Archive for January, 2008

That is one bizarre double-feature…

Monday, January 28th, 2008

Over the weekend, I drove by a movie theater that was showing two films over the weekend. On the marquee it said No Country For Old Men, and on the second line, Veggie Tales. It struck me as a little odd.

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The Golden Compass (***)

Monday, January 28th, 2008

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Can a film adaptation of a much loved book still work after the story is hacked to pieces, the meaning is drained, and the whole damn point of the thing is compromised? True, most film versions of books compromise or change the vision, but the basic underlining plot/point of the story is still there. A problem many fans of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books, unread by me as of this writing, are having with The Golden Compass, the first part of his trilogy, is that a lot of the real meat of the story has been taken out.In the books, I guess, they deal heavily with the end of religion, and the idea that God is a dying has-been. The Magisterium, who in the books are a religious organization unlike the Catholic Church, are here represented as, basically, a fascist regime. The whole basic idea of the story has changed, in order for Hollywood to film the story. That being said, the film was still protested by lots of people who didn’t read the book or see the movie, and, when the film bombed at the box office, many believers felt that the Hand of God had swept down and intervened (wow, that sounds like a good movie!)As someone who has never read the books (though I must say, they sound pretty intriguing), I found the film to be an enjoyable enough fantasy film for kids, harmless, suspenseful, with lots of good performances and some nifty special effects. It’s another fantasy film with a “chosen one,” this time her name is Lyra (played by Dakota Blue Richards), an orphan who will become…crucial to the plot of not just this film, but the next two. The film is populated by many good actors in convincing roles, Daniel Craig as her brilliant, cranky uncle, Nicole Kidman as the icy witch who pursues Lyra, Sam Elliot portrays, get this, a cowboy, and the film also has choice roles for Derek Jacobi, Christopher Lee and Tom Courtney. Ian McKellen, who you may recognize from some other fantasy series you may have heard of, steals the show as the warrior Iorek Byrnison, an alcoholic Ice (polar) Bear.The special effects in this film are pretty good, in the world where The Golden Compass takes place, every person’s soul is represented as an animal that walks alongside them (known as a “daemon”). The daemons, the vehicles, the buildings, the massive brawl between the king of the Ice Bears and Iorek, are all terrific special effects. As is expected with a complicated fantasy film that clocks in under two hours, a lot of the movie is going to feel rushed and confused. The ending, I hear, is very different than the ending of the book, and will be the beginning of the sequel.The young lead, Dakota Blue Richards, is well-cast, she’s noble, fiery and has a cool sounding name. As I said earlier, all of the better-known actors in the cast play their parts very well, and like to give extra credit to Sam Elliot, one of the few actors who can act opposite a talking polar bear and not sound ridiculous. I also enjoyed Simon McBurney’s small role as Fra Pavel, the sneaky henchman for the Magisterium.The Golden Compass is entertaining, but it doesn’t stay with you and linger in your mind the way you’d think it might. Directed by Chris Weitz.

Heath Ledger (1979-2008)

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2008

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Heath Ledger, in his tragically brief career, transformed from a teen heartthrob to a leading man to a devastatingly effective character actor. What was interesting with Ledger’s career is that he took the standard blockbuster type roles (A Knight’s Tale, The Patriot), while at more or less the same time taking on smaller, more personal films (like Monster’s Ball).

He first gained attention (at least in the United States) with his charming performance in Ten Things I Hate about You, but he proved that he truly was a gifted actor with his superb performance in Brokeback Mountain. This was a star-making turn if there ever was one. He was nominated for an Oscar, and Hollywood began to take him seriously after this.

He most recently portrayed an actor portraying Bob Dylan in the biopic I’m Not There, and gave a tremendous performance. This summer, he will play the Joker in the latest Batman film, The Dark Knight, and his work here (from what I’ve seen on the trailers) looks ambitious, uninhibited and fearless. I can’t seem to get his last scene in Monster’s Ball out of my head; his pain, his hurt, his misery.

