Friday, March 26, 2010

Raunchy bubbles rise in 'Hot Tub'

The motley crew of Hot Tub Time Machine.

What do you say about a movie that aims for stupidity and hits its target? Do you applaud its dubious success or do you simply say the movie contains a few dumb laughs. I opt for the second approach re: Hot Tub Time Machine, a comedy that arrives on screen with an early positive buzz, having been compared by some critics to last summer's The Hangover. If that doesn't thrill you, read no further. Hot Tub Time Machine is not for those who are looking for a comedy that's steeped in either sophistication or wit.

Comparisons to The Hangover -- not an inducement for everyone -- result from the movie's abundant raunchiness, a collection of supposedly humorous vulgarities that includes projectile vomiting, a semen joke, bare male bottoms and … well … you get the idea.

The story is as preposterously goofy as its inspired title suggests. A group of friends revisits a ski resort they frequented in the 1980s. They're trying to cheer up one of their number. They believe their pal has become suicidally depressed, an easy conclusion to reach after this hapless dope nearly asphyxiates himself in his garage.

Turns out the resort is nothing like the spa of memory; it now looks like a cross between a slum and a ghost town or maybe an assisted living facility that long ago went bankrupt. But when our disappointed heroes jump into a rundown hot tub, they're magically transported back to the 1980s, where everyone treats them as if they were young again. Wham! The resort returns to its 1980s glory.

Whoopee! The '80s! It was a time without cell phones. No one had heard of e-mail, and if you had used the word “google,” people might have thought you were feigning baby talk.

John Cusack, an actor associated with a few '80s hits – from Sixteen Candles to Say Anything -- leads this purposefully cheesy and very backward march through time. Cusack's Adam is accompanied on his time travels by his nephew (Clark Duke), a suicidal but libidinous buddy (Rob Corddry) and another pal (Craig Robinson) who works in a dog-grooming shop. None of our time travelers leads the life he thought he'd be living back when all that seemed important was having a good time, which meant lots of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, the holy-trinity of the party life.

A couple of additional characters round out the cast. Chevy Chase – in a pointless and not especially funny cameo – plays the guy who knows how to fix the hot tub time machine so that our quartet of losers can return to the present. Crispin Glover portrays a one-armed bellhop. How Glover's character loses his arm becomes a running joke.

I laughed some, but didn't find the movie as hilarious as had been promised by some of the early reviewers. Like many recent politically incorrect comedies, Hot Tub's scabrous antics don't reflect the kind of joyous subversion of the status quo that's necessary to move beyond gross-outs and gimmickry. A trippy (is that an '80s word?) ending, proves a bit unexpected, but, for the most part, only the gross-outs make any sort of splash in this retrograde Hot Tub.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

More flapping of wings -- in 3-D, of course

You will believe a dragon can fly.

Is it better blindly to battle an enemy or to find out whether it's possible to make friends? If you chose the second option, you already know the lesson that the new animated movie, How to Train Your Dragon, tries to teach. This unmistakably instructive bit of DreamWorks animation encourages kids to explore the idea that empathy might be more powerful than hostility.

How to Train Your Dragon operates on the assumption that ... well ... assumptions can be dangerous. To prove its point, the movie drops us into a world of scruffy Vikings who live on a rugged cliff overlooking an ocean expanse. For as long as anyone can remember, the movie's Vikings have assumed that dragons are an enemy that must be battled at every fire-breathing turn. Having constructed their society around combat, the Vikings never bother to get close enough to dragons to learn whether these fearsome-looking creatures represent a real threat. As a result, Vikings live in a world of severely reduced options.

Make what you will of the message. I have no complaints about it, but the delivery system doesn't represent a total triumph. Although How to Train Your Dragon has been made in 3-D, the movie's points tend to come across in a flat, cartoonish fashion that shortchanges the depth and mystery that marks the best animated films. What's left? A diverting bit of action-oriented 3-D, but one that isn't likely to establish itself as a timeless classic.

Now, let me mention right off that parents who think it's important that their kids understand that Vikings were Norse warriors, will have some 'splainin' to do. For reasons that never are made clear, the adult Vikings in How to Train Your Dragon speak with Scottish accents. The younger characters - particularly the endearing and oddly named Hiccup - sound like all-American kids recruited by central casting.

The movie's strange stew of accents tells us that directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois (Lilo & Stitch) were less concerned with verisimilitude than with finding ways to pour on the 3-D effects and to captivate younger audiences with a variety of colorfully designed dragons with names that sound as if they might have been lifted from the world of professional wrestling: the Hideous Stickleback and the Terrible Terror, for example. In this corner, "Monstrous Nightmare."

The story focuses on Hiccup's increasingly impressive accomplishments. Hiccup (voice by Jay Baruchel) is a sensitive kid who lacks the typical Viking physique. His father Stoick (Gerard Butler) can't help but be disappointed that the boy hasn't made the transition from wimp to warrior. Eventually, young Hiccup works his way into dragon-fighting classes where he's instructed by the gruff but loveable Gobber (Craig Ferguson). He also meets a girl who's well on her way to becoming first-rate dragon battler, the spunky Astrid (America Ferrera).

The movie's message begins to emerge when Hiccup wounds and then befriends a Night Fury dragon he beneficently names Toothless. At that point, the movie takes on the aura of a boy-and-his-dog yarn, except the dog is a dragon. The tension - if you can call it that - develops as Hiccup and Toothless learn to trust each other, a task that requires Hiccup to learn to fly around on Toothless' back and gives the movie's animation team a chance to flap its creative wings.

Will Hiccup be able to show his fellow Vikings that they needn't fight? Not without a finale in which a truly dangerous beast must be defeated. No matter how pacific a movie's goals, achieving them without a tumultuous end-of-picture battle remains a near impossibility.

How to Train Your Dragon, adapted from a book by Cressida Cowell, makes Hiccup a little too self-consciously modern, and the movie's message isn't subtly enough stated for anyone to miss it. But the 3-D can be fun, particularly, if you're one of its new fans, and the movie never seems overly impressed with itself. So I'm guessing that kids roughly from seven to 10 will enjoy Dragon's blend of action and instruction, even if it's a bit short on wonder and a bit long on noise. Come to think of it, where kids are concerned, I'm not sure that anything can be too long on noise.

'Chloe' takes the fun out of sex

Amanda Seyfried and Julianne Moore study each other.

The kindest thing I can say about Atom Egoyan's Chloe is to express the sincere hope that it's an anomaly from a gifted director with a variable track record.

