Movie Review: Blue Valentine (2010)

A great concept. Two excellent performances. Outstanding, even clever editing. A movie that could have taken its place with selected works by Robert Altman, Igmar Bergman, and John Cassevetes. But Blue Valentine fails spectacularly due to a weak plot, a weak character, and what appears to be artistic indecision. Simply put, Blue Valentine doesn't seem to know if it wants to be a European film, or an American film. Furthermore, it doesn't seem to want the audience to get attached to the characters, or have feelings about their relationship.

The fact that I have much to say about Blue Valentine is a testament to how many good elements are in the film. As I will explain, the editing is first rate. The acting is world class. Ryan Gosling, in particular, almost makes us love him with his charm and his old school, hipster, 20th century values.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway is what I told my partner as we walked out of AMC Empire 25. I said the movie shows Americans for what they really are: depressed, bummed out people. I know Americans have a reputation for being eternally positive and giddy. Americans love candy. Americans love amusements. Americans and Japanese play more video games and consume more movies that any other people. And back in the 90s, I was once told that Americans are easy to spot in Europe (especially northern Europe). They are the poorly dressed people who are always smiling. But Blue Valentine gives us a far more realistic view of typical American adults: most of them are unable or don't know how to enjoy life.

If Blue Valentine were a commentary on just how depressed Americans are today, then perhaps it would be a great movie. But the film does not make that argument. The film fails to achieve its goal, which was to make the audience like both the relationship being portrayed, and the partners in that relationship. This was supposed to be the story of boy pursues girl, boy and girl fall in love, and then, after a series of sad turning points, boy and girl fall out of love and split. Instead, this movie handicaps itself by having the girl never fall in love with the boy. How the hell is the audience supposed to get behind that?

Seriously, this was supposed to be a hankie movie? The audience was supposed to be saddened by the relationship's disintegration? Allow me to spoil the whole thing and count the ways this movie betrays the audience and gives them something that falls far short of the buzz and expectations that were set when the movie premiered at Sundance nearly one year ago.

*** Spoliers below!  But you shouldn't mind in this case. You'd know what this movie is about if you read a single review. ***

1. Dean (wonderfully played by Ryan Gosling) is a really nice working class stiff. Despite being shown the awful man he has become early in the film, we go back about five years to learn that when he was in his mid 20s, he was pretty darn cool. We see him join a moving company, and help an elderly man, Walter, move to a nursing home somewhere near the Poconos. Rather than simply dump Walter's boxes and drive off, Dean takes an extra hour to unpack and decorate Walter's room. It is the greatest part of the movie. Dean is creative, funny, and an all around good guy. His future wife, Cindy (the perpetually sad looking but underrated Michelle Williams), is also at the nursing home. In an edit that should inspire every film student alive, we see them make eye contact for the first time, and Dean begins his pursuit of Cindy. So to recap: Dean, a boy living in New York, decides to pursue Cindy, a college girl in rual Pennsylvania. And Cindy never sees the great thing that Dean did for Walter.

2. While Dean is chasing his seemingly impossible dream, we follow Cindy, and learn that while she was attending college in eastern Pennsylvania, she had a rash, aggressive, jock boyfriend, Bobby (Mike Vogel). An afternoon quickie in a dorm room leads to an unplanned pregnancy for Cindy. But by the time she learns that she is pregnant, she has already dumped Bobby (angered by the unprotected sex, it seems), and has opened up to Dean. The center of the film is the most charming. In a true cinéma vérité moment, shot with a handheld HD camera, through unclean panes of glass, we see Dean serenade Cindy with a 4-string ukulele and a song that Ryan Gosling wrote for the movie. Awesome, right? This movie is so wonderfully edited that the center of the movie is the warmest, most realistic moment between these two characters. The audience is going to fall in love with them, right?

3. Wrong. Cindy has no plans to tell Dean that she is pregnant. She prefers to wait for him to discover it. But in another awesome moment, Dean forces Cindy to reveal her condition while walking on the Manhattan Bridge. Cindy considers aborting her fetus, which was fathered by the violent asshole Bobby. She decides to get a D&C at a small town clinic. She goes so far as to be in the procedure room, legs spread, with a speculum up to her cervix, and a creepy looking male doctor injecting her with anesthetic (without a needle extender, I might about intimate service). However, Cindy lets the discomfort get the better of her, and she asks the doctor to stop the procedure. In an unrealistic motion, Cindy jumps up (isn't there a speculum in her?) and runs out to the waiting room for Dean to take her back to her dorm. On the bleak bus ride back to campus, Dean professes his love for Cindy. The feeling is never reciprocated.

4. Well, the rest, as they say, is history. Cindy decides to marry Dean, under the false pretence that marriage will bring stability and happiness in her life. Wrong. Dean shows incredible maturity, as he raises Cindy's daughter to become a beautiful little girl with promise. But Cindy's marriage and having a child at such a young age destroys her dream to become a doctor. She instead works at a rural Pennsylvania hospital as either a nurse or physician assistant (a PA in PA, I like to think). She grows to resent Dean for his carefree attitude, his untapped creativity, and his brief run as the better, more attentive parent. But a lack of love from Cindy drives Dean down a self destructive path to alcoholism. Dean transforms from the cool kid in Brooklyn to an asshole in aviators.

A Villiage Voice critic read the film as misogynist, arguing that the film portrays Cindy as the cause of Dean's negative transformation. But my read of the movie is that Cindy was unfortunately her own worst enemy. She shouldn't have kept the pregnancy (although the film wisely respects her choice). She shouldn't have married Dean. She should have been more honest with herself and acknowledged that she was never in love with Dean. I never blame the victim, but if Cindy had been more in touch with what she really wanted, this tragedy would not have happened. If Cindy had put herself first, there would be no movie.

Which brings us back to how this story is common in the real world. Too many men and women marry for the wrong reasons. Too many people don't prepare themselves for aging. Too many people simply stop living (or never start). Were we supposed to root for this doomed marriage to continue? We were presented with a 30 year old couple already living like depressed 50 year olds. How common is this couple in the real world? Far too common, I'm afraid.

The United States has this old reputation of being the optimistic, hopeful nation. We saved the world from fascism and imperial aggression in 1945. Heck, we saved South Korea from a communist takeover in 1953. We won the space race, as if that counts for anything. We built the Internet, and that does count. Our standard of living rose steadily between 1946 and 1973. And then it slowly went to hell.

But we clung to our glorious past in the years following 1973. We still had a healthy club culture in the 1970s, cocaine and all. We had a much needed, at times fun, sexual revolution. We had a long overdue political and economic empowerment of women. In pop culture, we had a fun 1950s revival in the 1970s, and a 1960s Motown revival in the 1980s. Movies by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas provided us with the guilty pleasures of the 30s, 40s and 50s in contemporary blockbuster packaging. And we even elected a president who tried hard to stay young, wore stylish chocolate brown suits, and offered jellybeans to visitors - all while denying or exacerbating the economic and international crises of the time (which continue today, of course).

We've gone from jellybeans to Xanax. I can point to Blue Valentine as evidence of our nation's current psyche, but I cannot recommend it as a great film because it fails to get the audience on Dean and Cindy's side. Rooting for Dean and Cindy is frankly a waste of time.

So if you want a similarly shot film that will make you love the protagonists, go back to 2007s Once. Or if you want to see a better disintegration of a marriage, then why not watch Igmar Bergman's miniseries Scenes From A Marriage (1973) or several Woody Allen movies, a couple of Robert Altman films, or several John Cassevettes films, including Faces (1968), Husbands (1970), or Opening Night (1977).

Movie Review: Welcome to the Rileys (2010)

I saw Welcome to the Rileys as an advance screening in New York on October 21st, 2010. The movie was introduced to the audience as a James Gandolfini vehicle that involves a stripper. Really, that was it. Imagine my shock and horror when the credits rolled some 90 minutes (which felt like 3 hours) later - that this was a Jake Scott film and that Ally Sheedy starred in it (for all but 60 seconds).

