Thursday, January 29, 2009

My updated review of Slumdog Millionaire was published in today's Dispatch:
It may follow a familiar path, but Boyle (along with screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, a fellow Oscar nominee) has the good sense to make a few new stops along the way. "Slumdog Millionaire" is a wonderful film, a luminous and uplifting ode to love and humanity with the power to make the heart swoon and the spirit soar. It is the movie of the moment to be sure, but in our national climate of hope and optimism amid economic crises, "Slumdog Millionaire" feels like the film we need at just the right moment - fresh, moving and, above all, hopeful.

This is what the movies are all about.

Click here to read my full review.
If I were voting for the Academy Awards this year, my ballot would look something like this:

PICTURE - Slumdog Millionaire
DIRECTOR - Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
ACTOR - Sean Penn, Milk
ACTRESS - Meryl Streep, Doubt
SUPP. ACTOR - Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
SUPP. ACTRESS - Viola Davis, Doubt
ADAPTED SCREENPLAY - John Patrick Shanley, Doubt
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY - Martin McDonaugh, In Bruges
ART DIRECTION - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
CINEMATOGRAPHY - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
FILM EDITING - Slumdog Millionaire
MAKEUP - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
MUSIC (ORIGINAL SCORE) - A.R. Rahman, Slumdog Millionaire
MUSIC (ORIGINAL SONG) - "Jai Ho," Slumdog Millionaire
VISUAL EFFECTS - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


Slumdog Millionaire - 5
- Best Picture
- Best Director
- Best Film Editing
- Best Original Score
- Best Original Song
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - 4
- Best Art Direction
- Best Cinematography
- Best Makeup
- Best Visual Effects
Doubt - 3
- Best Actress
- Best Supporting Actress
- Best Adapted Screenplay
WALL-E - 3
- Best Animated Feature
- Best Sound Editing
- Best Sound Mixing
The Dark Knight - 1
- Best Supporting Actor
The Duchess - 1
- Best Costume Design
In Bruges - 1
- Best Original Screenplay
Man on Wire - 1
- Best Documentary Feature
Milk - 1
- Best Actor
Waltz with Bashir - 1
- Best Foreign Language Film

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Say what you want about the Academy and its choices, but one thing about their nominations this year that has made me really appreciate them is that they have a mind of their own. Try as the blogosphere might to insist that The Dark Knight is one of the five best films of the year, the Academy was having none of it. They will not be told what to think.

All the precursors included those same five films over and over, but AMPAS went its own way in nominating another worthy film, Stephen Daldry's The Reader. Some have decried it as an unoriginal choice because it is a Holocaust film, which if these people had been paying attention they would have realized that it isn't. The Holocaust is an element, but one that consistently lurks in the background rather than slaps you in the face.

In other words, this is a refreshing piece of original thinking. The Academy didn't follow the herd mentality by nominating The Dark Knight. They like what they like, not what others tell them to like.

And for that, I respect them.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

From The Dispatch:
It is a searing, incisive thing; the best film of its kind to come along in many a year. And the performances are all uniformly excellent. Winslet and DiCaprio both give what could very well be the performances of their careers, but the real revelation here is Michael Shannon, who has been a reliable character actor for years, but he really rises to prominence here as an insane former mathematician who may just be the most sane person in the film. The actors turn Justin Haythe's ferocious screenplay into something akin to verbal swordplay, and while it isn't always pretty, "Revolutionary Road" pulls none of its punches, and it's absolutely riveting as a result.
Click here to read my full review.
I just want to get this off my chest straight away: I am ECSTATIC that The Dark Knight was not nominated.

Don't get me wrong, it's a wonderful film. But as I said before, I felt that the discussions of why it should be nominated too often focused on its box office haul and popularity. Now I think we can focus on the most meritorious nominees rather than the most popular.

Let's get the disappointments out of the way first. I am saddened not to see Clint Eastwood's name among the Best Actor nominees. Brad Pitt was fine but...really?

The snub of Bruce Springsteen's Golden Globe winning song from The Wrestler recalls Eddie Vedder's Into the Wild snub last year. Why are there only three nominees? There were quite a few good songs this year.

Also, the absence of Waltz with Bashir from the Best Animated Feature category, replaced instead by Bolt, is just mind boggling. At least they nominated it for Best Foreign Language Film, where it will hopefully triumph.

I'm also a bit surprised that Kate Winslet was nominated for lead actress for The Reader instead of supporting, knocking out her own best performance of the year in Revolutionary Road. It makes me sad because I was going to be pulling for her in that category this year, but since it's for The Reader and not Revolutionary Road, I'm not sure I can.

I'm not surprised at all that Synecdoche, New York got snubbed for Best Original Screenplay. It was always a tough sell, but I'm a little disappointed they didn't at least throw it a bone.

But onto better things. I was thrilled to see Michael Shannon's name among the nominees, as I think it's the finest male supporting turn of the year, second only to Heath Ledger. I'm also glad to see some screenplay love for In Bruges.

Of all the films that really had a shot at knocking out one of the big 5, I'm glad it was The Reader and I'm glad it was The Dark Knight that got knocked out. I would have been ECSTATIC if Gran Torino (it's my baby this year...fuck you haters) had made it in, but honestly now that the nominations are out, I'm a little more jazzed about them.

Oh, and go Slumdog Millionaire!

