Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year to everyone from the front row!

May 2008 be just as good a year for film as 2007!

First Look at "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"

Speaking of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, here is the first photo released from the film, courtesy of Hpbeyond.net:

I take it as a good sign that...

...my site is getting lots of hits from people doing web searches for Sweeney Todd's Jamie Campbell Bower. Maybe he will be getting the attention he deserves after all, especially if he lands the role of young Voldemort in the upcoming Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince the way he is hoping.

In fact, if you Google "Jamie Campbell Bower Harry Potter" as I did while looking for the article I linked to above, my site is the first hit. Interesting...

IFC's 5 Best Directorial Debuts of 2007

They are:

Persepolis
Away from Her
The Band's Visit
12:08 East of Bucharest
King of Kong: A Fist Full of Quarters

I know IFC mainly focuses on indie films, but excluding Michael Clayton and Gone Baby Gone from this list seems wrong. Craig Zobel's Great World of Sound is also a strong candidate. Although I am really sorry I missed 12:08 East of Bucharest while it was at the RiverRun Film Festival back in April.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

"National Treasure 2" Tops Box Office Again

Weekend box office estimates:

1
National Treasure: Book of Secrets
$35,632,000






2
Alvin and the Chipmunks
$30,000,000






3
I Am Legend
$27,500,000






4
Charlie Wilson's War
$11,768,000






5
Juno
$10,300,000






6
Alien Vs. Predator - Requiem
$10,050,000






7
The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep
$9,200,000






8
P.S. I Love You
$9,100,000






9
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
$8,000,000






10
Enchanted
$6,500,000







Source: Box Office Mojo

This weekend's box office champs stayed pretty much the same from last week, with National Treasure: Book of Secrets winning the weekend. Christmas day openers Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem and The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep failed to make a major impression at the box office, earning around $10 million and $9 million, respectively.

Year in Review: Individual Achievements

Before my top ten list and final 2007 retrospective is published next week, here is a list of individual achievements that stood out in 2007:

BEST PERFORMANCE
Marion Cotillard, La Vie En RoseOf all the elements that make Olivier Dahan's Edith Piaf biopic such a powerful work, Marion Cotillard's transcendent performance is by far the greatest. For over two hours, she is Edith Piaf, inhabiting her heart and soul as if it were her own skin. The French actress' dazzling portrayal represents the very essence of acting, and it is one of the most jaw-dropping transformative performances ever captured on film.


BEST SCENE
Elegy for Dunkirk, AtonementLast year, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki earned universal acclaim for his lensing of Alfonso Cuaron's distopian masterpiece Children of Men, with much of the praise stemming from its two lengthy powerhouse tracking shots. Now joining them in the annals of great one take shots is the scene at Dunkirk beach in Atonement, a tracking shot by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey following romantic lead Robbie's stunned walk through the devastated and demoralized British army on the beaches of Dunkirk, where they retreated from the German advance. Featuring some of the year's most haunting imagery (the looming ferris wheel enshrouded in smoke is impossible to shake), the scene is the year's most perfect marriage of all the cinematic arts, from cinematography to art direction to Dario Marianelli's luminous score (the choir of soldiers is an especially heartrending touch here), that all came together to form the best single scene of 2007.


BEST SCORE
Jonny Greenwood,
There Will Be BloodIt was an underwhelming year for movie scores overall, but Jonny Greenwood's chilling and beautiful score to There Will Be Blood stands out from the rest. It has aptly been referred to as "Philip Glass on crack" for its reliance on minimalist strings, which create an atmosphere that is at once appealing and unnerving. One could easily by lulled into the haunting soundscapes of There Will Be Blood, only to be jarred by the dark, harshly atonal outbursts that make this such an eclectic and varied score. Greenwood's roots are in rock and roll (he was a member of the band Radiohead), but he proves here that he is equally comfortable with classically inclined works. There is no score this year that has had as great an impact.


BEST SOUNDTRACK
I'm Not There
Not only did Todd Haynes use a variety of actors to portray Bob Dylan for his cerebral, free-associative biopic, he also chose a variety of musicians to interpret and bring his music to life. From Eddie Vedder to Sonic Youth to Willie Nelson to Iron & Wine to Jack Johnson to Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova (who also provided the delicately gorgeous soundtrack to Once), I'm Not There's riotous, free-wheeling soundtrack is every bit as eclectic and creative as the man himself, with its myriad interpretations that are both beautiful and thrilling. It's impossible to pick a standout here, which is what makes the 2-disc set so endlessly appealing. The rebellious spirit of Bob Dylan is alive and well here, in an interpretation every bit as thrilling as the film itself.


