips its structure right off of Tarantino's lightyears-better Death Proof, insomuch as we get to know one group of people, they are quickly offed, and then we focus on a completely different group of people. The structural surprise worked well in Tarantino's film because it was designed as a disorienting jolt to the audience and all of the characters had a particular attitude that sold the film's white-knuckle vibe. The effect does not work in this film, since the "twist" (so sorry I gave it away) plays as a limp rip-off, and the characters are all cardboard cut-outs of humans who speak in mind-numbing pseudo-dialogue.

Most depressing of all is that Friday the 13th is directed by Marcus Nispel, who five years ago gave us the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which respected the horror genre and, while still violent and brutal, was artfully made and stands out as one of the few good modern American horror films in recent memory. Not so with this film, which only retains a sliver of Nispel's visual prowess and also abandons any respect for the original film, the horror genre, and the audience. The violence is offensively harsh, the sex is so salacious and unnecessary that "gratuitous" doesn't even begin to describe it, the characters are carbon copies of every other idiot in modern teen cinema, and the story is non-existent. It's not even clear that the film is set on Friday the 13th...or even a Friday...or even the 13th. So in addition to being revolting, the film is also blatantly inept.

Remaking Friday the 13th is, plain and simple, just a lame excuse to take an iconic horror character and update him for the Pornified generation. So now the film is not only revolting and inept, but also dangerous to the fabric of humanity.

And as the movie ended, we saw two very young girls walking out with what appeared to be their parents, and two nine-year-old boys leaving with what appeared to be their older siblings. That right there, more than any other empirical evidence, is reason enough to retool the ratings system.

Or better yet, these films just shouldn't be made at all.

Oscar Charts -- 4 Days Out

A real quick glance at where each major category stands as we approach Oscar Weekend...

Final predictions from K and myself in ALL categories will be coming later today.

1. Slumdog Millionaire
2. Milk
3. The Reader
4. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
5. Frost/Nixon

Note: Frost/Nixon is really the only film not making a big push. And to be honest, Slumdog appears to be coasting. That leaves the three films in the middle. Of them, The Reader is making the biggest play, led by Harvey Corleone (or Weinstein, whichever you prefer), but it is also has the least cache among all the nominees. Ben Button is still firing on all cylinders, but I think the filmmakers are still in a perpetual "why weren't we the juggernaut?" coma. That leaves Milk, which is the most impassioned of the films after Slumdog, and which has the biggest chance of stealing a BP win. But don't count on it.

1. Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
2. David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
3. Gus Van Sant, Milk
4. Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon
5. Stephen Daldry, The Reader

Note: Boyle wins...duh.

1. Kate Winslet, The Reader
2. Meryl Streep, Doubt
3. Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
4. Melissa Leo, Frozen River
5. Angelina Jolie, Changeling

Note: Consider it a tie between Winslet and Streep. I will take a shot of tequila, spin around three times, and pick one of their names out of a hat to make my final prediction. Since it was such a big "Winslet-in-The-Reader" year, I think she has the edge. But I wouldn't be surprised if it went the other way, either. One of the toughest categories, in the end.

1. Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
2. Sean Penn, Milk
3. Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
4. Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
5. Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Note: If you would've asked me a couple days ago, I would've told you that Sean Penn had moved into the lead by a hair. And since Milk won't win Best Picture or Director, it seems the best consolation prize would be for Penn to win here. There doesn't seem to be a lot of love for The Wrestler among the Academy membership. Some think of Rourke's performance as more of a one-out stunt. And yet taking ALL that into consideration, I am STILL putting Rourke as number one...for now. It's just one of those feelings...and it may well change by tomorrow.

1. Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
2. Viola Davis, Doubt
3. Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
4. Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
5. Amy Adams, Doubt

Note: I think it's down to a two-person race at best. Cruz is out in front comfortably, with the only possible upset coming from Doubt's remarkable Viola Davis.
Oh, and by the way, if the very deserving Marisa Tomei happens to shock the world and win her second Oscar on Sunday, expect the naysayers to once again charge that whoever presented the award didn't read the envelope correctly. Idiots.

1. Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
2. Josh Brolin, Milk
3. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
4. Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road
5. Robert Downey, Jr., Tropic Thunder

Note: Is it even worth discussing?

1. Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
2. John Patrick Shanley, Doubt
3. Eric Roth, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
4. David Hare, The Reader
5. Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon

Note: Beaufoy is your winner.

1. Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon, Wall-E
2. Dustin Lance Black, Milk
3. Martin McDonaugh, In Bruges
4. Courtney Hunt, Frozen River
5. Mike Leigh, Happy Go Lucky

Note: Oh, boy. Could I really be picking against Milk in both Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay? I guess I am. Here is, once again, a huge toss-up. And by the time we post final predictions later today, I may well change my mind. Stay tuned.

Monday, February 16, 2009

"I won't be calling this movie back," or "Let's Hear it for the Girls"

I took away a surprising amout of truth from He's Just Not That Into You. But none of it was from the content of the film. I have lately been very drawn to the power and pleasure of great performances, and this film, more than any other in recent memory, is a reminder that the overall quality of a movie does not necessarily reflect on the quality of the work done within that film. Simply put, the film sucks but the acting is wonderful.

In a film that would appear, from its title, to be espousing what "He" feels, "She" takes center stage with force and with grace. The four lead actresses of He's Just Not That Into You--Ginnifer Goodwin, Jennifer Connelly, Jennifer Aniston, and Scarlett Johansson--are so good that it's almost shocking that their talent didn't rub off onto the rest of the film.

Goodwin has always been a delight on screen, and in what is essentially the leading role in the film, she is positively electric, bursting with energy and a quirky humanity. The fact that she plays such an emotional dimwit lays even more credit at her feet--she takes an impossible character and makes us love her.

Connelly is an almost unmatched wonder in the film, taking an equally difficult character--in this case an incompletely-drawn wife of a philandering husband--and makes her powerfully humane. She creates moments of such powerful emotional honesty that, almost in spite of the filmmakers' intent to turn her into a nagging shrew, I felt more for her character than any other in the film.

Aniston also glows with an increasing amount of relationship dissolutionment. It is easy to forget, amid all the tabloid gossip, that Aniston is a truly talented actress. And from this actress known for her comedic talent, I see from this performance that her strongest skills as an actor are conveying the sad moments, projecting a festering anger with the world. She may, in fact, draw on some of the stresses of her real life. And in a strange, perpendicular synthesis of actor and character, this is one of Aniston's best performances.

It is similarly easy to forget Scarlett Johansson's talent, and it might be especially easy to overlook the power of her work in this film, where she is essentially written as a bimbo with conflicting motivations and actions. But Johansson finds the soul of this character and turns her into an identifiable human being.

All this wonderful acting, and it went into a film that is a well-meaning near-miss at best, and an annoying piece of psycho-babble bubblegum at worst. He's Just Not That Into You is clearly an ambitious attempt to blend stories of heartbreak into the ultimate we-are-all-in-the-same-boat romantic comedy. All this talent had to be lured somehow, so these actors obviously believed in the material, but that material threatens to ruin all their good work by portraying their characters as alternately desperate, naive, stupid, and crazy. 

I like to think I have some wisdom about the inner workings of relationships, and I've channeled that wisdom into a few screenplays of my own. The number one thing I know from this experience is that the writer must care about the characters. Otherwise, those characters become talking props, stooges of the screenplay, pawns of a paint-by-numbers story. He's Just Not That Into You cares nothing about these characters other than to use them as clumsy object lessons on how not to behave in relationships. But I'm not taking this film's advice to save my life. I'd believe the actors, but not the filmmakers.

Coraline is good...what else is there to say?

