Friday, October 31, 2008

That's right, exactly two years ago today, on October 31st 2006, From the Front Row was born.  
Of course it started off its days as Matt's Oscar Blog, with a much smaller focus and an even smaller readership.  But over the last two years we have grown quite a bit.  By the halfway point of 2008, we had already doubled our hit count from the entire calendar year of 2007.  At this point, we've nearly tripled it.  I'd say we're definitely heading in the right direction.

We've had visitors from every continent except Antarctica, drawing in tens of thousands of readers and thousands of regular readers (which begs the question, WHY DON'T YOU COMMENT MORE??).

But that's not the most important thing...the most important thing to me is that I keep the same standard and continue to grow.  Already this year I have started getting press screenings, interviews with cast members, and in February I will officially join the Southeastern Association of Film Critics (and in the process get my own Rotten Tomatoes page!).

There are lots of great things happening here at From the Front Row, and I have big plans for its future.  So stick around and join me for another exciting year, live from the front row.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

I was a fan of the Da Vinci Code novel...not a great work of literature but a fun pulp fiction potboiler. I tried to read Angels & Demons but just couldn't get into it...I was ready to move on to better things, so I'm not that excited about this new film adaptation. Especially after the last version failed to live up to expectations.

At least Tom Hanks' hair is better.
From The Dispatch:
Working with a strikingly evocative recreation of Depression-era Los Angeles, Eastwood paints beautiful pictures in his trademark, sparse style. He also pulls a gut-wrenching performance out of Jolie, who carries the film with a sense of wounded grace that is nothing short of magnetic. Even when the rest of the mise-en-scene is bathed in inky shadow, her face remains luminous in the tradition of the Hollywood screen beauties of yore, and for her part Jolie has never been better.
Click here to read my full review.
From Yahoo Movies:
Joaquin Phoenix, who turned 34 years old just yesterday, stunned E! Online reporter Jason Kennedy with the announcement that he would be retiring from acting. The two-time Oscar nominee stated this on the red carpet at a Monday benefit for the Association of Hole in the Wall Camps, a charity founded by Paul Newman.

Phoenix said that "Two Lovers," his upcoming romantic drama with Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw, will be his final on-screen role.

Crazy...he says he's "dead serious" but we've heard this from people before, and they rarely go through with it. Only time will tell.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

It's time once again to check in with one of my favorite crazy people, Movieguide's Ted Baehr.

Long known for being a partisan hack and poor film critic, Baehr continues to try to pass off his Christian zealotry for legitimate criticism, while handing out four star ratings to films like Beverly Hills Chihuahua while handing two stars to Synechdoche, New York, saying it has "Too Much Hopeless Sentiment, Murky Tedium, Unpleasant Digression, and Pretentious Confusion."

Well it seems the movie gods have a sense of humor, because Baehr just won't go away, getting more extreme and ridiculous all the time.

This time, when reviewing Oliver Stone's W through this jaw-droppingly biased lense (even going so far as to call Oliver Stone evil), he said:
Only an ignorant and hateful liberal and radical leftist, or an ignorant, uninformed American citizen, would believe or like this obviously ridiculous and inane, over-the-top hatchet job! Oliver Stone clearly doesn’t want the United States and its troops to achieve victory in Iraq, and maybe even in the War on Terror.
Okay, as a proud "ignorant, hateful liberal and radical leftist," I have to admit that I liked W with some reservations. But I had to wonder if Baehr even paid attention to the fact that many liberals, such as myself and Jeff Wells, actually came away from the film with a newfound empathy with the much maligned president.

That doesn't mean I like him...quite the contrary. But Stone has achieved an amazing feat in that he made me find a way to see him in a more understanding light. Yes it has its moments of satire, but how could it not? The bottom line is that this is not an attack piece. If Baehr had put down the Kool-Aid and stopped jumping to conclusions in his preconceived, self-fulfilling prophecy of W's anti-Bush slant, then he might have seen that.

But that's not going to happen of course. I was able to take off my ideological glasses and give it a fair shake...why can't he? Sure I laughed at Bush's gaffes and felt a creeping unease at his insistence at having a prayer at every meeting...but that's what film does. It allows us all to form our own conclusions based on our own feelings, but with a little objectivity we can judge the film apart from all that, which is the job of a film critic (or it's supposed to be).

As usual, he totally missed the point. He saw what he wanted to see, and ignores liberal voices who you would think would be more eager to see an anti-Bush polemic, who say "hey, maybe Bush is just doing what he deeply believes is right, even if I disagree. Let's have an intelligent discussion."