MOST ROMANTIC
Once
No other movie since Lost in Translation has so perfectly captured the beauty and longing of a fleeting romance characterized by a chance encounter as Once, John Carney's shimmering Irish gem about a street musician who decides to pursue his dream of recording an album after meeting a beautiful Irish immigrant who takes an interest in his music, and together they spend one whirlwind week pursuing his dream. Featuring some of the year's most beautiful and tender music (courtesy of the film's stars, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova), Once is a charmingly low-budget musical that earns its emotions honestly through music and the appealing presence of the two leads. What Once lacks in production values it makes up for in spades in heart.


MOST INSPIRATIONAL
The Great Debaters
Movies like this tend to be a dime a dozen - underdog stories about teams no one has heard of ascending through the ranks to take on the big leagues. But what sets Denzel Washington's second feature film as director apart is its heart. Directed with a loving earnesty, Washington works within his given formula to create something truly moving and inspirational. Even though we know the outcome going in, he still makes it seems momentous through true dedication and admiration for his subject and three-dimensional characters worth caring about, and in the makes a proven formula seem joyous and new again. This is a powerful piece of mainstream filmmaking that deserves to be cheered.


BEST ENDING
Michael ClaytonWithout giving anything away, Michael Clayton's haunting denouement is hardly conventional. Instead of giving us the usual tidy conclusion, director Tony Gilroy gives us time to contemplate its implications with a tracking shot that lasts throughout the end credits, leaving a powerful impression on the audience. It doesn't end with a bang, it ends with something much more effective.


BIGGEST SURPRISE IN THE SMALLEST PACKAGE
Great World of SoundHaven't heard of Great World of Sound? Well, you're not alone. But Craig Zobel's unique comedy about two wannabe record producers who are hired by a phony company to scout for talent, to hilarious results, deserves to be seen. It's also surprisingly poignant in its insight into the American obsession with musical talent and humiliation, making Great World of Sound one of 2007's hidden gems.


MOST CHARMING
Waitress
The story of Adrienne Shelley's life may have ended in tragedy, but the legacy she left behind is as warm-hearted and beautiful as they come. Waitress, her directorial debut, is the very embodiment of that - a sweet, endearing comedy with plenty of Southern charm about a pregnant waitress stuck in a miserable marriage, who finds happiness and love in the form of her young, handsome doctor. Sweet without being saccharine, witty without being cynical, Waitress is a truly wonderful film that brings laughter and tears with equal dexterity.


FUNNIEST
Knocked UpYet another comedy about an unplanned pregnancy, except this time with the raunch factory seriously ramped up. But like its predecessor, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up also manages to be beautifully endearing, and unlike so many other teen comedies, positive and uncynical. And much, much funnier...it's the most sidesplitting film of the year.


MOST UNDERRATED
In the Valley of ElahTommy Lee Jones gives the year's most overlooked great performance in this involving and moving mix of mystery and war drama about a father searching for his son who went AWOL upon returning from Iraq. Has much to say about the conflict in Iraq without ever being preachy, and featuring one of the year's most searing final images, In the Valley of Elah has been more unfairly ignored than perhaps any other film this year.


FEEL GOOD MOVIE OF THE YEAR
Paris, je T’aimeI just felt the need to give this movie a shout-out, because it's one of my very favorite films of the year. I can't in good conscience put it on my top ten list because it is an anthology film where there are a couple of weak links in the chain, but the ones that work really click and the result is nothing short of magical. This collection of 20 short films from 22 world renowned directors exploring love in the City of Light is a delicately charming as they come, a dazzlingly romantic feast for the heart that is as uplifting and swoon-worthy as anything this year. Paris, je T'aime is a true treat.


BEST POSTER
Black Snake MoanWhat more needs to be said?


FILMS EVERY AMERICAN SHOULD SEE
For the Bible Tells Me So
God Grew Tired of Us

No End in Sight
Sicko (tie)
It's been an excellent year for documentaries, but these four films tackle gay rights, the Lost Boys of Sudan, the bungling of the war in Iraq, and what's wrong with America's healthcare system with such power that they are impossible to ignore, and essential viewing for anyone living in this country. Each takes a different approach to its subject, and some are more evenhanded than others, but they are all eye-opening experiences that should not be missed. These are films with the power to make a difference, if only they could find the right audience.

"Citizen Soldier"

I swear if I have to see this damn music video before one more movie I'm going to pull my hair out. 3 Doors Down has sunk pretty low to be shilling military propaganda with their gratingly generic music.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Craig Kennedy on "Juno"

From Living in Cinema:
You see, your amalgam of quirks meant to signify personality that everyone thinks are so cute don’t work on me anymore. A person is not defined by the fact they listen to Astrud Gilberto or Iggy Pop. Being able to argue the difference between Herschell Gordon Lewis and Dario Argento doesn’t make you a more interesting person. Admit it. These are just things to hide the fact that you’re kind of empty inside. You can’t just put on a Kinks song and have it stand in for genuine emotion. Well, Wes Anderson can, but it works when he does it...

