June 6, 2008

The Fall

Posted in Movies at 12:13 am by Calico Jack

Apart from The Dark Night and WALL•E, this is the film I’m looking forward to most this summer. I was one of the most ardent defenders of The Fountain against those who proclaimed it to be all style and no substance, and I have a feeling that The Fall might require the same. Roger Ebert’s four-star review and the A.V. Club’s measured praise give me hope that the overall mixed reactions from critics might be a testament to its singularity. One can only hope this film doesn’t get lost in the arthouse shuffle this blockbuster season.

February 4, 2008

Artemis Eternal

Posted in Movies at 11:51 pm by Calico Jack

I’ve talked before about my friend Jessica Stover, how her commitment to excellence in Hollywood — something oft lacking in an era of sequels and endless remakes — has gathered passionate fans from all over the world to support her work. Now the website for her latest project is up and running, and I encourage everyone to check it out and financially contribute if able. Artemis Eternal is a short sci-fi film currently in preproduction, and — more importantly — is being financed independently. There is no Hollywood studio backing, no focus-grouped control over thematic elements, and no slavish adherence to the lowest common denominators in mainstream film. For many of us, that is reason enough to support Artemis Eternal; but I have something more: I know Jessica, and I believe in her work. I believe in her strongly enough to lend financial support to a film that I know nothing about, save the title. You might think this is blind faith, but it’s exactly the opposite. I’ve read Jessica’s blog for years, and I’ve talked to her quite a few times about Hollywood and about filmmaking. We’ve debated, discussed, and praised films, not only in a general sense but also their structure and coherence and writing and technique. And one thing has always been abundantly clear: Jessica Stover is an exceptional filmmaker.

So go check out Artemis Eternal‘s gorgeous website. Follow the timeline, and learn how a movie is created and made. And if you find that you believe as much as I and many others do, consider making a donation to this project, as you’ll be making a difference in the most literal of ways. Declare your support for a revolution in film. And, in Jessica’s own words,

“So forget everything you know about filmmaking, take a moment to examine your lifestyle and how much media and story you consume, think about what that means to you, give it all a moment…. And give it all up: All the years of marketing and E! News Live and red carpets and merchandizing and disappointing opening weekends and poor theater experiences. Give it up, walk with us and imagine the wider world that exists outside that conglomerate-controlled island.

This is the art of the possible.”

Are you in?

February 3, 2008

Handicapping the Oscars: Technical Awards, Take 1

Posted in Movies at 2:47 pm by Calico Jack

BEST DIRECTOR:

Paul Thomas Anderson for There Will Be Blood
Joel and Ethan Coen for No Country for Old Men
Tony Gilroy for Michael Clayton
Jason Reitman for Juno
Julian Schnabel for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

We’ll have to eliminate Julian Schnabel immediately, since it’s rather unlikely that he could win Best Director without having his film nominated for either Best Picture or Best Foreign Film. Jason Reitman has had absolutely no buzz for Juno; the same goes for Tony Gilroy. It ultimately comes down to a clash of the titans, to use a tired cliché. My money is on the Coen brothers, since it’s long overdue for their award. But the Academy might feel the need to share the love and give Anderson the director nod while recognizing No Country for Old Men in the picture category. It’s happened many, many times before…

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY:

Brad Bird for Ratatouille
Diablo Cody for Juno
Tony Gilroy for Michael Clayton
Tamara Jenkins for The Savages
Nancy Oliver for Lars and the Real Girl

I personally think this is Juno‘s strongest category, as the tale of a performer-turned-screenwriter is just the kind of rags-to-riches story the Academy likes to highlight. “See, you can do it too!” There is a dark horse potential for Brad Bird, since Ratatouille has gotten nearly unanimous praise; but Diablo Cody is the one to beat. I’m personally happy to see a nod in there for Lars and the Real Girl; I know some despised the film, but I’m glad it wasn’t completely overlooked come Oscar season.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY:

Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men
Christopher Hampton, Atonement
Ronald Harwood, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Sarah Polley, Away From Her

I’d prefer to throw darts at a target than try to guess the winner of this category, and I doubt someone could make a stronger case for one of these films than any other. I do think it’s unlikely that voters will give the same nominee(s) both Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay; therefore my completely tentative pick goes to Anderson. There is a lot of Atonement-hate going around, and I think that Away From Her‘s screenplay was actually one of the weaker parts of that film going around. Once I see The Diving Bell and the Butterfly tomorrow, I’ll be able to make a more educated guess about its chances.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY:

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Atonement
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood

I’m hoping against hope that the first film on this list gets the Oscar, but there is a strong possibility that Roger Deakins might split the vote against himself, since he’s nominated for both The Assassination of Jesse James… and No Country for Old Men. I’d be quite happy with a win by Seamus McGarvey for Atonement, however; and Robert Elswit’s work for There Will Be Blood is also quite astonishing. Consider this pick wishful thinking, although I think that there isn’t a film listed here that I would be disappointed with.

BEST ART DIRECTION:

American Gangster
Atonement
The Golden Compass
Sweeney Todd
There Will Be Blood

This category encompasses both art direction and set decoration, but does not include costume design. My money is on Atonement, although I’m wondering if Sweeney Todd might pick up the win instead. There isn’t anything particularly striking about American Gangster‘s designs, and The Golden Compass is a piece of terrible filmmaking any way you want to look at it. And I just don’t think that There Will Be Blood‘s spare set decoration likely to be rewarded in a category that previously gave the statue to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Moulin Rouge!, Pan’s Labyrinth and Chicago.

January 26, 2008

Handicapping the Oscars: Acting

Posted in Movies at 11:34 pm by Calico Jack

And the nominees are:

BEST ACTOR:

George Clooney in Michael Clayton
Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood
Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd
Tommy Lee Jones in In the Valley of Elah
Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises

Having just seen There Will Be Blood last night, I must say that this is Daniel Day-Lewis’s Oscar to win. He is the best part of a good but somewhat underwhelming film, and his teetering-on-madness performance is riveting in every scene. George Clooney suffers from the same problem he always has, in that he never seems to come across as playing anything but a version of…George Clooney. Sometimes the script manages to wrangle in his natural charisma, such as in the Ocean’s trilogy, but Michael Clayton didn’t deserve a Best Actor recognition. Johnny Depp and Viggo Mortensen were both quite good in their respective films, and would probably be a decent contender in any other year; but there simply isn’t any way they’re going to compete against Day-Lewis. My pick for dark horse, however, is Tommy Lee Jones’ mournful, haunting portrayal of an Army father searching for clues to his son’s disappearance. In the Valley of Elah is unnecessarily didactic, but I hold Jones’s acting in the highest regard.