This time out, Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter) has ventured into soapy waters with the story of a gynecologist (Julianne Moore) who tests her marriage by hiring a young prostitute (Amanda Seyfried) to tempt her flirtatious husband (Liam Neeson). During the course of all this, Moore's character tests some waters herself, dabbling in a lesbian affair with Seyfried's character.

Despite the erotic nature of the material and a fair measure of nudity, Chloe seems to have been stripped (you'll pardon the expression) of Egoyan's more idiosyncratic touches. Put another way, the erotic undertow that has marked such Egoyan thrillers as Exotica seems to have pushed to the surface. It's as if Egoyan, in adapting the 2004 French film Nathalie, has done his best to create a potboiler with potential to topple art-house walls.

Egoyan finally does himself and the movie in by wandering into Fatal Attraction territory. By that time, the thrill was totally gone -- at least for me. Despite a couple of plot shifts that make us take a closer look at Moore's character, Egoyan's movie enters a rarely achieved realm: It's trashy without being much fun.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

'Repo Men:' Another futuristic dud

Jude Law and Forest Whitaker as scary repo men.
Ah, the things movies will do so that a couple of grown men can chase each other around a decaying city. Who knows? Without chases, three-quarters of Hollywood's output might be reducible by half. Don't pause to figure it out. Just keep reading, but know that without pursuit, many movies wouldn't exist at all.

That's the story of Repo Men, a futuristic thriller in which Forest Whitaker chases after Jude Law. The reason for this frenzied endeavor involves an elaborate story that wraps around some fairly routine action. Both Whitaker and Law play repo men, only instead of snatching cars from deadbeats who default on their loans, they retrieve artificial organs from people who can't make their payments, a procedure that enables director Miguel Sapochnik to pile on the gore.

In case you need elaboration on what I mean by gore, consider, say, the removal of an artificial heart. To take back someone's heart, you have to slice open his or her body and reach into the chest cavity. If you had trouble cutting up the fetal pig in freshman biology, you definitely will want to steer clear of this one - although there are many other reasons besides potential revulsion for ignoring Repo Men.

Not the least is an uninspired plot: Law portrays Remy, an ace repo man who operates without conscience. The repo man's credo: A job's a job. After an accident during what should have been an easy repossession, the tables turn on Remy. He receives an artificial heart, and loses his desire to carve organs out of organ recipients, almost all of whom were pressured into buying by a slick corporate type (Liev Schreiber).

The cliché applies: The hunter becomes the hunted, teaming up along the way with a woman (Alice Braga) who's also being chased. It seems that she's almost entirely made up of spare parts.

I'm not sure that Repo Men will live long and prosper, but it has one scene in which organ removal between consenting adults is treated with the steamy leer of big-screen sex. I don't know if that makes Law, who slices without dicing, a doctor of love, but it made me laugh in a way that little else in the film did.

The future that Sapochnik & company imagine isn't radically different from the present, aside from the fact that the movie takes place in a city loaded with neon and other low-rent hints that someone has spent too much time watching Blade Runner.

A footnote: With his hair cropped close and his face looking semi-skeletal, Law has the aura of an undernourished puppet. Whitaker, always good at off-kilter line readings, fares a little better, but this hasn't been much of a month for him. He struck out in the woeful comedy Our Family Wedding, and now finds himself in a movie that goes nowhere, other than to present us with one more evil corporation that, like every other big-screen monolith, gets away with murder.


If you made it this far, you deserve a bonus. Here it is: If Repo Men tries to stave boredom with blood, The Bounty Hunter - a romantic comedy starring Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler - is a bloody bore. Butler plays a bounty hunter who's trying to bring in his ex-wife (Aniston), who skipped out on her bail after a traffic offense. He's an ex-detective; she's a reporter. This less than dynamic duo bickers while becoming increasingly involved in an extraordinarily lame plot involving a potentially corrupt cop. If a license were required to make romcoms, then perhaps director Andy Tennant should have his revoked. I didn't expect much from The Bounty Hunter and got even less.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A battle royal in Philly's art world

Dr. Albert Barnes: better taste in art than in sportcoats.

The Art of the Steal is a documentary about the expression of some very unbrotherly love in the Philadelphia art world. The movie pits the Philly establishment against a renegade collector whose taste and fortune allowed him to amass more than 250 paintings from masters such as Renoir, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso and Modigliani.

During the course of his eccentric life Dr. Albert Barnes became the proud owner of one of the world's most magnificent collections of Post-Impressionist art. His collection – so valuable it's beyond pricing – has been housed at the Barnes Foundation, a building located outside Philadelphia. Barnes, who died in 1951, did not want the Barnes Foundation to become a museum. Instead, he operated a school, which he ran according to his own idiosyncratic principles.

The Art of the Steal does not celebrate the splendors of the art accumulated by Barnes, who also developed a drug used to treat venereal disease. Instead, the movie tells the story of one man who – even after his death – found himself at odds with the Philadelphia cultural establishment.

This long-running antagonism began during a time when Philly's elite had its nose so high in the air, it practically brushed against treetops. Born into a working-class family, Barnes regarded himself as a man of the people. He hated the Philadelphia Art Museum. When he died, he left the operation of the Barnes Foundation to a small black college, Lincoln University.

But the story didn't end there. A sustained effort on the part of Philadelphia's powers-that-be attempted to bring the Barnes collection under the city's control. After a variety of court battles, it was determined that art would be moved to a facility that's now under construction on spacious Benjamin Franklin Boulevard.

A variety of personalities break through a complicated legal story that's heavily weighted in favor of the Barnes proponents. The possibility that the other side might be serving the best interests of the art and the general public receives short shrift, and the title leaves little doubt about where director Don Argott stands.

A more balanced film would have required some of the key establishment players -- the head of the Pew Charitable Trust, for example -- to talk to Argott. Most of them didn't. I also would have appreciated knowing a little more about how the Barnes school ran. But such limited liabilities shouldn't keep you from seeing a well-crafted and informative documentary that sheds significant light on the less-than-beautiful ways in which the art world sometimes operates.

A terrifying journey behind bars

A Corsican gangster (left) and his Muslim protege.

About a quarter way through the French movie A Prophet a title card pops up to introduce a new character. I've seldom been so relieved to see an obvious cinematic device because up until that moment, I felt as if I'd been thrown into a French prison and given a crash course in how its brutal pecking order worked.

My unease stemmed from the skillful ways in which French director Jacques Audiard (Read My Lips) turned his prison movie into a sustained visceral nightmare. Audiard makes us feel as if prison bars are slamming behind us, and like all good prison movies, A Prophet poses an uncomfortable but necessary question: What sort of behavior becomes acceptable in a brutal environment?