It’s also telling that your two most interesting characters, the adopting couple Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner, feel out of place in the world you’ve created. You’ve set them up to be the butt of jokes, but they’re the most real and human of all the people in your movie. The rest of your characters are nothing more than machines built to spout spunky dialogue. This would be ok if you made me laugh more. Unfortunately, you made me chuckle once in awhile, but mostly I just smiled and wondered what everyone around me found so damn funny.

Click here to read the full review.
Great review, I love the 'break-up letter to Juno' effect. It's good to know that when it comes to Juno, I'm not the only one who has stood up to say that the emperor has no clothes.
Detroit Metropolitan Airport, 8:08 AM

Looking down on the clouds en route from Detroit to Wausau, 9:36 AM

Lambeau Field in Green Bay, 2:33 PM Central time

Dave Poland on the State of the Strike

From The Hot Blog:
Yes, shutting down The Golden Globes is a show of power. But what is the purpose? How does it serve the goal… which for all the anger, is to get a deal done and for the writers to get back to work?
I'm glad I'm not the only WGA supporter who feels this way. Poland makes an excellent case for the fact that the union may be hurting themselves at this point more that they are hurting the producers, especially with their scattershot granting of vouchers.

"You Are Now Free to Move About...Detroit?"

You know...the Northwest Airlines slogan is "You are now free to move about the country," but so far all they've done for me is get me stuck in Detroit.

Well...actually the hotel the airline put us in is in Romulus. It's like being trapped in a Star Trek episode.


My flight out of Charlotte arrived in Detroit late, causing us to be 5 minutes late to our connector flight to Green Bay...which was the last one of the night with nothing available tomorrow. Lovely. Apparently they couldn't wait 10 minutes...even though they were the same airline and knew there were quite a few people on the flight out of Charlotte going to the Green Bay flight. We finally found a flight going to Wausau, and we'll be driving to Green Bay from there.

But I will definitely have a WiFi connection once I reach Green Bay, so I will be able to keep up with the news and buzz and keep up the posts.

Look for updates soon.

Friday, December 28, 2007

The Revolution Might Not Be Televised

The word on the street (or at least the blogs) is that this year's Golden Globe ceremony is in serious danger of being scrapped altogether.

With many stars refusing to cross WGA picket lines to get to the ceremony, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is looking for alternatives to a live television broadcast on NBC. WGA strike coordinator Jeff Hermanson has been quoted as saying: “If the Globes is telecast and it is produced by Dick Clark Productions, which is a struck company, we will picket the show.”

With the fate of the Oscars also in question, this presents an interesting dilemma for Hollywood. We webcast for the Globes would be an interesting prospect, and probably the best compromise. However, the WGA seems hellbent on shutting down the Oscars - the biggest night of the year for Hollywood. But my question is, what purpose will that serve?

I have been behind the WGA all along. They deserve what they are demanding and the AMPTP has been nothing but arrogant and antagonistic to their demands. But this move to shut down the awards shows seems counterproductive, and - dare I say it - self-centered.

The Oscars are about unity - or they're supposed to be. This is the night when everyone from the stars to the sound technicians sit down in the same room and honor each other's achievement, and 2007 is Oscar's 80th birthday, one of the best years for film in recent memory. By trying to stop the awards shows the Writers' Guild is denying recognition for the cinematographers, the costume designers, the art directors, the editors - everyone. This is their night to shine, and I think it would be a great gesture of goodwill on everyone's part to let the Academy Awards proceed as normal. Anything else seems unnecessarily divisive. Stopping the Oscars not only hurts the producers - it hurts everyone involved.

The Academy is honoring 80 years of film this year, and the WGA won't even let them show clips of the nominated films. To me anyway, this seems to be too much.

I support the WGA strike...but I'm starting to question their methods. Am I alone in this, or is the WGA shooting themselves in the foot by appearing too standoffish?

AFI Names 2007 "Moments of Significance"

They are:

1. THE WRITERS GUILD STRIKE -- ADDRESSING STORYTELLING IN THE DIGITAL FUTURE

2. BERGMAN AND ANTONIONI--THE END OF AN ERA

3. iPHONE --SYMBOL OF THE EXPLODING ON-DEMAND CULTURE

4. "WAR ON TERROR" CREATES CULTURAL SPASM

5. PLANET EARTH--LANDMARK PROGRAMMING IN HIGH DEFINITION

6. THE HYPER-TABLOIDIZATION OF TV "NEWS"

7. SUMMER ON CABLE REDEFINES YEAR-ROUND PROGRAMMING

Click here to read the entire article.

Gone to Green Bay

I'm flying out of Charlotte tomorrow (technically today, since I'm writing this at 3:00 AM) on my way to Green Bay Wisconsin to see the Packers play the Detroit Lions on Sunday, and will be gone until January 2nd, so there will probably be a decrease in posts until then, because I don't know what kind of wireless internet service I will have up there.