Too bad that Baehr obviously isn't interested in having an intelligent conversation any time soon.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I've been trying to pretend the ridiculous "controversy" over Kevin Smith's Zack and Miri Make a Porno doesn't exist, because thinking about it reminds me of how many stupid people there are in the world. First there was the controversy over the initial NC-17 rating, then the disapproval over the poster, then television stations and newspapers ludicrously refused to run ads with the word "porno" in them, prompting Living in Cinema's Craig Kennedy to declare that we are a "nation of 12 year olds."

See the resemblance?

Now, Utah Jazz and Megaplex Theaters owner Larry Miller (above right) has refused to screen the film in any of the chain's 75 locations, stating via general manager Cal Gunderson that "we feel it's very close to an NC-17 with its graphic nudity and graphic sex."

Say what? So now you are judge and jury of the MPAA?

Here's my favorite part; when asked by the New York Post if this was contradictory, considering the chain was currently showing the ultra violent Saw V, Gunderson replied "no comment."


Don't you just love it when idiots like this get caught with their pants down?

Not that they really had any credibility anyway. Miller also refused to show Brokeback Mountain back in 2005 because it "crossed the line."

Crossed the line, sir? How? Because it dared to show the plight of two men in love and the pain and suffering pushed on them by cruel, uncaring bigots like you?

It is not the job of the theater to censor what it shows. If people don't want to see it, they won't go. Larry Miller now has a permanent place on the From the Front Row shit list.

While watching the Reel Geezer's review of Clint Eastwood's Changeling, a theory about the film' social significance crossed my mind that I had not thought of before.

Of course, I just saw the film for the first time last night, and while my official review won't be published until this coming Thursday, I've had more time to mull over the film's social significance for a more in-depth analysis than I was afforded in my review.

As per my agreement with Universal Pictures, I will not go into details on how I actually felt about the film's quality, and will instead examine the film's themes in greater, more analytic detail than I could in a print review.

As I watched the Reel Geezers review, something clicked in my head at the mention of the LAPD's refusal to admit they made a mistake, which of course leads to a massive cover-up and the scapegoating of Christine Collins. So I had to wonder, why did Clint Eastwood decide to make Changeling, and why now?

The film is, of course, based on a true story, and it has long been known that Eastwood is a Republican of the Libertarian stripe, but one can't help but wonder about the modern day parallels about a government organization who refuses to admit their mistakes, to the detriment of the citizens under protection. It may be old-hat to see critiques of the Bush administration under every rock and behind every tree, but I can't help but feel that the Libertarian in Eastwood would be disgusted by our current government's lack of accountability, and its stubborn insistence that it is right despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

This is the LAPD of Changeling. It makes me wonder how film historians will judge Changeling in the future as a product of its time. It may be steeped in the culture of old Hollywood, but its themes reverberate today. This could very well be totally unintentional, but I have to wonder if I don't see a bit of a knowing twinkle in Eastwood's eye here, especially since the LAPD of today is most definitely not the LAPD of 1928. What purpose could he have of critiquing them?

No, I think Changeling will be viewed very much as a product of its era, arriving in a Bush-fatigued 2008 after eight years of governance by an administration that bears striking resemblance to the LAPD of the 1920s - lawless, corrupt, unwilling to admit they're wrong, and willing to do anything to spin news stories in their favor.

Notice how Christine is spirited away to a mental institution on the whim of a superior officer because she posed a threat to the image of the department - the echoes of Guantanamo are clear even in a factual, 80 year old story.

I say this not as a liberal, but as a careful observer of cinema. Changeling very much looks at a bygone era through a modern, post-9/11 lens, a comparison made even more apparent by hindsight. Could this movie have been made pre-9/11? Of course it could. But it's modern echoes come thundering across the years when viewed through the lens of the Bush Doctrine.

This is very much a film of and about today.
I only saw one of the films being released on DVD today, but it's a good one:


Wang makes great use of the beautifully windswept landscapes of the Mongolian desert, but he never lets style overwhelm the story. In fact it is a very visually pared down film, as simple and yet as moving as the shifting sands of the Gobi.

Yet beneath its sparse exterior lies an achingly romantic tale of longing, devotion, and the lengths that people are willing to go to for love.

Tuya loves her husband deeply, but she knows that if they are to survive she must divorce him and marry someone else. Wang explores this with the eye of a consummate filmmaker, turning a simple story against a barren landscape to create an emotional experience worthy of goosebumps.

At a press screening of Clint Eastwood's Changeling earlier this evening, as the publicist was taking statements from the critics in attendance, the fellow sitting to the left of my mother, an Eastwood fan who was my guest for the screening, began trashing the movie in some of the most harsh words I have ever heard directed at a film of this caliber. "You won't see a worse film this year!" he declared "It's dreadful on every conceivable level."

I wanted to tell him that he obviously hadn't seen Prom Night, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, or The Happening, but I held my tongue. I'm not really supposed to say much about it yet but suffice it to say that the man's words were unwarranted. There is no way you can call this the worst film of the year with any credibility. He went on to say that he thought Angelina wouldn't be nominated for an Oscar for this because she was too over the top, but that he was glad she was nominated last year for A Mighty Heart, where she was much more subtle.