Performance by an actor in a leading role

  • Richard Jenkins in “The Visitor” (Overture Films)
  • Frank Langella in “Frost/Nixon” (Universal)
  • Sean Penn in “Milk” (Focus Features)
  • Brad Pitt in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.)
  • Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler” (Fox Searchlight)

Performance by an actor in a supporting role

  • Josh Brolin in “Milk” (Focus Features)
  • Robert Downey Jr. in “Tropic Thunder” (DreamWorks, Distributed by DreamWorks/Paramount)
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Doubt” (Miramax)
  • Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.)
  • Michael Shannon in “Revolutionary Road” (DreamWorks, Distributed by Paramount Vantage)

Performance by an actress in a leading role

  • Anne Hathaway in “Rachel Getting Married” (Sony Pictures Classics)
  • Angelina Jolie in “Changeling” (Universal)
  • Melissa Leo in “Frozen River” (Sony Pictures Classics)
  • Meryl Streep in “Doubt” (Miramax)
  • Kate Winslet in “The Reader” (The Weinstein Company)

Performance by an actress in a supporting role

  • Amy Adams in “Doubt” (Miramax)
  • Penélope Cruz in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (The Weinstein Company)
  • Viola Davis in “Doubt” (Miramax)
  • Taraji P. Henson in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.)
  • Marisa Tomei in “The Wrestler” (Fox Searchlight)

Best animated feature film of the year

  • Bolt” (Walt Disney), Chris Williams and Byron Howard
  • Kung Fu Panda” (DreamWorks Animation, Distributed by Paramount), John Stevenson and Mark Osborne
  • WALL-E” (Walt Disney), Andrew Stanton

Achievement in art direction

  • Changeling” (Universal), Art Direction: James J. Murakami, Set Decoration: Gary Fettis
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Art Direction: Donald Graham Burt, Set Decoration: Victor J. Zolfo
  • The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.), Art Direction: Nathan Crowley, Set Decoration: Peter Lando
  • The Duchess” (Paramount Vantage, Pathé and BBC Films), Art Direction: Michael Carlin, Set Decoration: Rebecca Alleway
  • Revolutionary Road” (DreamWorks, Distributed by Paramount Vantage), Art Direction: Kristi Zea, Set Decoration: Debra Schutt

Achievement in cinematography

  • Changeling” (Universal), Tom Stern
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Claudio Miranda
  • The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.), Wally Pfister
  • The Reader” (The Weinstein Company), Chris Menges and Roger Deakins
  • Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), Anthony Dod Mantle

Achievement in costume design

  • Australia” (20th Century Fox), Catherine Martin
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Jacqueline West
  • The Duchess” (Paramount Vantage, Pathé and BBC Films), Michael O’Connor
  • Milk” (Focus Features), Danny Glicker
  • Revolutionary Road” (DreamWorks, Distributed by Paramount Vantage), Albert Wolsky

Achievement in directing

  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), David Fincher
  • Frost/Nixon” (Universal), Ron Howard
  • Milk” (Focus Features), Gus Van Sant
  • The Reader” (The Weinstein Company), Stephen Daldry
  • Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), Danny Boyle

Best documentary feature

  • The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)” (Cinema Guild), A Pandinlao Films Production, Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath
  • Encounters at the End of the World” (THINKFilm and Image Entertainment), A Creative Differences Production, Werner Herzog and Henry Kaiser
  • The Garden” A Black Valley Films Production, Scott Hamilton Kennedy
  • Man on Wire” (Magnolia Pictures), A Wall to Wall Production, James Marsh and Simon Chinn
  • Trouble the Water” (Zeitgeist Films), An Elsewhere Films Production, Tia Lessin and Carl Deal

Best documentary short subject

  • The Conscience of Nhem En” A Farallon Films Production, Steven Okazaki
  • The Final Inch” A Vermilion Films Production, Irene Taylor Brodsky and Tom Grant
  • Smile Pinki” A Principe Production, Megan Mylan
  • The Witness - From the Balcony of Room 306” A Rock Paper Scissors Production, Adam Pertofsky and Margaret Hyde

Achievement in film editing

  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall
  • The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.), Lee Smith
  • Frost/Nixon” (Universal), Mike Hill and Dan Hanley
  • Milk” (Focus Features), Elliot Graham
  • Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), Chris Dickens

Best foreign language film of the year

  • The Baader Meinhof Complex” A Constantin Film Production, Germany
  • The Class” (Sony Pictures Classics), A Haut et Court Production, France
  • Departures” (Regent Releasing), A Departures Film Partners Production, Japan
  • Revanche” (Janus Films), A Prisma Film/Fernseh Production, Austria
  • Waltz with Bashir” (Sony Pictures Classics), A Bridgit Folman Film Gang Production, Israel

Achievement in makeup

  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Greg Cannom
  • The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.), John Caglione, Jr. and Conor O’Sullivan
  • Hellboy II: The Golden Army” (Universal), Mike Elizalde and Thom Floutz

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score)

  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.),Alexandre Desplat
  • Defiance” (Paramount Vantage), James Newton Howard
  • Milk” (Focus Features), Danny Elfman
  • Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), A.R. Rahman
  • WALL-E” (Walt Disney), Thomas Newman

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original song)

  • Down to Earth” from “WALL-E” (Walt Disney), Music by Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman, Lyric by Peter Gabriel
  • Jai Ho” from “Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), Music by A.R. Rahman, Lyric by Gulzar
  • O Saya” from “Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), Music and Lyric by A.R. Rahman andMaya Arulpragasam