Now I'm not a big sports fan (OK...I'm not a sports fan at all), but my dad has loved the Packers since he was a little kid, and he's living out a lifelong dream to see them play at home in Lambeau Field, so I wouldn't miss it. However I will try to post updates when and if I can while I'm there.

But in case I don't write again until I return, have a happy new year, and I'll see you in 2008!

Review: "The Great Debaters"

It is a rare and beautiful experience, walking into a film with low expectations and being totally blown away. The Great Debaters is the kind of film with an ending we know is predetermined before we walk in the theater - an inspirational film about a coach or teacher (in this case both) who takes a team no one has ever heard of (in this case a debate team) up through the ranks in unexpected ways to take on the national champions (in this case Harvard).

Yet Denzel Washington, in his second feature film as director (after Antwone Fisher), directs with such love and obvious passion for his subject that it's hard not to get swept up in it.

His subject is the Wiley College debate team from rural Texas, an all black college in the Jim Crow south in 1935. Washington himself stars as Melvin B. Tolson, their passionate and controversial coach, who leads them to greatness, challenging white colleges for the first time in a town filled with long standing, historical racism, and makes history in the process.

It's a very familiar story, we have seen this many times before (and we've seen it before from Washington too, in Remember the Titans), but Washington takes a tried and true formula and infuses it with a heart filled with a fervor that is impossible to ignore. He has made a movie that truly has the power to inspire.

Never before have I seen an audience break out into applause in the middle of the movie, much less twice, and then again at the end. It is that kind of movie - a crowd pleaser of the highest order, not cinematically groundbreaking by any means, but extremely well made. There is a fiery heart burning bright at the center of The Great Debaters, and it ignites the screen through a talented cast, featuring Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker, and Jermaine Williams as the debaters themselves.

At its core is a plea for tolerance and equality that we have heard before but can never be told enough. Washington has illuminated yet another uplifting underdog story of progress and made it into a totally winning film. As much as I would love to see my beloved Into the Wild among this year's Golden Globe nominees for Best Picture, I salute The Great Debaters and its achievement of working within a given formula and emerging triumphant with warmth and spirit.

It's an old fashioned feel-good movie, well acted and solidly crafted - the kind of which there will always be room for. It's almost enough to restore my faith in mainstream filmmaking altogether.

GRADE - ***½ (out of four)

THE GREAT DEBATERS; Directed by
Denzel Washington; Stars Denzel Washington, Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, Denzel Whitaker, Jermaine Williams, Forest Whitaker, Gina Ravera, John Heard; Rated PG-13 for depiction of strong thematic material including violence and disturbing images, and for language and brief sexuality.

Review: "Juno"

Going into Juno, the latest comedy from director Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking) after hearing months of ecstatic buzz from fellow bloggers, critics, and pundits, I was expecting a comedy for the ages - brilliant, timeless, and heartfelt. What I saw instead is quite possibly the most overrated movie of the year.

Not that it was a bad film, but Juno is never for a second as great as its reputation, and is inferior in every way to Adrienne Shelley’s similarly themed but infinitely more charming Waitress.

My biggest problem with the film, interestingly enough, was Diablo Cody’s much ballyhooed screenplay. Whereas most people have seen charm and wit, I saw self conscious quirkiness and an excessive smugness that I found off-putting.

It all centers around a precocious 16 year old girl named Juno, who after a single night of passion with her best friend Paulie (Michael Cera) becomes pregnant, and decides to find put it up for adoption. She finds an ad in a sale paper for a couple of wealthy yuppies (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) who are desperate for a child of their own, and ends up forging an unexpected relationship with them as her pregnancy causes her to grow up faster than she had originally planned.

It’s not a wholly original premise, but Reitman treats the material well. The film is moderately likable, and coasts on Page’s winning personality. But the real shining light of Juno is Garner, who turns in a heartbreaking performance as a woman who wants nothing more in the world than to be another, but can’t do it on her own. She is the emotional core, and the only thing that really lends the film any gravity.

The rest seems to be filled with zinging one-liners but very little substance. Yes the jokes are clever, but I never felt a beating heart behind them outside of Garner.

Now I know it sounds like I think this is a bad film. I don’t. I just felt the need to explain why I don’t like it as much as everyone else seems to. I have seen many other comedies that I thought were better in 2007 - I thought Margot at the Wedding was sharper, Waitress was sweeter, Knocked Up was funnier, Superbad had more teenage insight, and Great World of Sound was more original.

Juno is a well enough made film, it should put dreck like The Heartbreak Kid to shame, but this is no masterpiece. Nor is it anywhere near Best Picture material, the way many have been saying. It is a pleasant diversion with some funny one liners and nice moments (mostly courtesy of Garner), but overall I found the experience, well…lacking.

I know I’m in the minority here, and maybe I missed something. Who knows, I may return to it another day in another frame of mind and feel differently. But right now I feel that Juno is an OK film that got mistaken for a great one, and is the most grossly over-praised film of 2007.

