Saturday, January 31, 2009

Super Bowl in 3D? Or is it IIID?

I recently attended a 3D screening of director Henry Selick's "Coraline," which opens Friday. Critics were given plastic glasses, which can present a challenge for those of us who wear regular glasses. I tried watching with the 3D glasses only, but it didn't work. I went glasses-over-glasses and was relieved to discover that I could watch with relative ease.

As it turns out, Selick, who also directed "James and the Giant Peach" and "The Nightmare Before Christmas, emphasizes depth over gimmicky effects in which stuff appears to fly off the screen. "Coraline," based on a book by Neil Gaiman, will be shown with and without 3D, depending on what theater you attend. You can prepare by reading an article in the New York Times in which Selick discusses 3D and stop-action animation, the technique he employs.

But if you're a fan of 3D, you needn't wait until next Friday to get your fix. The Super Bowl will feature a couple of 3D commercials -- or in keeping with Super Bowl's devotion to Roman numerals, perhaps we should call it "IIID." The package is scheduled to show after the second quarter and before the half-time show, which features Bruce Springsteen and the fabled E Street Band. DreamWorks is using the spot to hype its upcoming animated feature, "Monsters vs. Aliens." There'll also be a SoBe Lifewater commercial in 3D, a one-minute affair featuring the SoBe lizards.

Glasses, I'm told, are available at supermarkets and other retail outlets, but this is the kind of 3D that delivers a normal picture if you're already couch-bound and have no intention of leaving the house.

I'm hoping that I'm still interested enough in the game by halftime to use the glasses. Who wants to watch another Super Bowl blowout? I am not particularly psyched about the game. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals don't provide me with a strong rooting interest. I'm one member of the rude and scoffing multitude who's only looking for an exciting game.

But, yes, I'm going to watch the 3D commercials, mostly because we're going to see more of 3D at the movies and even on television. The technorati will roll their eyes at my woeful ignorance, but I've read that a variety of high-end televisions soon will offer 3D potential and some already do.

DreamWorks uses a process called Tru3D. DreamWorks' Jeffrey Katzenberg, long a proponent of animated features, did some touring late last year to talk about the company's approach to 3D, and at least one writer in Boston was impressed. Also in December, Roger Ebert offered readers a lengthy transcript of Katzenberg's thoughts on 3D.

So is this go-round of 3D a fad or the tip of an iceberg that will become as familiar as the wide screen? That's an open question, but how a massive audience reacts to the 3D commercials tomorrow may provide us with a clue.

Friday, January 30, 2009

A massacre forgotten and then relived

Judging by the Israeli film, "Waltz With Bashir," the 1982 massacre at the Shabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon provided many Israeli soldiers with Vietnam-like experiences – flashbacks, guilt, and, in some cases, the obliteration of memory. Working in an often-eerie animated style, director Ari Folman makes a bold new contribution to a growing body of superior animated films. (Remember last year's "Persepolis?" ) Folman's animation creates a woozy world in which the movie’s main character – Folman himself – searches to recover what he lost in Lebanon, memories of the massacre, which was conducted by Christian Phalangists while the Israelis turned a blind eye.

As the film develops, Folman visits men with whom he fought, hoping that they can help him remember what he witnessed. If the movie has metaphoric reach, it's to be found just here: Sometimes a country can forget something that it desperately needs to remember.

"Waltz With Bashir" brims with memorable images: soldiers lounging on a Lebanese beach or walking through a grove of trees in the half-light of morning. Folman's images have haunting, hallucinatory power, a surreal glow that keeps the story from feeling entirely literal. We're reminded that we’re seeing events that have been filtered through years of alienation and guilt. And the animation enhances the painful subjectivity of a movie that knows the gripping fear of combat, the way that such fear can lead a group of soldiers mercilessly to fire on a moving car, only to discover that the vehicle contained a Lebanese family that posed no threat to them.

Folman’s post-traumatic explosion of a movie earns a place among the great personal accounts of war and its aftermath. "Waltz With Bashir" makes clear that there are at least two parts to every war: the part that takes place on the battlefield and the part that takes place in the mind. Unlike the wars of the battlefield, the wars that haunt the mind admit to no ceasefires. Those battles may slip into dormancy, but always are ready to flare up anew.

A horror remake that works

"The Uninvited" arrives on screen pulling a carload of familiar horror ingredients into view: an evil stepmother, an author father who's blinded to her conniving ways, and two sisters who want to uncover the truth about their stepmom. Add lots of creepy atmospherics, and it all sounds depressingly typical. Yet this apparently uninspired genre stew manages to rise above the pack -- at least as much as that's possible for a movie based on another movie, a 2003 helping of Korean horror.