Best motion picture of the year

  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), A Kennedy/Marshall Production, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall and Ceán Chaffin, Producers
  • Frost/Nixon” (Universal), A Universal Pictures, Imagine Entertainment and Working Title Production,Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Eric Fellner, Producers
  • Milk” (Focus Features), A Groundswell and Jinks/Cohen Company Production, Dan Jinks and Bruce Cohen, Producers
  • The Reader” (The Weinstein Company), A Mirage Enterprises and Neunte Babelsberg Film GmbH Production, Nominees to be determined
  • Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), A Celador Films Production,Christian Colson, Producer

Best animated short film

  • La Maison en Petits Cubes” A Robot Communications Production, Kunio Kato
  • Lavatory - Lovestory” A Melnitsa Animation Studio and CTB Film Company Production, Konstantin Bronzit
  • Oktapodi” (Talantis Films) A Gobelins, L’école de l’image Production, Emud Mokhberi and Thierry Marchand
  • Presto” (Walt Disney) A Pixar Animation Studios Production, Doug Sweetland
  • This Way Up”, A Nexus Production, Alan Smith and Adam Foulkes

Best live action short film

  • Auf der Strecke (On the Line)” (Hamburg Shortfilmagency), An Academy of Media Arts Cologne Production, Reto Caffi
  • Manon on the Asphalt” (La Luna Productions), A La Luna Production, Elizabeth Marre and Olivier Pont
  • New Boy” (Network Ireland Television), A Zanzibar Films Production, Steph Green and Tamara Anghie
  • The Pig” An M & M Production, Tivi Magnusson and Dorte Høgh
  • Spielzeugland (Toyland)” A Mephisto Film Production, Jochen Alexander Freydank

Achievement in sound editing

  • The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.), Richard King
  • Iron Man” (Paramount and Marvel Entertainment), Frank Eulner and Christopher Boyes
  • Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), Tom Sayers
  • WALL-E” (Walt Disney), Ben Burtt and Matthew Wood
  • Wanted” (Universal),Wylie Stateman

Achievement in sound mixing

  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), David Parker, Michael Semanick, Ren Klyce and Mark Weingarten
  • The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.), Lora Hirschberg, Gary Rizzo and Ed Novick
  • Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), Ian Tapp, Richard Pryke and Resul Pookutty
  • WALL-E” (Walt Disney),Tom Myers, Michael Semanick and Ben Burtt
  • Wanted” (Universal), Chris Jenkins, Frank A. Montaño and Petr Forejt

Achievement in visual effects

  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Eric Barba, Steve Preeg, Burt Dalton and Craig Barron
  • The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.), Nick Davis, Chris Corbould, Tim Webber and Paul Franklin
  • Iron Man” (Paramount and Marvel Entertainment), John Nelson, Ben Snow, Dan Sudick and Shane Mahan

Adapted screenplay

  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Paramount and Warner Bros.), Screenplay by Eric Roth, Screen story by Eric Roth and Robin Swicord
  • Doubt” (Miramax), Written by John Patrick Shanley
  • Frost/Nixon” (Universal), Screenplay by Peter Morgan
  • The Reader” (The Weinstein Company), Screenplay by David Hare
  • Slumdog Millionaire” (Fox Searchlight), Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy

Original screenplay

  • Frozen River” (Sony Pictures Classics), Written by Courtney Hunt
  • Happy-Go-Lucky” (Miramax), Written by Mike Leigh
  • In Bruges” (Focus Features), Written by Martin McDonagh
  • Milk” (Focus Features), Written by Dustin Lance Black
  • WALL-E” (Walt Disney), Screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, Original story by Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The readers have spoken, and the results are pretty much down the line what most people are predicting, with Ben Button, The Dark Knight, Frost/Nixon, Milk, and leading the pack. No other films really come close. However, Frost/Nixon appears to be the weakest, with Doubt and WALL-E yapping at its heels.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
42 (57%)
The Dark Knight
34 (46%)
16 (21%)
Gran Torino
10 (13%)
24 (32%)
36 (49%)
The Reader
5 (6%)
Revolutionary Road
11 (15%)
Slumdog Millionaire
50 (68%)
16 (21%)
The Wrestler
13 (17%)
OK here they are, make of them what you will:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Slumdog Millionaire
ALT: Gran Torino, The Reader, Doubt

These five seem pretty well locked. I wish I had the balls to predict a surprise nominee, but I don't. Although I have a feeling that Frost/Nixon is weak, or that The Dark Knight may have to settle for a director nod. But I don't really feel like betting against any of them. Although I've learned never to underestimate Clint Eastwood.

Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon
Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight
Gus Van Sant, Milk
ALT: Jonathan Demme, Rachel Getting Married, Stephen Daldry, The Reader

Again I feel like Howard's the weak link here. We'll see.

Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino
Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn, Milk
Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
ALT: Richard Jenkins, The Visitor, Leonardo DiCaprio, Revolutionary Road

Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
Angelina Jolie, Changeling
Meryl Streep, Doubt
Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road
ALT: Melissa Leo, Frozen River, Kristen Scott Thomas, I've Loved You So Long

Josh Brolin, Milk
Robert Downey, Jr., Tropic Thunder
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire
ALT: Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road, James Franco, Milk

Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis, Doubt
Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
Kate Winslet, The Reader
ALT: Amy Adams, Doubt

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Slumdog Millionaire
ALT: The Reader, Revolutionary Road

Rachel Getting Married
Synecdoche, New York
ALT: Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Wrestler

Kung Fu Panda
Waltz with Bashir

ALT: Bolt

The Baader Meinhoff Complex (Germany)
The Class (France)
Everlasting Moments (Sweden)
Three Monkeys (Turkey)
Waltz with Bashir
ALT: Departures (Japan)

That's all I really feel like doing. I really just feel blah about this year's Oscar race. I don't really have a passion for any of these films. Slumdog is by far the favorite of the big contenders, but I'm still holding out hope for a surprise Gran Torino nod. That would change the whole game for me.
I'll just come right out and say it. I DO NOT want The Dark Knight to be nominated for Best Picture.