Coraline is, easily, the best film released in 2009 so far. Of course, that's not saying too much. But low expectations notwithstanding, this is a beautiful, intriguing, sometimes scary, and always entertaining picture that will surely be an Animated Feature nominee at next year's Academy Awards.

All that is true, and yet I sort of don't have much else to say about the film's virtues. Truth be told, I have more ammunition built up against this year's bad and mediocre films than I have more sparkling bon-mots to bestow on this much better movie. Why? Well, I guess it's because as good as the film is, it is not quite great, which disappoints me on a certain level. The reason: as visually breathtaking as the film is, I get the sinking suspicion that there isn't much else going on underneath the surface. The Great animated films reach for more.

The film is based on Neil Gaiman's graphic novel, is produced by Tim Burton, and written and directed by Henry Selick, the ambitious animator who gave us The Nightmare Before Christmas, among others. I would submit that Coraline is, in fact, Selick's best-looking film ever--the film is a stunning labyrinth of darkly creative cinema-scapes, filling the screen with at once funny and subtly horrifying images. The story, too, has more potential than any Selick and Burton have ever brought to the screen before. The only thing missing is that vital component to any film's humanity: a beating heart.

I'm not asking for the film to wear its heart on its sleeve, like WALL-E did. But there needs to be an emotional undercurrent to make this story of a disaffected girl with unattentive parents work. The plot for the uninitiated: Coraline has just moved with her parents to a new house. Her mother has little time to deal with Coraline's needs, and her father is perpetually sitting at his computer screen, writing a book that may never get finished. But there is something mysterious going on in this new house--one night, Coraline is drawn to a hidden door in a downstairs room. Once opened, the door extends, resembling a cross between a slinky and a birth canal, leading a an alternate reality where Coraline's "Other Mother" dotes on her in most traditional way, and her "Other Father" sings her magical songs and tucks her into bed at night. Other than the surface family happiness, one thing separates this new world from reality: everyone but Coraline has buttons for eyes.

Coraline's tagline is, simply, "Be Careful What You Wish For." As expected, it is not as happy as it seems in Coraline's alternate world, and soon sinister things happen at every turn, making Coraline wonder if she really wants to escape her world after all. The story and the message, in principle, is golden. But what I found lacking from the film is a tangible reason--other than the threat of having her eyes replaced with buttons--that Coraline would want to abandon the fantasy world for the real one. There needs to be something slightly more substantial than good home cooking and buttons-for-eyes to distinguish what's good and bad about The Other World. There needs to be a stronger emotional pull to Coraline's yearning--fear really seems to be the only factor that drives Coraline back to her real family. Finding a reason to love--in spite of her increasingly sinister surroundings and in spite of parents who may never be as perfect as she wants them to be--would have been a more fulfilling subtext, a more challenging journey for Coraline to travel.

Somewhat sadly, that is not the journey we get with this film. And as a result, I've nitpicked the poor movie to death. However, anything based on Neil Gaiman and brought to life by Henry Selick is automatically more interesting than any typical film, animated or otherwise. And true to that notion, Coraline sets a high standard for the films in this first quarter of 2009. It is a twisted family fairy tale, and like the best animated films, it pushes the limits of what kids can handle without going too far, and plays just as well to adults.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Taken for a ride

Taken is simultaneously adrenaline-pumping fun and...completely reprehensible garbage. I guess that's why they call them "B-movies"...A-movies have to choose between the fun and the trash.

Alas, B-movies don't have to discriminate, and this film certainly doesn't. It is coarse and gruff and violent without any clear sense of morality...and in that way, it is kinda fun to watch. If you can let your brain take a nap, you will probably have a great time.

For me, it was tough. I rarely like to turn my brain off, especially during movies. As a result, I shook my head many times at the baseless, unapologetic glee with which director Pierre Morel and writers Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen depict this very dark revenge picture as a rock 'em, sock 'em, damn-near-rollicking action flick. I mean, for godssakes, this is a film about the enslavement of young girls in an underground sex trafficking ring. How much fun can one squeeze out of that subject matter?