Equipped with surprises, shocks and more psychological depth than the average chiller, "The Uninvited" also may become famous for introducing Emily Browning to a wider audience. Browning, who hails from Australia, plays Anna, a teen-ager who's released from a mental institution early in the movie. Disturbed teen-agers don't exactly make for groundbreaking roles, but Browning has been blessed with the kind of amorphous looks that seem to change from shot to shot. She can look much younger or significantly older than she did in the previous moment. She has the pouty mouth and puffy lips of a character out of Japanese anime, and when the movie's finished, you may look back and realize that she's done a more masterful acting job than you may have thought. (In the above photo, Browning can be seen on the left; she's depicted with Airelle Kebbel, the actress who plays her sister.)

Charles and Thomas Guard, the brothers who directed the movie, have designed some tension-filled sequences; they also know how to deliver shocks and have obtained serviceable performances from the supporting cast: David Strathairn as dad, an author who seems oblivious to his new wife' s cunning ways; Elizabeth Banks as the stepmother who may be up to no good, and Kebbel, as the savvy Alex, Anna's sister.

The movie doesn't take long to pose the question that occupies most of its 87 minutes: Did Anna and Alex lose their mother in an accident or was she done in by the stepmom, a nurse who took care of the her in her final days? Don't be too sure you know all the answers; the Guard brothers have done a good job of constructing their movie to create maximum kick at the end.

Almost all the action takes place at a sprawling, spectacularly isolated house on the Maine coast. Oh well, "The Uninvited" may not be quite as amazing as its setting, but it's better than you'd expect.

Disappointing helpings of violence and love

I'd been looking forward to "Taken," mostly because Liam Neeson always has the capacity to be interesting. Playing a character who's as focused as a heat-seeking missile, Neeson doesn't disappoint, but the same can't be said about a thriller in which Neeson's Bryan Mills -- a retired CIA agent -- tries to rescue his virginal daughter (Maggie Grace) from Albanian mobsters.

Bryan opens the movie as a retiree who's trying to make a connection with his teen-age daughter. The young woman lives with her mother (Famke Janssen) and her stepfather. Having spent most of his life spying, Bryan hasn't developed much of a relationship with his daughter. He's not even sure he knows how. When the girl heads for Paris with a friend, he worries. Bryan knows the world's a dangerous place.

Turns out Bryan has good reason to fret. Upon arriving in Paris, the girl is abducted. The rest of the movie focuses on the 96 hours that Bryan has to find his daughter before she disappears forever, having been forced into anonymous sex slavery.

To save his daughter, Bryan winds up rampaging his way through Paris, dispatching any and all who interfere. Need a little torture? Bryan's your guy. If a corrupt French official proves uncooperative, shoot his wife. Hey, it's only a flesh wound. Neeson gives Bryan the finely honed instincts of a man who has spent his life making split-second decisions.

Violent, visceral and frequently distasteful, "Taken" reminded me of something I read in an obituary of Vincent Canby, the late New York Times film critic. His then colleague at the Times, Janet Maslin, quoted Canby as instructing her that the time to get excited was not before a movie, but after -- providing, of course, that the movie's good. It's advice I should have heeded before I began thinking I might have a good time at "Taken."


In "New in Town," a female executive (Renee Zellweger) is sent by her company from Florida to a small town in Minnesota. Her mission: retool a plant for a new economic moment. That's a serviceable enough premise, but it's quickly undermined by inept writing and lackluster direction. It's difficult, for example, to identify with a character who makes the trip to Minnesota in the middle of winter and is shocked to discover that the place is really cold. But that's how Zellweger's Lucy Hill -- the proverbial fish out of water -- reacts to a Minnesota winter that makes Siberia seem like a resort. A script that makes its main character look this dumb loses immediate points, and the comedy follows suit, shriveling as the temperature drops.

"New in Town" is supposed to work as an inspirational but quirky romantic comedy in which most of the characters sound as if they've been imported from "Fargo." Not only does the humor feel recycled, but Zellweger and a bearded Harry Connick Jr. ignite few real sparks. She's management; he's a labor organizer. Can management find love and happiness with labor? If you don't know the answer offered by "New in Town," you've been asleep during genre class.

The supporting cast includes the talented but underutilized J.K. Simmons, the equally talented but even more underutilized Frances Conroy (of "Six Feet Under'' fame) and Siobhan Fallon, as a local who deals with all problems by making tapioca pudding.

There's nothing inherently wrong with predictable comedy, but this drab effort -- which includes a fair measure of pratfalls -- lands on a backside that's heavily padded with cliches.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Supporting. No, leading. No, supporting.

Can't these folks make up their minds? Sunday night the Screen Actors Guild presented Kate Winslet with its award for best supporting actress for her work in "The Reader." Oscar has nominated Winslet in the best-actress category for her work in the very same movie. The Golden Globes? The Hollywood Foreign Press Association thought Winslet deserved an award for being the best supporting actress. The movie: "The Reader." They also gave Winslet a Golden Globe as best actress for her work in "Revolutionary Road."