BEST ACTRESS:

Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Julie Christie in Away from Her
Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose
Laura Linney in The Savages
Ellen Page in Juno

My pick for Best Actress is based mostly on the goodwill that Ellen Page seems to have engendered amongst even the most hardened and cynical of critics, who acknowledge that she sparkles in this titular role, regardless of whatever problems there may be with the rest of the film. But there are several other noteworthy performances here, including Marion Cotillard as French singer Edith Piaf and Julie Christie as an elderly woman facing the onset of Alzheimer’s. I haven’t seen The Savages, so I can’t comment on Laura Linney’s performance, but I will suggest she is owed an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement. Cate Blanchett is her own worst enemy in also being nominated for a supporting actress role for I’m Not There. Ellen Page, however, has all of the momentum, and this is one of Juno‘s strongest categories.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:

Casey Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men
Philip Seymour Hoffman in Charlie Wilson’s War
Hal Holbrook in Into the Wild
Tom Wilkinson in Michael Clayton

My projections here are based mostly on wishful thinking, rather than a grim acceptance of what will happen on Oscar night. Don’t get me wrong — I absolutely adore No Country for Old Men, one of the finest films I’ve seen in many years; and Javier Bardem’s characterization of ruthless killer Anton Chigurh is a wonderful piece of acting. Yet for this award, my heart belongs to Casey Affleck’s performance in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. His is a utterly complete, startling immersion into a character unlike anything else depicted this past year. I’ll be shocked if he wins, but sometimes you have to cheer for the underdog. And any of the other three actors winning would be an enormous upset. I simply don’t see that happening.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:

Cate Blanchett in I’m Not There
Ruby Dee in American Gangster
Saoirse Ronan in Atonement
Amy Ryan in Gone Baby Gone
Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton

Of the four categories here, this one is the most difficult to predict. Every single one of these performances is tremendous, and I have a feeling this award could swing any different way without it being considered unjust or an upset. I do think Ruby Dee, Amy Ryan, and Cate Blanchett have a slight edge over Saoirse Ronan and Cate Blanchett, the former because it’s Vanessa Redgrave’s soliloquy which seems to leave Atonement‘s most indelible impression, and the latter because, well, she’s split her own vote. My tentative pick is Amy Ryan’s searing performance as a Boston mother looking for her kidnapped daughter; it’s full of the kinds of things Academy Award voters look for in an acting role. However, she faces stiff competition from Ruby Dee, who might get the nod based on lifetime achievment (she’s long overdue for something); and Tilda Swinton stands a decent chance of scooping up Michael Clayton‘s only acting award. I think the momentum lies with Amy Ryan, even after Blanchett grabbed the Golden Globe earlier this month. But I’m quite prepared to be wrong on this one.

January 23, 2008

Handicapping the Oscars: Best Picture

Posted in Movies at 3:32 am by Calico Jack

It’s that time of the year again; this morning the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced their nominees for the February 24th awards show. And as an aside, do most people realize just how ridiculously complicated the nominee-picking process actually is? I always assumed it was based on a simple formula that prioritized someone’s first choice over their fourth or fifth. And it does — except that’s only the first step in a very involved procedure. For more, check out Entertainment Weekly‘s PopWatch blog. One would think there could be a simpler way…

Anyway, now is the chance for every film critic to rub his or her hands in glee and prognosticate the Academy Awards winners. My personal track record has been decent but not great over the past five years or so that I’ve been doing this seriously, but I’d like to think that I’m getting better each awards season. This year, however, gives us some categories that are nearly impossible to predict, and I suspect that we’ll see a few surprises come Oscar time. The list of nominees follows, with my prediction in bold (if I feel comfortable making one).

BEST PICTURE:

Atonement
Juno
Michael Clayton
No Country for Old Men
There Will Be Blood

This one is quite tricky, and I’m certain that an excellent case could be made for any of the five to receive the top award. The only way that Atonement will win, however, is if enough voters split their ballots between No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, leaving the British period piece as the winner by default. It fits neatly into the “epic, romantic, sometimes-war-related drama” category that the Academy seems to embrace (see: The English Patient, Braveheart, Gladiator, Shakespeare in Love, Return of the King, Titanic, etc.) But I really don’t think it has a good chance of getting the award on its own merits, since almost nobody (myself included) thinks that it truly deserves to be called the best picture of the year (Golden Globe winner notwithstanding).

Juno has captured the heart of America over the past month, and if this show were left up to the public it would be the hands-down favorite. But there has been a growing critical backlash against the film in recent weeks, partly because Fox Searchlight overhyped it instead of letting box office receipts grow based solely on word of mouth. It’s also accused of having the most unrealistic dialogue of the year, if you believe the hyperbole. Yet Juno‘s biggest problem is that the Academy has been historically biased against comedies, and I’m not sure that will change this year.

Michael Clayton gained a huge amount of momentum over the holiday season, even though it flew under the radar of most people when it was released back in October. In my opinion, it’s one of the more overrated films of the year; I found nothing special about its hackneyed story of a conflicted corporate lawyer. But I will admit that it is well-made, and it has the prestige credentials to please the more conservative members of the Academy. And with its best director, actor, supporting actor, and supporting actress nominations, I’m going to pick it for a possible dark horse upset.

This leaves us with the two giants of the field: No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. I hope to (finally!) see the latter this weekend, which would leave me in a slightly better spot for making predictions. However, I know that quite a few critics seem to regard There Will Be Blood as straining for greatness but not quite reaching the goal, and its explosive performance by Daniel Day Lewis might help his Best Actor chances but actually hurt the film’s Best Picture chances. The Academy is, if nothing else, a staunchly conservative organization that has never truly embraced the immoderate, and There Will Be Blood might just be a little bit too bizarre to wholeheartedly recommend.