His characters, even the light, goofier roles, had a depth, a complexity to them that many of his contemporaries couldn’t have if they really tried. A young, extremely talented actor, whose career probably would’ve just gotten better and better. His passing is a tremendous loss.

Oscar Schmoscar

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2008

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Ok, The Academy Awards are silly. There, I said it. You know it, I know it, whatever. But, they’re still fun to watch, and I still wake up early just to find out who got nominated so I can spend all day bitching about them. (All right, so I already get up early for work, but I still make time to read them before I leave in the morning, so it still counts). 2007 was a pretty strong year for film (and also a pretty weak year, I guess it just depends on what movies you wasted your time with). The list of nominees mostly shows that, although the Academy’s love of a few actors (I’ll mention which ones) may have blinded them to a few who shouldn’t have been nominated. As always, there were a slew of movies that were hyped/loved/hated that I should have seen by now but haven’t, so if I haven’t seen the film, I’ll reserve judgment for now. I have a lot of catching up to do in the next month and a half (working full time and going to graduate school really has put a strain on the amount of films I watch). Anyway, enough rambling, let’s look at this year’s group of nominees (at least in the major categories).

BEST PICTURE

Atonement was a shoo-in. It looks and feels (from the previews, I really need to see this) like a Oscar nominee type of film. The fact that Joe Wright, the director, wasn’t nominated will hurt its chances big time. Every year, a small indie film gets a Best Picture nod, this year, we have Juno. I got a big grin on my face when I saw its inclusion on the list. I haven’t even started working on a best of 2007 list (maybe by March I will have seen enough movies to feel comfortable working on it), but No Country for Men would definitely be on there. Nobody was surprised when it was nominated for Best Picture. Michael Clayton was a riveting thriller, and I’m impressed that the Academy remembered it, but still, no chance for Best Picture. There Will Be Blood is a phenomenal film, and I’d like to think it has a chance (but probably not, though nobody thought The Departed would win either, so who knows?)

BEST ACTOR

George Clooney gives what may be his career-best performance in Michael Clayton, so I’m glad he’s here. Daniel Day-Lewis will win for There Will Be Blood, I see no other way of this category going. Bad joke: for Day-Lewis, There Will Be (another) Oscar! Johnny Depp was well-cast in Sweeny Todd, but I can think of a few other actors perhaps more deserving of an Oscar nomination. I haven’t seen In the Valley of Elah, but I hear Tommy Lee Jones is terrific in it. Viggo Mortensen was a key part to the success of Eastern Promises, and this might also be considered as belated recognition for his work in another David Croenberg film, 2005’s A History of Violence.

BEST ACTRESS

Ok, the only nominee here I’ve seen is Ellen Page as Juno, and she definitely deserves to be on this list. Julie Christie was nominated for Away from Her, which I haven’t seen because the Netflix Queue wait list can be a cruel mistress. Laura Linney is supposed to be splendid in The Savages, as is Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose (waiting at home to be watched, give me time!) Cate Blanchett received her second nomination as Queen Elizabeth for the sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age (this is her first of two nominations this year).

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Casey Affleck has been getting the best reviews of his career for his performance in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, so I should see it soon. Javier Bardem will win for No Country for Old Men, though, so count on it. Philiip Seymour Hoffman gave three performances that wowed audiences and critics alike in 2007, and I saw one of them, and he was nominated for that film: Charlie Wilson’s War. He’s good in it, but the movie’s weak and his character I feel sort of deteriorates and becomes less interesting as the film develops, so probably not Oscar-worthy. Hal Holbrook, the veteran character actor, finally scores an Oscar nod for a performance that I’m sure is superb in the movie Into the Wild (I’ll see it someday.) Tom Wilkinson was brilliant in Michael Clayton, if anybody could be the dark horse in this category, it’d be him.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Cate Blanchett receives her second Oscar nod this year for her ace portrayal of Bob Dylan in I’m Not There. Ruby Dee just about stole American Gangster from Denzel and Crowe with her amazing performance. Saoirse Ronan is great in Atonement, I’m sure, all I can say about it is that I had to check how to spell her name about five times. Amy Ryan is unbelievable in Gone Baby Gone, watch her on “The Wire” (God, please watch The Wire, it’s the best police show of all time) and then watch her in this movie. It’s hard to believe it’s the same actress. Tilda Swinton was very good in Michael Clayton, and it’s nice to see she finally got an Oscar nod for something!