It is an excellent film, maybe even a great one, but to be honest, I'm sick of its fans.

Nearly every argument I read advocating for its (all but inevitable) Best Picture nomination trumpets its monumental box office over everything else.

"It will make the Oscars relevant again! The Oscars must reflect the tastes of the people!" they always shout. Blah blah blah...

By that reasoning, the 5 Best Picture nominees this year should be The Dark Knight, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Kung Fu Panda, Hancock, and Iron Man.

Sorry but that's not working for me. Just because there is a fine film out there with mass popular appeal does not put it over transcendent works of art like Silent Light or Synecdoche, New York. Hell, if you want a populist film why not advocate for WALL-E, easily the most masterful blockbuster of the year?

It's also ironic that many keep pointing out how it ranks second on the list of critics top ten mentions...while WALL-E ranked first. Yet where's the vocal WALL-E contingent?

It just really annoys me that people keep trumpeting the film's box office tally as if it means something. WHO GIVES A FUCK IF IT MADE MONEY?? That should have NOTHING to do with Oscar nominations. Quit complaining that they're picking low grossing nominees. The problem is with the people, not the Academy.

If you think The Dark Knight deserves to be nominated, fine. But let's leave the box office out of it. The Academy is here to select the best films, not the most popular.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Saturday, January 17, 2009

I love going into movies knowing nothing about them. Going in blind and being pleasantly surprised is always a nice feeling. Having been a professional film critic for five years now and a blogger for a little over two, that luxury is something I am rarely afforded anymore. When it is your job to be in the know you have to make some sacrifices, although I've never been one to avoid trailers and brief plot descriptions and things of that nature.

I had heard of Moscow, Belgium before I saw it. It popped up on a couple of 2008 top ten lists, but was never a major player and is still playing in VERY limited release. So when I sat down to watch the screener supplied to me by NeoClassics films, I honestly had no idea what I was about to watch. And I came away utterly charmed.

It's not every day you can say that about a romantic comedy, which in terms of American filmmaking tends to be right alongside the horror film as the absolute dregs of generic multiplex fodder. But first time feature director Christophe van Rompaey has done something very special with this film - he has created a romantic comedy that feels both magical and organic, and in a rare case from films of its genre - realistic.

Matty (Barbara Sarafian) is a harried, no nonsense 41 year old mom trying to balance raising three kids (one an adolescent, one who thinks she's an adolescent, and one who wishes he was), with a wishy washy husband who is going through a mid-life crisis and is living with a 22 year old former student. She has her plate full and has no time to mess around, so when she accidentally backs into a truck while pulling out of a parking space at the grocery store, it just adds another complication to her already busy life.

She gets more than she bargained for, however, when Johnny (Jurgen Delnaet), the handsome, 29 year old truck driver takes an interest in her. At first she resists his advances, but eventually her resolve melts, much to the disgust of her teenage daughter and the surprise of her husband, who still hasn't chosen between her and the 22 year old.

It is a tempestuous relationship of course. Johnny is a former alcoholic who has been to prison for beating his wife, and it causes concern with her husband and children. And it adds an element of danger to the otherwise beguiling narrative.

Van Rompaey constructs the film with a delightful sense of whimsy, accentuated by the Amelie-like score by Tuur Florizoone. Sarafian gives Matty a 'can-do' strength rarely seen in romantic comedy heroines, but the film really isn't your typical romantic comedy. It is a far more clever, intelligent affair, and it makes the film all the more endearing. Matty's nude scenes (and there are several), aren't sexy or provocative, they're earthy and real. She sees herself as a woman in decline, but it's a beautiful thing watching the light in her eyes return as she finds herself unexpectedly desirable to men again. There aren't that many roles out there like this for middle aged women, and Sarafian is a nice change to the vapid soullessness of many American romantic comedy protagonists.

Needless to say, I found myself utterly enchanted by the film. In many ways it reminded me of Once, but with a different focus, less music, and more comedy. It has the same grainy naturalism but with just enough magical realism to make it a winning comic confection.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

MOSCOW, BELGIUM; Directed by Christophe van Rompaey; Stars Barbara Sarafian, Jurgen Delnaet, Johan Heldenbergh, Anemone Valcke; Not Rated; In Flemish and Dutch w/English subtitles

Thursday, January 15, 2009

"Every man has a point that defines him."

As spoken in Captain Abu Raed, those words are meant to be threatening, said by an angry, abusive father to a frightened son about to be punished for stealing.

But by the film's end, those words have taken on a completely different meaning, as the film examines the nature of heroism and the effects a man can have on the lives of others.

Abu Raed is an elderly janitor (wonderfully played by Nadim Sawalha) working at the Amman airport in Jordan. His wife has been dead for several years, and he is spending his twilight years alone in a lonely hovel in a run down neighborhood in an impoverished side of town.

His life takes an unexpected turn one day, however, when he finds a pilot's hat in an airport trashcan and wears it home, and is mistaken for an airplane captain by a neighborhood boy.

Abu Raed at first dismisses the boy's fanciful questions, but as more and more children begin showing up at his front door, he decides to indulge their fantasies and become Captain Abu Raed, regaling them with tales of his wild adventures all over the world. He becomes a hero to all the neighborhood children, even after reality makes a hard and dangerous appearance.