The answer, for me, is precisely none, but what works in Taken is, shockingly, the revenge story line. Morally-bankrupt revenge sagas usually anger me to no end, but there is something very intriguing about Morel's direction, and something very charismatic about Liam Neeson's performance. Up to this point, Morel is best known for directing the truly fun, wonderfully hyperkinetic action film, District B-13, in his native France, and he brings that visceral spirit to the work here, even if his very particular, almost psychedelic talent is a very awkward fit for this grim material. As for Neeson, I love these roles where he allows his physicality to become a natural, unspoken force. It is easy to overlook Neeson's size in his typically gentle, conventionally heroic roles, but the man is huge--tall, lean, and agile. And in this film, he kicks a lot of ass. It's quite fun to watch.

The story itself ranges from corny to outright lame, but when it is in its central ass-kicking zone, Taken is entertaining as a cold-blooded action blowout. So how does one judge such a simultaneously shamefully lightweight and shamelessly entertaining enterprise? With an analysis that jarringly blends two separate judgments, which befits the film's desire to jarringly blend slick exploitation with important subject matter. it a D+ for sheer stupidity, and a B+ for Liam Neeson kicking ass. All told, it equals a C+. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

2008: Most Disappointing


I do this list every year, but this is the first year I have posted the list on the blog. I think it is, honestly, just as valuable a list as the Best and Worst lists...The Top Ten Disappointments of 2008.

In many ways, this is a more tragic list than the Worst list, simply because of all that potential...could have been great, should have been great, but just wasn't. This space is reserved for some of the most ambitious and anticipated--and in a few cases, some of the most widely celebrated--films of the year, films that had everything going for them, yet left me feeling empty...half-full at best.

Here they are, 2008's Most Disappointing films:

Spielberg's lamest directorial effort in years, a film that is really all about a one-note in-joke,  peppered with distractingly cheesy special effects.

Clooney's lamest directorial effort ever, this was a screwball comedy that mastered the 'screwball' but left out the 'comedy.' Clooney is a brilliant guy, so why didn't he learn more than silly tone from working with the Coens?

Certainly not as bad as that other Eastwood movie, but bad enough to appear on this list. A great performance from Angelina Jolie highlights a film that tells an important true story, but does so with such mannered old-fashioned-ness that the film sheds any true emotion in favor of cloying artifice. And...anyone who thought Lord of  the Rings had too many endings, wait till you get a load of this.

Morgan Spurlock is awesome. But this film gets lost searching for the damn point. Where Super Size Me used humor, style, and a potentially-gimmicky setup to create an endlessly engaging quest probing a fascinating subject, Where in the World... pretends it is a no-frills documentary when, in fact, its entire premise is based on a joke. No, Morgan Spurlock will not be able to hunt Osama bin Laden down. Yes, many Middle Eastern citizens have fascinating viewpoints. But this film adds nothing to the conversation.

DiCaprio and Crowe co-starring in a film directed by Ridley Scott and written by Departed mastermind William Monahan. Golden, right? Not so much. Where is the visual subtext Scott has done so well in the past? Where is the razor-sharp dialogue from Monahan? Where is a story that resonates beyond a typical espionage procedural? I'm still searching for the answers...maybe I'll find them in a newer, better film in the future.

Never got to discuss this one earlier in the year, but here it is, in a nutshell: this is the most promising horror concept I've seen in years, and it is squandered by lowest-common-denominator filmmaking choices. Here is a film that preys on legitimate fears--home invasion, alone in the middle of nowhere, hunted by motive-less killers--and betrays a quiet, haunting first act with telegraphed shocks, cliched set-pieces, and pounding music so distracting that the film might as well be just another cookie-cutter teen slasher flick. For an antidote, see Michael Haneke's Funny Games, which would torture this film into submission just for fun.