I could write a lot about the annoying continuity errors and editing mistakes. I won't. The problem with this movie is the screenplay, the direction, the music, the pacing, and even some of the photography.

James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo deliver excellent, sympathetic performances. But they are misdirected. They play a husband and wife living in Indianapolis. James Gandolfini sometimes has a southern accent, and sometimes reverts to his native Jersey accent. This is not his fault. It's Tony Scott's. Gandolfini plays Doug Riley, a money-wasting, risk-taking, yet also oddly grounded and disciplined plumbing supply salesman.

Melissa Leo's character, Lois, is a traumatized, sad, lonely woman who has been married to Mr. Riley for 29 years. We don't know how long she has refused to go outside, but it is well established (perhaps too established) that she has not left the house since the Riley's teenage daughter died in a fiery car accident. We get a glimpse of the auto accident's aftermath in the film's first shot. However, this being a Gandolfini movie, the audience will be forgiven for wondering if the burning Lincoln Town Car is a flash forward to a movie-ending car bomb. Maybe that's a stretch, but how was I supposed to know that the burning car was a flashback? I blame the director.

But back to Melissa Leo's character. Doug Riley goes on a business trip to New Orleans, but leaves a lot of emotional healing left unfinished at home. Following an emotionally empty phone conversation with Doug, Lois finally builds up her courage to leave her house and drive over 1,000 miles to have a much needed talk with her road warrior husband. But Jake Scott's misdirection appears once again. Being homebound for over 10 years, Lois is understandably clumsy and socially awkward. But is it played for laughs or is it supposed to be depressing and sad? The audience went from chuckles to silence multiple times during her 'escape' sequence. We see her taking many pills before heading out. She tries to get comfortable in her husband's Cadillac, but falls asleep before she can start the engine (did the pills do this? is this some timid suicide attempt?). She finally gets on the road and talks to a creepy man in a diner. The movie almost portrays the conversation as a positive step for her, as if being hit upon by a 50 year old guy who looks like Dennis Miller's brother is a nice thing.

I think the screenwriter was trying to tell us that she is socially inexperienced and vulnerable so it makes us uncomfortable to watch her fail to tell the man to leave her alone. But I also sense that Jake Scott had no clue what he wanted, and so we see a slow conversation that even includes the characters saying 'bye' to each other (clearly a more skilled director and editor would have cut that seconds earlier).

Welcome to the Rileys contains many strange moments like this, in which characters each say "bye" to each other multiple times over the phone, or showing characters hanging up a phone. This movie simply does not follow standard cinema grammar. It would be wonderful if it was done to make us feel uncomfortable and prevent us from picking up the film's beat and pacing. But I think it is simply poor directing and editing.

Doesn't anyone watch the entire film in the editing room anymore? Don't they burn a DVD and watch the rough cut at home? Do they watch it a couple of times, sit on it for a weekend, and then watch it again? In a Criterion interview for his 2008 film Che, Steven Soderbergh expressed his opinion that a declining number of directors watch their movie from beginning to end during the editing process. I agree with him.

Oh where did your character go, Ally Sheedy?

Did the filmmakers really need to cut out Ally Sheedy's character, but include every phone conversation -from first ring to hang up- simply to extend the film to 90 minutes? Did they really have a shortage of exterior establishing shots, so when we cut from one interior scene to another, we would understand that the location has changed? Think I'm kidding? Watch the movie (if you can get past the awful dialogue of the early diner scene 3 minutes in). I know very little about filmmaking, but was there a Second Unit and if so, what was their work to party ratio?

And when Mrs. and Mr. Riley finally have their reunion in New Orleans, there is zero emotional impact. There is a long build-up to the reunion, but then nothing happens when they finally embrace. In fact, their fighting scenes have more passion and truth than any of their embraces. Again, I blame the director.

A poor product like this should not earn Jake Scott a feature director's chair anytime soon. He is a skilled TV commercial and music video director. But this a terrible film. It makes one of his father's least successful films, Matchstick Men (2003), look very good in comparison (and remember that film had a similar parent-daughter theme running through it).

Do you want to see a slow family drama done really well? Watch Mike Leigh's Another Year (2010). It has some of the same themes of compassion and nurturing. And note just how better edited, directed, and paced that film is compared to this terribly mismanaged drama.

European Existentialist Dramas: Never Let Me Go and The American

Finally, two good movies in 2010!  There will be more to follow (Carlos, The Social Network, Armadillo, The Last Train Home).  But these are the first two I have seen in 2010 that pass the 'good' threshold.  Oh, I could also give honorable mention to Robert Rodriguez' Machete, since it delivered what it promised, and that was an explosive, raunchy late 1970s-style exploitation film.

But my focus is on these two very good films. Both are existentialist, in a way. But both are serious, highbrow stories that I think are meant to be consumed in completely different ways. And perhaps not coincidentally, both are from acclaimed music video directors, whose works have been deemed good enough to immortalize on collector DVDs.

I'll tackle the straighter film first - the long-awaited adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go.

Mark Romanek has directed some of the most memorable and technically advanced music videos of the last 20 years. His most memorable works include "Closer" (Nine Inch Nails, 1994), "Rain" (Madonna, 1993), "Are You Gonna Go My Way" (Lenny Kravitz, 1993), "Devil's Haircut" (Beck, 1996), "99 Problems" (Jay-Z, 2004), "Criminal" (Fiona Apple, 1997), and "Scream" (Michael & Janet Jackson, 1995), the most expensive music video of the 1990s.

When Romanek finally made his second feature film, One Hour Photo (2002), it was predictably strong, if a little dated in feel (who still shoots their family photos using 35mm film?). But that Hitchcokian thriller starring Robin Williams in one of his best performances assured that Romanek would remain a feature director for the foreseeable future. And so, Never Let Me Go is his third feature in 25 years.

Aside from three irritating changes from the novel's plot, the movie adaptation of Never Let Me Go is very well done. The performances from Carey Mulligan, Kiera Knightley, and Andrew Garfield are pitch perfect. The cinematography is, at times, outstanding. Costume design is strong as well.

Getting back to the plot changes (that's a play on the novel's plot narrative device, by the way), I just wish the Norfolk music tape subplot had remained intact. I had expected the film to tell the story at a brisk pace, and I was correct. So why didn't the movie stay completely faithful to the novel, with the exception of the subplot involving Kathy's music tape? In the novel, she buys the tape herself as a young teenager, loses it, and then with Tommy's help, finds a replacement during the key road trip to Norfolk at age 19.  In the movie, Tommy buys her the original tape, and it is never lost. While I can see how this change can establish the love triangle between Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy, I think it weakens the whole significance of the Norfolk road trip. That trip represented a turning point for the three main characters, but without the mission to locate and buy a replacement music cassette, Tommy and Kathy are left with nothing to do and nothing to talk about, thus diminishing their character and relationship development.  I was puzzled by that.

Readers of the novel will also know that Kathy's music cassette establishes a relationship between her and the Helsham School art curator, "Madame."  But the movie's love triangle emphasis squashes that touching subplot in the novel.

As I've said before, artists are free to make any choices they wish. But I really expected the movie to follow the novel, given that Ishiguro was an executive producer, and his fellow EP wrote the screenplay.

But despite the changes, it is not as if the movie lacks emotional impact. Kathy H. doesn't have a whole lot to do, and the same goes for Carey Mulligan in the movie. But give her credit for delivering a moving, sad performance, as the only character who sheds tears for herself and her fellow Helsham classmates.

It is also Keira Knightley’s best performance to date (and a brave one, as she is a total bitch and her bad teeth are at last revealed).

Mark Romanek got the tone and look completely correct:  The color palette, the feel, the theme, and the stifling sense of dread. There is no escaping the life set for these young people. There is no escaping England.