This leaves me with my money on No Country for Old Men, a film that I’ve hailed as the best of the year. It has the key supporting nominations — director, adapted screenplay, editing, cinematography — that often help a film’s chances for receiving the Best Picture award, and its nearly universal acclaim can’t hurt either. Even those who dislike the film recognize its technical brilliance and flawless filmmaking, which is about as good as one can get from a negative review. No Country for Old Men has been endlessly discussed, dissected, and debated over the past several months, and critics are still finding new ways to approach the film — something that can’t be said for any of the other nominees. It has everything the Academy is looking for in a Best Picture: powerful, layered performances, technical mastery (this will get overlooked by many, but the sound design is absolutely stunning), a thought-provoking final act, and the immaculate attention to detail, tone, and scope that the Cohen brothers have at the zenith of their career. No Country for Old Men is one of the finest films of the decade, and it should be celebrated on Oscar night as 2007′s masterpiece.

Now, I just realize that I listed a bunch of reasons why it should win, not why it will win. But I’m going with my gut on this one; I can’t help feeling this strongly about its chances. The only thing that could provide an upset is if it somehow gets conflated with There Will Be Blood; if voters are undecided between the two front-runners then neither might gain enough votes to take the top spot. Keep in mind that the entire Academy is eligible to vote for the Best Picture nominee, and it’s a well-known “fact” that quite a few people who vote in a category never see all of the nominees. There is a possibility of voters being undecided between the two front-runners and splitting the vote; then it becomes a free-for-all. I’ll be watching the buzz over the next month to see which of these five films will gain or lose momentum. But I’m crossing my fingers that the existentialist No Country for Old Men gets the recognition it deserves.

January 20, 2008

Noteworthy Films of 2007

Posted in Movies at 2:47 am by Calico Jack

In my earlier post I mentioned that there were quite a few films that didn’t quite make my top 10 list, but which deserved recognition in their own right. They are presented here in alphabetical order, with a few comments after each:

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” – This is a quiet, reflective masterpiece about the mental deterioration of our nation’s most famous villain. Its cinematography is gorgeous and its plot exquisitely paced, and it missed my top 10 list by the thinnest of margins. It is quite probable that this film will actually grow stronger as the years pass and may eventually be remembered as one of 2007′s best movies.

“Away From Her” – Julie Christie deserves a Best Actress nomination for her portrayal of a woman compelled to deal with the knowledge that Alzheimer’s is gradually stripping away her life, most poignantly her relationship with her longtime husband and soulmate. Their love for each other is the center of this moving, heartbreaking film, even as they lose nearly everything that held them together for so many years.

“Breach” — One of 2007′s most underrated films was this true-life story of Robert Hansen, an FBI agent who sold his nation’s secrets to the Soviet Union for decades. Chris Cooper is fascinating as a psychologically indecipherable agent and traitor, certain that he is smarter than everyone else but too proud to realize the trap being laid for him. Even knowing the eventual outcome does little to remove any suspense from this tightly crafted thriller.

“God Grew Tired of Us” – This inspiring documentary about several Lost Boys of Sudan focuses less on the deplorable situations in Africa from which these young men escaped and more on the struggles that they faced after being relocated to America. As they strive to adjust to a place where electricity and plumbing are common and closely-knit communities are nonexistent, the three young men also desperately try to retain their culture that they left behind. Their dreams, anxieties and frustrations are eloquently expressed in a film that ultimately shows how the power of hope can transform lives.

“Grindhouse” – This double feature doesn’t work nearly as well on DVD as one might think; splitting apart and expanding Tarantino’s car-chase “Death Proof” and Rodriguez’s zombie thriller “Planet Terror” only highlights each film’s weaknesses. But the original three-hour experience in a darkened movie theater is one of the most enjoyable of the year.

“Gwoemul” (The Host) – I really hope that this Korean monster film is eventually recognized for what it is: a smart, partly-satirical, always-entertaining thrill ride about a dysfunctional family forced to pull together after one of their own is kidnapped by a rampaging monster. There is more genuine emotion and human conflict here than any ten monster films put together, and the first ten minutes of this film show one of the best monster-on-the-loose scenes of all time.

“Hot Fuzz” — Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright top their beloved 2004 rom-zom-com (romantic zombie comedy) “Shaun of the Dead” with their hilarious British sendup of buddy cop movies. This film works as both a satire and a worthy addition to the genre; it has explosions, guns, an inept small-town police force, a renegade swan, sea mines, and a host of other plot elements that combine into one extremely funny, thrilling homage to action movie clichés.

“La Doublure” (The Valet) – The French make light farcical comedies better than anyone else, a perfect example of which is this deftly plotted and utterly charming film about a valet who is paid to pretend he’s dating a supermodel in order that the model’s billionaire boyfriend keep his infidelity secret from his wife. As befitting a film drawing many of its inspirations from classic 1960s sex comedies, the various plots thicken with remarkable alacrity as nearly every character masquerades as something he or she is not.

“Lars and the Real Girl” – Ryan Gosling is one of the better actors in cinema today, and his skills are put to excellent use in this admittedly odd film about an painfully shy, insecure young man who comes out of his shell only after ordering a life-size doll off of the internet and imbuing it with a full-fledged personality as his supposed girlfriend Bianca. Her sudden appearance frightens and confuses Lars’s friends and neighbors, especially his brother and sister-in-law with whom she shares a house; but they eventually decide to play along with Lars’s delusions in order that he might break out of his self-imposed shell. This is a deceptively complex film whose quirkiness and oddball comedy never quite eclipse the underlying sense of tragedy and loss as Lars must deal with his past to face his future.

“Paris, Je T’Aime” – Twenty-two highly acclaimed directors from around the world each contributed to this wonderful collection of short films celebrating the city of Paris. Each of the eighteen selections is set in a different one of Paris’s many districts, giving a wildly diverse look at the culture, neighborhoods, and lives of the city’s residents. Not all of the shorts are as good as one might hope, especially with such prestigious names attached to them; but there are at least five or six gems in this montage (and a double handful of other good ones as well) that more than make up for the few that fizzle. This collection is full of romance and love, sadness and melancholy, hope and laughter — and above all else, life.