Possibly the most sanctimonious film of the year, and the most annoying in its desperate desire to be a Great Movie. One of Dennis Quaid's best screen performances gets trampled on by a boring screenplay that tries so hard to be Sideways that it should've been titled Upside-Down. This was 2008's first object lesson for wannabe filmmakers: great movies come out of honest ideas, not copy-catting great films of the past.

Here is 2008's second object lesson for wannabe filmmakers: great films have a touch of unexpected magic, and such magic cannot be conjured simply by mounting an epic-scale production with a melancholy storyline. And it's so true: all of the elements are in place--ambitious director, Oscar-winning screenwriter, Forrest Gump-style makeup effects, big name actors giving showy, "gimme-the-awards" performances, and a brilliant literary pedigree. Ben Button has all the makings of a landmark film...except that it is cold, calculating, and all-too-aware of how good it should be. If the film were less pristine, less desperate to be the next Forrest Gump, it would have likely been a masterpiece. But there is the difference between getting the most Oscar nominations and actually winning more than a couple modest technical categories.

Fernando Mereilles is one of the best filmmakers working today...probably in the top three, actually. And his latest film is harrowing...but is it really all that important? Yes, it is an ambitious fable. Yes, it comments on the human condition with brash symbolism. But what, really, is it saying? What message is especially new or unique about the film? Other than the gimmick of its construction and the oddity of its high concept, I would submit, not much. I am hoping this is a mere blip on Mereilles' radar, and that he will soon return to top form.

Why is this the most disappointing film of the year? Because it had the most to offer. More than this year's Eastwoods. More than this year's Mereilles. WAY more than Ben Button. Here is a film that cuts right to the core of a family's humanity, that reveals human truths in a more honest, no-frills manner than many other 2008 films would even dare. It features spectacular performances and is led by Anne Hathaway's career-best performance. Jonathan Demme is a brilliant filmmaker and does great work here. There is greatness in Rachel Getting Married...and then there's a lot of other stuff surrounding it.

This film was among the year's most hotly debated. Either you went along for the ride, or you didn't. For me, usually the first in line to go on any ambitious ride the cinema wants to take me on, I just wasn't feeling it. There is really no other way to put it. I even went along with a far steeper, riskier ride in Synecdoche, New York, and loved every second. And yet this film just didn't click the way it should have.

I don't blame the film. I blame myself. But I was still disappointed.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

He Said: Worst of 2008


I celebrated the best film’s of 2008, and I meant every word I said. There was a lot to love during the year.

But let’s face it—there was a lot of shit, too.

Here—in as little detail as possible, so I can I spare my readers (and especially myself) from continued pain and suffering—is a list of the year’s worst movies. With special added categories to boot…

The Bottom Ten (From Best[?] to Worst):

The year’s saddest bad film because it was so well-meaning. Any film that attempts to expose the horrific military policy that has been employed during the Bush administration (and which will hopefully be corrected in the Obama administration) is admirable in principle. But the execution here is so dreadful, so over-the-top, so ham-fisted, that I walked out of the theater shaking my head.

Ick. To be honest, the title is not wrong—I stood (or sat) still during the movie. So still that I think I fell asleep for a little while there. I mean, I must have missed something if I couldn’t piece together what wooden Keanu Reeves had to do with unfortunate victim Jennifer Connolly…and that huge 50s-style spaceman dude? What the hell was all that? I think I missed something…or there is a piece missing from the filmmakers’ brains.

Yes, this is a tie. First and foremost because I can do whatever the hell I want on this Worst List (!) Second, what makes both films so reprehensible is essentially the same thing: a lust for graphic bloodshed so intense that I felt like I was watching porn. Once was enough…but no, Hollywood had to greenlight two of these things.

Oh, boy. What a disaster. I hated every second of this ridiculous, pointless, soulless sequel to what was actually a strong first film. The action sequences are boring. The child actors are pretty bad. Prince Caspian himself is reprehensible. And the studio agrees—Disney has now opted out of the Narnia movies, leaving the entire enterprise in limbo. Bye, bye, Franchise.