Knightley's roles in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise might be forgotten. She’ll be remembered for her great performance and green dress in Atonement and for this performance in Never Let Me Go. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she wins an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Never Let Me Go is slowly going wide after opening in New York and L.A.

George Clooney is...l'americano

Anton Corbijn is a notable fashion photographer and has directed some of the most memorable and artistic music videos of the last 30 years. Known mainly for grainy black & white photography, he has immortalized rock and film stars such as Keith Richards, Iggy Pop, Sting, Cameron Diaz, Joy Division, Lou Reed, Johnny Depp, Tom Waits, REM, Depeche Mode, and perhaps most notably, U2, with his photography providing the cover art for The Joshua Tree (1987), Rattle & Hum (1988), and Achtung Baby (1991).

He was, of course, the near-exclusive photographer of Joy Division, and his Ian Curtis biopic, Control (2007) was magnificent. For Corbijn, it was a labor of love 27 years in the making.

His most memorable music videos include "Behind The Wheel" (Depeche Mode, 1987), "Enjoy The Silence" (Depeche Mode, 1990), "Hero of the Day" (Metallica, 1996), "Heart Shaped Box" (Nirvana, 1993), and "One" (U2, 1992).

He clearly has an affinity for spaghetti westerns, as he likes to produce videos of bands playing the roles of banditos, cowboys, or outlaws in the desert.  He has produced three such videos, actually: "Personal Jesus" (Depeche Mode, 1989), "Mama Said" (Metallica, 1996), and "All These Things That I've Done" (The Killers, 2005).

Which brings us to his sophomore feature, The American.

I really like this movie.  But I wonder if it is too harsh to suggest that it is completely unnecessary. We film connoisseurs don't need The American. We need an existentialist, male oriented, European art film like we need another reality TV star.

That's incredibly snobby, isn't it? I don't see wine connoisseurs complain when another Argentinean Malbec or New Zeland Pinot Noir comes to market. They might ignore it, but they seem to welcome increased quantities of the good stuff.

And that's what The American is - another dose of the good stuff. But there's a catch. By "good stuff" I mean the beautiful avant-garde and new wave dramas from the 1960s. Young audiences are going to steer well clear of that, with the exception of a few film students.

The American is based on a highly successful suspense novel, A Very Private Gentleman, by Martin Booth. Both the novel and the move have the same main character and general plot. Clark, a middle aged Lee Marvin-like character, is known in his business as a 'shadow dweller.' Clark goes by several names, including Jack, and Mr. Butterfly. He is an assassin for hire. But more often, he is hired to procure, construct, and provide weapons for other assassins. Working under cover as a butterfly collector and photographer, he hides in the twisty, maze-like, medieval, northern Italian village of Castel Del Monte, which beautifully serves to keep the suspense and tension fairly high throughout the movie.

The primary inspiration for the movie adaptation seems to be Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï (1967). It's a film that has been borrowed and remade often. Here is a list of films inspired by Le Samouraï:

The Driver (Walter Hill, 1978)

The Killer (John Woo, 1989)

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch, 1999)

You Shoot, I Shoot (Pang Ho-Cheung, 2001)

The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, 2009)

The fact that Jarmusch, a highly original and ultra-cool filmmaker in his own right, made two movies that quote Le Samouraï should tell us a lot about Melville's influence. Interestingly enough, Ghost Dog and The Limits of Control are Jarmush's least-liked films among American critics (although there has been an embrcing of Ghost Dog, lately).

Alain Delon is...Le Samouraï

It goes without saying that existing art influences new art. But in cinema, quotation and reference is not only accepted, it is practically encouraged by the filmmakers and educated film audiences, much to the delight of film scholars and critics.

And so The American does not limit itself to Le Samouraï. It is quite rich and sophisticated in its influences and visuals. There are many elements from Corbijn's own Depeche Mode videos. There are gorgeous overhead shots that invoke travel magazines or car commercials. There is also a very blatant homage to the spaghetti western masterpiece, Once Upon A Time in the West (Leone, 1969).

And then there are the women: tall, pretty, continental - who remind me of the leading ladies in about 20 French and Italian films, including Repulsion (Polanski, 1965), The Passenger (Antonioni, 1975), Pickpocket (1959) and Les Biches (Chabrol, 1968).  

Les Biches (Bad Girls) was marketed as a thriller, but really it was a male fantasy, namely Chabrol's. Leading man Jean-Louis Trintignant would naturally have two impossibly beautiful women (one of whom being the director's wife) fight over him in luxurious St. Tropez. And the same is certainly true with George Clooney. He can't help it that women want him. In The American, they might both want to kill him and bed him (just not in that order).

And that's where my slightly subversive read of The American comes into play. As beautiful, artistic, and pretentious as this movie is, I don't think it is meant to be taken seriously at all. It's an extended fashion spread in Esquire or GQ, in which our male model dodges bad guys and woos long haired women while in his car, on a Vespa, or at an outdoor cafe. This is fashion, not just cinema. And my gosh, is it beautiful. 

Oh sure, there's a story. The audience is expected to figure out (and I think most film-conscious viewers will figure out) that as movie assassins get older (if they make it that far), it becomes impossible to peacefully leave the business. Surely all that killing and double crossing produces enemies who hide in the shadows. In every European town and village the elder assassin hides out, he is never safe. It is an impossible situation. But at least there is some time to enjoy fine food, wine, liquor, coffee, and women - hence the reason more than one American critic compared this movie to Eat Pray Love, which I find hilarious. 

George Clooney's Clark is hired by a man we don't know, to construct a rife for a female assassin we don't know, to do a high profile killing we'll never know, all for reasons unexplained, leaving many questions that will never be answered. Sounds like a blast, right?

Clark's handler is played by Belgian actor, Johan Leysen, who resembles an elderly Daniel Craig or Steve McQueen (brilliant!). The female assassin is played by the steel-eyed, sextilingual Finnish actress Irina Björklund. This really is a European art house film that happens to star America's most recognizable leading man. You could argue that hasn't happened since Robert De Niro in 1900 (Bertolucci, 1976).

I think if a viewer puts away his or her expectation of a heart pounding Hollywood thriller aside, and realizes that it's both an homage to 1960s cinema and highbrow eye candy, the film becomes extremely enjoyable. I think the film fully succeeds at what it declares to be - a pretentious avant-garde thriller. I can't knock this movie for doing exactly what it set out to do. And besides, I liked it at lot. Sure, I already own Le Samouraï and Ghost Dog on DVD. I've seen this movie before. But I'm an older, nostalgic  film scholar. I remember when films like this were taken seriously, despite having plots that were equally thin and flawed.

Screenwriter Rowan Joffe (28 Weeks Later, and the son of Oscar-winner Roland Joffe) did a pretty good job modeling Clark on Clint Eastwood's characters in Leone's westerns. The screenplay often dictates the cuts - usually after a character says something crucial or appropriate to end a scene. I think the most predictable cut is the scene in which Clark is talking to the village priest over dinner.  The priest is trying to get Clark to open up and start confessing his sins. The priest says, "A man can be rich, if he has God in his heart."  Clark replies, "I don't think God is very interested in me, Father."  Cut.  It's the school of screenwriting that includes Michael Mann and Tony Gilroy, and it usually works.

Is Clooney 'smizng'?  Has he been listening to Tyra?

Just don't expect the minimalist screenplay to answer any questions or rise up to match the visual beauty of this film. As I said, visuals trump the story in this European production. But despite this gap, Anton Corbijn is able to maintain a key element of both the novel and the film, and that is suspense. If the sudden, violent opening doesn't hook you, then the suspense fails. But I think it succeeds. Once it is quickly established that almost everyone who pays attention to Clarke wants him dead, it is easy to get sucked into the film's suspense and have a somewhat thrilling ride as Clarke has to constantly watch his back and erase his tracks.

And if the ride doesn't deliver the thrills for everyone, perhaps the generous curves of Violante Placido will entertain the remaining viewers enough to forget that they were tricked into seeing a weird foreign film. You have to admit, "baby got back." 