Uh...hello? She wasn't nominated for A Mighty Heart. Remember the uproar? Or were you too busy only seeing three movies so you could call No Country for Old Men the most atrocious film of the year?

This is why people hate film critics, that kind of arrogant hyperbole just can't be taken seriously. If you don't like Changeling, fine. But to call it the worst film of the year while ignoring dreck like the three films mentioned above, then you obviously know nothing about film. Period. Opinions are one thing, outlandish, knee jerk reactions like the one this guy had are another, and it's why people view critics as being arrogant and irrelevant. That is not intelligent discourse or scholarly criticism, it's tabloid journalism meant to catch the eye with ignorant hyperbole.

I got up and left before giving my statement as I had no desire to sit and listen to the man's ignorance any longer. It didn't bother me that he didn't like the film and I did...what bothered me was the stubborn absolution of his words, putting a film like Changeling beneath the likes of Babylon A.D. and Beverly Hills Chihuahua.

If this is the worst film this critic has seen this has to wonder just how many 2008 films he has seen...

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Judging by the jaw-droppingly unfair 35% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, one would expect Gavin O'Connor's Pride and Glory to be a much worse film than it really is.

True, it begins as a fairly routine crime procedural/cop family drama, as a family of police officers becomes embroiled in a department scandal when the murder of four officers during an apparent botched drug bust is revealed to have internal ties to the department. But by the end O'Connor has achieved something that, while not quite extraordinary, is still quite notable for the tension it builds and its powerhouse payoff.

For the Tierny family, honor and loyalty are everything. Irish pride flows strong through their veins, and their lives have been dedicated to the NYPD - from family patriarch Francis Sr. (Jon Voight), to his sons Ray (Edward Norton) to Francis Jr. (Noah Emmerich), to his son-in-law Jimmy Egan (Colin Farrell). But their ethics and notions of loyalty are challenged after the fateful raid when each is faced with his own internal dilemma, fueled by their own unique interests. For Papa Tierney, it is loyalty to the force above all, to Ray it is justice, to Francis it is the interests of the men under his command, and for Jimmy it is preservation of himself and the welfare of his family. As each goal collides with the others, the prime aspirations of pride and glory seem ever farther away.

O'Connor lets the film get bogged down in the typical trimmings of his genre, losing steam and dragging through the exposition and emotional hand-wringing of macho men dealing with their manly inner demons. To be quite honest I couldn't have cared less about any of it - we've seen it all before and it's dull. Men and their testosterone fueled problems never seem to branch out in Hollywood, and it's the same in Pride and Glory for quite a while. But then about halfway through, O'Connor kicks things into high gear, and an emotional intensity fuses with the gritty atmosphere and builds to a shattering climax that acts as a much needed roundhouse kick to the head.

It has long been noted that ending a film well is the most important thing, because if a film begins poorly but ends well, then an audience is more likely to like the film than if the situation were reversed. That could very well be the case for me here, as Pride and Glory's first half is admittedly weak. But the cast is all in top form (despite Farrell's uncharacteristic hints of his Irish brogue sneaking in amid his New York accent...which may or may not have been intentional). The real standout here is Jennifer Ehle in the underused role of Francis Jr's cancer-stricken wife, Abby. The character may be underdeveloped, but Ehle adds layers of emotional depth above and beyond the call of the script, and her efforts are duly noted and hugely appreciated.

The men all do their fair share of emoting as well, and are all quite good. The strength of their male pride juxtaposed with the stark irony of the words "FINEST" emblazoned on their casual clothing serves to underscore the themes of the price of unchecked power and loyalty at the cost of justice. It's also a tale of men drawn between two families - their blood family and the NYPD. Never is this more clear than in the film's final act, when O'Connor delivers his last minute emotional blow that lifts the film out of mediocrity and into the level of something far more respectable.

Pride and Glory is neither a great film or the greatest cop drama, but I respected the hell out of it for what it ultimately achieves - a sense of honor in a dishonorable and morally dubious situation where the right thing isn't the easiest thing, without being false or cloying. And that is an impressive feat indeed.

GRADE - *** (out of four)

PRIDE AND GLORY; Directed by Gavin O'Connor; Stars Edward Norton, Colin Farrell, Jon Voight, Noah Emmerich, Jennifer Ehle, John Oritz; Rated R for strong violence, pervasive language and brief drug content

I'm really liking the vibe here - there have already been rumors of it being another late term Eastwood sleeper like Million Dollar Baby...and indeed it does seem like Letters from Iwo Jima to Changeling's Flags of Our Fathers, in that it is a more personal project to a more glossy, higher profile film.