“3:10 to Yuma” – This remake of the 1957 Glenn Ford classic is a welcome return to the classic Western, where men lived by codes of honor and the lawless West still held challenges for those struggling to make a living in those harsh conditions. Christian Bale is marvelous as a financially desperate rancher paid to transport a notorious killer to a train bound for the Yuma prison, and Russell Crowe brings a particular kind of intensity to his role as the black-hatted outlaw with his own peculiar sense of honor. Those two performances elevate this film beyond the pedestrian and help to resurrect the genre that many had written off as nearly extinct. Between “3:10 to Yuma,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” and “No Country for Old Men,” it has been an amazing year for Westerns.

“28 Weeks Later” – The best horror film of the year is also a sequel to Danny Boyle’s groundbreaking 2002 film “28 Days Later,” managing to keep all of the dystopian terror of the original while adding a fair amount of political content by pointedly critiquing nation-building. That, however, is mere icing on a very bloody, very scary cake that never lessens its frantic, brutal pace to allow room for breathing. And it also does what only the best horror films are capable of: utterly embodying bleak hopelessness and despair.

“Waitress” – This bittersweet comedy-drama by the late Adrienne Kelly stars Keri Russell as a waitress and renowned pie-maker in a roadside diner trying to save enough money to enter a pie contest, thereby enabling her to leave her lout of a husband. But Jenna must also deal with two problems: her newly discovered pregnancy and a handsome young doctor seemingly more interested in her than in her pies. The decisions Jenna is forced to make, and the alternately hilarious and poignant ways in which she deals with her frustrations, make this film one of the most heartwarming of the year.

“Zwartboek” (Black Book) – Paul Verhoeven has directed the most complicated and involving film of his career with this tale of the Dutch Resistance during World War II. Carice Van Houten is astonishingly vibrant as Rachel, a young woman forced to go undercover with the Nazi regime after her entire family is brutally murdered. Although it bears some of the trademarks of a Verhoeven film with its rather unsubtle emphasis on sex and violence, this film sheds most of its potential luridness by focusing on Rachel’s enormous internal struggle as she tries to balance her commitment to the resistance with her growing affection for a German officer. This is a lushly beautiful, compelling, and ultimately thought-provoking tribute to those who walked the thin line between heroism and treason.

Films I didn’t get a chance to catch in theaters in 2007: “There Will Be Blood,” “Death at a Funeral,” “Persepolis,” “I’m Not There,” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” “Romance and Cigarettes,” “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” “Starting Out in the Evening,” “Margot at the Wedding,” “The Savages” and “American Gangster.”

Those will have to wait for a wider theatrical expansion or a DVD release, unfortunately.

December 31, 2007

Top 10 Films of 2007

Posted in Movies at 3:39 am by Calico Jack

I’ll be the first one to admit that I’m not terribly fond of numerical lists — not in film criticism, at least. It seems rather insulting to ask someone who’s spent an entire year watching, dissecting, and discussing films to take those collected experiences and write a small paragraph for each of his or her favorites, as long as those favorites number exactly ten — no more, no fewer. Even more egregious is wanting a numerical ordering, as if one’s preferences can be so easily digested: I liked this movie slightly less than three others this year, but more than everything else, and this much more than the one immediately preceding. Voilà! Now you have number four on the list. If you’ve only seen a dozen or two movies during the past twelve months, ranking films shouldn’t be terribly difficult. But my unofficial count stands somewhere around 127 for the year, and picking and ordering the best from what I’ve seen is slightly more daunting.

The whole thing is an exercise in absurdity; but come December, nearly every critic dutifully produces his or her list to be analyzed and argued over. Some, like Tony Scott of the New York Times, manage to skirt around expectations and provide a fresh take on a rueful tradition. Others such as Roger Ebert carefully hew to reader expectations, but have quite a long list of other worthy films. And as much as I despise this practice of ranking movies, it won’t be going away anytime soon. In the most positive light, it can be a way to encourage a critic’s audience to watch movies that they might not otherwise bother to check out, since appearing on a top-ten list is a sign that the film is well worth seeing. It’s simply a byproduct of living in a sound-byte era, where many prefer their news and opinions given in small, easily-digestible chunks. And I must admit that compiling a list such as this is quite enjoyable, regardless of what my inner critic distastefully recoils against.

There are two caveats before I begin: First, all of the movies featured have had a U.S. theatrical release in 2007. Several were shown overseas last year before coming to the States, but I have to draw the line somewhere. And secondly, if you ask me whether these are my favorite films of the year or the ones I consider “best,” my answer is both. It sounds disingenuous, but there you have it. It’s nearly impossible to describe what happens after viewing a film that expertly combines technical mastery (direction, cinematography, sound editing) and human emotion (screenplay, acting, scoring) into one great experience. Even the categories I listed just now aren’t nearly complete; and can in fact be detrimental if relied on too heavily while critiquing a film. Movies are often something greater (or less) than the sum of their parts, and those in the list that follows are the ones that holistically affected me the most.

10. “Ratatouille”

Pixar’s most recent film is also one of its best, surpassing even the excellence seen in “Toy Story” or “A Bug’s Life.” It might be a slight to call director Brad Bird an auteur of animated films for writing and directing both “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” because his latest work deserves to be recognized on the same level as anything else released in 2007. Endlessly inventive and visually lavish, “Ratatouille” has some of the most beautifully depicted vistas put on film this year. It also contains a few gentle but well-aimed jabs at the insularity of jaded critics, urging them to remember that love and passion for one’s work are just as important as technical merit. And the story of a rat who reaches for excellence, even when his friends and family are content to settle for mediocrity, will inspire those both young and old.

9. “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”

This searing, gorgeously shot period piece set during the Irish War of Independence in the early 1920s was glaringly overlooked by audiences when it reached American theaters back in March. As rural Irish brothers fighting first against the British, then against each other, Cillian Murphy and Padraic Delaney give two powerful performances in this tale of a family tragically divided by differing views on the nature and obligations of freedom. Directed by Ken Loach, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” never shies away from depicting war in all of its brutality; but its focus lies elsewhere, demanding that the viewer consider not only why ordinary citizens decide to take up arms and give their lives for their country, but also how difficult it can be to stop the cycle of violence once supposed peace is achieved.