It's difficult think of Winslet's performance in "The Reader" -- she played Hanna Schmitz, a former Nazi concentration camp guard -- as a supporting role because the entire movie hinges on her character.

Here's the thing, though. If the SAG awards are any kind of barometer, none of this category confusion may matter. Meryl Streep won a surprise best-actress victory for her portrayal of the stern principal of a Catholic School in "Doubt,'' beating Winslet, nominated in this category for "Revolutionary Road," as well as Anne Hathaway ("Rachel's Getting Married'); Angelina Jolie ("The Changeling") and Melissa Leo ("Frozen River"). The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated Winselt only in the best-actress category for her work in "The Reader." I don't know about you, but I'm already sick of awards and we still have four-weeks until Oscar reveals its secrets on Feb. 22.

See Variety for a list of all SAG winners.

Friday, January 23, 2009

A story that fails to stir the emotions

Put actors such as Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent in the same movie and you should be half way toward coming up with a winner. That's what I would have thought until I saw "Inkheart," the big-screen adaptation of a popular novel by Cornelia Funke. It appears as if great care was lavished on the movie's look, but as transferred to the screen by director Iain Softley, the story isn't all that involving. Brendan Fraser plays Mo, a man with a strange gift. When he reads aloud the characters in the book he's reading come to life. His daughter Maggie (Eliza Hope Bennett) learns about her dad's strange power and joins him in a search to rescue mom, who has disappeared inside a book during some kind of page-to-reality swap. Mirren plays Mo's acerbic aunt, a sour eccentric and a bit of a cliche. Broadbent portrays an author who eventually meets some of his creations. Fraser may be a bit outclassed by a British cast, and a promising cinematic premise proves only intermittently amusing.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

And one more thing about Oscar

In its story on the Oscar nominations, The Los Angeles Times noted: "These may have been the selections of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but the major nominations resembled the Film Independent Spirit Awards. Only two of the best picture nominees are studio releases -- 'Benjamin Button' and 'Frost/Nixon.' The rest hail from the indie world, as do many of the other nominees in the marquee categories."

Reporter Susan King is right, of course, and that's both good and bad news for the movies. It's great to see the Academy extend its reach, something that's been going on for the past several years. But it's also a little distressing that the bulk of the audience may be more alienated from Oscar than ever. This year's show could be one of the lowest rated ever.

In all of this, I haven't mentioned "Slumdog Millionaire," which walked away with 10 nominations and remains the front-runner for best picture. Stay tuned.

Oscar's biggest surprises

The biggest surprises among this year's nominations can be found in the acting categories. Here are some of them:

Best actor:
Richard Jenkins in “The Visitor." Jenkins, best known as a character actor, found the role of a lifetime as a repressed college professor who learned how to drum.
Best supporting actor:
Michael Shannon in “Revolutionary Road." Shannon was unnerving as an intellectually acute mental patient.
Best actress:
Melissa Leo in “Frozen River." Leo excelled as a single mom living through hard times in upstate New York.
Best supporting actress:
Taraji P. Henson in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Henson portrayed the woman who raised Benjamin Button after he was abandoned on the doorstep of an old-age home. One of the movie's few bright spots.

The five nominess -- "The Betrayal," "Encounters at the End of the World," "The Garden," "Man on Wire," and "Trouble the Water" are all worthy. I was sorry to see that Denver filmmaker Daniel Junge's "They Killed Sister Dorothy," which had been shortlisted for a nomination, didn't make the final cut. If I had to bet right now, I'd put my money on "Trouble the Water."

Oscar nominees announced

If you're looking for a list of Oscar nominees, why not head straight to the source, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences? More on this year's nominees later. OK, one quick observation. I'm surprised to see "The Reader" on the list of best-picture nominees, and not only because I had issues with the movie. (See review posted on Dec. 25th.) No "Dark Knight?" Oh well, sometimes it seems as if Oscar exists only to advance careers and give us all something to carp about.
If you want a story on the nominations, try the Associated Press, which leads by telling us that "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" received the most nominations, a total of 13. Was that one for each of the years that seemed to be passing as the first three-quarters of the movie slowly unfolded? No, I'm not a fan. (See review posted Dec. 24th.)

But wait, there's more....
Those who thought that Clint Eastwood might win a best-actor nomination must have been disappointed. Eastwood's "Gran Torino" didn't show up on the list. I know that "Synecdoche, New York" is a divisive movie, but Charlie Kaufman's original screenplay was one of the year's most inventive.

Join me in complaining. It changes nothing, but it feels so-o-o-o good.

The Associated Press reports that Condoleezza Rice, a recent and now former Secretary of State, has signed with the William Morris agency. Some things need no further comment.

