Sunday, January 31, 2010

Best Foreign Language Film has always been one of the most mystifying categories at the Oscars. Most viewers have never seen, let alone heard of, any of the nominees, most of which have yet to be released in the United States, and the category routinely leaves out some of the most acclaimed foreign films of the year.

Germany's "The White Ribbon"

For instance, acclaimed films from this past year like France's Summer Hours and Chile's The Maid were not submitted by their respective countries, and are therefore ineligible for a nomination. In the past several years, widely praised films (and presumed front runners) like Cannes Palme D'Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days were snubbed from the shortlist entirely, causing major overhauls in how the films are chosen.

This year, nine films were shortlisted, five of which will become nominees when the nominations are announced this Tuesday, and only one of which has even been released in the US as of this writing (that would be Germany's The White Ribbon), while only two more have US distributors. I have seen seven of the shortlisted films, and they are a mixed bag. Two things are for certain, The White Ribbon and France's A Prophet will be nominated, and will be duking it out for the win, as they have been all season. The other three nominees are much more of a toss-up. While I have not yet seen Israel's Ajami, it has garnered enough to positive buzz to assure itself a place in the final five.

The Netherlands' "Winter in Wartime"

So who fills out the last two spots? My money is on The Netherlands' Winter in Wartime, a rather conventional but beautifully shot coming of age tale set against the backdrop of WWII. It's Academy bait up one side and down the other. That leaves one vacant spot. I haven't seen Kazakhstan's Kelin, but from what I do know about it (it is entirely dialogue free), I wonder how Academy friendly it will be. Peru's The Milk of Sorrow is an odd little film about a woman who, as a child, put a potato in her vagina to keep from being raped, which causes problems for her after the death of her mother. It's well crafted but underdeveloped, and I can't really see the Academy going for it. Ditto Australia's Samson & Delilah, whose wordless romance between a gas huffing Aboriginal boy and a lonely girl on the run, is more off-putting and bizarre than engaging. They may, however, go for Argentina's slick crime procedural, El Secreto de sus Ojos, whose director, Juan José Campanella, was previously nominated in this category in 2001 for Son of the Bride. The film didn't do much for me, it felt like it belonged on television, with occasional efforts to make it feel cinematic that just don't work. It's a possibility, but it just doesn't feel right.

Bulgaria's "The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner"

That leaves us with Bulgaria's The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner, and here, of all the films in this category, is where my heart lies. My head may belong to The White Ribbon (which deserves to win), but by heart belongs to Stephan Komandarev's wonderful tale of a man who is stricken with amnesia in a car wreck that kills both his parents, and strikes off across Europe with his grandfather to return home, collect his memories and rediscover his identity. It's a warm-hearted, nostalgic tearjerker in the tradition of Giuseppe Tornatore and Cinema Paradiso, that comes by its emotions without being false or manipulative. This is the kind of thing Miramax would have been all over in the 90s, and has the emotional pedigree to really capture voters hearts and get the "made them cry" vote the way Departures did last year. The problem is, The World is Big is a much better film than Departures, and I would hate to see it have the stigma attached to it of Oscar spoiler. I would love to see it get nominated and get the attention it deserves so it might get a US release, but this award rightfully belongs in the hands of The White Ribbon.

So when it comes down to it, I think the nominations will look something like this:
  • Ajami (Israel)
  • A Prophet (France)
  • The White Ribbon (Germany)
  • Winter in Wartime (Netherlands)
  • The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner (Bulgaria)
We'll find out for sure on Tuesday morning. Here they are in order of my personal preference:
  1. The White Ribbon (Germany)
  2. The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner (Bulgaria)
  3. A Prophet (France)
  4. Winter in Wartime (Netherlands)
  5. The Milk of Sorrow (Peru)
  6. El Secreto de sus Ojos (Argentina)
  7. Samson & Delilah (Australia)
My fingers are crossed. I'm actually kind of interested to see how this turns out.
Kathryn Bigelow made history tonight to become the first woman to be awarded the Directors' Guild of America award for Best Director for her film The Hurt Locker. The win came as a surprise to many, who were projecting her ex-husband, James Cameron, to win for Avatar.

In a strange, "Dewey Beats Truman" moment, the El Paso Times jumped the gun and published a story trumpeting James Cameron as the winner, saying:

James Cameron beat out ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow on Saturday night at the Directors Guild of America Award for feature-film directing, a prize that has traditionally led to a win on Oscar night.

Cameron won for his blockbuster "Avatar," while Bigelow was nominated for her critically acclaimed Iraq war drama "The Hurt Locker." Cameron won the Golden Globe earlier for best director, and said during his acceptance speech that he expected Bigelow to win the prize.

Not that one expects top-notch reporting from the El Paso Times, but still it's strange.