It would be easy to accuse the film of having a sentimental streak a mile wide, and indeed it is a nostalgic, fable-like ode to childhood, often shot in warm, sunny hues. But unlike many films in which this is the case, Captain Abu Raed allows for something deeper. There is very much a sense of childlike wonder inherent in the film, with moments of sublime beauty and innocence, but it does not ignore the darker elements of reality in its quest to present a child's view of the world.

Director Amin Matalqa captures a rare sense of awe at life's simple pleasures, be they riding in a car with your hand out the window, allowing the wind currents to give you the sensation of flying, or just lying down and staring at the sky, and imagining what it must be like to soar through the heavens. These are simple people with simple goals, and Abu Raed brings these children a magic they may not otherwise have had.

It is most interesting looking at Captain Abu Raed, and its surprising similarities to another current film, Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino. While wholly different in execution, the overall themes are not altogether dissimilar; a lonely old man with a bit of a grumpy streak who is transformed by neighborhood children, and in turn affects their lives in ways none of them could have ever imagined. Abu Raed is ultimately the more sentimental of the two films, and while I would probably give Gran Torino higher marks overall, Captain Abu Raed probably had a more profound emotional impact on me.

True, there are moments that lack directorial polish, but Matalqa delivers some truly masterful moments here. There is a long shot later in the film of a Abu Raed climbing a long flight of stairs alone, that may be quite possibly one of the most stirring and heartbreaking shots in recent memory.

Crying in movies is something I do quite often. It really doesn't take much. But it is rare for a movie to bring on the tears the way Captain Abu Raed did. When the film ended, I just sat on my bed and cried through the entire end credits sequence. That's how profoundly touching it is. And its emotional impact is achieved not through manipulation or ridiculous plot twists, but through the simple idea of heroism, and how one person can affect the lives of others. It almost takes on a power reminiscent of Cinema Paradiso, and coming from me that is high praise indeed.

Every man has a moment that defines him. And for the children in this poor neighborhood in Amman, there was Captain Abu Raed. A man who was never who he said he was, but ended up being so much more. It is a beautiful, tender tale that not only sneaks into the hearts of the audience, but may well be a definining moment in Jordanian cinema.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

CAPTAIN ABU RAED; Directed by Amin Matalqa; Stars Nadim Sawalha, Rana Sultan, Hussein Al-Sous, Udey Al-Qiddissi; Not Rated; In Arabic w/English subtitles; Opens in February in New York and Chicago
From The Dispatch:
Daniel Craig makes for a strong action lead, as evidenced by his work for the James Bond films, and he is joined by Live Schreiber and Jamie Bell (one of our finest young actors) as the other two Bielski brothers. Their relationship gives the film a strong backbone, even during Zwick’s more heavy handed directorial flourishes (his love of slow motion action sequences, for instance, grows tiresome after a while).

If nothing else, Zwick films can always be counted on to be beautiful, and cinematographer Eduardo Serra (“Girl with a Pearl Earring”) once again delivers the goods with his ethereal camera work.

Click here to read my full review.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

From Yahoo! News:
LOS ANGELES – Ricardo Montalban, the Mexican-born actor who became a star in splashy MGM musicals and later as the wish-fulfilling Mr. Roarke in TV's "Fantasy Island," died Wednesday morning at his home, a city councilman said. He was 88.

Montalban's death was announced at a meeting of the city council by president Eric Garcetti, who represents the district where the actor lived. Garcetti did not give a cause of death.

This is sad news indeed. For legions of Star Trek fans, myself included, Montalban will always be remembered as Khan Noonien Singh, the memorable villain with the impressive pecs from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, as well as the original series episode from which he originated, Space Seed.

Somehow, the world just won't be the same without him. Rest in peace, Ricardo. You will be missed.
As of yesterday, I was only mildly miffed at the Academy for failing to shortlist the highly praised Italian film, Gomorrah, for its Best Foreign Language Film Award. It's a good film, but I never believed it was worthy of the award.

But that was before I saw the Jordanian entry, Captain Abu Raed. The folks at NeoClassics Films were kind enough to supply me with a screener of the film, and after watching it last night, I fell in love with it.

It is a completely charming, deeply moving fable about an elderly airport janitor who is mistaken for an airplane captain by the neighborhood children after wearing home a pilot's hat he found in the trash. You would think that this would be the kind of thing the Academy would devour. Sure it could have used a bit more directorial polish, and it has a sentimental streak a mile long, but it packs a huge emotional wallop.

I'll admit, I cry a lot at movies. It doesn't take much. But when this thing was over I just sat there and sobbed for entire end credits. I'll write a full review soon. I just wanted to add my voice to the outrage. It's not as bad as snubbing 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Silent Light, and Persepolis last year. But once again, the Academy should be ashamed of themselves.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

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.

Fish-out-of-water cultural angst is nothing new, and Brick Lane never really brings anything new to the table, despite plenty of chances to explore its Islamic roots that are so dear to its characters, and ever more at odds with a world gone mad, as their own brothers and sisters begin to take up arms in jihad against the West. This is a fact that is given little consideration, and un-mined drama abounds from all angles.

It's hard not to like Emma Thompson (even as such a despicable character), and indeed the film seems to come to life when she is on screen. But when she is not, the film seems to deflate, and we are left to the troubles of one of the most miserable set of human beings to grace the silver screen in many a moon. I felt nothing but hatred for Charles as he led Sebastian on, disillusioning him into believing the attraction was mutual, while he pined over Julia. I found Sebastian's incessant whining nearly unbearable (not to mention the portrayal of all homosexuals as insipid, effeminate drama queens), and Julia and Lady Marchmain's pious devotion to strict, guilt-ridden Catholicism insufferable. They lived in a misery of their own devising, and that misery translates to the audience as well.