8. “The Bourne Ultimatum”

The kinetic third installment of the Jason Bourne trilogy is also the best action movie of the year. This series has grown steadily better with each film, and “The Bourne Ultimatum” ends the titular hero’s quest with a knockout punch to the audience’s jaw. As Matt Damon violently dispatches his enemies while searching for the truth behind his training as an assassin, director Paul Greengrass ensures that the audience feels every punch and every hit through frantic editing and jarring camera cuts. Jason Bourne is shown as increasingly haunted as the film progresses, sunken eyes set deeply into a hollow face and a tangible air of exhaustion hanging over his every gesture. But when Bourne needs to go into action, so does the film — pulse-pounding car chases, intelligent characters and wincingly visceral fights provide more thrills than any other blockbuster this year. Yet the biggest strength of “The Bourne Ultimatum” lies in its scriptwriting, which never relies on exposition to propel its complicated plot forward but instead prefers its revelations to come through the eyes of Bourne himself.

7. “Atonement”

The World War II-era Ian McEwan novel about class divisions and betrayal from whence this movie is adapted might, on first glance, seem nearly unfilmable. So much of the drama and emotion that defines the story comes not from conversation or action but from inner thoughts and, more importantly, misinterpretations of other characters’ motives. It is an astounding relief to discover that with “Pride & Prejudice” director Joe Wright at the helm, virtually all of the thematic elements of McEwan’s novel are preserved whole and unblemished. “Atonement” is a study of the repercussions of a young girl’s impetuosity and thoughtlessness, and how one single action can destroy the happiness in the lives of everyone it affects. Wright is a master at highlighting the struggles of his characters through lush cinematography and careful focus on body language, and a wonderful score by Dario Marianelli serves as a subtle foreshadowing to the events that lie ahead for the film’s characters. There are two scenes in this film that any movie would kill to have: an epic, minutes-long tracking shot of the British evacuation at Dunkirk, and a powerful coda that that asks whether one can ever truly atone for long-ago sins.

6. “Juno”

First-time screenwriter Diablo Cody penned this witty, heartwarming tale about a sixteen-year-old girl who finds herself pregnant after a one-night stand with her best friend. Ellen Page is a marvel as the titular character, who shows a surprising level of maturity when faced with a difficult choice but isn’t quite as smart about the larger world as she thinks she is. After deciding to give her baby up for adoption, Juno forms a tentative relationship with the prospective parents, a yuppie couple fantastically played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman. Much of what makes “Juno” such a treasure lies not with its hilarious, quirky hipster dialogue but the way this film lets its characters develop from beginning to end, leading to quite a change in how the audience views several characters’ actions. “Juno” expertly mixes hearty laughs with touching observations, and it well deserves its place as best comedy of the year.

5. “The Lookout”

This gem of a film was released back in April and never quite gained the traction it needed to seep into audiences’ consciousness. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has a star-making role as Chris, a former high school jock who suffers perpetual short-term amnesia after being responsible for a tragic accident. Years later he’s rooming with a sarcastic blind sage played by Jeff Daniels in one of the strongest performances of his career. Chris is still trying to adjust to his changed life when he meets a ready friend and seemingly helpful buddy in Matthew Goode; but like so much else in “The Lookout,” everything is not as it seems. To say any more would give away too much of the plot, but know that writer-director Scott Frank has crafted an utterly absorbing, unpredictable character study masquerading as a thriller, aided by some of the strongest dialogue of any film this year.

4. “Zodiac”

Unlike so many other procedurals that rely on quick crime-solving and tidy confessions to give an audience a sense of resolution, “Zodiac” focuses instead on the relentless and deadening efforts of those tasked with solving the series of brutal murders that occurred in the San Fransisco area during the late 1960s and early 1970s. It isn’t a film driven by suspense but by obsession: obsession with details, obsession with geographical places, obsession with chronology and time. Each scene in “Zodiac” is carefully timecoded in order that the audience knows exactly how everything fits together, how each scene plays off of the one preceding and sets up the one to follow. It is also merciless in showing how even the most experienced of police officers and reporters can become so overwhelmed with details — murder scenes, aisles of evidence boxes piled on top of each other, eyewitness accounts, innumerable phone tips, handwriting samples, the killer’s own coded messages — that even with thousands of individual points of data, assembling those pieces into a coherent whole becomes nearly impossible. David Fincher has directed the best work of his career with “Zodiac,” a film which reminds the viewer that tidy closure is something oft found only in the movies.

3. “Once”

It will be very difficult to overpraise this small, low-budget Irish musical, but I’m going to give it my best shot. “Once” is set in Dublin over the course of just a few days, where street busker meets a Czech immigrant working as a flower seller. The two forge an instant bond, and together they produce some hauntingly beautiful music together. This film has been billed as a romance, but it’s a marketing mistake: any romance in “Once” is far purer and much less sexual than the meaning behind the term today. Both characters remain unnamed to signify the ordinariness of the situation they find themselves in, and it also helps to keep the focus on the achingly tender songs that they perform. Unlike most musicals, the songs in “Once” flow naturally in and out of the dialogue; they never feel forced or misplaced. In fact, nothing about this film ever strikes a false note; even the ending could have gone so many different, lesser ways, but the one shown is absolutely perfect. This is a film that deserves every positive adjective that can be given; it’s inspiring, heartfelt, charming, sweet without being cloying, and utterly uplifting.