Friday, January 16, 2009

"Notorious," the story of Biggie Smalls

He was born Christopher Wallace, but became known in the world of rap as "Biggie Smalls" or "Notorious B.I.G." He started as a straight arrow Brooklyn kid whose mom called him "Chrisiepoo," veered into drug dealing and eventually found a path toward the major money and gangsta glamor that defined success in rap's upper echelons. Biggie often is credited for re-establishing the primacy of East Coast rap, a feat of questionable importance to most of the population, but one that meant a lot the young people who immersed themselves in the Hip-Hop culture of the '90s.

If you go to You Tube, you can see a picture of the real Biggie, posing in front of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Both are gone, the Towers in 2001 and Biggie in 1997. I'm not drawing any parallels between the drive-by shooting of Biggie and the destruction of the World Trade Center, but the photo says something important about the outsized quality of New York in the 1990s -- big rap, big buildings and big ambitions. The new movie, "Notorious," takes a vigorous look at the rise and fall of Biggie Smalls, and does it in an entertaining bio-pic that's well aware of what can happen when street kids find themselves weighed down by money and fame.

Smalls -- played by a rapper named Gravy; a.k.a. Jamal Woolard -- comes across as a young man who seldom seems in control of the events around him, despite his massive size. An imposing figure, Woolard dominates the movie as much as Mickey Rourke dominates "The Wrestler." He captures Biggie's rap rhythms and makes use of his impressive girth to suggest a man/child in a promised land of women and notoriety.

Director George Tillman Jr., working from a screen play by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker, backs away from the on-going controversy about who killed Biggie, although the movie spends a fair amount of time on the feud that developed between Smalls and Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie), a rapper who came to represent Hip Hop's West Coast. Tupac, who was shot in a 1994 robbery, blamed Biggie for the incident. "Notorious" also provides lots of additional information: Biggie was brought to prominence by Sean Combs (Derek Luke), a rap mogul with a passion for commerce and its many requirements. (Combs served as the movie's executive producer.)

"Notorious" also shows a rivalry that found expression in two of the women in Small's life -- rapper Lil' Kim (Naturi Naughton) and singer Faith Evans (Antonique Smith). Young Biggie, by the way, is played by Christopher Jordan Wallace, the real-life son of Biggie and Evans. Angela Bassett, who doesn't work nearly enough these days, portrays Voletta Wallace, Biggie's mom, a woman who loved him, but threw him out of the house when she learned that he was selling drugs. The real Voletta Wallace served as another of the movie's producers.

How much all of Biggie's story matters depends on how you regard Biggie & his cohorts. If you're interested in this pop cultural phenomenon, "Notorious" stands as required viewing. Biggie captured a feeling of Brooklyn youth in the 1990s. He spoke of and for the streets, and to ignore what happened in Brooklyn and elsewhere is to ignore a part of American life that needs acknowledgement.

To its credit, "Notorious" doesn't try to proselytize for rap. Rather it shows the sometimes glamorous, always-chaotic lives of young men on the rise, having fun, adopting dangerous poses and, in Biggie's case, never really finding a way to make the transition from a youth to manhood. Biggie was only 24 when he died, leaving his story unfinished.

Would Biggie have become yesterday's news by now? Would he have evolved as an artist? We can't really see what the future held in store for Christopher Wallace, but then, it doesn't look as if he could, either. That might be an inadvertent observation of a vibrant movie that invites us into exotic, often-troubling world of Notorious B.I.G. And that's the question the movie leaves us to ponder: Just where was all this talent and energy heading?

The story fascinates, but the film doesn't

"Defiance" is one of those year-end prestige pictures that opened in New York and Los Angeles in late December, and now is beginning to trickle around the country. Director Edward Zwick's look at the Bielski partisans -- Jewish renegades who hid in the forests of Belarus and fought the Nazis during World War II -- depicts raids on Nazi sympathizers and on Nazi soldiers. It also turns the Bielskis into protectors, heroes who assist weaker members of the Jewish population, although reluctantly at first. Zwick ("Glory," "The Last Samurai," and "Blood Diamond") has a taste for stories made with obvious conviction. "Defiance" is no exception.

In case fighting Germans weren't enough to keep one movie busy, Zwick augments the drama by focusing on a dispute between two of the Bielski brothers -- both tough guys, but each with a particular approach to fighting. Daniel Craig's Tuvia Bielski fights with a sense of responsibility. He's wary of becoming as brutal as the monsters he opposes. Liev Schreiber plays Zus Bielski, a hardliner who eventually joins with the Russians (many of them anti-Semitic) because he's less interested in justice than in avenging the death of his wife and child. Zus accuses his brother of not having the stomach to "do what must be done;" i.e., snuff out compassion for the sake of survival and combat.