Only time will tell. But I like what I see so far.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

From The Dispatch:
"W." is by no means a great film, and while I believe there are at least two scenes that flirt with greatness, the overall effect is never anything more than simply diverting. But what a fascinating work it is. Stone has dialed back many of his stylistic ticks and penchant for dubious conspiracy theories and made a much more clear-eyed and sympathetic representation of Bush than I could have ever thought possible. Maybe one day a great film will be made about the presidency of George W. Bush, after enough time has passed that history can truly judge his actions without the filter of personal political bias; but for now, this will do.
Click here to read my full review.
Now that The Soloist has been moved to March, 2009, Paramount has announced that it is withdrawing the film from the AFI Film Festival, where it was scheduled to be the opening night selection.

While not a surprising move given the recent change in release dates, it's yet another knock against the Fall 2008 season as high profile films continue their mass exodus to 2009.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

This is really late, but I'm just now sifting through my email to find it.

AMPAS has released the list of 67 films eligible for this year's Best Foreign Language Film Award. They are:
  • Afghanistan, “Opium War,” Siddiq Barmak, director;
  • Albania, “The Sorrow of Mrs. Schneider,” Piro Milkani and Eno Milkani, directors;
  • Algeria, “Masquerades,” Lyes Salem, director;
  • Argentina, “Lion’s Den,” Pablo Trapero, director;
  • Austria, “Revanche,” Gotz Spielmann, director;
  • Azerbaijan, “Fortress,” Shamil Nacafzada, director;
  • Bangladesh, “Aha!,” Enamul Karim Nirjhar, director;
  • Belgium, “Eldorado,” Bouli Lanners, director;
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina, “Snow,” Aida Begic, director;
  • Brazil, “Last Stop 174,” Bruno Barreto, director;
  • Bulgaria, “Zift,” Javor Gardev, director;
  • Canada, “The Necessities of Life,” Benoit Pilon, director;
  • Chile, “Tony Manero,” Pablo Larrain, director;
  • China, “Dream Weavers,” Jun Gu, director;
  • Colombia, “Dog Eat Dog,” Carlos Moreno, director;
  • Croatia, “No One’s Son,” Arsen Anton Ostojic, director;
  • Czech Republic, “The Karamazovs,” Petr Zelenka, director;
  • Denmark, “Worlds Apart,” Niels Arden Oplev, director;
  • Egypt, “The Island,” Sherif Arafa, director;
  • Estonia, “I Was Here,” Rene Vilbre, director;
  • Finland, “The Home of Dark Butterflies,” Dome Karukoski, director;
  • France, “The Class,” Laurent Cantet, director;
  • Georgia, “Mediator,” Dito Tsintsadze, director;
  • Germany, “The Baader Meinhof Complex,” Uli Edel, director;
  • Greece, “Correction,” Thanos Anastopoulos, director;
  • Hong Kong, “Painted Skin,” Gordon Chan, director;
  • Hungary, “Iska’s Journey,” Csaba Bollok, director;
  • Iceland, “White Night Wedding,” Baltasar Kormakur, director;
  • India, “Taare Zameen Par,” Aamir Khan, director;
  • Iran, “The Song of Sparrows,” Majid Majidi, director;
  • Israel, “Waltz with Bashir,” Ari Folman, director;
  • Italy, “Gomorra,” Matteo Garrone, director;
  • Japan, “Departures,” Yojiro Takita, director;
  • Jordan, “Captain Abu Raed,” Amin Matalqa, director;
  • Kazakhstan, “Tulpan,” Sergey Dvortsevoy, director;
  • Korea, “Crossing,” Tae-kyun Kim, director;
  • Kyrgyzstan, “Heavens Blue,” Marie Jaoul de Poncheville, director;
  • Latvia, “Defenders of Riga,” Aigars Grauba, director;
  • Lebanon, “Under the Bombs,” Philippe Aractingi, director;
  • Lithuania, “Loss,” Maris Martinsons, director;
  • Luxembourg, “Nuits d’Arabie,” Paul Kieffer, director;
  • Macedonia, “I’m from Titov Veles,” Teona Strugar Mitevska, director;
  • Mexico, “Tear This Heart Out,” Roberto Sneider, director;
  • Morocco, “Goodbye Mothers,” Mohamed Ismail, director;
  • The Netherlands, “Dunya & Desie,” Dana Nechushtan, director;
  • Norway, “O’Horten,” Bent Hamer, director;
  • Palestine, “Salt of This Sea” Annemarie Jacir, director;
  • Philippines, “Ploning,” Dante Nico Garcia, director;
  • Poland, “Tricks,” Andrzej Jakimowski, director;
  • Portugal, “Our Beloved Month of August,” Miguel Gomes, director;
  • Romania, “The Rest Is Silence,” Nae Caranfil, director;
  • Russia, “Mermaid,” Anna Melikyan, director;
  • Serbia, “The Tour,” Goran Markovic, director;
  • Singapore, “My Magic,” Eric Khoo, director;
  • Slovakia, “Blind Loves,” Juraj Lehotsky, director;
  • Slovenia, “Rooster’s Breakfast,” Marko Nabersnik, director;
  • South Africa, “Jerusalema,” Ralph Ziman, director;
  • Spain, “The Blind Sunflowers,” Jose Luis Cuerda, director;
  • Sweden, “Everlasting Moments,” Jan Troell, director;
  • Switzerland, “The Friend,” Micha Lewinsky, director;
  • Taiwan, “Cape No. 7,” Te-Sheng Wei, director;
  • Thailand, “Love of Siam,” Chookiat Sakveerakul, director;
  • Turkey, “3 Monkeys,” Nuri Bilge Ceylan, director;
  • Ukraine, “Illusion of Fear,” Aleksandr Kiriyenko, director;
  • United Kingdom, “Hope Eternal,” Karl Francis, director;
  • Uruguay, “Kill Them All,” Esteban Schroeder, director;
  • Venezuela, “The Color of Fame,” Alejandro Bellame Palacios, director.
I haven't seen any of these yet. Fataculture's Nick Plowman has given a lukewarm review to the South African entry, Jerusalema, and according to his list of film ratings he liked Gomorra a little more.