Part of me wonders why I even need to pick on a movie that was forced into theaters to make a quick buck, and then failed to even make that quick buck, and left good actors like Hugh Jackman, Ewan McGregor, and Michelle Williams hanging out to dry, and was basically so ridiculous that it was ignored. So I thought to myself, “should I really stick this on here to prolong the pain?” And then I remembered—this movie prolonged my pain. I think this was indeed the most incomprehensible movie of the year, a film so pointless that I wonder why it was even made in the first place. Then again, they still made Day the Earth Stood Still, too…

Mamma Mia!/What a piece of shit!/My, my, how did I not vomit?

Oh, yikes. I didn’t get to talk at length about this one when it opened back in July. I kept wanting to, but for some reason I could never bring myself to relive the horror. So here we go…this is the second-worst-directed film of the year (the first will appear later). There is an obvious visual transition that must take place when bringing a Broadway show to cinematic form, and Mamma Mia! is a prime example of how not to do it. The lighting is so harsh that I kept worrying that the heat would set the film’s transparently awful sound stages ablaze right in the middle of a scene. Pierce Brosnan reminded me of one of those crazy people who auditions for American Idol and you think, “Does this person really think they can sing?” Meryl Streep is so game that she throws herself into the performance…and the direction is so hapless and dreadful that she is hung out to dry—musical numbers go on and on with Streep frantically dancing all over the set with the camera just sitting stationary, following Streep’s manic movements. The film is visually static and ugly. Story-wise, it is obviously a complete joke. The fact that I still can’t the music out of my head is either a credit to the catchiness of ABBA’s music, or an acknowledgement that this film has cursed my soul. Not sure which.

Obviously, Patrick Dempsey has a death wish. Every successive film he headlines is made solely to piss me off, and take me one step closer to hurting him. In this film, Pretty Boy plays a womanizer (!) who reforms because he’s always secretly loved his best friend. Unfunny slapstick and hackneyed romance follows. Ick.

If there weren’t a surplus of horrifically awful motion pictures this year, Vantage Point would have been a shoo-in for the top spot. As it currently stands, it must settle for third place. Really, as brilliant as Alejandro Gonzalex Inarritu and Guillermo Arriaga are, they must be partially implicated for this catastrophe, since the film is essentially a rip-off of the style the two Mexican geniuses started with films like Amores Perros and especially Babel.

In a nutshell, a bunch of respected actors prance around as if they know what’s going on in this wannabe-mind-blowing international intrigue plot. It only gets funnier as it goes along…

Now this is the worst-directed film of the year. What a horrible year for female directors…to be honest, there really isn’t ever a good year for female directors, but what a raw deal when two of the year’s worst films—Mamma Mia! and this horrific pile of garbage masquerading as a “Celebration of Women”—came from female directors. And the thing is, I don’t blame the directors. I blame the studios in Hollywood who seem to relegate female directors to “Chick Flicks,” most of which have no business being made, and nearly all of which wouldn’t be enjoyed by any intelligent woman I know. It’s a wonder an intelligent film made by women and about women, like Frozen River, could be made at all, let alone garner two Oscar nominations.

The only reason a studio tapped a woman to direct The Women is because that woman is Diane English, former TV producer extraordinaire, who once created Murphy Brown. But she cannot direct a film. Plain and simple. Not that she has great material to work with, either…the screenplay here is a hodge-podge of rotten female stereotypes so thick that I couldn’t bring myself to care on ounce about any one of them. Meg Ryan...boring. Annette Bening…desperate. Eva Mendes…catty. Debra Messing…annoying. I am not describing the performances of the actors, mind you, but the roles they are given to play. It’s shameful. The only sign of life in the whole film is Jada Pinkett Smith’s sassy gay character, but therein lies yet another cliché…plus she is only given 10 minutes of screen time (or less), thereby ensuring that the film is only remotely watchable for a mere 1/20th of its running time.

I’ve gone on way too long here. I shouldn’t have. Forgive me.