Jamie Bell portrays another Bielski brother, as does George McKay, but the story mostly alternates between the exploits of Tuvia and Zus, contrasting life in the forest with life among Russian soldiers. Late in the movie, Tuvia puts down an insurrection in his ranks, a one-man revolt trigged by an argument about whether those who fight should be allotted more food than those who are unable to wield weapons.

A better film would have made the argument between the Bielski brothers feel more alive; it would have gotten under our skins rather than stating positions and moving on with the narrative. It would have involved us in the harrowing choices they faced rather than leaving us to watch from the outside. The film's strongest moment arrives with the killing of a captured German soldier who becomes the focal point for the community's long-suppressed rage. Tuvia watches, knowing that even if he disapproves, he can't -- and perhaps shouldn't -- stop this expression of fury.

The mysteries of the Polish forest elude Zwick, and his dialogue tends toward robust exclamation: We will become warriors fighting for our freedom and such. It's arguable that a movie such as "Defiance" doesn't require subtlety, but it could have used some, if only to counteract the blatancy of a James Newton Howard's score that augments a mournful violin with the occasional swelling of noble strings.

Perhaps Zwick was the wrong filmmaker to tell this story. Consider the film's ending, a triumphant sequence in which Zwick binds himself to the most conspicuous of Hollywood conventions. I won't give anything away, but the finale looks as if it might have been torn from the yellowed pages of a pulp Western. It's pure cliche. And with actors speaking Polish with English accents, it's not easy to forget we're watching a movie version of real events rather than a story that mixes rare courage with incomparable tragedy.

The story of the Bielskis provides us with an intriguing footnote to Holocaust history. But it is a footnote, not a revelation. A title card at the end tells us that the Bielskis saved 1,200 Jews, a worthy achievement and something for which we surely can be grateful, but this number has little to do with the enormity of the event against which it must be measured.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Emma and Dustin, together again

Emma Thompson's lovely, generous smile lights up her face and everything in its vicinity. As Kate Walker, Thompson is the best thing about the anemic romantic comedy, "Last Chance Harvey." In fact, she may well provide the movie's only saving grace. Kate, who lives in London, enters the picture because of Harvey Shine (Dustin Hoffman), a composer of jingles for commercials who visits England to attend his daughter's wedding. Poor Harvey. He's about to lose his job, probably because of his age. To make matters worse, his daughter (Liane Balaban) asks her stepfather (James Brolin) to give her away. Harvey can't get the security tag off his new suit; and he's being housed in a hotel away from the rest of the wedding party. The whole business is designed (boy, is it ever) to make Harvey look like sap. It works, but this kind of set-up also makes us yearn for a movie that's interested in plumbing the depths of Harvey's disappointment. Instead, "Last Chance" does precisely what its title promises. It provides Harvey with an opportunity for happiness, which means he has a chance to establish a real relationship with Kate. The script by Joel Hopkins, who also directed, doesn't offer much more than that. In a completely extraneous and utterly awful attempt at comedy, Eileen Atkins plays Kate's mother, a woman who believes her Polish next-door neighbor might be a murderer. "Last Chance Harvey" must have been meant to tug at aging heartstrings. Mine remained unplucked.

FYI: Hoffman and Thompson both appeared in 2006's "Stranger Than Fiction."

If you're past the age of 12, you may derive more pleasure from "Last Chance Harvey" than from "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," a juvenile comedy starring Kevin James, still best known for his work on TV's "The King of Queens." James portrays a downtrodden mall cop who becomes an unlikely hero in an innocuous comedy that turns a New jersey mall into a laugh-free zone.

Kung Fu kicks its way toward Bollywood

The title alone is enough to make movie marketers nervous. "Chandni Chowk to China" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, and if the movie's name proves challenging, its Bollywood blend of slapstick and martial arts doesn't always go down easily, either. Don't get me wrong. I enjoy the showy artifice of Bollywood, but at 154 minutes, "Chandni Chowk" represents a challenge. That's a long time to watch what amounts to a massive cultural collision between Bollywood and Hong Kong moviemaking.

The movie centers on a vegetable cutter (Akshay Kumar) who plies his trade in the Chandni Chowk section of Delhi. The story begins when a couple of visitors from a Chinese village mistake Kumar's Sidhu for the reincarnation of a great Chinese warrior. They believe Sidhu can liberate their village from the iron hand of Hojo (Gordon Liu), a tyrannical gangster. Sidhu travels to China with a dubious mentor (Ranvir Shorey) who doesn't believe that his student can save anyone from Hojo, who flings a lethal bowler at his foes. The story adds further complications by introducing a pair of beautiful twins, one of whom grew up in India; the other, in China. And, no, I probably haven't summarized even half the plot.