Stop looking at that butt!  Did you know her mom played Apollonia in The Godfather Part II at age 17? 

2009 In Film

There's so many ways I could begin this post. First, I meant to write this in January 2010.  But I think with this year being a relatively weak year for film, it is a good time as any to talk about how 2009 went down. 

I suppose the easiest thing to argue is that this decade, with just a few months left, is in many ways a continuation of the trends set in 1990s cinema (aside from the amazing advances in digital photography and effects, of course). Independent movies are still competing well against studio productions.  The number of theatrical releases is still gradually decreasing.  And the movie theater experience, revitalized in the 1990s with stadium seating and THX digital sound, has continued its evolution with the advent of digital projection, the brief digital 3D phase, leather seating, and soon, new movie palaces (similar to those in Thailand) with lounge seating and at-seat food service.  We've also seen wonderful boutique theaters for foreign and independent films, such as the Landmark Cinemas chain, and the IFC Center in downtown New York.

And many of the themes and major directors who matured in the 1990s continue their work in this decade. During the 1990s, there was a 1970s revival.  And while now the 1980s revival is running its course, we still see the influences and talent that made 1990s cinema very interesting. Quentin Tarantino has found his place as a hard-working film historian, who makes watchable yarns with moments of greatness (that muscle car chase scene in Death Proof? Brilliant). The Coen brothers continue their excellent work, with the time and freedom to make small personal films and comedies of mixed quality.  Mike Leigh continues the peak he set in the early 90s.  Steven Soderbergh continues his blazing pace of two films per year, thanks to his advanced skills as a producer and his full control over shooting and editing.  Julie Taymor continued building her strong filmmography.  So did Wong kar-Wai, albeit at a slower pace.

And then we have Katheryn Bigelow, known mainly for making solid, male-oriented action movies.  I think the thing we can take away from The Hurt Locker is that you don't need a stunningly original or complex plot to make a great film, but you absolutely need strong performances and flawless execution.  With The Hurt Locker, all the elements that Bigelow acquired in her 31 year career come together for a full 130 minutes.  We had the exploration of risk taking, the effects of adrenaline and testosterone, glimpses of raw male aggression and nihilism, the mismatch between military and civilian life, the sheer madness of war, and the age old lesson that no good deed goes unpunished.

Just as important, we see a director who knows how to storyboard, plan, shoot, and edit an action scene. When I watched the action sequences in The Dark Knight, I wondered if Christopher Nolan had any idea what the completed product would look like on screen.  But with Bigelow, you never lose your sense of place or speed.  The framing, camera angles, and edits are simply perfect.  When Jeremy Renner's character instructs his comrade to wash blood off a Barrett sniper cartridge ("Spit n' rub!") you are sucked right into the moment, on the edge of your seat.  She showed this ability decades ago in The Loveless (1982) and Near Dark (1987).  She's now a leader in action movie directors.

And it was all done, amazingly for $11 Million.

I should also point out Bigelow's history of both intentional and unintentional success.  Point Break was marketed as one of the best surfing moves ever made, but it is actually one of the best skydiving action movies made.  The Hurt Locker was meant to be one of the best bomb squad movies ever (and I think it is), but it is also one of the best Army Ranger movies ever.  And no one expected The Hurt Locker to be an Oscar contender when it was previewed in the fall of 2008 and released in the summer of 2009.  But in a weak year, it stood out as one of the few greats.

Ever since a 1978 master's thesis film in which two men beat each other to a pulp, Katheryn Bigelow has continuously returned to male violence as one of her primary themes.  It's fantastic to see her mature as a filmmaker.  Whereas Point Break (1991) had its moments (and made for a great poster in a college girl's dorm room), The Hurt Locker really elevates Bigelow's status to highbrow auteur.  I think auteur's know they have 'made it' when stills from their movie end up in Film Comment magazine.  And The Hurt Locker gave us plenty of stills to choose from.


Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie clash throughout this white knuckle actioner. 

My short list of other classics from 2009 include mainly foreign entries.  I should point out that all of these films were shot and edited digitally (with the exception of The Hurt Locker, was shot in Super 16mm).  Digital production and processing fully matured around 2007 (with Zodiac, I would argue) and it is here to stay (unlike digital 3D).

The White Ribbon 

I think The White Ribbon ranks with The Tin Drum, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Das Boot, and The Lives Of Others as one of the finest German films in the last 30 years. It is sublime and beautiful, portraying early 20th century rural German life, and the depth and ability of human cruelty. It's a sweeping examination of human behavior, discipline and punishment, and the overbearing presence of death. Featuring a perfect cast (including on of my favorite German actors, Ulrich Tukur), The White Ribbon never lingers on one of its many themes. While it is obvious that the children in the movie will come of age during the Third Reich, it is never explicitly argued that the story is a prequel or some kind of fictional explanation of the carnage that is to come (and it's not important to the story anyway). Michael Haneke, the elder statesman of central European cinema, takes full control of the storytelling as the writer and director and does a stellar job. Thanks to its stunning black and white digital cinematography, the film immerses you in another time and place. I really do think that digital photography has helped resurrect black and white cinema, since there is no one left in the industry who knows how to light black and white film (not since the great Gordon Willis retired).

El Secreto de sus Ojos (The Secret in their Eyes)

Based on a novel by Eduardo Sacheri, and written for the screen and directed by Juan Jose Campanella, The Secret in their Eyes is an emotionally powerful film noir and procedural that is probably the best film of its kind since Zodiac. We know the Academy likes stories about oppressive regimes and death camps, but this movie uses Argentina's Dirty War to great effect - by using it as a dark cloud over the small, simple story it focuses on. Told largely in flashbacks, a prosecutor (Ricardo Darin) spends years of his life investigating the rape and murder of a young schoolteacher.  We suspect his quest for justice will be futile, as will his romantic pursuit of a woman who belongs to the ruling class. But the suspense and execution is flawless like an old Hollywood film noir, highlighted by a stadium search sequence reminiscent of Scorsese or DePalma films of the 80s. While I feel that The White Ribbon is the more complex, deeper film, it does not diminish the accomplishment of this film - Argentina's first Oscar win in 25 years, and second overall.

Which Way Home


While The Cove won the Academy Award for best Documentary Feature, as expected, I feel that Which Way Home is the more powerful and impressive film – both logistically and emotionally. The Cove had the assistance of Hollywood FX and camera crews. Which Way Home uses far simpler handheld digital cameras and on-location sound.  It has a minimum of graphics and music, and zero narration. But I’m not a fan of Which Way Home because it’s an underdog. I was riveted by this movie. It will stay with me forever. Rebecca Cammisa’s film doesn’t give us any sentimentality or tug our heart strings. It gives us a never before seen look at illegal immigration between Central and North America, through the eyes and words of children who leave their homes to ride ‘The Beast,’ the freight train network that runs over 1,400 miles through Mexico to the US border.  The film would never have been completed without these kids, who know and lead the way north for Cammisa and her crew. 

There are many amazing moments captured on video here. Many of the children in this movie act and react like adults. They are hard, but break down like people who have had decades of hurt. We see that many children are driven to migrate to the USA out of a naive idea that they can both survive the freight train journey and find a stable job. We meet a traumatized, crying little boy who was rescued from the journey's final leg - the Sonoran Desert. We learn of two cousins who didn't survive the desert. And we meet Memo Ramirez Garduza, manager of the Saint Faustina Migrant's House in southern Mexico. He gives any migrants willing to listen a monologue he has probably delivered thousands of times. He tells them that Mexico is the "way to death" and that the USA is "death itself." He warns them not to go further, but then asks, "Who wants to go to the United States?" Everyone around him raises his or her hand. It might be a somewhat staged moment, but it is raw, devastating, and quite moving.