FFR DVD Pick of the Week
It's a mesmerizing, astonishingly free form tapestry, almost like a cross between Godard and I'm Not There, where convention is thrown out the window in favor of a soul-piercing window into the mind of a legend.

Allen finds beauty in their attempts at happiness, however, set amidst the sunny backdrop of Spain. Shot in lovely, warm tones by Javier Aguirresarobe, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is a smooth, sexy valentine to Spain and all its rich beauty. There is a laid-back charm to it all, thanks in part to its attractive cast, that feels a bit like comfort food that's high in taste but low in nutritional value. It's a solidly crafted film, but it never fully explores the intricacies of the relationships it sets up.

Via Variety:

"Iron Man" - Laura Jean Shannon & Rebecca Bentjen
"Mamma Mia!" - Ann Roth
"Sex and the City" - Patricia Field
"Slumdog Millionaire" - Suttirat Larlarb
"The Wrestler" - Amy Westcott

"Changeling" - Deborah Hopper
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" - Jacqueline West
"The Duchess" - Michael O'Connor
"Milk" - Danny Glicker
"Revolutionary Road"- Albert Wolsky

"Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" - Isis Mussenden
"The Dark Knight" - Lindy Hemming
"The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" - Sanja Milkovic Hays

AMPAS announced its list of 9 films that will compete for 5 nominations in the Best Foreign Language Film category:
  • Austria, “Revanche,” Gotz Spielmann, director;
  • Canada, “The Necessities of Life,” Benoit Pilon, director;
  • France, “The Class,” Laurent Cantet, director;
  • Germany, “The Baader Meinhof Complex,” Uli Edel, director;
  • Israel, “Waltz with Bashir,” Ari Folman, director;
  • Japan, “Departures,” Yojiro Takita, director;
  • Mexico, “Tear This Heart Out,” Roberto Sneider, director;
  • Sweden, “Everlasting Moments,” Jan Troell, director;
  • Turkey, “3 Monkeys,” Nuri Bilge Ceylan, director.
Great...and on the same day I get my screener of Captain Abu Raed.

The real surprise here is the Gomorrah snub, but I wondered all along if it was too rough for the blue hairs. Of these, I'm thinking Waltz with Bashir, The Class, The Baader Meinhof Complex, Everlasting Moments, and 3 Monkeys.

What say you readers?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Here are the nominees for the American Cinema Editors Eddie awards:

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” - Angus Wall & Kirk Baxter
“The Dark Knight” - Lee Smith, A.C.E.
“Frost/Nixon” - Mike Hill, A.C.E. & Dan Hanley, A.C.E.
“Milk” - Elliot Graham
“Slumdog Millionaire” - Chris Dickens

“In Bruges” - Jon Gregory, A.C.E.
“Mamma Mia!” - Leslie Walker
“Tropic Thunder” - Greg Hayden
“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” - Alisa Lepselter
“Wall-E” - Stephen Schaffer

“Bush’s War” - Steve Audette
“Chicago 10” - Stuart Levy, A.C.E.
“Man on Wire” - Jinx Godfrey

Click here for the full list.
I just want to say that I think Ricky Gervais should host the Oscars. That is all.

Well...him or a drunk Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman. That was priceless.

Anyway, here are the winners:
  • Best Picture, Drama: Slumdog Millionaire
  • Best Picture, Comedy Musical: Vicky Cristina Barcelona
  • Best Director: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
  • Best Actor, Drama: Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler
  • Best Actress, Drama: Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road
  • Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
  • Best Supporting Actress: Kate Winslet, The Reader
  • Best Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy: Slumdog Millionaire
  • Best Foreign Language Film: Waltz With Bashir
  • Best Animated Feature: WALL·E
  • Best Actor, Musical/Comedy: Colin Farrell
  • Best Actress, Musical/Comedy: Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky
  • Best Original Score: A.R. Rahman, Slumdog Millonaire
  • Best Original Song: Bruce Springsteen, The Wrestler
  • Cecil B. DeMille Award: Stephen Spielberg
Courtesy of Awards Daily.

Click here to see the full list of winners.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

It's that time of year again ladies and gentlemen, and so now before the Golden Globes announce their annual awards, I am announcing my own nominees for the 3rd Annual Front Row Awards!

And this year I'm doing something a little different. I have set up a website to present the nominees, complete with pictures, clips, and sound samples from various nominees, complete with an archive of nominees and winners from years past.

Here are the nominees in the major categories. For the rest, visit and let me know what you think! Winners will be announced at a later date.

  • WALL-E


  • Clint Eastwood, GRAN TORINO
  • Charlie Kaufman, SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK
  • Cristian Mungiu, 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, AND 2 DAYS
  • Carlos Reygadas, SILENT LIGHT

  • Clint Eastwood, GRAN TORINO
  • Michael Fassbender, HUNGER
  • Frank Langella, FROST/NIXON
  • Sean Penn, MILK
  • Mickey Rourke, THE WRESTLER

  • Meryl Streep, DOUBT
  • Kristen Scott Thomas, I'VE LOVED YOU SO LONG
  • Michelle Williams, WENDY AND LUCY

  • Philip Seymour Hoffman, DOUBT
  • David Kross, THE READER
  • Heath Ledger, THE DARK KNIGHT
  • Michael Shannon, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD

  • Viola Davis, DOUBT
  • Marisa Tomei, THE WRESTLER
  • Kate Winslet, THE READER

Click here to see the full list of nominees.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Carlos Reygadas' brilliant, magisterial Silent Light, which I recently named as the best film of 2008, is now playing at New York's Film Forum until January 20.