It's not just confinement that creates the movie's tension. It's the sense of danger that looms in every encounter, the feeling that one not only has lost one's freedom but also has become potential prey for any number of criminal factions. It's hardly news that prisons generate their own power structures, but that familiarity doesn't make A Prophet any less unsettling.

Audiard ably shows the inequities of prison life, conducts a complex study of ethnic loyalties and exposes the ways in which a relatively naïve “criminal” – in this case a young Arab named Malik (Tahar Rahim) -- comes of age behind prison walls. Of course, coming of age in prison isn't quite the same as going through the same process on the outside. At the hands of ruthless Corsican gangsters, Malik learns the criminal trade and discovers a capacity for violence that probably never would have emerged under different circumstances.

Thanks to an immersive filmmaking style, Audiard penetrates the prison experience in ways that very few directors have. We not only watch Malik, but we're forced to confront the choices he makes, to wonder how far would we go to make it to our next birthday or maybe the even to the next day?

Not long after being introduced to prison, Malik comes under the sway of a Corsican gang led by Cesar Luciano (Niels Arestrup). The gang offers its protection in return for a favor. But no matter what Malik does, he's still an Arab, an as such, he never fully earns the trust or respect of his Corsican masters, who treat him like a servant. Malik has protection from the other convicts, but who'll protect him from his Corsican oppressors?

Malik's relationship with the quiet but volatile Cesar proves entirely compelling. Played by Arestrup with the terrifying authority of a man who seldom needs to raise his voice to exert his power, Cesar becomes one of the screen's most unrelenting gangsters. Cesar seems to have more power in the prison than even the warden. The only thing he can't do is free himself. Beyond that, he runs the place as a kind of extension of his pugnacious authority.

Seldom off screen, Rahim gives a performance that more than does justice to Malik's range of prison experiences. He seems to mature before our eyes, and we have to keep reminding ourselves that Malik is a very young man of limited experience who probably didn't deserve to be jailed in the first place.

Brutal, gripping and tense, A Prophet stands as one of the strongest film's to come out of last year's Cannes Film Festival, where it won the grand jury prize. At various times, the relationships among the characters can become blurry and a deep comprehension of the movie's cultural dimensions may require a bit more background than most American's possess.

But the thrust of Audiard's prison drama is inescapable, and A Prophet earns an adjective that's used far too often and for far lesser achievements: It's unforgettable. A Prophet begins its Denver run Friday, March 19.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

'Green Zone' peddles yesterday's news

Matt Damon searches for the truth in Green Zone.

Green Zone, which deals with the early stages of the war in Iraq, winds up firing more blanks than expected. The problem: The movie revolves around a discovery - there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq -- that's lost much of its punch. Put another way: It's difficult to watch director Paul Greengrass' urgently presented drama without wishing it would tell us something we didn't already know.

The atmosphere feels right and the chaos of Baghdad after the initial stages of the invasion couldn't be more convincing, but the movie's focus on an Army Chief Warrant Officer (Matt Damon) -- a non-com who's trying to discover why his squad has been given so much faulty intelligence -- turns the story into a frenzied quest for a truth we know before the curtain rises.

Make no mistake, though, there are some mind-blowing sights here. Greengrass does an excellent job of showing the disconnect between the foot soldiers who are living through life-and-death scenarios in the streets of Baghdad and the bigwigs who congregate in the Green Zone, a safe haven replete with swimming pools and a veranda for cocktails. The Club Med-like atmosphere of the Green Zone makes a mockery of the hardship endured by the average GIs, most of whom couldn't set foot in the "secure" facilities that were set up in one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces.

An end credit tells us the movie was "inspired" by Rajiv Chandrasekaran's book Imperial Life in the Emerald City, and the movie does draw on some of Chandrasekaran's reporting, but Greengrass - who directed the brilliant United 93 and who directed Damon in the Bourne Ultimatum - chops up the action in ways that create at least as much chaos as comprehension. Obviously, war is a form of chaos, but on screen, a little chaos goes a long way, and by the time the final chase sequence arrives, you may already feel numbed to any potential excitement.

Damon, who's in almost every scene, does a convincing enough job as a no-nonsense soldier who's appalled by the idea that GIs may have been sold a bill of goods about why they're fighting in Iraq. A strong supporting cast includes Greg Kinnear as a duplicitous Bush administration representative, and Brendan Gleeson as a world-weary CIA agent who - unlike many others in Baghdad -- actually knows something about Iraq. Amy Ryan acquits herself well as a journalist who helped peddle the WMD story that whipped up false enthusiasm for the war.

Some of the interaction between the soldiers and ordinary Iraqis has the feel of authenticity, as well. The movie flirts with something truly interesting in the relationship that Damon's character develops with an Iraqi civilian (Khalid Abdalla) who hates Saddam's Baathist Party and wants to help the Americans, but who's never fully trusted by many of the soldiers he meets.

This time out, Greengrass's trademark approach - turning his images into pieces of cinematic shrapnel that are supposed to land with explosive force -- becomes (dare I say?) a trifle boring. And even some of the movie's smaller observations -- about bad U.S. decisions vis-a-vis the Iraqi Army and about the "real" reasons for the war - hardly seem shocking. As a result, Greengrass, working from a screenplay by Brian Helgeland, is stuck with a movie in which war-crazed confusion tends to overpower a less-than-compelling tale.

All of which got me to thinking: Old-time advertisements for topical movies used to scream, "Ripped from today's headlines." I doubt whether anyone ever tried to market a movie by proclaiming that its story was "Ripped from yesterday's headlines," but that's pretty much what Green Zone does.

'Remember' strains not to be forgotten

Emilie de Ravin and Robert Pattinson talk things over.

What you think of Remember Me probably depends on whether you believe the movie’s emotional end justifies the mediocre means by which it got there. I’d vote no.

Teen-age girls who are enamored of Robert Pattinson, of Twilight-movie fame, may well cast their ballots differently, and, no, I can’t tell you any more about the ending, except to say that – in my opinion -- nothing that preceded it earned the payoff that obviously was being sought.

For most of its 113 minutes, the movie seems like a vehicle concocted to showcase the talents of Pattinson, who served as one of the movie’s executive producers. Freed from his duties as a vampire in the Twilight series, Pattinson proves more interesting, although he hasn't entirely made the transition from a willful outsider to a fully engaged human being. He’s playing an alienated rich kid who spends a lot of time smoking cigarettes, brooding and acting as if he’s seen every movie James Dean ever made.