Was there ever really any doubt? I mean, come on…there may not be another film to match this level of utter atrocity for another decade. Let us pray that there isn’t.

I pitched an idea to my two boys for a fun spoof movie we could make called The Occurrence. It would consist of the boys, their sister, and their friends running around acting like idiots, pretending that the wind was the lethal villain. That was our spoof idea…and it is also the exact plot of The Happening. Really. That’s all that happens. It’s enough to make a person want to kill himself. Oh, wait, that happens in the movie, too. Maybe the characters are onto something…

The only reason M. Night Shyamalan has a another film on the way is because he was already contracted to direct it before The Happening was released. The only reason he may still get to work in Hollywood after that is because his next film, The Last Airbender, is an anime adaptation that will be beloved by geeks. It’s different enough from the usual M. Night bullshit that it might save the dude’s ass.

We’ll see…but what we won’t see is another original M. Night Shyamalan film for at least another three or four years. And for that, I am thankful.

It deserves a spot on this list, but I just wasn’t sure where to put it. Maybe it would go between Made of Honor and Vantage Point. Not sure. But whatever the case, it deserves its own space here.

I’m not sure Clint Eastwood has made a worse film. The Oscar talk surrounding his lead performance was a complete joke. Eastwood has dedicated this portion of his directorial career to remind audiences that even though he is a craggy old white guy who made a living off revenge pictures and westerns, that he has a Liberal Conscience He Wants to Present to the World. And that’s okay. It worked well in Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby. It did not work very well in Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. It was mildly annoying in Changeling. And it is downright arrogant in Gran Torino. It’s a movie where Eastwood gets to play Dirty Racist Harry, but have him turn over a new leaf in the end. It’s a movie that celebrates manly violence and revenge, but also wants to shove a sanctimonious anti-violent message down our throats. It’s a film where the script is Forgiveness-By-The-Numbers, the acting is nearly universally atrocious, and the only indication that this was indeed a Clint Eastwood film is the masturbatory love of dark, shadowy compositions.

Oh, and by the way, Eastwood sings the theme song at the end. Yep.

Oh, they came so close…here they are, separated into special categories.

The worst comedy of the year was probably:
MY BEST FRIEND’S GIRL, which was so terrible that I actually felt like it was even a waste Dane Cook’s comic talent. Amazing.
The rest, in alphabetical order:
THE FOOT FIST WAY,which started with utter brilliance and then tanked in the most astonishing way



…And there would have been more, but even I refuse to watch some stuff.

Friday, February 6, 2009

She Said: THE BEST OF 2008

K's Top Ten Movies of 2008

The most remarkable films this year are films which speak to human adversity in truthful and beautifully complex ways. The films that grace my top ten list this year are ones in which characters face incredible challenges and have important lessons to learn. Some learn the lessons and others sadly fail to grasp them. In seeing their pain or failures, joys or triumph, we connect to them, learn from them, and grow with them.

The Top Ten:

10. WALL-E
Wall-E is a sweet, endearing, precious film for the ages and all ages. Some of the tenderness between Wall-E and Eve are among the most moving of all love scenes ever created. Some people did not know what to make of the movie's silences, but to me, those silences were the most beautiful moments to witness in this film or in any other. This film knew when to be quiet. Lovely.

This is one of the most finely acted films I have ever seen. Nominations for the film's main 4 stars show I am not alone. It is very hard for me to say it, but even though Kate Winslet is my favorite actress and she is so overdue for an Oscar, Streep is the one who deserves the Oscar for this one.

Doubt deftly exposes the difficulty in assured knowledge. Doubt is a precious commodity because it allows us to not close down with certainty but rather to always question and explore. The film purposely chooses heart-wrenching subject matter because otherwise the message of how important but painful doubt is would be lost. Doubt opens minds. Certainty closes them.