GRADE - **½ (out of four)

JUNO; Directed by Jason Reitman; Stars Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, J.K. Simmons, Allison Janney; Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexual content and language

Thursday, December 27, 2007

On "Sweeney Todd"

My review of Sweeney Todd was published in The Dispatch today, you can read it here:
It's a gleefully ghoulish premise, and Burton embraces it in all of its gothic, Grand Guignol glory. Under his direction, "Sweeney Todd" is a thing of bloody beauty, sumptuously designed by production designer Dante Ferretti and costume designer Colleen Atwood, in which blood sprays in ruby-colored geysers covering everything from the actors to the camera lenses, the sublime Sondheim score soars simultaneously on the surprisingly strong voices of Depp and Carter...
Click here to read the full review.

Jonny Greenwood's "There Will Be Blood"

2007 has been a pretty dry year for film scores. There have been quite a few scores I have liked - Atonement, Lust, Caution, The Kite Runner - but none that I have been truly passionate about.

Until now.

Review: "Atonement"

Every year it seems, there is at least one prestigious historical costume drama released around this time of year hoping to rack up lots of Oscar nominations.

This year, that film is Atonement, which thankfully does not fall victim to the Cold Mountain syndrome (which was just as cold and distant as its title suggested), and is every bit as emotionally affecting as it is visually sweeping.

Directed by Joe Wright, who burst onto the scene in 2005 with his enrapturing adaptation of Jane Austen's classic Pride & Prejudice, Atonement (based on the novel by Ian McEwan) is a wholly different animal, and yet cut from the same cloth as its predecessor.

Pride & Prejudice was an uplifting romance, the kind that sent you soaring out of the theater with your heart aflutter. Atonement is a tragedy of decisions, consequences, and a lifelong quest for redemption that bears some thematic similarities to another year-end adaptation of a prestigious novel, The Kite Runner, except it is far more adept at achieving its goals.

On the surface, the film appears to be a love story between Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley) and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), an upper class woman and her gardener's son against the sweeping backdrop of WWII, but the story really belongs to Cecilia's younger sister Briony (Saorise Ronan; later Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave), an imaginative aspiring writer who, at the age of 12 years old, witnesses something she doesn't understand and makes a false accusation that tears Cecilia and Robbie apart and sees them separated as the second world war wreaks havoc on the world around them.

Briony's is the atonement of the title - a lifelong quest to somehow make up for what she did and the lives she destroyed. Wright hauntingly and deftly weaves a life's worth of guilt and shame to illustrate the devastating ramifications of one bad decision made by a naive little girl; and it is all beautifully captured by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, showcasing a breathtaking five and a half minute tracking shot of the beach at Dunkirk, where ragged and ghostly British soldiers have retreated from the German onslaught. That moment is one of the year's defining set-pieces, creating an eerily beautiful sense of disorientation and despair in war.

The film also boasts a superb score by Dario Marianelli, who uses ingenious instrumentations to add greater depth to the characters, especially in his use of rhythmic, pounding typewriter keys to represent Briony, and his blending of score and a choir of soldiers singing on the beach in the Dunkirk scene that really adds up for one of the best scenes of the year. If nothing else in the film was worth watching (which it thankfully is), the film would still be worthy of recognition for that scene alone. It is one of the most powerful and perfect marriages of direction, sound, music, performance, and mise-en-scene of the decade.

My only real problem with Atonement is that it tends to skimp and skim, especially in the latter part of the middle stretch, hurrying through certain points and taking its time with others. But by the time the film reaches its heartbreaking denouement, featuring the luminous Vanessa Redgrave as an elderly Briony, the movie reels us back in and reminds us why it captured us in the first place. It is a beautiful tragedy - a deeply moving examination of the ripple effect of decisions and how the affect our lives. It is a refreshingly old fashioned romantic epic that truly delivers on its promise to dazzle the eyes and break the heart.

GRADE - ***½ (out of four)


ATONEMENT; Directed by
Joe Wright; Stars James McAvoy, Keira Knightley, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, Vanessa Redgrave, Brenda Blethyn; Rated R for disturbing war images, language and some sexuality

Review: "Charlie Wilson's War"

Once the 800 pound gorilla in this year's Oscar race, the luster of Charlie Wilson's War has faded a bit now that everyone has actually seen it. It's a well made, solid piece of filmmaking...but Best Picture material it is not.

Directed by Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Angels in America) and starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson's War tells the true story of Congressman Charlie Wilson (Hanks), who, with the help of a resourceful CIA agent (Hoffman) and a wealthy Texas socialite activist (Roberts), conducted a covert war against the Soviet Union by supplying Afghani militia with weapons and supplies to fight back against the Russian invaders.

It's a fascinating story, the kind of thing that wouldn't be believable if it weren't true. Nichols treats the story like a breezy caper film, call it Ocean's 11 meets Wag the Dog - where beautiful people speak in snappy, Aaron Sorkin scripted dialogue, drink champagne, and influence world events without mussing their perfectly coiffed locks. In other words, it's fun, nimble-footed, glamorous Hollywood entertainment.