The story revolves around a romance between Pattinson’s Tyler Hawkins and Emilie de Ravin’s Ally Craig. He’s the son of a wealthy businessman (Pierce Brosnan). She’s the daughter of a working-class cop (Chris Cooper).

Both have daddy on their minds. Tyler blames his father for his older brother’s suicide. When Ally was 10 – in 1991 – she witnessed her mother’s murder at a Brooklyn subway station. Not surprisingly, her father has a very protective attitude toward his only child.
Director Allen Coulter alternates romance and overplayed dramatic scenes, and the screenplay uses an embarrassingly old trick to set up the relationship between Ally and Tyler. As part of a vengeance scheme (never mind for what), Tyler begins dating Ally. What begins with deception quickly evolves into true love.

The movie gets sidetracked with a subplot about Tyler’s younger sister (Ruby Jerins), an artistic prep school student who has an especially close relationship with her big brother. Tyler’ s mother (Lena Olin) long has been divorced from his master-of-the-universe dad, who spends all of his time in his office where he’s evidently busy acquiring companies and making oodles of money.

As part of his rebellion against his father’s corporate preoccupations, Tyler has taken up residence in a ratty apartment he shares with his roommate Aidan, an annoying Tate Ellington.

You’d have to be reasonably hard-hearted not to be moved by the ending, but upon reflection, it struck me as a cheat, a shameless last-ditch effort to elevate a mediocre movie into something special.


OK, this may be more than a couple of words -- but not much more. Our Family Wedding plays like the pilot for a sitcom that was rejected by all the major networks. What could have been a knowing comedy about the relationship that wariness between the families of a young black man (Lance Gross) and his Mexican-American fiancee (America Ferrera) devolves into ethnic shtick and stereotyping. Among other things, the movie may prove that Forest Whitacker, an actor whom I admire a great deal, doesn't really have the cops for comedy and that Ferrara, another talent, deserves better material. Director Rick Famuyiwa turns the movie into a kind of My Big Fat Mexican-American Wedding, a cacophonous blend of sentiment and misguided ethnic humor that can be painful to watch.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A summary of my Oscar Tweets, Part 9

OK, the room's clearing out. There's no more wine. I have only one more thing to say, The Hurt Locker kicked butt -- and all the right butts, at that. And that brings an end to a generally unsurprising evening and to the interminable awards season. See you at the after party.

A summary of my Oscar Tweets, Part 8

9:59 The Academy does the right thing, and gives the best picture Oscar to "The Hurt Locker." 9:50 p.m. Kathryn Bigelow wins the Oscar for best director. It's a great honor for her, but did we need Babs to remind us that the time had come for a woman director to win? It's not Oscar's achievement; it's Bigelow's. Classy speech from Bigelow, acknowledges soldiers about whom she made her film. 9:40 p.m. The Oscar for best actress goes to Sandra Bullock. The woman sitting next to me gags. Sorry, but it's true. But Bullock does a nice job of acknowledging her fellow nominees. Would I have voted for her? But she really does seem to be Miss Congeniality.

A summary of my Oscar Tweets, Part 7

9:35 p.m. Good for Jeff Bridges. Everyone knew he'd win and you gotta love a guy who seems to enjoy winning. He calls acting a "groovy profession." The Dude abides. 9:28 p.m. Having actors and actresses who starred with the best actor nominees introduce each one of them is a nice touch. 9:25 p.m. Damn, Up in the Air should win something. 9:15 p.m. The Oscar for best foreign language film goes to (The Secret in Their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos) from Argentina. A total Oscar fake out. As always, Oscar honors a film that no one has seen, bypassing The White Ribbon and A Prophet. It better be one hell of a film. But credit the director for giving a shout-out to Chile, which badly needs one.

A summary of my Oscar Tweets, Part 6

9:06 p.m. The Hurt Locker wins best editing. It's on its way to best picture. Maybe. And it's not even in 3-D. 9:05 p.m. Tyler Perry appears on the Oscars and makes a joke about the fact that this could be a one-and-only gig for him. 9:03 p.m. The Cove -- from Boulder filmmakers -- wins best documentary. Those of us who live in Colorado go wild. Or maybe semi-wild. Well, we applauded politely.

A summary of my Oscar Tweets, Part 5

8:59 p.m. Oscar needs a big award soon. The crowds grow restless. 8:54 p.m. Avatar wins an Oscar for its effects, one of them not being the script. Avatar and Hurt Locker are tied at three Oscars apiece. 8:51 p.m. Up wins for best score. Somewhere (I don't know where exactly) someone is celebrating. 8:45 p.m. No. No. Not dancing. Not a production number. When will Oscar learn? No one in the room I'm in is paying attention. Who can blame them? 8:30 p.m. maybe. The one segment that the Academy can't blow -- a look back at those who passed in the year gone by. But not my favorite James Taylor performance.

A summary of my Oscar Tweets, Part 4

8:25 p.m. I know I'm in an older crowd because many of my companions on this endless journey keep asking who some of the younger presenters are. 8:20 p.m. I don't know about you, but I'm getting bored with Oscar. Looks like George Clooney has had his fill, too. Thank goodness, there's wine. 8:20 p.m. Twilight stars (did we really need to see them at the Oscars?) pay tribute to big-screen horror. A pointless exercise. If there's a great horror film, nominate it. Otherwise, move on. 8:10 p.m. Loved the idea that the costume designer who won for The Young Victoria (Sandy Powell) paid tribute to her colleagues who didn't make films about dead monarchs. 8:06 p.m. Avatar wins its first Oscar, best art direction. I was beginning to forget about James Cameron's little picture.

A summary of my Oscar Tweets, Part 3

7:55 p.m. Mo'Nique thanks the Academy for honoring her performance and not taking the political route. What would have been the political route, Maggie Gyllenhaal? Oh well, Mo'Nique was great, and she deserves her award. 7:50 p.m. Precious beats Up in the Air for best adapted screenplay, the night's first real surprise. Could this be the start of something, an upset in other categories? I feel bad for Jason Reitman, who did a wonderful job adapting a Walter Kirn novel for Up in the Air. 7:40 p.m. Ben Stiller, dressed as a member of Na'Vi nation, manages to make the proceedings seem a whole lot sillier. Presents award for best make-up. Star Trek wins. Could be the first Oscar handed to anyone by a guy with a tail. 7:35 p.m. I'd been rooting for Denver's Daniel Junge to win in the best documentary short category. He didn't, but he has a great future.