This movie graces my list because of its complex rendering of humanity. Too often we see things in black and white with no gray, but life is nothing but gray.  If anyone would have said a movie would make me feel for an Auschwitz  guard, I would have scoffed. But this movie did. The Reader is Hannah's story even though it is told through the book-ends of her "reader." The movie would be even more solid and astounding if the creators had the vision to let Winslet's character be the main protagonist. Still, the deeper layers of who (most often male) decides law, crimes, and punishment was deeply nuanced and appreciated by this viewer.  

An important lesson about learning to love and be alive again. This film is incredibly painful for me. It is a beautiful film; the acting is moving, the human truths are revelatory, but the inevitable fact of how our country treats others still angers me to this day. The Visitor is quite the perfect blend of joy and misery. We cannot really embrace and understand one without the other.

Plucky, polite, and ever so perfect, Poppy is a heroine we can be so proud of. She understands the world and why people are the way they are, yet she never flinches in her ability to be optimistic and love herself and the world despite the inevitable flaws. A character like this could too easily become cloying or aggravating, but Sally Hawkins (who deserved an Oscar nomination) weaves vulnerable love and understanding with delicacy. 

In the year of the infamous, repugnant passing of Prop 8, Milk sits as a reminder of what all some have sacrificed in order to make our world more humane.  This film is a huge biopic filled with many fine actors telling an important story of truth and humanity. It is incredibly sad to be shown how hard people fought in the past to only have us drop the ball today. 

Not unlike The Reader in drawing empathy where one would least likely assume to find it, Frost/Nixon entranced me and made me feel for our 37th president. How could a bleeding heart liberal like me care about a grouchy, conservative liar like Nixon? The answer is simple. Ron Howard allows us to hear him and see his humanity. The movies this year reached me because they showed me human failure and self-awareness. We see in Frost/Nixon a man who finally learned his lesson even if it was too late to save the way others would forever view him. I found his awakening tragic and triumphant.


I am quite frankly angered that so many dismiss this massive, dark, artistic splendor. It's rather revolting how so many want to hate on this film. Perhaps because it was adored by too many.  Perhaps because it is based off of a comic hero. Or, perhaps because too many were blinded into not seeing the deeper nuances and complexity breeding the war over what is a "hero." The vision of The Dark Knight is behemoth. It is a spectacle. It dazzles the senses. But, the story also has a very true, sincere heart that beats underneath all those beautifully rendered set pieces.

Why does he run? Because he must. The Dark Knight grasps what his fellow humankind needs. Sacrifice of self for love of others. Could there be a more noble awareness?

One of the most touching, emotionally riveting movies I have ever seen. What we do to our bodies, to our souls in an effort to be heard, seen, valued, is astute and piercing.  Some of us learn from life and from hardship, and others of us are determined to hammer perpetually to seek approval. Both characters in this film wake up. But both answer that call in different ways. Not unlike Kate Chopin's The Awakening, The Ram decidedly makes his choice because it is all he has ever allowed himself to know. Its part tragedy and part triumph. He chooses his path, but I was left wishing he had chosen a different one. 


It was a neck-and-neck fight between my number two and my number one. And although I think Aronofsky does a better job in The Wrestler at connecting the plight that both genders share, Slumdog Millionaire's uncontainable joy ultimately made it win the top spot. 

The structure and arc of this story resonates with palpable, kinetic excitement. As I sat in the theater, there was a gleeful momentum, a shared exhilaration that just does not happen that often in cinema. Sure, people love a movie--they laugh, cry, sometimes shout out at the screen, but with Slumdog it was different... without words, there was a soulful, vivid, colorful response emanating from several silent bodies.

To steal the movie's mantra, the movie's fate was written--indelibly, forever destined to be 2008's best film.

Runner Up:
11. In Bruges, Wickedly funny and suspenseful, this film is actually far more serious and meaty than its surface humor first lets on.

Other Runners Up:
Bigger, Stronger, Faster
Seven Pounds 
The Duchess
Iron Man
Burn After Reading
Son of Rambow
Paranoid Park