BEST DIRECTOR

Paul Thomas Anderson for There Will Be Blood. The Brothers Coen for No Country for Old Men. Tony Gilroy for Michael Clayton. Jason Reitman for Juno (this is only his second movie!!!) Julian Schabel for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (should I even bother mentioning that I haven’t seen this yet?) Though I’m sure Joel and Ethan Coen will win it, don’t count out P.T.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Four of the five films are indies, and the fifth nominee is a cartoon. The screenplay categories have come a long way from “standard fare.” Diablo Cody for Juno, Nancy Oliver for Lars and the Real Girl, Tony Gilroy for Michael Clayton, Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava and Jim Capobianco for Ratatouille, and Tamara Jenkins for The Savages. Diablo Cody will win it for Juno.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Christopher Hampton for Atonement. Sarah Polley for Away from Her. Ronald Harwood for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The Brothers Coen for No Country for Old Men. P.T. Anderson for There Will Be Blood. Either Coen Bros. or P.T.

So, those are the main categories for the 80th Academy Awards. It should be a fun show (fingers crossed all is settled by then so they can put on an actual show, unlike the Golden Globes.) Stay tuned.

Cloverfield (***)

Monday, January 21st, 2008

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We live in an age and a society where just about everything is recorded for posterity: on cameras, on phones, on mP3 players, on camcorders. So, it goes without saying that if, say, a monster ever invaded a major metropolitan city, that somebody would be there to get it all on film. That’s exactly what happens in Cloverfield, the tense, well-crafted monster flick that was thought up by “LOST” co-creator J.J. Abrams, and directed by Matt Reeves.The idea behind Cloverfield is that the film is actually video footage taken from a camera found in New York City. The “footage” starts with a morning frolic between young lovers Beth (Odette Yustman) and Rob (Michael Stahl-David), and then quickly jumps to a party a month and a half later (the joke being here that somebody taped over the carefree day between the two lovebirds). The event is a going away party for Rob, who is going to Japan for business. We are introduced to the other major characters: Jason, Rob’s brother (Mike Vogel), Jason’s girlfriend, Lily (Jessica Lucas), Rob’s best friend and the man who will document the majority of the footage, Hud (T.J. Miller) and Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), a friend of Lilly’s.The friends gossip and bicker about relationships and social drama as if it was life-threatening, until…BOOM! For the next 70 minutes or so, Cloverfield doesn’t let up much, as it follows the group of twenty-somethings through panic, catastrophe and terror. Early on in the film, as the party guests flee the building, one character says in a throw away line, “is it another terrorist attack?” Indeed, it’s impossible to make a disaster film in New York after 9/11 and not be reminded of that terrible day, and some scenes in the film do evoke the feeling of Ground Zero (especially as the group ventures outside of the rubble that was moments before a convenience store).Matt Reeves stated in an interview that he wanted to get a cast of relative unknowns so the film felt as realistic as possible, and the actors are definitely naturalistic in their performances. They are all convincing in their roles without ever really standing out in any way (though some credit must be given to T.J. Miller, since he is off screen for the almost the entire film). It also helps that the monster, once we get a good look at it, is pretty impressive.Cloverfield is a tense, entertaining monster film, and I hope this movie is an indication of the direction the science fiction movie is going in the next couple of years.