A summary of my Oscar Tweets, Part 2

7:23 p.m. The salute to the late John Hughes is a nice touch. Hughes made teen movies that you didn't have to be ashamed to watch. Someone mentions that this edition of Oscar seems more scripted than any other in recent history. 7:14 p.m. Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker) upsets Quentin Tarantino and wins for best original screenplay. Finally, something good happens to a journalist -- that would be Boal, who covered the war in Iraq. 7:05 p.m. The voters actually picked the best song, The Weary Kind from Crazy Heart. 7:10 p.m. Someone at my table says Amanda Seyfried has terrible posture. 6:59 p.m. Up wins best animated feature. Fantastic Mr. Fox gets robbed and Oscar continues on its predictable course.

A summary of my Oscar Tweets, Part 1

6:46 p.m. Christoph Waltz wins the Oscar we all expected him to win. Gracious guy. Not a memorable speech, but to the point. Hope Woody Harrelson gets another chance some day. He was terrific in The Messenger. 6:35 p.m. The Oscars or Vegas? I'm bummed already. Hate this set 6:25 p.m. That's the best I've seen Meryl Streep look at an awards show. She finally gets into Oscar glitz. 6:15 p.m. I've got a big screen TV over my left shoulder where Jennifer Lopez looms very large. Draw your own conclusions. 5:59 p.m. George Clooney is way too honest. Tells AP that, by now, just about everyone knows who'll win. Doesn't expect victories for either Vera Farmiga or Anna Kendrick, both nominated for supporting actress for work in Up in the Air. Thinks the nominations will boost their careers, though.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Plenty of grit, but to what end?

Wesley Snipes/Don Cheadle, strong work in a flawed effort.

One cop (Ethan Hawke) needs money to buy a house. Another (Don Cheadle) wants a promotion that he believes will liberate him from the morally murky world of undercover work. A third cop (Richard Gere) maintains a safe distance from conflict because he has only seven days remaining until retirement.

Such is the setup for director Antoine Fuqua's Brooklyn's Finest, a cop drama that commits a variety of big-screen felonies. Among them: The motivations given each character in a script by Michael C. Martin and Brad Caleb Kane tend to be over simplified, and a farfetched ending – bathed in the expected bloodshed – makes the entire movie feel contrived.

Fuqua, who directed Training Day, would seem the ideal candidate for getting the most out of Brooklyn's Finest, but the movie doesn't feel as if it has an overriding sense of purpose. Brooklyn's Finest doesn't fulfill the demands of either art or entertainment; it explores the down-and-dirty world of cops who've been tempted by corruption and, in some cases, have indulged their least honorable impulses, but it seems more interested in finding pumped-up drama than in unearthing any kind of truth.

A strong cast is supplemented by an appearance by Wesley Snipes, in what's being touted as a comeback performance. Snipes acquits himself well as a gangster who has won his release from prison thanks to an assist from Cheadle's character. Cheadle's Tango owed Snipes' Cas a favor, so he helped his buddy find a slick attorney who knew how to open slammer doors.

Cheadle gives his usually strong performance as a detective who's living with too much moral ambiguity. Hawke pushes himself to jittery extremes as Sal, a detective who's driven to do better by his family. But Gere seems wooden in this context; he's playing a cop with nothing in his life but vague retirement plans, an undistinguished record and a relationship with a hooker (Shannon Kane). (If you want to see Gere really handle the role of “dirty” cop go back to Mike Figgis' Internal Affairs (1990). Maybe Gere's better at police work in Los Angeles than in NYC.)

The supporting cast can't be faulted, although Lili Taylor is largely wasted as Sal's wife, a woman who's pregnant with twins. Will Patton plays the cop who keeps promising Cheadle's character a promotion, but never seems to deliver. And Ellen Barkin shows up in a quasi-comic role as a foul-mouthed federal agent who seems interested only in advancing her own career. Say this: Barkin refuses to get lost in an atmosphere where testosterone is the hormone of choice.

Watching Brooklyn's Finest is like watching lots of urban ingredients boil in a pot without ever figuring out exactly what dish is being cooked. The movie has plenty of hard-core urban dynamism, but – in the end (and especially at the end) – doesn't have much to show for it.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Burton meets Lewis Carroll: Call it a draw

Alice will fall down the rabbit hole and meet ....Johnny Depp, who plays the Mad Hatter.

Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland is richly imagined and abundantly creative, so much so that it's impossible to watch this version of Lewis Carroll's classic without acknowledging the extraordinary amount of effort that must have gone into it. But the hard work of the filmmaker probably isn't the sort of thing you want to be thinking about on a trip to Wonderland, referred to as Underland in Burton's edition.

In adapting Carroll's tale for the screen – in trendy 3D, of course – Burton has brought his considerable powers to a story that has been given a contemporary gloss, picking up elements from Carroll and putting them through a Disney Cuisinart that turns Alice's story into a increasingly boisterous tale of female assertion, Alice as an avatar (you'll pardon the expression) of newfound identity.

Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is on a search to discover her true self – the right Alice as opposed to the Alice who is not quite the character the tale requires. The script by Linda Woolverton takes Alice on a second trip to Wonderland. She doesn't remember the first, which occurred when she was much younger. This time, Alice -- now 19 – tumbles down the rabbit hole in an attempt to flee a marriage proposal from the obviously dull Hamish (Leo Bill), a young man notable only for his pinched face and troubled powers of digestion.

Once in Wonderland, Alice navigates us through Burton's effects, beginning with the rotund duo, Tweedledee and Tweedledum (voiced by Matt Lucas). The mix of live actors and CGI creations proves reasonably seamless, but CGI trumps most of the live performances with Stephen Fry giving sly voice to the Cheshire Cat, a creature that can dissolve into thin air at a moment's notice, and Alan Rickman bringing Yoda-like wisdom to Absolem, the Blue Caterpillar who dispenses advice while puffing on his hookah. (Yes, we're talking smoking in a Disney movie, great puffy clouds of it.)

Burton has concocted a visual cornucopia, but among his human actors, only Helena Bonham Carter really stands out. Bonham Carter's Red Queen has a large head and a mercurial temperament that catapults her from unrestrained conviviality to off-with-their-heads fury. Bonham Cater essentially steals the show, although she's not always walking away with a grand prize.

Not every one fares quite as well. A one-note Crispin Glover shows up as the scowling Knave of Hearts. And Burton stalwart Johnny Deep portrays the Mad Hatter.

Part of the reason that Depp and Burton have worked so well together over the years (from Edward Scissorhands to Sweeney Todd) involves Depp's ready-for-anything attitude. But I quickly grew tired of him as the Hatter, a character that doesn't allow for much variation, a problem that troubles all of the actors and totally undermines Anne Hathaway, who's cast as the White Queen. Hathaway does her best to appear as if she's floating through every scene, a woman untethered from any earthly moorings. She's so detached, I half wondered whether someone hadn't filled her head with helium.