2. “Das Leben Der Anderen” (The Lives of Others)

This film won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film by narrowly beating out the superb “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which was my top film of last year. But due to a February release date in the United States, I’m able to put this moving and profound film on the list this year. “The Lives of Others” is a cautionary tale set in Berlin before the end of the Cold War, when the East German government kept careful watch on its citizens deemed most likely to fall prey to the dangers of free thought and capitalism and no one was immune from state scrutiny, especially not those of the artistic class. There are two central characters in “The Lives of Others”: one a socialist playwright, Georg Dreyman, who outwardly espouses all of the necessary ideals for staying in the good graces of the ruling class while secretly harboring revolutionary ideals; and the other a career Stasi officer assigned to surveil Dreyman after a corrupt bureaucrat decides he wants to have Dreyman’s actress girlfriend for himself. The two characters are never seen on-screen together, but it is the choices that they both make — and the reasons behind them — that give this film such an enormous emotional punch. As Captain Gerd Wiesler, Ulrich Mühe gives a deceptively minimalist performance, barely revealing any emotion save for quick, slight facial adjustments. It is a classic study in understatement, essential for showing the growing humanization of his character; while he continues to spy on Dreyman and his friends and family, he gradually starts to understand how corrupt the current political system is. “The Lives of Others” is a powerful indictment of the repressive political system that was so cancerous to eastern Europe in the latter half of the 20th century, serving as a sobering reminder that even today, we must be vigilant against internal threats to our freedom. And the moving final scene of this film is one of the best of the decade.

1. “No Country for Old Men”

There really wasn’t any difficulty in deciding which movie should be my top pick for best film of 2007. This adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s sparse novel is both a mastery of filmmaking and the most haunting, engrossing film of the year. I find myself pondering this film weeks after seeing it for a second time; its images and statements about human nature and the futility of fighting Death are indelibly etched on this critic’s brain. Joel and Ethan Coen have directed a stark, meticulously crafted film that plays out like a fascinating, unnerving West Texas chase thriller before transforming into something more existential in the third act. “No Country for Old Men” may well be the most unpredictable film of the year for reasons for which I will not describe here, but every single twist and turn is all-consuming. Josh Brolin plays a machinist who stumbles upon $2 million in a suitcase after a drug exchange turned sour in the desert, and Javier Bardem is utterly terrifying as Anton Chigurh, an implacable killer hired to recover the cash regardless of who gets in his way. Tommy Lee Jones gives his most world-weary performance as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, a longtime Texas lawman unable to cope with the increasing brutality and random violence of the world around him. These three men circle around each other for much of the film, each with his own way of looking at the world but never quite able to prepare for that which does not fit neatly into their patterned lives. It isn’t until the end of the second act that “No Country for Old Men” fully embraces its allegorical leanings with an unexpected twist that questions much of what has come before. And the final act’s coda is reliant on two scenes that utterly frustrated many in the theater, but which I think are absolutely essential for understanding the film as a whole. “No Country for Old Men” is utterly magnificant, with powerful performances and lyrical dialogue that has so much meaning beyond the mere words spoken — a bleak, sober masterpiece that should be regarded as one of the great films of the last thirty years.

This was a very strong year for cinema, and I have at least ten other films that deserve honorable mentions on the list — but that will have to wait for its own entry. Also, there are still several films I haven’t been able to catch yet, most notably “There Will Be Blood.” But the previous ten films are my picks for best of the year, and each is well worth your time. “Ratatouille,” “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “The Lookout,” “Zodiac,” “Once,” and “The Lives of Others” are all available on DVD now.

July 27, 2007

Movie Review: Sunshine

Posted in Movies at 11:27 pm by Calico Jack

There hasn’t been a more ambitious film released this year than Sunshine, Danny Boyle’s sci-fi epic billing itself as this generation’s Solaris or 2001: A Space Odyssey. While not quite as masterful as either of those two classics, Sunshine is a thoroughly engrossing journey that flirts with greatness before jarring the audience with an ill-advised tonal change late into the final act. Yet even its missteps exhilarate rather than disenchant, and its thoughtful storytelling makes hash out of most other summer fare.

It is the year 2057, and the sun is dying — cooling off a few billion years sooner than expected, and plunging Earth into a solar winter that will eventually mark the extinction of the human race. Seven years ago, a crew set out from Earth on a spaceship loaded with nuclear material, hoping to jettison its cargo into the heart of the sun and reignite the star. They failed, and all were presumed lost. Now the Icarus II (a poorly named successor considering the mythology behind its origin), carrying an international crew of eight astronauts and scientists, is attempting to make the journey once more. It’s a thinly disguised suicide mission, as an incalculable number of variables must fit just so in order for the astronauts to return home safely. It’s also Earth’s last chance; the planet has been strip-mined to produce the Manhattan-sized bomb sitting in the Icarus‘s cargo bay. On their way to the surface of the sun, however, Icarus II picks up a signal from the derelict Icarus I. Now the crew are faced with a difficult decision: is it wise to risk the mission by making a detour when all of mankind depends on that bomb exploding inside the sun? And little do they know that far worse dangers are yet to come…

With Sunshine, Boyle has created a film that dazzles the eye while sparking the imagination, giving a sharp contrast between the sterile, blueish environment inside Icarus II and the deeply golden-hued brilliance outside the ship’s walls. The interior of the ship has all of the standard space-station fixtures: glossy white corridors, metal struts enwrapping the ship like a giant honeycomb, airlocks and bulkheads and even a hydroponic greenhouse, lovingly cared for by the ship’s biologist (Michelle Yeoh). But outside of Icarus II is where Sunshine’s visual spectacle lies: the sun, shown in all of its blazing, terrifying glory, is a character itself, pulsing with deadly energy even as it goes through its death throes. The audience is left to marvel at the radiance of our solar system’s lifegiver; but for Icarus‘s astronauts, one false move — a single step outside of the safe zone — will spell instant annihilation. This combination of beauty and lethality is almost a transcendental experience for the ship’s psych officer (Cliff Curtis), who spends his free time looking through a filtered pane at the sun’s surface ahead, wondering what an uninhibited view of the sun would do to a man’s soul.

None of the characters in Sunshine are movie superheroes. They exhibit all of the quirks and ragged emotions of humans under great stress, and sometimes fail accordingly. Physicist Robert Capa (Cillian Murphy), quiet and thoughtful, often clashes with pilot Mace (Chris Evans), a ruthlessly practical man intent on completing the mission regardless of the costs involved. Capa and Mace are meant to serve as counterpoints to Sunshine‘s most difficult problems, such as whether an innocent person should be sacrificed to save a few; but sometimes there are no good answers. And weighing down on all of the astronauts is the dawning realization that the chances for survival are constantly shrinking. As Cassie (Rose Byrne) says, “The only dream I ever have is the surface of the sun. Every time I shut my eyes…it’s always the same.”