I will always grapple with what is more shocking – their perilous journey, or their parents back in Guatemala and Honduras? Clearly the journey is incredibly dangerous and is the focus of the film.  But the viewer won’t soon forget the parents, either. Many of the children are orphans or were abandoned by their parents at a young age.  But others have parents or stepparents who encourage their children to leave (or throw them out), hobo to America under the constant threat of death by train or at the hands of an adult, obtain jobs, send cash home, and not complain.  Sounds perfectly fair, no?

District 9

The best way to describe District 9 is that it is a science fiction story that manages to address Apartheid, refugee crises, slum cities, private military contractors all in just over two hours.  And while the battles that conclude the film don’t answer the very good questions the movie asks, District 9 wound up on many critics’ top ten lists, as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.  Not too shabby for a $30 Million dollar space opera.  Oh, and it also managed to completely offend Nigeria. Director Neill Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson are two of the most skilled filmmakers when it comes to digital photography, effects, and editing.  So not only is District 9 an original movie, it really is a small technical marvel as well (small compared to Avatar, of course).


I think it is a fairly easy argument that Tetro is Coppola’s best film since Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). That’s seventeen years – a lifetime. In order to return to his own lofty standards, Coppola relies on themes and styles he has worked with before, namely the family melodrama, mixed with his own family history and a tip of the hat to Italian neorealism. You’ll find it all in Tetro. Of course, neorealism and melodrama cannot coexist in a single film, so Coppola is wise to stick to his own life experience for inspiration and narrative.  The result is a highly polished exercise in melodrama with echoes of Coppola's own family history and a tip of the hat to Rocco and his Brothers (1960).

The film is about two brothers, played by Vincent Gallo (age 46 at the time of production), and Hollywood’s newest leading man, Alden Ehrenreich (age 18). So right from the start, Coppola makes unorthodox casting choices.  The same could be said of the film's location.  It is the story of an ethnic Italian family, but Coppola, having found new inspiration (and new vineyards) in Argentina, sets the film there. I think it works well, given that the country is virtually half Italian itself. The all digital black and white cinematography might remind viewers of one of Coppola’s less successful dramas, Rumble Fish, which was also highly stylized. In fact both films have splashes of color. Through the protagonist of the elder brother, Tetro, we discover a complex, highly creative family, much like Coppola’s. It's operatic, bold, and at times, a beautiful film. Welcome back, Francis.      



Not to be confused with the musical, Nine, or District 9. However, like District 9, this movie was adapted from an academy-nominated short (in this case, the original short won the Oscar). 9 is an animated cautionary tale, and one of the bleakest movies of 2009 (set in a world where mankind is extinct). Unlike the original animated short, the full-length feature contains dialogue, making the film far more complex, and arguably less entertaining that the original short. But the art direction and voice talent in the feature is quite good (thanks in large part to the involvement of Executive Producer Tim Burton). And despite the complex adventure and depressing theme, it remains the most imaginative animated film of 2009. 9 may not be as great as the films above, but I feel I need to include it as a noteworthy animated film for teens and adults.

Film Review: Solitary Man

It is rare for an American film to give us a despicable protagonist from beginning to end, but that is one of the notable achievements of Solitary Man (2009), the latest opus from Brian Koppleman and David Levien, the talented writers who gave us the very entertaining Rounders (1998) and Oceans 13 (2007). They have created a character who speaks his mind and will not hesitate to harm or manipulate others. Better still, they wrote the character for one of Hollywood’s taken-for-granted actors, Michael Douglas. I just wish the film lived up to its quality beginning and ending. I found the middle of the film to be full of clichés and lulls that should have been ironed out. Nevertheless, Solitary Man has some good scenes and is superior to two other films this year about white men going through late life crises, Paper Man and Multiple Sarcasms. 

Solitary Man is being well hyped by men’s magazines like Esquire and GQ. But as those magazines also hyped the overrated In The Air last year, I kept my expectations low for Solitary Man. And I'm glad I did.

The movie starts out strong. Dialogue is crisp. The static, medium-long shots quickly establish the film’s clean aesthetic. We are immediately introduced to Ben Kalmen (Michael Douglas), a disgraced, unemployed, womanizing 60 year-old man who once ruled a tri-state network of auto dealerships in the 80s and 90s. But now, he carries more pounds and “no net worth” (as Gordon Gekko would say). His dealerships were caught running a leasing scam that victimized both customers and the auto manufacturer. FTC fines and legal fees have washed him out. But he is no less bitter, cantankerous, or cynical. Nor is he willing to grow up, a primary theme of this character study.

Soon after we see him run away from his doctor’s prescribed heart tests, Ben agrees to escort his girlfriend’s 18 year-old daughter Allyson,(played by British starlet Imogen Poots), to his alma mater in Massachusetts to grease her application interview and assure her acceptance. The movie then treats us to two excellent scenes that should raise most viewers’ expectations. First, Ben and Allyson exchange rapid-fire put-downs and subtle flirtations at the airport, while other middle-aged businessmen stare at Ben with a mixture of envy and discomfort. Second, we’re treated to one of the movie’s best lines as Ben gets into a scuffle with a student on the quad. “You call me an asshole,” Douglas belts out in his trademark nasal voice, “I’m gonna earn it.” So far, so good. At times, the film has a beautiful mix of comedy, drama, and male shamelessness that most guys (myself included) should like. 



But the middle of the movie goes soft, it seems. Ben’s life continues to tear at the seams, which is well established and directed. He loses just about everything back in New York. The plot has him going back to his old campus in Massachusetts with his tail between his legs. That would be fine if he were going to work for the university (he was a major donor when his business was at its peak). But the film chooses the less original comedy route of the “dirty old man on campus.” Ben reconnects with a college friend, a wise sage played by a refreshingly calm Danny DeVito, takes a job at a diner, and ends up embarrassing himself at more than one kegger. While I agree that the plot required him to go into exile out of New York, I was a little disappointed to see his ex-wife (Susan Sarandon) disappear for a long stretch in the film, while his daughter (Jenna Fischer) became involved in multiple subplots –at least one of which felt contrived and false. Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale, Zombieland) makes a few appearances as a sophomore hoping to make Ben his mentor. Of course we know that can’t happen. We witness time and again how Ben is a poor role model and sometimes his own worst enemy. But what could have been a satisfying on campus subplot seemed to be where the movie grinds to a halt and ends up being as awkward and aloof as Eisenberg’s character.

After some thought, I think I know why this film didn’t work for me. I don’t think Ben’s back story was effectively presented. Quite often, he is reminded (and therefore we are lectured) of his past actions by his daughter and ex-wife.  We are introduced to Ben well after his late life crisis has begun. I wonder if the film would have been better served by a prologue scene, or an earlier starting point (with the frat parties cut out towards the end). When Ben speaks to others, the film works. When others describe Ben’s past to him the film seems to suffer. I don’t think an earlier starting point would have made Ben more likable. But it probably would have raised audiences’ expectations of his redemption, and would shrink the subplots in the middle. Perhaps a longer introduction would have given us tighter second and third acts.

Artists are free to make decisions, of course. But I was a little surprised to learn that Levien and Koppleman didn’t split the writing as they usually do. For this screenplay, Koppleman did all of the writing, with Levien serving as his soundboard. They had toyed with this story for years. But they didn’t revise their script all that much –probably by choice. They are clearly talented, experienced writers who know how to speed up stories through the middle act (does anyone remember the blazingly-fast set up in Oceans Thirteen?). But with Solitary Man, they set out to make a small independent film their way, at a slower pace. That, plus the non Hollywood ending deserves a lot of credit. But such a strong performance by Douglas deserved a firmer and less clichéd second act. His character needed time in exile to build a respectable comeback. But instead he spent most of his time with characters and subplots that diminished his presence and the audience’s enjoyment of the film. Having an unlikable character complete a personal journey while keeping the audience’s interest is no easy task (see Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993) to appreciate it done beautifully). But I fear that Koppleman and Levien set a high bar that they could not reach half of the time in this film. And the writing is to blame.