However, for a film with such powerful topicality, it totally fails to connect the importance of the events it portrays to our current situation. What Charlie Wilson did had a profound effect on world events with influences that are still felt today, but the film ignores this, preferring to end on a cheerful, upbeat note, ignoring the darkness born out of it. The film wimps out in the final act when it should go for the jugular.

And I'm not saying this as the bleeding heart liberal that I am, I'm saying this as a person who likes his topical films to be, well, topical. There is more to this story than the one being told, and from the looks of things it was trimmed to be more mainstream friendly. Americans have stayed away from movies about Iraq and Afghanistan in droves, and the people behind Charlie Wilson's War clearly didn't want to be the next casualty.

What we are left with is a movie with bite but no teeth. Aaron Sorkin gives the actors lots of great one liners, and Philip Seymour Hoffman gives yet another great performance this year (after stellar work in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and The Savages). It is a good movie, a perfectly acceptable, entertaining film with the potential for broader appeal than most movies that have tackled similar subjects. But what is the price of success? Would you rather be a popular movie that is merely good, or a great movie that fewer people see?

If only Charlie Wilson's War could have been both.

GRADE - *** (out of four)

CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR; Directed by Mike Nichols; Stars Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Warren Beatty, Emily Blunt; Rated R for strong language, nudity/sexual content and some drug use

"Falling Slowly"

Just in case anyone had forgotten, this year's Best Original Song Oscar belongs right here:

The 10 Highest Grossing Films of 2007

The people's top ten list:

1Spider-Man 3
$336,530,303




2Shrek the Third
$321,012,359




3Transformers
$319,071,806




4Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
$309,420,425




5Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
$292,004,738




6The Bourne Ultimatum
$227,471,070




7300
$210,614,939




8Ratatouille
$206,445,654




9The Simpsons Movie
$183,135,014




10Wild Hogs
$168,273,550





Source: Box Office Mojo

The fact that Wild Hogs is on that list depresses me. Hell, the fact that most of those movies are on that list depresses me. The only ones that really deserve to be there are Ratatouille and The Bourne Ultimatum. And Harry Potter 5 I guess...why not? Everybody loves Harry. But I would prefer to see something else get the attention.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Worst. Title. Ever.

In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale

It's like Snakes on a Plane...except they're serious.

Oscar Ballots Mailed

From Variety:
Nomination ballots for the 2007 Academy Awards were mailed Wednesday to the 5,829 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts Sciences.

Completed ballots must be returned to PricewaterhouseCoopers no later than 5 p.m. Jan. 12.

Nominations for the 80th annual Academy Awards will be announced Jan. 22. Ceremony will be held Feb. 24 at the Kodak Theater and telecast live on ABC.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Review: "National Treasure: Book of Secrets"

I hate giving good reviews to essentially dumb movies like National Treasure: Book of Secrets, because it makes me feel dumb for doing so. It's disheartening walking into a film like this and seeing a packed house when I saw Tim Burton's miraculous Sweeney Todd twice this weekend in nearly empty theaters. Granted, one is an ultra-bloody, R-rated musical which I saw at very early matinee screenings, and the other is a family-friendly adventure sequel seen in the afternoon on Christmas Day, so you do the math.

But then, no matter how smart you think it makes you to diss it, it's just hard to hate the National Treasure series. If you can't say anything else nice about it, it succeeds in what it is trying to do...give the audience a good time.

There are worse ways to spend two hours than National Treasure: Book of Secrets, the agreeably breezy adventure sequel to the surprise 2004 hit National Treasure. The story is similar in structure to the first one, except this time Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) is out with the whole family to clear his great-grandfather's name, a Civil War hero who recent evidence has cast in the light of the mastermind of the Lincoln assassination. Their quest turns into a search for a lost Incan city of gold, the treasure his great-great grandfather was trying to protect from Confederate hands.

What follows is a labyrinthine and increasingly silly parade of clues and historical puzzles for the heroes to solve to bring them closer to the treasure and vindication of their family name. A good deal of it is nonsensical and the characters' motivations aren't always clear - especially the reasoning driving the "villain," in the form of Ed Harris. His character is more of a plot device subject to the screenwriter's whims than a person.

This is not the kind of film that I am generally drawn to, but despite being pretty much a retread of the first one it's a pretty passable diversion. There is nothing earth shattering or extraordinary about Book of Secrets, but it accomplishes its goals and should be commended for that if for no other reason. The crowd around me enjoyed it immensely...I probably only cracked a smile two or three times, and chuckled out loud a couple of times - nothing special but nothing heinous either. At least they were only messing with history instead of a much beloved novel like Love in the Time of Cholera or The Kite Runner.