The story moves toward a battle between Alice and the fierce, dragon-like Jabberwocky, and although there are some nice humorous touches (The Red Queen using a pig as a footstool, for example), the movie embeds most of its madness in its visual fabric instead of teasing it to the surface where it belongs.

Missing from Burton's movie – which proves intermittently enjoyable -- is the tipsy Carroll quality that knocks us off our moorings. The story is told in straightforward fashion that misses the feeling that we've been shoved into a world that's ready to turn our heads inside out. I never felt as if Burton had pulled off the ultimate head trip, even when he was skillfully shifting perspectives as Alice grew in size or turned into a shrunken miniature version of herself.

Put another way: I'd say Burton has met Carroll, and although both survive the encounter, neither comes out entirely victorious by the time Alice in 3D Land crosses the finish line.

Polanski lowers his voice in 'Ghost Writer'

Pierce Brosnan and Ewan McGregor, nose-to-nose.

In Shutter Island, director Martin Scorsese decided to bring his considerable technique front-and-center. Scorsese pushed his ingredients into a hyper chamber of thrills where extravagant visual gestures become the norm. In his new thriller The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanski -- another top-ranked director -- follows a different route.

Although there are terrific images in The Ghost Writer – beginning with the opening shot of a ferry docking at a Massachusetts beach town – Polanski doesn't call attention to his cinematic virtuosity. He's telling a story, and if the story eventually bogs down in its own intricacies perhaps Polanski should be forgiven. The Ghost Writer is quietly involving, a thriller that doesn't aim for the usual adrenalin-fueled shocks.

Adapted by Robert Harris from his own novel, The Ghost Writer tells the story of a writer (Ewan McGregor) who's hired to ghost write the memoirs of a British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan). Brosnan's Adam Lang was forced to resign as the result of torture-related disclosures. Lang evidently turned suspected terrorists over to the CIA, an action that caused a furor in Britain.

After leaving office, Lang (an attractive Tony Blair-like figure) moved to the U.S., becoming a Massachusetts residentin exile. McGregor's character – referred to only as The Ghost – is hired after another ghost writer dies, an apparent suicide.

Just about everyone in the movie knows more than The Ghost, who gradually begins to understand that he may be in danger. The Ghost must weave his way through a web of intrigue and deception as he tries to uncover the truth about a former Prime Minister who can be charming but who also indulges a volatile temper.

McGregor, whose recent work in movies such as Amelia and Angels and Demons has been disappointing, pulls off a neat trick: He's playing a writer whose career has been subordinated to the lives of others. The Ghost may be well paid, but there's no public recognition of his existence. He's an authorial invisible man.

Brosnan ably portrays a beleaguered public man living in enforced privacy with his wife, the terrific Olivia Williams, and an assistant (Kim Cattrell) who may be more than a workmate. Timothy Hutton has a nice small turn as Lang's cagey lawyer, and Tom Wilkinson proves especially sturdy as a Harvard professor encountered by The Ghost toward the end of the movie's second act.

There are some great touches here. Polanski, who shot the film in Germany, gives the Langs an ultra-contemporary house that looks like a seaside bunker on the outside and yields to modern sterility on the inside. Williams makes intelligence look sexy, and we feel as if we -- like the title character -- have gained access to the private world of a once-important man who has resurfaced in disgrace. Lang is about to be charged by the World Court with crimes against humanity.

Polanski seems drawn to characters who are in over their heads, and the movie – particularly in its final scenes – does an admirable job of showing the disconnect between the earnest sobriety of public displays and the sloppy realities of private life.

During a long-ago film course, I watched scenes from Polanski's breakthrough Knife in the Water over and over again. The professor discussed the ways in which Polanski created tension and he certainly hasn't lost his touch. He has a great capacity for inwardness and concealment -- if not for selecting the best material.

Still, The Ghost Writer pulls us into its orbit, a whirlwind of intrigue and corruption that destroys anything caught in its wake, and there are bits and pieces that any director would envy: the tension that accompanies a set piece in which The Ghost tries to elude men who follow him onto a ferry or the intentionally obvious way Polanski plays a waiting game with the audience, following the progress of a note as it's passed from hand-to-hand in one of the movie's final scenes. At its best, Ghost Writer's makes us feel as if we're eavesdropping on conversations that we're not supposed to hear.

Whether Polanski's endlessly publicized, on-going legal troubles limit the movie's appeal remains to be seen, but The Ghost Writer shouldn't be dismissed. Here's a movie in which it's not the characters who are seductive, but the movie itself. Polanski's gift is one of insinuation and guile. I guess we shouldn't be surprised, then, that The Ghost Writer becomes less persuasive as its secrets are revealed.

A great trilogy about pervasive corruption

Andrew Garfield as a reporter in 1974.
Paddy Considine squares off with Sean Harris in 1980.
David Morrissey plays a troubled cop in 1983.

I don't know when I've seen a movie as devastating as The Red Riding Trilogy, a three-picture adaptation of four novels by British author David Peace. The three movies – which open Friday at the Starz Denver Film Festival – originally were made for British TV and total five hours in length.

Each of the films has a different director, each was shot in a different format (16 mm, 35 mm and digital video) and each takes place in a different year (1974, 1980 and 1983). All the stories are set in Yorkshire, England's largest county. Each film also involves the notorious Yorkshire Ripper, a serial killer who was convicted in 1981 after murdering 13 women during a five-year period beginning in 1975.

If all this sounds complex, so be it. The Red Riding Trilogy is one of the densest, most complex movies you'll ever see. On top of that, the thick Yorkshire accents of many of the characters challenge the American ear, and, on occasion, make one long for clarifying subtitles. But if you stick with the three movies, you will, I believe, encounter a masterpiece of darkness, an unremitting chronicle of corruption at every level of society.

Don't let the Yorkshire Ripper connection mislead you. The Red Riding Trilogy is not a whodunit nor does it peer into the twisted mind of a brutal serial killer. It is a portrait of Yorkshire (and, alas, of the human heart) during the course of 10 tumultuous years.

The movie is held together by a mantra recited by various corrupt officials. “This is the North where we do what we want.” Revelations about police corruption, individual intimidation and the hellish nature of ordinary life are hardly shocking -- not anymore. The Trilogy shocks us to the core because of the depth and the extent to which it follows its dark trail of evidence and accusation. The movie makes us feel as if we've caught a disease from which we can't recover, one that's slowly but inevitably fatal.