Right now the ones with the most buzz are Israel's Waltz with Bashir, Italy's Gomorra, and France's The Class. I'm most looking forward to Romania's The Rest is Silence.
It's official - John Hillcoat's The Road has been bumped from its November release date, to an as yet undetermined date in 2009, which reports are placing in either February or March.

Not only does that successfully remove it from the 2008 Oscar race, it most likely kills its Oscar chances period. An early 2009 release date will all but guarantee that it will be out of voters' minds come Oscar time next year.

At this point it almost seems like the Fall 2008 season is cursed. Already we have lost Star Trek, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Soloist, and to some degree Defiance.

Who wants to be the first to start a conspiracy theory about the producers of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button clearing out the competition?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

When the news broke several days ago that Terrence Howard had been replaced by Don Cheadle on Iron Man 2, it was immediately assumed that Howard had turned the part down.

But according to this story on Yahoo, no one was more surprised by the news than Howard himself. In an interview, Howard was quoted as saying:
"It was the surprise of a lifetime. There was no explanation, [it] just up and vanished. And I read something in the trades that implicated it was about money... but apparently the contracts that we write and sign aren't worth the paper that they're printed on sometimes. And promises aren't kept, and good faith negotiations aren't always held up."

I admit it is a strange choice...Cheadle is a fine actor, but changing actors in mid-franchise for no apparent reason just doesn't make sense. I was looking forward to seeing him don the War Machine suit in Iron Man 2...but it doesn't look like it's going to happen. I'm reading Criticwatch's latest Ben Lyons Quote of the Week, and I swear everytime I read a new blurb from this guy my soul dies a little inside.

Here's what he had to say about Max Payne:
“You know what hurts a movie like Max Payne is the success of the Batman franchise. That obviously is about story and character so they think for all films of the genre it’s gotta be about story and character and this whole backstory of him losing his wife. I don’t care about that. I wanna see Max Payne shoot people. That’s all I want from a movie like this.”
You can't take that seriously. Really, you can't. At least not from someone who is supposed to be a legitimate critic.

But then I see pictures of him and think "wow...he's really hot."

See my conundrum now? He may be a terrible critic...but the boy is gorgeous.

Does that make up for quotes like the one above? Not really...but it doesn't hurt. I'm no fan of At the Movies since he and Ben Mankiewicz took over...but at least he's something nice to look at while Mankiewicz tries in vain to inject some intelligent discussion.
FTFR DVD Pick of the Week

If nothing else, Flight of the Red Balloon is an exquisitely crafted, beautifully modulated film, featuring some heartbreakingly gorgeous cinematography by Pin Bing Lee. It's a slow burner, and definitely not for all tastes and sensibilities, but I found it intoxicating from beginning to end. It is a charming, achingly beautiful ode to childhood, channeling the pure-hearted essence of Lamorisse's immortal masterwork, and ranks right up there among 2008's finest films.