This probably puts it in a similarly precarious position as 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days about whether it is a 2008 or 2009, but I stand by my decision to place it in 2008 after its brief run at MOMA last year.

Apparently the film is getting mixed reactions from audiences, according to a letter posted over at Hollywood Elsewhere, which is to be expected I would think. It's most definitely not a film for all tastes and requires a great deal of patience and investment on the part of the audience, but it is so rewarding. The slow, deliberate pace makes the film almost like a meditation, and that should definitely be prepared for before seeing it. The result is something akin to a spiritual experience, but it requires a certain frame of mind. However, for those of you in New York, it comes highly recommended.

The film will be showing concurrent with Kelly Reichhardt's quietly devastating Wendy and Lucy. Not exactly the best double feature, but both are excellent films.
OK, I've decided that I have changed my mind about Clint Eastwood's song that plays over the end credits of Gran Torino.

Eastwood may have a gravelly voice, hell he may not even be a very good singer, but there's just something about it that grows on you. It really works in context, and Jamie Cullum's vocals really give it wings later on.

Maybe it's just my love for the film that made me reconsider how I felt about it. It's got that kind of smooth, jazz club vibe to it that I really like, and when you add that to just how much I really love this film, and it's a winner. I don't care what anyone says about Eastwood's singing. It works wonders in context, driving straight for the heart. And that's what really counts. I have found myself revisiting the song more often than I would have imagined the first time I heard it, and remembering what it was that made me fall in love with the film in the first place.

I think it's about time he was recognized in a music category, he's been recognized everywhere else. This is probably the best shot he's ever had.
No this isn't a story about the guy who shot a noisy talker in a screening of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button last month. It's about this weekend's box office, which was supposed to end with a Bride Wars victory.

Not anymore. Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino opened wide to a $10 million haul yesterday, compared to Bride Wars $7.5 million. Torino looks to finish the weekend with $30 million, according to Big Hollywood's Steve Mason (formerly of Fantasy Moguls), while Bride Wars will finish with $21.28 million. That will bring Torino's total gross to $41 million after several weeks in limited release.

That is great news. Not only is Clint Eastwood still beating the competition, but one of the best films of 2008 is wiping the floor with one of the first insipid comedies of 2009. This kind of repudiation of stupidity doesn't happen often, and is worth celebrating. Congratulations, Mr. Eastwood. You earned it.

Friday, January 09, 2009

It has been a well known problem in recent years that the Oscars are strapped for ratings. And try as they might they just can't seem to get people to tune in, with an increasingly indie minded slate of nominees.

This year, however, they have a chance to draw in the masses again, with a People's Choice Award winner that actually has a serious shot at making it to the big five.

I'm talking, of course, about The Dark Knight, which has grossed over $500 million domestically alone, making it the second highest grossing film of all time, behind the Oscar winning Titanic. In many ways, this is a chance for the Academy to make itself relevant again in the eyes of the general public, as millions tune in to watch their beloved superhero rack up Oscars.

But therein lies the problem. The most likely Oscar night scenario means that there are going to be a lot of disappointed bat-fans at the end of the night.

Heath Ledger will win his Oscar, sure. But it's looking more and more likely that The Dark Knight will not take home Best Picture. It will end up being beaten by a film most people haven't heard of and know nothing about, therefore increasing the irrelevance of the Academy in many eyes and putting even more distance between them and regular movie going America.

The likely winner, at this point, looks to be Slumdog Millionaire, which if it really is this year's Juno/Little Miss Sunshine should be getting a much bigger marketing push than it is. But I think Fox Searchlight is really dropping the ball on its commercial potential. Why is this not open wide yet? The fact is, the majority of middle America, whose movie going this year consisted of The Dark Knight, Iron Man, and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, simply hasn't heard of Slumdog. The only other Oscar nominee on their radar is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which they most likely haven't seen because they heard it was three hours long and didn't have enough explosions. That and they liked it better when it was called Forrest Gump. And if they have heard of Milk, they know they won't see it because it's about "queers," and they don't want to "catch the gayness."

So if The Dark Knight is nominated, it may give the Oscars a ratings bump this year, but watch those numbers go right back down next year as legions of disillusioned movie goers refuse to tune in again.

Personally, I don't care about Oscar ratings. I want them to award the best films, not the most popular. That's what box office and the People's Choice Awards are for. And of the likely pool of nominees, I'm rooting for Slumdog all the way, even though I really want to see Gran Torino and WALL-E sneak in there, but that's not going to happen. I just can't help but wonder if the ratings starved producers and sponsors have thought this little scenario through.