Throughout the three movies there are overlaps, recurring characters and references to previous events. Eventually, you begin to pick up the movie's rhythms, but you also know that each film represents a kind of dare: Keep up or fall hopelessly behind. Like many films that have plunged into dark, violent waters, The Red Riding Trilogy finds an eerie poetry of the underside, something that elevates pulp into art.

A rude, anti-lyricism anchors much of the dialogue, a disturbing directness that reveals the intentions of the characters, almost all of whom are up to no good. These are not epic villains with larger-than-life ambitions. They're cops you might meet at the local pub. They're also torturers and deviants who are motivated by the most naked forms of greed, men of appetite.

It's probably impossible to summarize the three films properly, but it's worth a fleeting try. The first film, directed by Julian Jarrold and written by Toni Grisoni (who wrote all three movies), centers on a journalist (Andrew Garfield) who's assigned to cover the Ripper murders.

Garfield's Eddie Dunford – a reporter for The Yorkshire Post – is no Bob Woodward. Initially bumbling, ill-informed and over confident, Dunford gradually learns the truth about the cops with whom he deals; he's pulled into a world that seems to revolve around a powerful local businessman (Sean Bean) who wants to build a shopping mall. He also meets the mother (Rebecca Hall) of one of the girls who has disappeared. He falls for her, but don't expect wine and roses.

The hard truth: When people believe they can do what they want and get away with it, a lot of other people will suffer.

So, no, Eddie Dunford is no hero. It falls to Eddie to deliver the film's sour opening line, which defines the worst of journalistic impulses: “Little girl missing. The pack salivates.”

Because the movie is set in 1974, the characters are incessant smokers. The images concocted by cinematographer Rob Hardy have the feel of smoke-clogged rooms that leave you gasping for breath. I haven't smoked in more than 25 years, but watching these characters puff away summoned some sort of residual nicotine memory from deep within my cells, the inescapability of old addictions.

And there are moments of great cinematic prowess. When Eddie decides that his relationship with Paula should go beyond reporter and source, he pauses at her front door. He knocks. She approaches, a hazy figure behind smoked glass. We know in our bones that once she opens that door and Eddie walks through it, nothing ever will be the same for either of them. Of course, the door opens. Of course, Eddie walks through it. The weight of inevitability seems to push Eddie toward his destiny.

Film two, set in 1980, revolves around a cop. Assistant Chief Constable of the Manchester Force Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine) is sent to Yorkshire to learn why the county's cops have bungled the Ripper investigation. By now, we know that setting foot in Yorkshire is a bit like sinking into quicksand; the more you flail, the worse it gets. But Hunter seems confident, competent and honest. So what if he once had an affair with Helen (Maxine Peake), an investigator he's chosen to work with him on the case? So what if his wife miscarried while he was on duty? We're inclined to trust Hunter with his gloomy sense of calm and face full of disappointment.

Directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire), the second film seems more stylish than the first, perhaps because it has been shot in 35 mm. But it takes us even deeper into Yorkshire corruption and makes clear the importance of a ferret-faced Yorkshire cop named Bob Craven (Sean Harris). Craven is an adept torturer and merciless rat who may or may not be overestimating the power that his own brutality gives him. He's an unashamed sadist.

In the final film, directed by Anand Tucker (Hilary and Jackie) the undercurrents of the plot begin to rise to the surface, coming into focus as much as a movie like this will allow anything to come into focus. The story now centers on Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey), a cop with a drooping mustache and a conscience to match. And be sure of this: A conscience is the last thing anyone needs on the Yorkshire police force of this movie. John Piggot (Mark Addy), a lawyer, also looms large in this portion of the story. Piggot hardly epitomizes legal success, but he's likable and has a taste for R&B. Reluctantly, he finds himself pushed in the right direction.

Given five hours of movie, it's neither possible nor desirable to flesh out every detail. The finale of the first movie echoes with the kind of violent retribution that concluded Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. The scenes of torture in the basement of a Yorkshire precinct house will make you wince, and there are so many well-drawn minor characters I couldn't keep track of them all: The soft-spoken but creepy Reverend Laws (Peter Mullan); the manipulative male prostitute BJ (Robert Sheehan) or the various Yorkshire police officials who view the world as theirs to plunder.

I've heard it said that these movies can be viewed as stand-alone dramas. See one and leave. I don't think that's true. The Red Riding Trilogy is an all-or-nothing proposition. Whether you see it now or wait to watch it on DVD, see it. As you watch, you'll find yourself making connections and coming to small realizations. A character that you've seen before will crop up, and you'll scurry across the landscape of recent memory, trying to identify his or her position in the drama. Eventually, a cumulative power begins to gather.

The Trilogy offers as complete a vision of a shabby, fallen world as anything I've ever seen. It's one hell of an accomplishment -- a worldview as well as a movie. Abraham Lincoln may seem an odd person to quote at this point, but I'll twist a thought from Lincoln's first inaugural address and say that The Trilogy makes us wonder whether the better angels of our nature haven't grown weary of us and permanently flown the coop.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Handicapping Oscar: My predictions

I look for Hurt Locker to blow up big on Oscar night.

Jeff Bridges should have no trouble taking home Oscar gold.

It pays to be bossy, if you're Sandra Bullock.

It's time for the fun game the whole family can play. We're talking about that international pastime and water cooler preoccupation known as Predict the Oscars. I try not to make too big a deal out of this annual exercise because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences already makes a big enough deal out of the way it pats itself the back.

Besides, like just about everything else, Oscar has suffered from a bit of deflation. No matter how much the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tries to hype Oscar, the program never will regain all of its luster. Why? For one thing, Oscar once provided a rare opportunity to observe movie stars in unscripted moments. In era of TMZ and a zillion other compulsive chroniclers of celebrity behavior, that possibility now seems old hat. The entertainment press has dragged the gods down off Olympus and, in many cases, the gods have been more than happy to participate in their fall – all in search of attention in an entertainment marketplace that's more crowded than a 19th century tenement.

To make matters worse, Oscar follows on the heels of a growing parade of previously televised award shows. It's still the big enchilada – the gold standard of awards – but by now its nominees have been seen on as many podiums as some hack Congressman up for re-election. I wish Oscar had shown its face prior to the Winter Olympics, not after. If the Academy had waited much longer, it could have given out the Oscars along with a generous helping of Easter eggs.

Award weariness aside, it falls to critics to predict the outcome of a race that has limited capacity to take our breath away – unless an obvious shocker jolts the proceedings, say, District 9 beating both The Hurt Locker and Avatar for best picture.