It does rectify one of Iron Man's weak points, in that the climactic final battle between Hulk and Abomination is every bit the titanic smackdown that the final battle of Iron Man wasn't. The rest of the film doesn't have the same zing as Iron Man though, it doesn't have that same freshness brought to it by Robert Downey Jr. and Jon Favreau's nimble direction. If it had, it may have surpassed it. It is a more serious film, free of the breezy, lighthearted atmosphere of Iron Man, but it is also more action-centric, focusing on the conflicted nature of Banner and the demon inside he wants so desperately to excise. Although, in his quest for killer action sequences, Leterrier lets some of the finer points get lost in the carnage.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The nominations for the 18th annual Gotham Independent Film Awards have been announced. They are:

Best Feature
Frozen River
Synecdoche, New York
The Visitor
The Wrestler

Best Documentary:
Chris & Don: A Love Story
Encounters at the End of the World
Man on Wire
Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired
Trouble the Water

Best Ensemble Performance
Micheal J. Smith, Sr., JimMyron Ross, Tarra Riggs, Johnny McPhail (Alluvial Film Company)
Rachel Getting Married
Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, Tunde Adebimpe, Mather Zickel, Anna Deavere Smith, Anisa George, Debra Winger (Sony Pictures Classics)
Synecdoche, New York
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Hope Davis, Tom Noonan (Sony Pictures Classics)
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz (The Weinstein Company)
The Visitor
Richard Jenkins, Hiam Abbas, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Gurira (Overture Films)

Breakthrough Director
Antonio Campos for Afterschool
Dennis Dortch for A Good Day to Be Black & Sexy (Magnolia Pictures)
Lance Hammer for Ballast (Alluvial Film Company)
Barry Jenkins for Medicine for Melancholy (IFC Films)
Alex Rivera for Sleep Dealer (Maya Releasing)

Breakthrough Actor

Pedro Castaneda in August Evening (Maya Releasing)
Rosemarie DeWitt in Rachel Getting Married (Sony Pictures Classics)
Rebecca Hall in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (The Weinstein Company)
Melissa Leo in Frozen River (Sony Pictures Classics)
Alejandro Polanco in Chop Shop (Koch Lorber Films)
Micheal J. Smith, Sr. in Ballast (Alluvial Film Company)

Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You
The New Year Parade
Sita Sings the Blues

Source: Awards Daily

Friday, October 17, 2008

I've seen it, I've had a couple of days to mull it over, and now that I'm officially in the clear embargo-wise, I can officially say it - I really liked W.

It has long been one of my most anticipated films of the fall, even when it was popular to trash it sight unseen, and while I would hesitate to say I loved it, I am going to see it again with a commercial audience later today, if that tells you anything.

The first half drags a bit, but it really gets cooking around the halfway mark when the cabinet meets to lay the groundwork for the invasion of Iraq. It's a killer scene - tense, eerie, and in retrospect, chilling. Richard Dreyfuss' Dick Cheney is appropriately menacing, and Stone directs the scene with a calm, clear eyed savagery that much of the rest of the film lacks. It does have a somewhat goofy tone, as evidenced by the often bouncy music that plays faintly in the background throughout the film, but the second half is more serious and has some moments of great power.

Josh Brolin is indeed as good as the buzz indicates, but for me the real standout was James Cromwell as George H.W. Bush. While his performance sounds and looks the least like his real world counterpart, it is the most well rounded and deeply felt, and most worthy of Oscar consideration. As the Bush patriarch that W spends his whole life trying to live up to, Cromwell lends a sense of world-weary wisdom that I never would have expected from someone with the last name Bush. The scene where Bush Sr. loses the '92 election to Bill Clinton is absolutely heartbreaking (and I'm a die hard liberal!).

I never would have thought it possible, but Oliver Stone really did make me feel for Bush, and to an even greater extent his father. W may not be the powerful, probing character study it could have been, but it's definitely a film worthy of more consideration than it has been given in some circles.

My biggest caveat with the film though is it's timing. Releasing the film mere months before Bush leaves office, leaves the film without a clear stopping point, and I think that waiting until next year would have given the film a clearer scope of his presidency. As it stands the ending is a bit abrupt and lacking definition.

On the whole though, there is plenty here to like. It is without a doubt a flawed film, but a fascinating one nonetheless.
Nikki Fenke is reporting that Paramount has bumped Joe Wright's Oscar hopeful, The Soloist from a planned November 21 release date to March 13, 2009. Ed Zwick's Defiance is apparently also getting the bump from December 12 to an Oscar qualifying run on December 31 (is that even possible?), with a wide run beginning on January 16.

First The Road now this? Granted, it has still not been confirmed that The Road has been bumped back, but if it is this season's Oscar hopefuls are quickly being thinned out.