Cinematography by Alwin H. Kuchler (Ratcatcher, Sunshine) is first-rate and elevates this film above the standard indie fare. Honorable mentions should also go to costume design and the pristine on set dialogue recording. This film had to be shot quickly, so City Island (Bronx) serves as Massachusetts. But found locations, such as Ben’s girlfriend’s condo, add some style and an authentic uptown Manhattan feel.


Dhalgren Finally Learns That Twilight Is Huge In Utah

Daily Variety is an awesome publication. And you don't have to be a Hollywood insider or be in entertainment to appreciate it. My girl, who is nowhere near the entertainment industry, subscribes to it, and each Tuesday, there is a list of the highest-grossing movies in the country by theater. Usually, the list includes theaters such as AMC Empre 25 in Times Square, Regal Union Square 14, El Capitan Hollywood, or Pacific ArcLight Hollywood. But two weeks ago (the weekend of November 21-23), the numbers were flipped on their head. The New York and LA theaters were there, as well as AMC Garden State 16. So that's five of the top 10 - nothing too unusual there. But look at 4 of the other top 10 theaters:

1. Twilight, Larry Miller Megaplex 20, South Jordan, UT
2. Twilight, Larry Miller Jordan Commons 16, Sandy, UT
3. Bolt, El Capitan Hollwood, Hollywood, CA
4. Twilight, Pacific ArcLight Hollywood, Los Angeles, CA
5. Twilight, AMC Emprire 25, New York, NY
6. Twilight, Larry Miller Gateway Megaplex 12, Salt Lake City, UT
7. Twilight, Regal Union Square 14, New York, NY
8. Twilight, AMC Garden State 16, Paramus, NJ
9. Twilight, Larry Miller Megaplex 13, Ogden, UT
10. Twilight, Regal Irvine Spectrum 20, Irvine, CA

My girl saw the list and was immediately curious. Utah screens never appear in this list. So after some Google searching, we found this and this and this. While I do not believe that Twilight is Mormon proaganda, it is a case study in how a text from a Mormon artist (Stephanie Meyer) can attract and retain a strong Mormon following.

Also, financially speaking, it has been quite a year for Mormons. They spent millions sponsoring the campaign to pass Proposition 8 in California and they spent millions going to see Twilight. There is no connection, of course. But it is just so damn curious.

If someone told me two years ago that sanitized vampire fiction would be the runaway youth pop culture hit in the wake of the final Harry Potter book, I'd laugh out loud. I'm not laughing now. Sexless vampires are big business.

Official Trailer For The Wrestler (2008)

Everyone likes a comeback. Kurt Russell in Stargate (1992). John Travolta in Pulp Fiction (1994). Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking (1995). Robert Downey Jr. in The Singing Dectective (2003) (a commercial flop, but his first feature after his early 2000's Ally McBeal rehab phase). Gwyneth Paltrow in Iron Man (2008). Mel Gibson (pending). Tom Cruise (pending).

I'm ready to jump on the bandwagon praising Mickey Rourke's comeback in The Wrestler (2008). However, being the cynic that I am, I expect his character to die of cardiac arrest after winning his big comeback bout. A sort of 'have one's cake and eat it too' ending. Also, the press kit states that his character was forced to retire after a previous heart attack, and that his character is seeking redemption, even though going back into the ring will probably cost him his life. And this is a Darren Aronofsky film (remember the feel-good Requiem for a Dream?) Yes, we have seen this movie before. It might be full of cliches. It might be totally predictable. But if it is well-executed, I'll cheer with the rest of the crowd. In a disappointing year for Hollywood movies, I need an uplifting cinema experience.


Looking Into The Minds Of The Militant Hollywood Haters

Photo by Flickr user Vlastula, used here under a Creative Commons license

These examples are very interesting. And they are perhaps a little scary, since they remind me of gun-toting militia/patriot movement members from 15 years ago. In fact, the Anti-Idiotarian Rottweiler is a site founded by white supremacists, who were deemed a little too extreme for the the right-wing, mildly-racist blog, Little Green Footballs. At least some of them realize that if they watch a single primetime TV show or one of several cable TV channels, they are indirectly supporting either a Hollywood studio or the parent company of a Hollywood studio. So for the commenter who said he onlly watches television for NASCAR races and Fox News, that's two types of Fox programming. Fox television is owned by News Corporation, which owns 20th Century Fox. And Tim Graham, who thinks that no one in Hollywood likes 24, apparently didn't pause to remember which company produces the show.

Debbie Schlussel: [Almost] Never A Satisfied Movie Critic

Here's Debbie live-blogging this year's Oscars. Just read it for the unintentional comic brilliance.

There are way too many priceless gems in her angry rants. But I don't know what is more sad, her angry Oscars commentary fuelled by wine coolers, or the comments by her fans, who actually think she martyred herself by watching the broadcast for their entertainment. Like I said, go read it. There will be laughter.

I say that she is 'almost' never satisfied with a movie, because there are recent films she has enjoyed. In the last year, she liked Spiderman 3, she "loved" Enchanted, and she liked Vantage Point. But really, she detests most contemporary films. She wanted Persepolis to win Best Animated Feature (so did I, but not because it is an anti-Shiite film, or so she says). Fine, it is a great animated film. But a wholesome, fun, critically acclaimed, American animated film won instead. Was she happy for the made-in-the-USA, family-friendly Ratatouille? Even though she put it on her year's best list, she was still left a little disappointed Sunday night.

For those who don't know Debbie, she spends her waking hours as a race-baiting lawyer while aspiring to be more irrational, unhinged, and controversial right-wing celebrity pundit than Ann Coulter ever was. She's among the nuttiest of wingnuts. Gavin at Sadly, No! described her best here. Only a wingnut would start a movie review with this line:

It's not exactly a newsflash that Hollywood sides with Islamic terrorists and is against the impotent War on Terror.

I mean, case closed, she's out of her fucking mind, right? (Gavin smartly argues that she is not out of her mind, but rather a true believer in what the Bush administration wants Americans to believe.) Because of her lengthy, angry rants, she's frequently entertaining, if repetitive. Sadly, No! has been ignoring her, so I'm picking-up the baton today.

Debbie doesn't like films in which there is senseless killing (No Country; most horror films), a smart-ass teenager (Juno), foreigners (La Vie En Rose), gays, Spanish speakers, positive Muslim characters (David & Layla), or any truth about our nation's occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan (No End In Sight and Taxi To The Dark Side, respectively). So what current movies does she like? Well, based on her running Oscar commentary.....I have to say almost none. She's not a happy camper. All of these highbrow movies don't feature bible reading or perfect happy endings. They reflect imperfect, unfair worlds, much like our own real world. She argues that movies should be positive, escapist entertainment, since we know there are no 'artists' in Hollywood.

You know, for a girl who wants all Muslims exterminated, I find her disgust of movie violence, regardless of genre, maturity, realism, or importance to the story, to be a bit odd (except in Vantage Point....Die Muslims, Die! You too, Matthew!1!!!). But we have seen this behavior before. For example, we have seen it in those who claim to defend life by advocating the murder of doctors. Also we have seen it in those who claim to support a 'Culture of Life' while supporting capital punishment. Debbie is far from alone. Her passion and anger on the issue of stopping Muslims from out-breeding us and enslaving us seems to be unique, however.

She regards herself as an expert on terrorism and Muslim imperialism. She doesn't know about me, however. I know more about the history of terrorism than she ever will, and I can lecture about the subject while wasting drug dealers and cops in Grand Theft Auto. I'm dangerous, man. But this isn't about me.