Stone Cold Bush

Monday, January 21st, 2008

So, you’ve probably heard by now that Oliver Stone’s next film is going to be about President George W. Bush. Stone has been quoted as saying he wants to make a “fair, true” portrait of Dub-ya. The film will ask the question, Stone explains, of “How did Bush go from an alcoholic bum to the most powerful figure in the world?” Oliver Stone is in talks with Josh Brolin to star as the President. Yes, Barbara Streisand’s son-in-law, co-star of The Goonies Josh Brolin. 2007 was definitely Brolin’s break-out year, with standout supporting roles in Grindhouse and American Gangster, and a lead role in No Country for Old Men. Let’s see if he can pull off playing our fearless leader.

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There Will Be Blood (****)

Friday, January 18th, 2008

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Paul Thomas Anderson has made five feature films, and they’re all great. Not as in pretty good or worth a look, but as in excellent, remarkable movies . His debut was Hard Eight (or Sydney, as it’s sometimes known), starring Philip Baker Hall in one of the best forgotten performances of the 90s, followed by the phenomenal Southern California epics Boogie Nights and Magnolia, and in 2002 Anderson directed Adam Sandler in his career-best work in Punch-Drunk Love. From his track record, it seems that Anderson would have been content to make his next film another look at modern life in So Cal, but that wasn’t the case, as none of his previous films can prepare one for the demented brilliance that is There Will Be Blood.Starring the one and only Daniel-Day Lewis in a performance of raw and shocking power, There Will Be Blood (based upon the novel “Oil!” by Upton Sinclair,) follows Daniel Plainview, a ruthless oil tycoon as he scams, shams and muscles his way to the top in early 20th Century California. Right from the beginning, we pick up that this isn’t an ordinary film. It opens with Plainview deep in the ground, trying to excavate riches from the earth. He is covered in filth and dirt, and we see the desperation and greed on his face. After some setbacks, Plainview decides to try his luck with oil, and finds that he has a knack for this line of work.What’s interesting about the first 20 or so minutes of the film is that it’s done completely without dialogue, relying largely on Day-Lewis’ extraordinary acting and cinematographer Roger Elswit’s jaw-dropping work to tell the story. Flash-forward several years, and Plainview is on the road with his ‘son’ H.W. (Dillon Freasier), trying to suck dry both the land and the money from all whom he meets. He and his business partner Fletcher Hamilton (Ciaran Hinds) are visited by a young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) who claims that he knows where a large supply of oil is located.Plainview and H.W. end up at the Sunday Ranch, where they meet Paul’s twin brother, Eli (also played by Dano, I still am not sure if they’re actually different characters or another trick of Anderson’s ingenious screenplay). Eli, a young preacher, stands in the way of Plainview and his oil. Of course, their battle of wills is a big part of the film.Also important to the plot is the introduction of a character played by the actor Kevin J. O’Connor, who may or may not be who he says he is. The film is mysterious, unsettling, and uncompromising in the way it never reveals its whole hand, in the way it pushes us, provokes us, taunts us. In the way it refuses to tell this epic in a conventional way, or resolve it in a way that Hollywood tells us films should be resolved.Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the true great actors, and his work here is unlike anything he’s ever done. Daniel Plainview is cruel, vicious and sadistic, but Day-Lewis makes him strangely compelling. Plainveiw is larger-than-life in this film, and he needed an actor who could play that kind of role convincingly. The real surprise in this film is Paul Dano, who gives a performance that is, in its own way, every bit as good as Day-Lewis’. It’s a brilliant supporting role, and I hope Dano is also nominated for his terrific work. Kevin J. O’Connor, Ciaran Hinds and Dillon Freasier all give strong performances as well.The film in places reminds me of The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Giant, McCabe & Mrs. Miller (the film is, in fact, dedicated to Robert Altman). It also evokes in its imagery the work of Terrence Malick and, of course, Kubrick (I say “of course” because Anderson is often compared to Kubrick). There Will Be Blood is a full-blooded, unforgettable epic of an American tyrant, and more proof that Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the truly great modern filmmakers.