Although it’s not quite as trippy as last year’s The Fountain, Sunshine also attempts to grapple with some metaphysical questions regarding man’s place in the universe. This is done somewhat less successfully than one might hope, since it’s largely a third-act device occurring only after Sunshine‘s sudden peripeteia. One can’t help but think that if Danny Boyle had pushed his film (and its characters) to their natural, terrifying breaking point, we would have been viewing a classic piece of science fiction. Instead, Sunshine is merely really good. Where lesser movies might fill the first half of a sci-fi film with unnecessary exposition, Sunshine grimly lays out the peril facing Icarus II‘s crew before getting out of its own way as mishaps occur, tensions rise, and a dreadful sense of foreboding casts a pall over the last few flickers of hope remaining for the crew. Its last fifteen or twenty minutes are of a much different mood than the rest of the film, but it still holds the audience on the edge of its collective seat. And several closing scenes are breathtaking in their cinematic ambition; if this film isn’t nominated for a cinematography Oscar I’ll be shocked. Sunshine is an intelligent, relentlessly gripping movie that dares to reach higher than most films would dream about. Even if it doesn’t quite attain those lofty goals, it’s still a remarkable piece of cinema.

A-.

July 9, 2007

Movie Review: Transformers

Posted in Movies at 11:48 am by Calico Jack

The good news about Transformers is that Michael Bay didn’t quite rape our collective childhoods. The bad news, however, is that he plied us with drinks, whispered sweet nothings in our ear, and took us to the back seat of his car for an illicit makeout session — somewhat enjoyable at the time, to be sure, but leaving a distinctly unpleasant taste afterwards. Transformers is neither the best movie of the summer nor the worst, but it might very well have the shortest shelf life of any blockbuster this year. When the titular characters play second fiddle to a string of moronic humans pontificating and shouting and shooting everywhere (ineffectually, one might add), monstrous explosions and occasionally exciting Autobot-on-Decepticon action do little to alleviate the tedium that invariably sets in.

Shia LaBeouf stars as the unfortunately named Sam Witwicky, a high school student who fits every one of Hollywood’s “Qualities of a High School Boy” checklist. He lives in a nice house, wears the kind of music-labeled clothing that screams “I’m cool!” in a non-understated kind of way, and has a huge crush on the local hottie Mikaela (Megan Fox), a girl who’s been in his classes since the first grade but is too vapid to recognize Sam’s existence. Sam’s two goals in life include getting the girl and getting a car: take your pick as to which is the more important. After fueling his car fund by auctioning off personal items from his adventurer/explorer great-grandfather’s collection, Sam and his father buy a rather decrepit yellow Camaro from fast-talking salesman Bernie Mac.

Sam’s new car isn’t actually a car, of course; but rather the Autobot Bumblebee, one of a race of benevolent robots exiled from their world long ago by evil Decepticon leader Megatron. Now Megatron’s followers are invading Earth — a scorpion-like robot lays waste to a U.S. military base in Qatar in Transformers‘ opening scenes — in a quest for the AllSpark, a giant cube whose energies could turn all technology into malignant mini-robots, or something to that effect. Sam, however, unwittingly holds the key to discovering the AllSpark’s hidden location; and Bumblebee and his brightly colored cohorts are determined to protect Sam, find the AllSpark, and save Earth from mechanical annihilation. There are many problems standing in the Autobots’ way, not only from the drably interchangeable Decepticons but also from a gaggle of clueless humans, including SecDef John Keller (Jon Voight in one of his “how much for this paycheck?” roles), shrilly excitable black ops agent Simmons (John Turturro), and a young, comely Australian hacker (Rachel Taylor) with a fetish for lip gloss.

One of the biggest problems with Transformers is that its various plot threads never really go anywhere. A prominent MacGuffin is ungainly dropped before the beginning of the third act, leaving the audience scratching its head as to why Michael Bay felt the need to spend a good half hour in exposition over it. And a side plot involving teenage hackers as the government’s last defense against an electronic Decepticon invasion is needlessly complicated for a summer blockbuster. Transformers‘ other downfall is its liberal application of cheese in a movie that otherwise tries to take itself somewhat seriously. A judicious bit of humor is always welcome, but there are several “humorous” jokes — involving the Autobots, no less — that completely ruin whatever tone the filmmakers were going for, including a few ill-timed scatalogical jokes and a sequence where all five or six Autobots try to skulk around Sam’s backyard without being seen by Sam’s parents. One wonders why they are so concerned about the mental health of two humans when they don’t mind being seen by the rest of L.A.’s population. These scenes don’t fall within the movie’s own internal logic (one of the most egregious problems in any film) and are symptomatic of the predicament that Transformers‘ screenwriters simply didn’t have enough plot to connect their action setpieces.

Having said that, Transformers isn’t completely worthless; but most of its best moments come from those few interesting action sequences and not from any part of the story. Bay has a love for guns and explosions, and Transformers is his most noisy, bombastic movie to date. But his downfall is that he doesn’t have the restraint to spend time framing his shots, instead jarring the audience with interminable sequences of rapid-fire cuts and jittery camera work. Industrial Light and Magic did the effects work for the Transformers, and it’s technically quite impressive. But Bay doesn’t seem to want to let the audience ever enjoy ILM’s efforts, as most Decepticon/Autobot battles are far too frenetic to either fully understand what’s happening or enjoy them on-screen. For the first five or ten minutes of a battle, spatial cluelessness is forgivable. But the climactic battle at the end of the third act is half an hour long, having the unfortunate effect of making the entire thing wearisome. A bit of constraint would have gone a long way; but judging from the audience I was in, most people didn’t mind being assaulted with noise and pretty colors and spastic action. And overlaying the closing credits with a plaintive rock dirge by Linkin Park is one of the worst scoring choices of the year, thematically and artistically.