Kumar, a big-name Indian star, works in a broad comic style that takes a bit of adjustment. Kumar shows no fear of going over the top. In fact, he launches himself in that direction every chance he gets. I suppose this kind of overstatement makes sense because the joys of Bollywood often require sustained displays of infectious energy. "Chandni Chowk" adheres to that and many other Bollywood rules. The colors are lush, the women (Deepika Padukone, Aishwarya Rai and Frieda Pinto) are beautiful and the music has a strong beat. This whole improbable mess of a movie might have been more fun had it not gone on quite so long or been quite so repetitious. A joke involving a potato in which Sidhu believes he sees the face of the Hindi deity Ganesh becomes a running and slightly tiresome gag.

The approach to martial arts may remind you of Jackie Chan; i.e., nothing is taken all that seriously. But Chan is better at this sort of thing than his Indian counterparts. Did I say nothing is taken seriously? Maybe that's not quite true. When Sidhu trains for his final battle with Hojo, the movie puts on a grim, fighting face, and Sidhu stops behaving like a hapless buffoon. A last-minute attempt at a comedy/Kung Fu remix doesn't quite work, but by the time that rolls around, you may have had enough. A little of this kind of Bollywood fare goes a long way; too much of it can make it make you feel as if your head is about to explode.

For a look at the career of Akshay Kumar, you might want to try this New York Times' article.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Oscar's foreign-language short list

Oscar's short list of films qualifying for this year's best foreign-language film has been released, according to Variety. I've seen three of the nine movies. If I had to bet, I'd put my money on director Ari Folman's animated "Waltz With Bashir" to win the Oscar, but the two other films I've had the pleasure of seeing -- "The Class" and "3 Monkeys'' -- are equally worthy. The final five will be announced Jan. 22.

Austria, “Revanche,” Gotz Spielmann, director.
Canada, “The Necessities of Life,” Benoit Pilon, director.
France, “The Class,” Laurent Cantet, director.
Germany, “The Baader Meinhof Complex,” Uli Edel, director.
Israel, “Waltz with Bashir,” Ari Folman, director.
Japan, “Departures,” Yojiro Takita, director.
Mexico, “Tear This Heart Out,” Roberto Sneider, director.
Sweden, “Everlasting Moments,” Jan Troell, director.
Turkey, “3 Monkeys,” Nuri Bilge Ceylan, director.

p.s. Carping about Oscar omissions can become a pastime whose only effect is to add misery to the life of the person doing the carping. Writing on an LA Weekly blog, critic Scot Foundas Tuesday lamented the fact that Italy's "Gomorrah" didn't make Oscar's short list. He's right to complain, but the Oscar for best foreign film doesn't necessarily go to the best picture. I'm not sure that you could find 10 people who could tell you which picture won last year's award for best foreign-language film. It was "The Counterfeiters" (Germany). Two great films -- "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" (Romania) and "Persepolis" (France) -- were overlooked in this usually troublesome category. "Persepolis," by the way, received a nomination for best animated feature, but lost to "Ratatouille." I know an Oscar nomination and certainly an award can mean more viewers and, therefore, more money, but it's no determinant of greatness.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Golden Globe's, 'We're so humbled'

I watched as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association handed out the Golden Globe awards in a long and often boring show that demonstrated at least two things: First, Kate Winslet -- shockingly, I think -- seems to have studied at the Halle Berry school of awards acceptance. An uncontrollably emotional Winslet won best supporting actress ("The Reader") and best actress ("Revolutionary Road"). Second, well who knows what Mickey Rourke's acceptance speech (for best actor) demonstrated? Possibly that he loves his dogs. Rourke managed to provoke Darren Aronofsky, who directed Rourke in "The Wrester," into giving him the finger, a gesture of taunting good will or something like that. The two funniest people in the room: Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron Cohen. Should we regard the evening as a bellwether for Oscar? I wouldn't think so, and, who knows, the Globe selection of "Slumdog Millionaire" as best dramatic picture may even hurt the movie's Academy Award chances. Oscar voters may not wish to be seen as rubber-stamping the Globes. For the record, it's probably important to point out that Tahiti is represented among the HFPA membership, which has less than 100 members. I don't know why exactly why it's important to know that Tahiti boasts one member, but then I don't know why the Globes are all that important, either, unless it's to provide more fodder for movie advertising. "Winner of (fill the in the blank) Golden Globes." If you missed the show and insist on knowing the winning slate, check the HFPA Web site.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Mickey Rourke wrestles with pain

Is Mickey Rourke still part of the human race? Watching Rourke in "The Wrestler," I wasn't entirely sure. Rourke's head seems too large for his body. His face looks swollen, as if he's gobbled massive doses of steroids or taken one too many punches. His body appears to be in good shape, but in "The Wrestler," Rourke moves in the slow, lumbering way of a man whose joints have gone on strike. And when you think of Rourke, perhaps as you saw him in such early movies as "Body Heat" and "Diner," you can't help but wonder what series of calamities produced the face that looms so large before you now.