I'm going to send some emails and talk to some contacts to see if I can get some firm confirmations or denials, and I'll report back later.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

From The Dispatch:
But overall, the action sequences lack pizzazz and feel decidedly old-hat for Scott. It's almost as if another director is trying to imitate his style instead of the work of Scott himself. What we end up with is a perfectly adequate and perfectly unextraordinary thriller that goes through all the perfunctory motions without so much as bothering to offer either a clear point of view or a complex moral dilemma. Add to that an undercooked romance between DiCaprio and an Iranian nurse, and you have a recipe where all the ingredients are in place, but the final product doesn't quite taste as good as it ought to.
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

FTFR DVD Pick of the Week

A brilliant example of the New Romanian Cinema, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, like Cristi Puiu's 2006 The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, uses long takes, few edits, and a lack of musical score to create a raw, earthy realism. It moves slowly and takes its time, but it's a gripping work, drawing the audience in and refusing to let it go. It's a sometimes agonizing build-up to the inevitable abortion, but that's not really the focus here. Many have called 4 Months a pro-life film, but I wouldn't say that. It confronts us with decisions too powerful to be ignored but it never stoops to preach. Instead it takes a neutral stance and lets the audience come away with its own feelings. But contrary to popular belief, this is not really so much a film about abortion as it is about oppression.


Despite its shortcomings, its hard to deny that The Edge of Heaven is a notable work. It starts off very strongly, but its uneven nature hampers it as the film goes on. Akin creates characters we sympathize with and feel for, but in the end we're still held at arm's length. It's enough to keep us interested, but not enough to truly enthrall us.


The film is never for a moment as good as any of the original trilogy (and that includes the unfairly maligned "Temple of Doom"), but it's still a blast. Instead of the adventure serials that the original trilogy paid homage to, "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is more in the vein of the sci-fi B movies that were popular during the time the film is set. It is a much more outlandish film than its predecessors, even if its central premise isn't ultimately any more ridiculous than the supernatural mythologies of the originals. However, there are several moments where the film seems to jump the tracks (Mutt's Tarzan moment during the jungle chase is a bit much), and Ray Winstone's character is horribly underdeveloped, as is often the case with the plot, which becomes increasingly muddled as the film goes on.

MONGOL (***)

Overall, Mongol is quite an accomplished work. This is filmmaking on a grand and rare scale. If only it hadn't stumbled in the final round it could have been great. It's still nothing to sneeze at though, because in light of 300 and other modern "epics," Mongol is a refreshingly old school light in the darkness.

STUCK (**½)

It's a tawdry, torrid premise, and Gordon zeros right in on its sleazy tabloid nature, giving the film the feel of a old fashioned exploitation flick. And for the most part it works. Stuck is filled with dark humor and enough gore and bloodshed to satisfy and bloodthirsty horror fan. The film's biggest downfall, however, are the performances, which with the exception of Rea (who is actually quite good), seem forced or phoned in, and quite a few moments seem to be the victim of poor post production dubbing.

XXY (****)

This is powerful stuff - revelatory really. It is the kind of filmmaking we yearn for but so seldom find - soulful and searching, exploring life in ways few people dare to imagine, asking questions so many avoid. That makes XXY an essential film, and ultimately, one of the finest examinations of human sexuality I have ever seen.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

From The Dispatch:
The problem here is the story is just not strong enough to carry the entire movie. Harris sets up the relationship between Cole and Hitch nicely, and he and Mortensen's great chemistry makes for some of the film's best moments. But there really isn't much of a story to go on, stretching it thinly over two hours and leaving the rest of the film to stand awkwardly apart. Part of this is due to some languid pacing, almost as if Harris doesn't quite know where to go next, resulting in a vaguely aimless, uneven structure. Zellweger's character and performance are also problematic, sticking out like a sore thumb that doesn't quite belong. Some would argue that this was intentional, but the character is without a doubt the film's weakest link.
Click here to read my full review.
I'll admit I've been very torn over Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky ever since I saw it nearly two months ago. It's hard to deny that there is something light and refreshing about Leigh's deft direction and positive outlook, but there's also something ingratiating and a little off-putting.

Some (i.e. Jeffrey Wells), have attacked the film for its "emotional fascism," but I think that is an oversimplification, albeit not too far off the mark. In a way it describes why the film bothered me, but as Mike Leigh pointed out, misses the point.

The film centers around Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a bubbly, perpetually sunny kindergarten teacher who goes through life with a indefatigably positive outlook. Her happiness is so strong and so infectious that it effects everyone around her - but not always for the better. As she bounces through life, she encounters people whose outlooks swing in the complete opposite direction, including her perpetually miserable, sternly religious, and virulently racist driving instructor, Scott (Eddie Marsan), whose deep seeded anger is brought to the boiling point by his dealings with Poppy, who has finally met the one person who mere happiness cannot cure.

To be honest, for most of the running time I was annoyed by Poppy. I found her childish, irresponsible, and reckless, the kind of person who would drive me crazy in real life. She doesn't seem to take anything seriously, and treats every serious statement with a cute, sing-songy retort. She almost doesn't seem to be living in the real world, and Hawkins seems to play her as the one note smile machine she comes across as.