Period Films

Production Designer: James J. Murakami
Production Designer: Donald Graham Burt
Production Designer: David Gropman
Production Designer: Michael Corenblith
Production Designer: Bill Groom

Fantasy Films

Production Designer: Nathan Crowley
Production Designer: Guy Hendrix Dyas
Production Designer: J. Michael Riva
Production Designer: James Bissell
Production Designer: Ralph Eggleston

Contemporary Films

Production Designer: Jess Gonchor
Production Designer: James J. Murakami
Production Designer: Dennis Gassner
Production Designer: Mark Digby
Production Designer: Timothy Grimes

Source: Awards Daily

I'm surprised Hellboy II didn't make the fantasy cut.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Updated live:

Best Picture: Slumdog Millionaire
Best Actor: Sean Penn, Milk
Best Director: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
Best Actress: Meryl Streep, Doubt, Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married (TIE)
Best Picture Made for Television: John Adams (LOVE it!)
Joel Siegel Award: Richard Gere
Best Animated Feature: WALL-E
Best Supporting Actress: Kate Winslet, The Reader
Best Foreign Language Film: Waltz with Bashir (HELL YES!!!!!)
Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Best Documentary: Man on Wire
Best Original Song: Bruce Springsteen, "The Wrestler," The Wrestler
Best Original Score: A.R. Rahman, Slumdog Millionaire (YAY!!)
Best Action Movie: The Dark Knight
Best Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
Best Young Performer: Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire
Best Ensemble: Milk
Best Comedy: Tropic Thunder
My expanded review of Gran Torino was published in today's Dispatch:
"Gran Torino" is a sort of throwback, and Eastwood's Walt is a kind of symbol for a bygone era in America. He's tough, prejudiced and set in his ways, but ultimately not beyond redemption. Coming at the end of the Bush era and the still uncertain but hopeful dawn of Obama, "Gran Torino" represents not just potentially "fascist" (as Pauline Kael once called "Dirty Harry") Hollywood iconography, but something much larger than itself, probably even more so than it realizes. It is an elegy for a country looking for atonement after losing its way in macho xenophobia. Walt's may be a dying way of life, and the gang is an even more passé trapping of unbridled machismo, but it is segueing into something new, keeping traditions while stepping timidly into the 21st century.
Click here to read the full review.
The Directors Guild announced their nominations today:
  • Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
  • David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon
  • Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight
  • Gus Van Sant, Milk
Source: Awards Daily

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Best Picture lineup. It would be almost impossible for anything else to break into the race now.

Even though I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

OK, so I thought that my top ten list would be the last part of my 2008 retrospective. But it's not. 2008 may not have been the best year for movies, but it's certainly not the worst. And there were quite a few films that didn't make my top ten/honorable mention cut that deserve to be noticed. There were other very good films this year, some even better than these. Yet for some reason these stick out in my mind as special to me somehow, and deserving of an extra mention, and for the most part, have been criminally overlooked. Even by myself.

And now, I plan to rectify that. Here are some 2008 films I loved, in random order, that I haven't given enough attention to this year:

(Cao Hamburger, Brazil)

It's got a bit of a Cinema Paradiso vibe to it, but that's why I love it. Cao Hamburger's tale of a young boy left behind by his parents to go on a spy mission, and his subsequent coming of age over the course of one summer, is hardly a new concept, but it's so beautifully done that it's impossible not to fall in love with.

(Hao Hsiao Hsien, France)
Hao Hsiao Hsien's loving ode to France, and to Albert Lamorisse' classic short film, The Red Balloon is a wholly magical film completely grounded in reality. It is a charming evocation of childhood and a child's fantasies that never veers into the fantastical. It simply shows it as it is, with only hints of the extraordinary. Slow, deliberate, and almost airily meandering, it demands our attention, but the results are hugely rewarding.


(Gus Van Sant, USA)
While Milk got all the attention, Gus Van Sant's other 2008 film was far more adventurous. A dreamy, haunting evocation of teenage loneliness and angst, Paranoid Park almost takes on the quality of some kind of dream turned nightmare. Either way, it sticks with you. The film was named as the #1 film of 2008 by Fataculture's Nick Plowman.

(Aleksandr Sokurov, Russia)
The fact that this one is so overlooked really pains me, because it really is a fine film. It is a deceptively simple tale of an elderly woman visiting her soldier grandson on a military base, and becoming a kind of surrogate grandmother to them all. But the real power comes when she ventures off the base into the occupied territory, where she bridges a gap between warring people in a deeply personal way. Simply beautiful.


(Anand Tucker, UK)
A must for anyone who loves their father, especially if that relationship is in anyway complicated. This is a deeply moving tale of forgiveness, atonement, and love between a father and a son that really strikes a nerve. Watch it with your dad.

(Jonathan Demme, USA)

On the surface, it kind of looks like a typical, touchy feely, family reunion drama. It's anything but. It's emotionally raw, awkward, and often downright painful. But in order to achieve catharsis you have to crawl through the ugliness of a family's buried pain, as their self-centered daughter gets out of rehab to attend her sister's wedding. Jenny Lumet's screenplay is extraordinary, as is Anne Hathaway's performance.

(Céline Sciamma, France)
Teenage sexual awakening is often overdone in movies, but never has it felt quite so real than in Water Lilies, the tale of three young girls discovering their sexuality. One, an overweight swimmer dreaming of the most popular boy in school, another a vivacious boy magnet, and the other a shy, awkward loner who falls under her spell as she explores her budding lesbianism. Sciamma avoids clichés in one of the most astonishingly real evocations of teenage feelings in years.

(Helen Hunt, USA)
I loved this movie. And it seems no one else did. Their loss. Helen Hunt's directorial debut may be goofy in spots, but it's a blast - a romantic comedy with a brain and a heart that never panders to the audience. For once, the relationship feels real.

(Jirí Menzel, Czech Republic)
Ivan Barnev is a delight as Jan Díte, an eccentric young waiter whose Chaplin-like antics take him through pre-WWII Czechoslovakia, to the German invasion, to a relationship with a beautiful Nazi, and eventually into a Soviet prison. It is a bittersweet tale, but told with a light touch that never feels exploitative. Told mostly in flashback, it is a warm hearted, drolly funny, and ultimately moving look back at an extraordinary life.