I suppose it all makes sense in context. In "The Wrestler," Rourke plays Randy "The Ram" Robinson, a once famous wrestler who can't walk away from his gravely diminished share of the spotlight. With director Darren Aronofsky's at the helm, Rourke gives a performance that's not easily classified. It's both physical and eerily offbeat. Rourke turns Randy into a hunk of meat (his own description) but one with flickers of soul. There's already been Oscar talk. I don't know about that, but I will say that Rourke's work proves oddly effective, and it looks as if he put himself through physical hell to get where he needed to go.

Working from a script by Robert D. Siegel, Aronofsky goes easy on style, an unusual choice for the director of movies such as the propulsive "Requiem for a Dream" or "The Fountain," which was visually dazzling but intellectually slack. If someone told you that "The Wrestler" happened to be a first film, you might believe it. Aronofsky opts for the kind of gritty texture that's sometimes found on the indie circuit, and which makes the most of New jersey strip joints, makeshift wrestling arenas and Ram's disorderly trailer, the home from which he's periodically evicted for non-payment of rent. Ram, who was big during the '80s, survives by working part time at a local supermarket and by wrestling for small purses on the weekends.

The best parts of the movie involve Aronofsky's depiction of wrestling on the cheap. The fights are staged, but the wrestlers take a beating nonetheless. They cut themselves with razors to give the crowd the bloodshed it craves. One wrestler likes to inject staples into his and his opponent's bodies. These wrestlers -- some on the way up and others on the way out -- work hard to please their fans. The banter among the wrestlers feels authentic, and some of the matches are difficult to watch. You can feel the pain that goes into creating the illusion of unrestrained combat.

The story follows a somewhat predictable arc. As events unfold, Randy receives a chance to make amends with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and perhaps to start a genuine relationship with a lap dancer (Marisa Tomei) he's met in a strip club. Tomei has received lots of praise for her work as a woman who has been forced to wall herself off emotionally but still put on a pleasant face for the customers. She's offering a variation of the hooker with a heart of gold, and most of the picture passes before her character takes a chance on her emotions. As a single mom with limited talent, Tomei's Cassidy can't afford to lose focus.

But the main event is Rourke. Ram can't find meaning away from the business that has given him notoriety and destroyed his body. Outside the ring, he's lost. He doesn't know how to talk to his daughter, and he doesn't understand responsibility well enough even to run away from it.

In an attempt to quit the ring after a bypass operation, Ram takes a full-time job at the local supermarket. He's working the deli counter. He approaches employment with humor and style, but he's not really suited for steady work. He's pushed by desires that go beyond egg salad and luncheon meats. He wants to be recognized and he also wants to punish himself. Only one place offers such a potent combination, the wrestling ring, a venue where bold gestures make sense. Rourke wisely plays agains Aronofsky's tendency toward overstatement. He slows his roll, and it works for him. Ram knows that he's close to the bottom of the barrel, but he seems relaxed about it, as if failure were a noble calling.

Rourke may not always look human, but his appearance becomes an indelible part of Ram's bruised humanity. Ram shambles through what remains of his former glory. Lots of movie characters have met with similar fates, and, like them, Ram is pitiable, a man for whom personal fulfillment and physical pain are tied up in the same impossible package. Even when he wins, Ram loses. He's just not a second-chance kind of guy.

The BFCA announces its 2008 winners

The Broadcast Film Critics Association Thursday announced the winners of its 2008 awards. For the record, I vote in this election, and although the outcome doesn't totally reflect my sentiments, I thought I'd share the final results. Note the tie between Meryl Streep ("Doubt") and Anne Hathaway ("Rachel Getting Married") for best actress, and buckle up for the rest of the awards season, which culminates with Oscar night on Sunday, Feb. 22.

Slumdog Millionaire

Sean Penn – Milk

Anne Hathaway – Rachel Getting Married
Meryl Streep – Doubt

Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight

Kate Winslet – The Reader


Danny Boyle – Slumdog Millionaire

BEST WRITER (Original or Adapted Screenplay)
Simon Beaufoy – Slumdog Millionaire


Dev Pate
l – Slumdog Millionaire

The Dark Knight

Tropic Thunder

“John Adams”

Waltz With Bashir

Man On Wire

BEST SONG (performer/writer, film)
“The Wrestler” – Bruce Springsteen/Bruce Springsteen – The Wrestler