In the end, Transformers isn’t so much about Autobots saving the world as it is a setpiece for Michael Bay to once more prove to everyone that he can do explosions better than anyone else in Hollywood. It’s also unfortunate that the plot is ultimately about a boy and his dual lusts for a car and a girl; the mantra “No sacrifice, no victory” is oft-quoted but never displayed. And like all good franchises, Transformers ends with a blatant plug for a sequel. Change directors and hire some decent screenwriters, and Transoformers 2 might just surpass the original. In the meantime, it’s best to shrug this one off as technically competent but thoroughly forgettable fare.
C+.

July 2, 2007

Movie Ratings, Part Deux

Posted in Movies at 3:48 pm by Calico Jack

In 2004, when The Passion of the Christ fervor swept across America and many fundamentalists were treating the premiere as the Second Coming, Ebert and Roeper suggested on their eponymous television show that if Passion didn’t receive an NC-17 rating for explicit violence, no film ever would. Their comments were sadly prescient, as Passion was handed an R rating and millions of people subsequently took their kids to see a two-hour film where Christ and flagellation were co-stars.

Several months ago I pointed out the overwhelming hypocrisy in the MPAA’s ratings system, a problem only exacerbated by the ridiculous decision to include smoking in its list of objectionable content. In a followup post, I wondered if there was any way to fix the ratings system; or, failing that, whether or not to just scrap this relic entirely. As a way to inform parents about possibly objectionable content in a film, the ratings board has failed miserably, but parents have also become lazy in what they let their underage children watch. There’s a lot of blame to spread around.

Several critics have lately taken the MPAA to task for its double standards and “What were they thinking?” moments. Entertainment Weekly critic Mark Harris addressed this issue in a recent column, suggesting that the presence of an NC-17 rating gives parents the impression that anything less is possibly acceptable for their children to watch:

Having seen Hostel: Part II, I’ll spare you my feelings about why can you top this? horror comedies about torture are not my idea of a fun night out (although contrary to rumor, Roth is neither untalented nor the Antichrist). I’d rather expend my indignation on the people who gave the movie a rating that, in practical terms, is no different from a G. All that an R rating mandates is that a child doesn’t walk into Hostel: Part II alone, as if the presence of a grown-up ”guardian” magically renders a movie more appropriate for grade-schoolers. Of course, the raters could have given it an NC-17, which would have kept all children out. But they looked at that nude, tortured woman and genital mutilation, and decided it didn’t cross the line. For that — and in the spirit of Roth’s movie — I say off with their heads…

Some have suggested that the U.S. adopt the tiered system of age cutoffs at, say, 8, 12, and 17 that some European countries use. But that’s unfeasible in an era of understaffed multiplexes and Internet ticket purchases. There’s also an argument for putting more teeth in the NC-17, taking a harder line about what’s unsuitable for children. But I’d give that about five minutes before every interest group in America presents its own petition of topics they want to be automatic NC-17s, and we’re back to a prudish laundry list of do’s and don’ts that was abandoned decades ago…

That leaves one solution that’s both radical and sensible: Dump the NC-17 completely. Provide maximum information about movie content, create a website with plot specifics and exact age recommendations, and leave it at that…Today, the NC-17 protects nobody and preserves the illusion that R-rated movies like Hostel: Part II are okay for kids because if they weren’t, somebody would have rated them NC-17. If Hollywood places the decision about what children should see in the hands of their parents, where it belongs, many parents will, of course, make those decisions irresponsibly. But overall, could they possibly do a worse job than the people who are now paid to do their thinking for them?

I’m not sure that Harris’s proposed solution is appropriate. It feels like a half-hearted measure that only tackles part of what makes the ratings system so unworkable. Putting all NC-17 movies under an R umbrella means that clueless parents might take their kids to see something that’s really not appropriate, like Shortbus. When I saw Grindhouse (a film I enjoyed, but one that is entirely inappropriate for kids), there were at least a dozen children in that theater under the age of 10. One small girl, in fact, kept crying throughout the film because she was scared — and her moron of a father simply told her to hush up. It’s only a movie, after all.

The MPAA already has a website which lists the reasons for a film’s rating, although it’s often so vague as to be useless. Quite frankly, I doubt whether many parents would even go to a website with detailed descriptions about a film’s content. It requires additional work, and too many parents are unwilling to take the slightest extra step towards protecting their children. What I would like to see, at the very minimum, are audible descriptions of a film’s rating played after TV and radio commercials. Many TV spots either list only the letter rating or have content descriptions in such small print that one has to squint his eye at the screen to discern anything intelligible. I think having an announcer intone “Captivity has been rated R for strong violence, torture, pervasive terror, grisly images, language and some sexual material” might give a few parents pause before dragging their children to Elisha Cuthbert’s latest torture-porn flick.

The best solution to this mess seems to be one which Harris casually discounts. The British Board of Film Classification has five ratings commonly used for films: U for universal, PG, 12A (no one under 12 admitted unless accompanied by an adult), 15 (no one under 15 admitted — period), and 18 (again, no one under 18 admitted, regardless of whether or not there is an adult present). The major difference between this and the U.S. system is that underage children are restricted from seeing films over their age bracket. This also allows flexibility in rating movies that may be appropriate for older teenagers. And unlike the U.S., Britain has no qualms about slapping a film with a restricted rating due to its violence.

One could argue that the U.S.’s R rating takes the place of Britain’s 15, and our NC-17 is comparable to their 18. But it’s impossible to get around the fact that the NC-17 is useless to American audiences, and parents can still choose to take their six-year-olds to see the latest misogynistic torture film if they so choose. Having a strict cutoff for children’s ages is a bit draconian, I admit; but I have no difficulty believing that seeing gruesome murders committed on-screen is as damaging to a child’s psyche as anything else out there. And contrary to Harris’s opinion, I have no doubt that movie theaters would be able to effectively screen underage children if they so desired.

There are no good solutions to this problem, unfortunately. The most desirable outcome would happen only if parents started caring about their children and started clamping down on the movies they see, but I doubt that’s going to happen. Either way, the U.S.’s system is broken; and only a drastic overhaul will stop the travesties that occur when a film like Hostel II gets a rating that lets unwitting six-year-olds witness genital mutilation in the comfort of their parents’ arms. People really are that stupid.

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