Kon Ichikawa, 1915-2008

Japan lost another of its great fim directors from its 1950s reinessacnce. Kon Ichikawa, director of over 40 films, including classics such as The Burmese Harp, Fires on the Plain, and Tokyo Olympiad, died today in Tokyo. He also excelled at adapting novels into movies, including one of the only Japanese novels I've read, The Broken Commandment. Along with Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Mizoguchi Kenji, Imamura Shohei, Seijun Suzuki, and others he firmly put Japanese cinema on the map.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days - Opens Today in US

You can see it on the big screen at the IFC Center in New York, or you can see it on Comcast, Time Warner, or DirecTV OnDemand ($6.99). Click here to see if you can watch the movie at home in your area. It is one of the best films of 2007, right up there with There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men. It is part of the long-awaited Romanian New Wave. And it beat No Country for the Palm D'Or at Cannes last May. In a year of at least five movies addressing abortion, this was among the best two (the other being Lake Of Fire). Not only that, it is among two of the years best thrillers - possibly two of the most perfect thrillers in the last 40 years (since John Boorman's Point Blank). See it!

2007 Oscar Nominees Announced

80th Academy Awards
Announced Categories

Performance by an actor in a leading role
George Clooney in "Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.)
Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax)
Johnny Depp in "Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (DreamWorks and Warner Bros., Distributed by DreamWorks/Paramount)
Tommy Lee Jones in "In the Valley of Elah" (Warner Independent)
Viggo Mortensen in "Eastern Promises" (Focus Features)

Performance by an actor in a supporting role
Casey Affleck in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (Warner Bros.)
Javier Bardem in "No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage)
Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Charlie Wilson's War" (Universal)
Hal Holbrook in "Into the Wild" (Paramount Vantage and River Road Entertainment)
Tom Wilkinson in "Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.)

Performance by an actress in a leading role
Cate Blanchett in "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" (Universal)
Julie Christie in "Away from Her" (Lionsgate)
Marion Cotillard in "La Vie en Rose" (Picturehouse)
Laura Linney in "The Savages" (Fox Searchlight)
Ellen Page in "Juno" (Fox Searchlight)

Performance by an actress in a supporting role
Cate Blanchett in "I'm Not There" (The Weinstein Company)
Ruby Dee in "American Gangster" (Universal)
Saoirse Ronan in "Atonement" (Focus Features)
Amy Ryan in "Gone Baby Gone" (Miramax)
Tilda Swinton in "Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.)

Best animated feature film of the year
"Persepolis" (Sony Pictures Classics): Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud
"Ratatouille" (Walt Disney): Brad Bird
"Surf's Up" (Sony Pictures Releasing): Ash Brannon and Chris Buck

Achievement in art direction
"American Gangster" (Universal): Art Direction: Arthur Max; Set Decoration: Beth A. Rubino
"Atonement" (Focus Features): Art Direction: Sarah Greenwood; Set Decoration: Katie Spencer
"The Golden Compass" (New Line in association with Ingenious Film Partners): Art Direction: Dennis Gassner; Set Decoration: Anna Pinnock
"Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (DreamWorks and Warner Bros., Distributed by DreamWorks/Paramount): Art Direction: Dante Ferretti; Set Decoration: Francesca Lo Schiavo
"There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax): Art Direction: Jack Fisk; Set Decoration: Jim Erickson

Achievement in cinematography
"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (Warner Bros.): Roger Deakins
"Atonement" (Focus Features): Seamus McGarvey
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (Miramax/Pathé Renn): Janusz Kaminski
"No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage): Roger Deakins
"There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax): Robert Elswit

Achievement in costume design
"Across the Universe" (Sony Pictures Releasing) Albert Wolsky
"Atonement" (Focus Features) Jacqueline Durran
"Elizabeth: The Golden Age" (Universal) Alexandra Byrne
"La Vie en Rose" (Picturehouse) Marit Allen
"Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (DreamWorks and Warner Bros., Distributed by DreamWorks/Paramount) Colleen Atwood

Achievement in directing
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (Miramax/Pathé Renn), Julian Schnabel
"Juno" (Fox Searchlight), Jason Reitman
"Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.), Tony Gilroy
"No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage), Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
"There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax), Paul Thomas Anderson

Best documentary feature
"No End in Sight" (Magnolia Pictures) A Representational Pictures Production: Charles Ferguson and Audrey Marrs
"Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience" (The Documentary Group) A Documentary Group Production: Richard E. Robbins
"Sicko" (Lionsgate and The Weinstein Company) A Dog Eat Dog Films Production: Michael Moore and Meghan O'Hara
"Taxi to the Dark Side" (THINKFilm) An X-Ray Production: Alex Gibney and Eva Orner
"War/Dance" (THINKFilm) A Shine Global and Fine Films Production: Andrea Nix Fine and Sean Fine

Best documentary short subject
"Freeheld" A Lieutenant Films Production: Cynthia Wade and Vanessa Roth
"La Corona (The Crown)" A Runaway Films and Vega Films Production: Amanda Micheli and Isabel Vega
"Salim Baba" A Ropa Vieja Films and Paradox Smoke Production: Tim Sternberg and Francisco Bello
"Sari's Mother" (Cinema Guild) A Daylight Factory Production: James Longley

Achievement in film editing
"The Bourne Ultimatum" (Universal): Christopher Rouse
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (Miramax/Pathé Renn): Juliette Welfling
"Into the Wild" (Paramount Vantage and River Road Entertainment): Jay Cassidy
"No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage) Roderick Jaynes
"There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax): Dylan Tichenor

Best foreign language film of the year
"Beaufort" Israel
"The Counterfeiters" Austria
"Katyn" Poland
"Mongol" Kazakhstan
"12" Russia

Achievement in makeup
"La Vie en Rose" (Picturehouse) Didier Lavergne and Jan Archibald
"Norbit" (DreamWorks, Distributed by Paramount): Rick Baker and Kazuhiro Tsuji
"Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" (Walt Disney): Ve Neill and Martin Samuel

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score)
"Atonement" (Focus Features) Dario Marianelli
"The Kite Runner" (DreamWorks, Sidney Kimmel Entertainment and Participant Productions, Distributed by Paramount Classics): Alberto Iglesias
"Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.) James Newton Howard
"Ratatouille" (Walt Disney) Michael Giacchino
"3:10 to Yuma" (Lionsgate) Marco Beltrami

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original song)
"Falling Slowly" from "Once" (Fox Searchlight) Music and Lyric by Glen Hansard and: Marketa Irglova
"Happy Working Song" from "Enchanted" (Walt Disney): Music by Alan Menken; Lyric by Stephen Schwartz
"Raise It Up" from "August Rush" (Warner Bros.): Nominees to be determined
"So Close" from "Enchanted" (Walt Disney): Music by Alan Menken; Lyric by Stephen Schwartz
"That's How You Know" from "Enchanted" (Walt Disney): Music by Alan Menken; Lyric by Stephen Schwartz

Best motion picture of the year
"Atonement" (Focus Features) A Working Title Production: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Paul Webster, Producers
"Juno" (Fox Searchlight) A Dancing Elk Pictures, LLC Production: Lianne Halfon, Mason Novick and Russell Smith, Producers
"Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.) A Clayton Productions, LLC Production: Sydney Pollack, Jennifer Fox and Kerry Orent, Producers
"No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage) A Scott Rudin/Mike Zoss Production: Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, Producers
"There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax) A JoAnne Sellar/Ghoulardi Film Company Production: JoAnne Sellar, Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Lupi, Producers

Best animated short film
"I Met the Walrus" A Kids & Explosions Production: Josh Raskin
"Madame Tutli-Putli" (National Film Board of Canada) A National Film Board of Canada Production Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski
"Même Les Pigeons Vont au Paradis (Even Pigeons Go to Heaven)" (Premium Films) A BUF Compagnie Production Samuel Tourneux and Simon Vanesse
"My Love (Moya Lyubov)" (Channel One Russia) A Dago-Film Studio, Channel One Russia and Dentsu Tec Production Alexander Petrov
"Peter & the Wolf" (BreakThru Films) A BreakThru Films/Se-ma-for Studios Production Suzie Templeton and Hugh Welchman