In the world of movies, especially the historical clue sub-genre currently popularized by The Da Vinci Code, National Treasure: Book of Secrets is as inoffensive an entertainment as they come. Even when its credibility is stretched thin, it coasts through on charm...which gives it just enough points to make it not a waste of time.

GRADE - **½ (out of four)

NATIONAL TREASURE: BOOK OF SECRETS; Directed by Jon Turteltaub; Stars Nicolas Cage, Jon Voight, Harvey Keitel, Ed Harris, Diane Kruger, Justin Bartha, Bruce Greenwood, Helen Mirren; Rated PG for some violence and action

Angela Lansbury - "Not While I'm Around"

This is a beautiful clip of Angela Lansbury at the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's annual Christmas concert singing "Not While I'm Around" from Sweeney Todd:

Happy Holidays!

Happy holidays to everyone from the front row!

On Second Glance

Watching a film twice usually opens you up to new things you didn't notice before, giving you a greater feel for a film's subtleties and layers.

Such as noticing that the book Mrs. Lovett is reading during "Not While I'm Around" in this scene from Sweeney Todd is a book of manners. Nice touch.

Monday, December 24, 2007

"Bucket List" Contest

Just a reminder, the From the Front Row Bucket List contest, sponsored by Warner Brothers Pictures, is still going on. Entries will be accepted until midnight, December 31. So send in your own personal "bucket lists" and enter to win a poster from the new Warner Bros. film, The Bucket List.

Response to this contest has been very big, so send in your entries today to contests.fromthefrontrow@gmail.com!

"National Treasure 2" Finds Gold at Weekend Box Office

Weekend box office estimates:

1
National Treasure: Book of Secrets
$45,500,000






2
I Am Legend
$34,225,000






3
Alvin and the Chipmunks
$29,000,000






4
Charlie Wilson's War
$9,618,000






5
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
$9,350,000






6
P.S. I Love You
$6,505,000






7
Enchanted
$4,152,000






8
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
$4,100,000






9
The Golden Compass
$3,980,000






10
Juno
$3,400,000







Source: Box Office Mojo

Knee-jerk Reaction to "The Kite Runner"

I take back everything I said about The Kite Runner winning Best Picture. If it does, it will be the biggest insult to the Academy name since The Greatest Show on Earth. It shouldn't even be nominated.

What an utter disappointment.

Review coming soon.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Angela Lansbury & Len Cariou - 2005

Sorry for the recent glut of Sweeney Todd related posts - but I think this speaks for itself:

"A Little Priest"

Helena Bonham Carter made a good Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd - but nothing compares to Angela Lansbury's original:



Of course Lansbury's effervescent interpretation of the character would not have fit in Tim Burton's more grim adaptation, but she is a joy as always - and will remain the definitive Mrs. Lovett.

"Not While I'm Around"

Here is a clip of Ed Sanders as Toby singing to Helena Bonham Carter's Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. This kid has an amazing voice. Between him and Jamia Simone Nash from August Rush, this has been a great year for child singers.

Clip of "Raise it Up" From "August Rush"

This is the only part of August Rush worth watching:



I would love to see this song get an Oscar nomination, but its chances are pretty slim. I love this girl's voice...she is a feisty spark in an otherwise dull film.

Jamie Campbell Bower

I want to know why we're not hearing more about this guy. He just had his big screen debut as Anthony in Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and he's one of the best things about the film.

His voice is magnificent, and his rendition of "Johanna" is one of most swoon-worthy cinematic moments of the year. He's more attractive and more talented than current teenybopper heartthrob Zac Efron...but I guess High School Musical is a bit more teenybopper friendly than Sweeney Todd.

For me anyway, he was the film's emotional core, serving almost as its conscience - the ray of light amidst the darkness. He does what as right where Sweeney does what is wrong, even though we still pull for him anyway. We sympathize with Sweeney but Anthony is the one we connect to. His romance with Johanna and quest to save her from the clutches of Judge Turpin was, for me, the most compelling aspect of the film - although I felt that Jayne Wisener's Johanna didn't really register as a character the way that Bower did.

The film as a whole took my breath away, but their story is the one that made my heart melt. Bower deserves much more attention than he is getting.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - The Complete Recordings


My copy of Howard Shore's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - The Complete Recordings arrived in the mail today, courtesy of CineMedia Promotions, and what a beautiful set it is. 4 discs and a DVD with the complete score, and one of the greatest achievements in film music history. A glorious addition to any collection of great music.

Of all the LOTR scores, I always felt that Return of the King was missing the most from its original soundtrack release, due to the fact that the album was pressed before recording was completed. Even then it was a staggering achievement, but when viewed all together it can be seen for the masterwork that it is. This is truly one of the most stunning works of film music ever composed.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Year in Review - The Worst Films of 2007

As part of an ongoing series looking back at 2007 that will eventually culminate in my top ten list and announcement of the Front Row Award nominations, here is my list of the 5 worse films to disgrace cinemas this year:

1
THE HEARTBREAK KID

There's good unpleasant (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Margot at the Wedding) and then there's dreck like this - the Farrelly Brothers' trashy, shrill "romantic comedy" (a remake of the 1972 film of the same name) about a guy who marries the wrong girl, but doesn't find out until the honeymoon where she turns into a completely different person, and he falls for another woman. Not every movie has to be a pleasant experience, but The Heartbreak Kid is so annoying, so painfully unfunny that it borders on torture. Movies just don't get much worse than this.