A.R. Rahman – Slumdog Millionaire

Wedded to mediocrity

Contrived as it is unconvincing, "Bride Wars" casts Kate Hudson (the aggressive one) against Anne Hathaway (the pliant one) as long-time friends who have a falling out when their weddings accidently are scheduled for the same day. Candice Bergen signs on as a wedding planner and each of the brides has a husband-in-waiting. Forget the supporting players, though: The comedy revolves around Hudson and Hathaway, who spend most of the picture bickering and battling. Nothing needs to be said about this preposterous, bubble-headed comedy, aside from the fact that it's preposterous and bubble-headed. Hathaway has been talked up for an Oscar for her work in Jonathan Demme's "Rachel Getting Married," a wedding picture in which she played a very different kind of character, a recovering druggie with a penchant for self-destruction. Demme liberated something in Hathaway; director Gary Winick ("13 Going on 30") puts Hathaway's genie back in the bottle for this painfully prolonged attempt at comedy.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Something fishy about this list

A reader asked what I thought about a recent blog entry at the New York Times Web site. Here goes: Stanley Fish Sunday listed what he regards as the 10 best American movies ever. According to the Times' biography, the compiler of this particular list serves as the Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor and a professor of law at Florida International University, in Miami. Fish also has taught at other prestigious universities and has authored a book on higher education.

No real qualifications are necessary for making 10-best lists. If you've stumbled upon this entry consider yourself invited to contribute your own. I'm going to refrain from reciprocating, however, and out respect for Mr. Fish's impressive credentials, I won't list my 10 favorite American legal decisions or even 10 ways in which I believe higher education could be improved. OK, I know of only one, awarding me a tenured chair that requires no teaching and only occasional appearances on campus.

Don't get me wrong. There's nothing terribly wrong with Fish's list, aside from its inclusion of "Groundhog Day." I liked "Groundhog Day" a great deal, but remain unconvinced that Harold Ramis could have directed one of the 10 best American films ever. I mean we are talking "ever," as in "everything up until now." An unusually generous critic couldn't even get Ramis in the top 15. I'm a committed Billy Wilder fan, but I wouldn't have included two Wilder movies on my list. Fish opts for both "Sunset Blvd." and "Double Indemnity."

I won't repeat Fish's entire list here, but I will mention some notable omissions. OK, I'm being totally predictable, but for a splendid reason: "Citizen Kane" belongs on such a list. It remains a great movie, possibly the greatest American movie. Other candidates: "The Godfather." "Casablanca." The "Treasure of the Sierra Madre," and "The Searchers." And those are just some suggestions from the classics division. Fish anoints William Wyler's "The Best Years of Our Lives" as his best American movie. It's a fine piece of work, but I'd have a difficult time boosting it into first place.

And, no, I'm not gong to make my own list. Lists give me headaches. Besides, lists never should be taken seriously, unless you happen to be talking about a list of Power Ball winners and then only if your name appears on it -- at the top, of course.

Friday, January 2, 2009

A chance to see an early Truffaut

"Shoot the Piano Player" (1960) was Francois Truffaut's first movie after his groundbreaking "400 Blows," which debuted a year earlier. if you live in Denver, you can see the film in re-release at the Starz Denver Film Center starting Friday (Jan. 2). Although Truffaut made better films, few match "Shoot the Piano Player" for sheer cinematic playfulness and audacity. Cliche has it -- and cliche can sometimes be right -- that Truffaut mixed a variety of genres without fretting too much about whether they matched. classifies the movie in four ways, calling it a drama, a romance, a thriller and a big-screen helping of crime.

As part of the French New Wave, Truffaut was intent on vanquishing genre lines while at the same time paying homage to the kinds of Hollywood fare that inspired so many French filmmakers. His film, based on a novel by David Goodis, is both a self-contained story and a breezy meditation on a wide range of movie strategies.

The story revolves around a pianist played by singer Charles Aznavour. Aznavour begins the movie as Charlie Kohler, a musician working a lowdown Parisian bar. As the tale unfolds, we learn that Charlie once was a world-class concert pianist named Edouard Saroyan. The movie contains a long flashback about Charlie's life as Edouard. It also explores the pianist's ill-fated relationships with women and with a couple of criminal brothers. I haven't even mentioned a younger brother who lives with Charlie and who's looked after by a prostitute, another of Charlie's lovers.

Those are plenty of ingredients for one movie, but Truffaut manages to keep things humming, and some of the better bits are priceless. An example: the unexpected and very funny dialogue in a scene in which two thugs drive Charlie's younger brother, whom they've kidnapped, to the country as part of a plan to retrieve lost loot.

"Shoot the Piano Player" returns us -- at least momentarily -- to a time when directors thought that cinema was alive with possibility. Truffaut, who died in 1984, was 28 when the film was released.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The "Revolutionary Road'' review

Since the previous item was written, my review of "Revolutionary Road" has been published on the Rocky Mountain News Web site. Let's hope for a happier New Year than anything you'll see in Sam Mendes' adaptation of Richard Yates' much-admired 1961 novel.