So here are my predictions in the major categories in a year in which I believe Oscar will spread its largess among a variety of pictures, most of them deserving. Tune in Sunday to see whether I'm in tune with Oscar or hopelessly out of touch.

What will win: Hurt Locker
What should win: Hurt Locker
Upset possibility: The Blind Side

Commentary: A Blind Side victory could emerge as a result of vote splitting among Up in the Air, The Hurt Locker and Avatar, but I'm thinking that director Kathryn Bigelow's white-knuckle look at an Iraq bomb squad will impress voters because it brought audiences close to fighting men in a war that generally has remained distant to the public. Also, it happens to be the best of the 10 nominated pictures. Avatar wins if the Academy decides that popularity, impressive 3D and a major “wow” factor trump everything else, a distinct possibility, but I'm still predicting victory for Hurt Locker.

Who will win: Kathryn Bigelow
Who should win Kathryn Bigelow
Upset possibility: James Cameron for presiding over the complicated technological process that brought Avatar to the screen for a piddling $500 million.

Commentary: The best thing about Oscar (aside from whatever fashion disasters loom) will be the Academy's recognition for Bigelow, a director who happens to be a woman, but who never underestimates the visceral kick that movies provide. She'd be the first woman to win best director. Oh well, it's only taken 81 previous tries for Oscar to get around to recognizing that there are two sexes, and both can operate behind the camera.

I'm betting that Cameron will not prevail because Bigelow already won the prestigious Directors Guild of America award as the year's best director. If you take a second look (or a first if you haven't seen it) at The Hurt Locker, you'll discover that it's gripping, vivid and bolstered by superior performances from the trio of actors who played members of the movie's three-man bomb squad.

Who will win: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Who should win: Jeff Bridges
Upset possibility: The biggest possible upset would be Jeremy Renner, who played an adrenalin-junkie GI who disarmed bombs in The Hurt Locker.

Commentary: OK, Crazy Heart was a little overrated, but it presents an opportunity to recognize an actor for current efforts and for an impressive body of past work. Conventional wisdom has it that Bridges' talents have been somewhat overlooked by Hollywood. I'm not sure I buy that, but I have no problem with him taking home a statue that I originally thought would go to George Clooney for playing a downsizing specialist in Up in the Air.

The moral of this story: It never hurts to play a drunk, especially one who sings country/western.

Who will win: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Who should win: Carey Mulligan, An Education
If there's an upset: Meryl Streep.

Commentary: Bullock did a fine job in The Blind Side. Her portrayal of the single-minded Leigh Anne Tuohy captured audience hearts and allowed Bullock to dominate a movie about a woman who helped a young black man find his way into a successful football career. Still, the most subtle and revealing performance was given by Mulligan in An Education. She played a bright teen-ager who was seduced by an older man and managed to make it part of a 1960s rebellion against societal limitations on women.
It's a little weird to put Streep into the upset category, but Bullock seemed to have all the momentum going into the Oscar voting, and although Streep's portrayal of Julia Child -- the great popularizer of French cuisine -- in Julie & Julia was strong, she's already recognized as one of our best actresses. If the voters are feeling particularly frisky, they may just want to honor Gabourey Sidibe for playing the title role in Precious. I'm thinking that won't happen.

Who will win: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Who should win: Christoph Waltz
If there's an upset. Christopher Plummer.

Commentary: Waltz's performance as Col. Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds was chilling for its cunning, calmness and eerie politeness. Waltz created one of the scariest screen Nazis ever. The only way he loses is if voters decide that Plummer's wonderfully generous portrayal of Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station and the actor's age – he's 80 – merit recognition. It could happen because like us, the voters have seen all the other awards shows and may just want to assert their independence.

Who will win: Mo'Nique, Precious
Who should win: Mo'Nique
Upset possibility: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crazy Heart.

Commentary. It's possible that Mo'Nique, a comic by trade, is a one-trick pony when it comes to drama, but the self-justifying speech her character made in Precious was as riveting as anything I saw all year. Mo'Nique tapped into something scary, vulnerable and selfish; she made us understand the monster she was playing without condoning her cruelty.

Who will win: Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Who should win: Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker
If there's an upset: There won't be one.

Commentary: I'm not one of the great fans of Inglourious Basterds, but I'll say this:. Tarantino writes some of the best scenes you'll find in contemporary movies. The opening scene of Inglourious Basterds couldn't have been better, and the movie had other scenes that were almost as good. I don't think Tarantino's brilliant scenes always add up to great movies, but if he wins, I'll be happy for him.

Who will win: Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air
Who should win: The guys who wrote In the Loop
If there's an upset: Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire.

Commentary: I'm a big fan of In the Loop, a scorching satire about the way United States and Britain become involved in a war in the Persian Gulf. But Up in the Air, an adaptation of a Walter Kirn novel, is equally deserving. Reitman served up a mainstream entertainment that has something meaningful to say about the current economic chaos; Up in the Air secured Reitman's place as a director who knows how to entertain with wit and careful observation. I also admire the fact that Reitman refuses to waste his time (or ours) on fluff.

What will win. Up
What should win: Fantastic Mr. Fox
If there's an upset: The Secret of the Kells.

Commentary: If The Secret of the Kells, which hasn't had much play in the United States yet, were to win, it would mark of the one greatest upsets in Oscar history. I thought Up, which began brilliantly, was a bit overrated, but that puts me in a distinct minority. I loved Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson's extremely amusing adaptation of a Roald Dahl story; it was funny and boasted the best voice work of the year.

What will win: The Cove
What should win: Don't have a rooting interest this year. If there's an upset: The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.

Commentary: I see the possibility of an upset as extremely unlikely. The Cove was technically impressive and advocated for a good cause, halting the slaughter of dolphins in Japan.

What will win: The White Ribbon
What should win: A Prophet
If there's an upset look for the Israeli film Ajami to emerge victorious.

Commentary: Michael Haneke's White Ribbon, a look at life in a German village prior to World War I, was slow-moving, creepy and well-acted. It also had the distinctive flavor of an art movie, thanks in part to its stark, black-and-white imagery. The Prophet, about the torments and brutalities faced by an Arab prisoner in a French prison, has more visceral power and made a stronger impression on me. It's a powerhouse of a movie.

So have at it, folks. Your guesses will be as good as mine. And, to tell you the truth, I hope a lot of my predictions are wrong. That will mean that Oscar night proved far more exciting than expected. Meanwhile, I encourage you to delve deeply into categories that I've bypassed. It's time for your predictions, complaints and anything else that's on your minds. Good luck, especially if you're in a pool. These days, every nickel counts.