2
LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA

Speaking of torture, who needs waterboarding when you have Love in the Time of Cholera, Mike Newell's woefully ill-conceived and miscast adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez' Pulitzer Price winning novel? In what has to rank as one of the worst literary adaptations ever, Love in the Time of Cholera is the year's most interminable sit - an aimless, overlong, pretentious mess of a film about a man whose unrequited love spans over 50 years...which is how long this movie feels. Laughably bad makeup effects don't help matters either. Newell squeezes all the romance and emotion out of Garcia Marquez's text in favor of a dry, laborious, literal-minded take that plays like the movie that never ends.


3
RENO 911: MIAMI

As a fan of the popular Comedy Central TV series, I had high hopes for their first foray onto the big screen. Alas, instead of the film's usual razor-sharp satiric humor, I was greeted instead with a cast newly free or network restrictions bent on stretching their legs with as much gross-out humor as possible. It's tolerable in 30 minute intervals...a full length feature is just too much. Not funny by a longshot - give me the TV show please.


4

FANASTIC 4: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER

Probably the goofiest entry into the recent spat of superhero films trying to capitalize on Spider-Man's success, Rise of the Silver Surfer is not only one of the worst acted films of the year's its also one of the dullest. Which is surprising...movies where the world is in danger of eminent destruction should not be boring. But it is...not to mention ridiculous. Lacking the emotional core of the Spider-Man films and the visual pinache of the Batman franchise, this superhero sequel just doesn't cut it.


5

30 DAYS OF NIGHT

After the feverishly intense Hard Candy, I had high hopes for first time director David Slade. Then he came out with this, a bland, uninteresting vampire thriller about a clan of ancient vampires laying siege on a tiny Alaskan town during a 30 day span in which the sun will not rise. A promising premise is done in by laughable dialogue and myriad plot holes in a film that just doesn't add up to anything worth seeing. Slade's obvious visual flair can't even save this poorly constructed attempt at horror.


SPECIAL MENTIONS:
WAR, August Rush

Review: "Margot at the Wedding"

Margot at the Wedding, the 5th theatrical feature by writer/director Noah Baumbach, has almost evenly divided the nation’s critics - with a 56% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

As a fan of Baumbach’s last film, the savagely brilliant divorce drama The Squid and the Whale, I had high expectations going in. And while Margot may not be as deep or as fully realized as Squid and the Whale, Baumbach’s flair for dialogue and keen observation are still in top shape.

The film centers around Margot, an emotionally distant and self-centered author returning home with her son for her sister's wedding, and a stay with her highly dysfunctional family. Her sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is marrying a shiftless lout (Jack Black) who is a child trapped in a man’s body, and a constant source of disgust to Margot. Along for the ride is her son, who Margot treats more like a companion and object of amusement, and is most affected by her whims.

As a character, Margot recalls Jeff Daniel’s pompous writer from The Squid and the Whale in the way she constantly criticizes those around her, seemingly unaware of her condescending nature and the effect it has on others. But her cynicism is less pointed and pretentious than Daniels’ - Margot seems more internally wounded and conflicted, and as a result constantly takes her emotional distress out on her son, instead of using him as a pawn as in Squid and the Whale.


Many find Baumbach’s films unpleasant because his characters tend to be highly self-centered and unintentionally cruel, and Margot at the Wedding is no different. Everyone on screen is often despicable - but they are a fascinating lot. They’re like ants under a microscope, aliens from a dysfunctional planet. This is more true of Margot than of Squid…there is less to connect to here on a personal level. But you can’t help but feel for Margot, and especially her son, who forms the film’s emotional core. He is the film’s one likable character, and through our caring for him, we come to care for Margot, as exasperating as she may be. She is a woman who simply does not know how to love, and if nothing else, for that reason alone, she illicits our sympathy.

Dysfunctional family comedies are a dime a dozen, but Baumbach’s are wittier, stronger, and more original than most. This is the darker, less precious side of a Wes Anderson film. It may be too early to give Baumbach the title of auteur, but his films have an unmistakable style and a clear, unique voice. He creates razor-sharp, darkly funny comedies that play out like dramas. Margot at the Wedding is about people who are the very definition of emotional train wrecks, and it’s impossible to look away.

GRADE - ***½ (three-and-a-half stars out of four)


MARGOT AT THE WEDDING; Directed by Noah Baumbach; Stars Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Black, Zane Pais, John Turturro, Ciaran Hinds; Rated R for sexual content and language