Best live action short film
"At Night" A Zentropa Entertainments 10 Production: Christian E. Christiansen and Louise Vesth
"Il Supplente (The Substitute)" (Sky Cinema Italia) A Frame by Frame Italia Production: Andrea Jublin
"Le Mozart des Pickpockets (The Mozart of Pickpockets)" (Premium Films) A Karé Production: Philippe Pollet-Villard
"Tanghi Argentini" (Premium Films) An Another Dimension of an Idea Production: Guido Thys and Anja Daelemans
"The Tonto Woman" A Knucklehead, Little Mo and Rose Hackney Barber Production: Daniel Barber and Matthew Brown

Achievement in sound editing
"The Bourne Ultimatum" (Universal): Karen Baker Landers and Per Hallberg
"No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage): Skip Lievsay
"Ratatouille" (Walt Disney): Randy Thom and Michael Silvers
"There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax): Matthew Wood
"Transformers" (DreamWorks and Paramount in association with Hasbro): Ethan Van der Ryn and Mike Hopkins

Achievement in sound mixing
"The Bourne Ultimatum" (Universal) Scott Millan, David Parker and Kirk Francis
"No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage): Skip Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff and Peter Kurland
"Ratatouille" (Walt Disney): Randy Thom, Michael Semanick and Doc Kane
"3:10 to Yuma" (Lionsgate): Paul Massey, David Giammarco and Jim Stuebe
"Transformers" (DreamWorks and Paramount in association with Hasbro): Kevin O'Connell, Greg P. Russell and Peter J. Devlin

Achievement in visual effects
"The Golden Compass" (New Line in association with Ingenious Film Partners): Michael Fink, Bill Westenhofer, Ben Morris and Trevor Wood
"Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" (Walt Disney): John Knoll, Hal Hickel, Charles Gibson and John Frazier
"Transformers" (DreamWorks and Paramount in association with Hasbro): Scott Farrar, Scott Benza, Russell Earl and John Frazier

Adapted screenplay
"Atonement" (Focus Features), Screenplay by Christopher Hampton
"Away from Her" (Lionsgate), Written by Sarah Polley
"The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (Miramax/Pathé Renn), Screenplay by Ronald Harwood
"No Country for Old Men" (Miramax and Paramount Vantage), Written for the screen by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
"There Will Be Blood" (Paramount Vantage and Miramax), Written for the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson

Original screenplay
"Juno" (Fox Searchlight), Written by Diablo Cody
"Lars and the Real Girl" (MGM), Written by Nancy Oliver
"Michael Clayton" (Warner Bros.), Written by Tony Gilroy
"Ratatouille" (Walt Disney), Screenplay by Brad Bird; Story by Jan Pinkava, Jim Capobianco, Brad Bird
"The Savages" (Fox Searchlight), Written by Tamara Jenkins

Jake Gyllenhaal To Play Joe Namath In Post-Strike Sports Flick

Finally, the story of Joe Namath leading the Jets to victory in Super Bowl III will be told on the big screen. I'll pay to see it!

Jets fans most definitely deserve to see their finest hour portrayed in a feature-length movie, starring an actor who can certainly play the role. Hopefully the writer's strike will end in 2008, or else Jake might slowly grow too old for the role. Namath was an older-looking 25 year-old when he won the Super Bowl. Jake is about to turn 27.

Maybe someday I can write Impregnable: Tom Brady.

Friday Video: Live To Tell

I thought about posting a video in honor of W's 61st birthday. The Smiths did a song called "Unhappy Birthday." and the first few lines apply to W ("you're evil and you lie"). But the song is sung from the perspective of a lover who commits suicide.

So I wanted something dark and beautiful. And then I remembered hearing a Madonna song in the distance while waiting for the fireworks in New York harbor. The song was La Isla Bonita, from the album True Blue. That reminded me of the best song on the album, Live to Tell.

You might recall that True Blue was dedicated to Sean Penn, who is described in the liner notes as, "the coolest guy in the universe." The single, Live to Tell, was the theme to the film At Close Range, which starred Sean Penn, Chris Penn, Mary Stuart Masterson, and Christopher Walken. It was directed by James Foley, whos other great accomplishment was the movie version of Glengarry Glen Ross (accompanied by the same DP and editor, which counts for a lot.

If The Falcon and the Snowman didn't turn Sean Penn into an A-list actor, then At Close Range surely did. It was also a very dark film. I mean dark; darker than Sopranos. It told the semi-true story of a crime family in rural Chester County, Pennsylvania. Christopher Walken is a believable psychopath who murders one of his own sons and his other son's girlfriend. In a decade where dark films were rare, At Close Range and Blue Velvet stood-out as the darkest mainstream dramas of 1986. That was a year in which Reagan's popularity was at its peak, and there was some national unity over the Challenger disaster as well as our skirmishes with Libya (recall that the top-grossing movie of 1986 was Top Gun).

So here is a well-mastered video that shows key clips of the film accompanied by Madonna's song. Some graphic violence and spoilers in this one:

And here is the original music video from 1986. This is is one of Madonna's greatest songs, in my opinion. You know...along with Open Your Heart, Rain, Take a Bow, Deeper & Deeper, Express Yourself, and Frozen. Oh yeah.

Go See a Blockbuster, Then Stay for Sicko

I saw Sicko in New York Sunday night. It's playing at the AMC Lincoln Center / IMAX on 68th and Broadway (same theater referenced in the Lazy Sunday video, no less).

It is a must-see movie. In my opinion, it is the best edited of Moore's films. And it might also be the best narrated. I used to dislike Moore as a narrator. But this time around, he sounds good, and we don't see as much of him as before.

The movie is mainly visceral. It is meant to make you mad as hell. Regardless of your political affiliation, you will probably exit the theater wanting our healthcare system dismantled and replaced. If not, then perhaps you have no heart or you are too wealthy to worry about an injury or illness bankrupting you.

The major problem with Sicko is that it offers not a single idea on how to turn back the clock 40 years and get healthcare right in this country. Sicko is in great need of a sequel. At least Michael Moore offers ideas on what to do on his website. But we could use a 30-minute video on what we need to do next.

So Sicko does not explain how to reverse 40 years of mismanagement and privatization of our healthcare system. It does not explain how much a single-payer system would cost (hundreds per citizen, possibly $1 Trillion per year). But the visceral impact of the film is clear. When we see doctors in the UK, Canada, Cuba, and France, treating patients for free, we should be furious and ask "why don't we have that?" Sicko will infuriate you. Seeing a Cuban doctor patting an American saying, “It is going to be alright,” is both humbling and infuriating.

There are some contexts not shown. We see a British internist who earns $150,000 per year and lives in a $1 Million London town house. But is he an exception or the rule?

We see Cuban doctors treat American exceptionally well, but surely the care the Americans received was a cut above what an average Cuban would have received? Still, their diagnoses were as good if not better than the diagnoses the patients received in the US of A.

And there are contexts and details that are on full display. We see both scholarly and ordinary Canadians and Britons explain why their systems are so precious, and why they were built. We see how their people are more productive and happy when they don’t have to worry about or pay medical expenses. We see that the French are not as nasty and as evil as we have recently been led to believe. We see a link between free universal healthcare and life expectancy, infant mortality, and economic prosperity. Moore doesn't show us a chart, but smart viewers should be able to figure it out.

You're smart, right? You will love this movie.

Healthcare should be free of charge to the public. Now why isn't it? That's the question the movie asks us.

Moore hits a few out of the park. There are some tangents and sequences that are simply priceless. And the film made Sunday night's audience of 800(one of the largest in the city) both cry and burst with spontaneous applause. It was really something.

It is a must see movie. Expect an Oscar nomination or two (best documentary, best editing).

Oh -

And when Moore reveals that he anonymously paid the $12,000 health care bill of a blogger critic’s wife, it is amazing. That guy is going to literally shit himself when he sees this movie. It is one of many ‘holy shit’ moments in the film.

What? He already shit himself back in May? I'm often among the last to know in the age of Teh Internets.

BTC News has an excellent essay entitled Health care in America is un-American. Go read it. It summarizes the crisis better than I could above.