But then Leigh does something unexpected and welcomed...he gives Poppy a human side, a sense that there is more to her than her sunny exterior, a sadness beneath the surface, and at long last we see Hawkins' performance for what it is - a remarkable hat trick. Her performance seems one dimensional because Poppy appears one dimensional at first glance, and that how many (Scott most of all) perceive her. But Poppy's positivity stems from a true desire to brighten the days of those around her, to help in any way she can. She is in some ways, as Leigh rightly points out, an extension of the central character in Leigh's last film, Vera Drake. The tones are vastly disparate, but both characters share an almost obsessive need to help anyone in any way possible, and in both instances, they find that their "help" can come back to haunt them.

Unlike Vera Drake, however, the tone of Happy-Go-Lucky is ultimately a positive one. Leigh's confident direction and the mostly improvised performances of the cast (a Leigh trademark) offer a breezy and charming experience. It may seem maddening at first, and indeed I found myself hating Poppy on more than one occasion, but it eventually settles into a groove and once you get used to it, it becomes much more tolerable. Leigh is neither blanketly endorsing or condemning his protagonists actions, nor is he making a statement as simple as some, myself included, may have initially thought. Happiness for happiness sake is fruitless and ultimately as empty as Scott's self-made miserablism.

There is a lot more going on here than initially meets the eye, even more than I initially gave it credit for. It is not Leigh's best work - it seems almost inconsequential when compared with his masterful Vera Drake - but you have to respect what he has achieved here. Happy-Go-Lucky has an almost wistful charm to it, a kind of bated optimism in a cold and cynical world. It is a film that, while most certainly flawed, can't help but bring a smile to the face, and maybe, just maybe, a little something more.

GRADE - *** (out of four)

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY; Directed by Mike Leigh; Stars Sally Hawkins, Alexis Zegerman, Andrea Riseborough, Samuel Roukin, Sinead Matthews, Eddie Marsan; Rated R for language; Opens tomorrow, October 10, in select cities.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Academy has released its list of 8 films that are eligible for the Best Documentary Short Oscar this year:

“The Conscience of Nhem En”
“David McCullough: Painting with Words”
“The Final Inch”
“Smile Pinki”
“Tongzhi in Love”
“Viva La Causa”
“The Witness from the Balcony of Room 306”

I honestly know nothing about any of these, as will likely be the case with most people even after the nominations are announced. The shorts never get kind of exposure as their feature length counterparts.

This is the first in a long line of shortlists that will eventually be released by the Academy, but this is definitely a sign that the Oscar season is beginning in earnest.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Shyamalan is clearly a talented director. He obviously understands film form and the language of cinema. But he treats the audience like a bunch of 5-year-olds who don't have the deductive reasoning powers to actually think about what they're watching, so we get a movie filled with ridiculous coincidences and forced plot points. He constantly backs himself into creative corners constructed by his own ego. By the time we reach the end of the film, he actually has a character state the theme of the movie just in case it hadn't been beaten into our heads enough before that.


Through the performances of the mostly non-professional cast (Taylor Momsen, as Alex's girlfriend, has been around for a while how far Cindy Lou Who has come), Paranoid Park captures the essence of high school life better than most teen movies could ever dream. Van Sant achieved a similar feat in the Palme D'Or winning Elephant five years ago, but despite some truly beautiful moments in that film I have never really been a fan of it. Here, however, Van Sant has achieved something very close to breathtaking. The blurred images of soaring skateboarders that repeat throughout the film take on a hauntingly surreal beauty, almost as if they are a foggy notion of what Alex could one day achieve, or something he sees begin to fade away as a tragic accident changes his life forever.

FTFR DVD Pick of the Week

Director Thomas McCarthy's last film, The Station Agent, was an impressive, beautifully burnished debut filled with indie quirk and charm. Here McCarthy trades in the quirk for a nagging sense of melancholic gloom, punctuated by warm hearted connections between kindred spirits from two vastly disparate backgrounds. McCarthy still falls back into some typical indie crutches - the early scenes depicting Vale's lonely existence are straight out of the independent film handbook. But soon The Visitor finds its groove, and settles into something truly beautiful and deeply moving.

Monday, October 06, 2008

It's been an extremely busy weekend, but I'm back and fresh from having screened Appaloosa, which I'll admit I was disappointed by.

I was entertained by it, but it is never for a moment as good as 3:10 to Yuma or especially The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I loved the chemistry between Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen, but I could have done without Renee Zellweger. I'll have a full review up by Thursday.

Friday, October 03, 2008

From The Dispatch:
However, the second act is quite a bit better than the first. Caruso slows down with the lightning-paced editing and begins focusing on the characters and the source of the deadly instructions, turning the film into an allegory of sorts for the dangers of unchecked government surveillance. If his villain bears a striking resemblance to HAL of "2001: A Space Odyssey," it speaks to the unimaginative weaknesses of the film - a narrative shortcut that still leaves open many questions and stretches its credibility to the max.