Bigelow is now the odds-on favorite to win the Best Director trophy at the Oscars, becoming the first woman ever to do so, while The Hurt Locker surges ahead of Avatar in the final days leading up to the nomination announcements on Tuesday. A lot can happen between now and Oscar time, but it looks like the race is finally starting to take shape.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Jean-Luc Godard once famously declared the "end of cinema" at the end of his 1967 trip through bourgeois hell, Weekend. And while the movies obviously endured beyond 1967, one can't help but wonder if Godard was on to something. Weekend was a complete deconstruction of cinematic and societal conventions that polarized both audiences and critics, and while Godard was busy lashing out at consumerist culture, Hollywood was beginning to change. By the 1970s, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas would change the face of how movies are made and marketed, giving rise to the blockbuster culture that has led to the short theatrical windows and focus on opening weekend grosses that have become commonplace today.

So was Godard right? Is cinema dead? Or was he premature in declaration? No matter what one thinks of Godard or his talents, it is hard to deny his arrogance. Calling himself Jean-Luc "Cinema" Godard in the opening credits of Bande à part, and of course declaring that the end of Weekend was not only the end of the film, but the end of cinema itself.

Much has been made in recent days about James Cameron's Avatar and its effect on the future of filmmaking. While it's true that Cameron has pioneered a new extension of the cinematic language, pushing 3-D away from being a cheap gimmick and into a legitimate form of storytelling, what exactly does this mean for cinema as a whole? If one were to look at the current box office top ten, which includes films like Legion, The Tooth Fairy, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel, and The Spy Next Door, one would be forced to come to the conclusion that Godard was right. But I don't think cinema is dead. Not yet.

Depending on how you look at it, Avatar is either a bold new frontier, or a nail in cinema's coffin. When everything, even the performances, are computer generated, where is the true human emotion that only naturalism can bring? Honestly, I think it's a false choice, there is room for both Bergman and Cameron. Cameron is using technology to show us things that could never be achieved with traditional filmmaking techniques. 2009 may have been a year that pushed the boundaries of the possible, but the films vying for our attention, the ones that awards groups declare the year should be remembered for, are mostly weak and unmemorable, a shadow of the great films of the past. Gone are the glory days of the Hollywood studio system that brought us films like Casablanca and The Wizard of Oz. But often I think we suffer from selective memory when it comes to the films of the past. It may be true that "they don't make 'em like they used to," but history has always favored the winners, and many of the "quota quickies" and cheap B-movies have disappeared, while the masterpieces remain and have been remembered. Even going back to the earliest days of cinema, when nickelodeons showcased endless and un-creative "actualities," films just showing people in their everyday lives or performing specialty acts, film was viewed as a low form of entertainment. All the way back to the first comedy, the Lumiere Brothers' The Sprinkler Sprinkled (1895), audiences revelled in low, slapstick comedy, which is still hugely popular today. Not every silent film was The Birth of a Nation or The Passion of Joan of Arc, just as today not every film is a There Will Be Blood or Mulholland Drive.

Is the ratio of junk to gold greater today than it was in the past? It's hard to tell. The junk is much more obvious today because we see it as it comes out. We watch it every day. The culture is permeated by it. But what about all those clunkers from years past that time simply forgot? Were the critics of yesteryear feeling the same way as we do now? Was the audience that first laughed at The Sprinkler Sprinkled any more sophisticated than the audience that laughs at Scary Movie? We like to idolize the year 1939, the year of Gone with the Wind, The Rules of the Game, The Wizard of Oz, Ninotchka, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but what unknown junk clogged the movie theaters between these masterpieces that time forgot? It was undeniably a year unusually rich with cinematic treasures, but does that mean there was any less junk in the theaters too?

I do not think cinema is dead. And I do not think Avatar is its destruction. The movie year I experienced in 2009 was not the one many others claim to have experienced. What I saw wasa very strong year for small, intimate, and yes, human films. Still Walking, Summer Hours, Goodbye Solo, 35 Shots of Rum, Tokyo Sonata; 2009 had a wealth of great filmmaking if you just knew where to look. It was just obscured by the junk with wide releases.

I think there is a happy medium to be had somewhere. There is a place in this world for big, bold technical achievements like Avatar, that use technology to transport audiences to other worlds that we never otherwise would have seen. Cameron himself will be the first to admit that motion capture technology will never replace the magic of a live performance, it was just what was needed to bring his characters to life. But as long as people like Lars von Trier are able to create intensely personal artistic visions like Antichrist, or Michael Haneke is allowed to make thoughtful formalist allegories like The White Ribbon, or new talent like Lee Isaac Chung is allowed to take a small group of Rwandan genocide survivors and shoot a marvelous film like Munyurangabo on the fly, then cinema is far from dead. It may not be the easiest economic time to foster creativity or new talent, but it always somehow finds a way. I saw plenty in 2009 to give me hope for the future.

Cinema is not dead. It is alive and well and thriving in the most unlikely places. It is the studio system that is ailing. Insead, we have new pockets of exciting new talents popping up all over the world in places like Romania and Taiwan. While Hollywood continues to chase the almighty dollar (as it has always done), filmmakers from around the world are defying convention and doing things their way, continuing to reinvent and reinterpret the language of cinema. And as long as that is true, then cinema will never die.
From The Dispatch:
Each piece of "A Serious Man" fits like a puzzle, but it's the kind of puzzle from which many different solutions can be derived. Viewers will find it to be a fascinating viewing experience open to their own interpretations, be they religious, secular or somewhere in between. The Coens' humor cuts deep, and "A Serious Man" is ultimately something quite beautiful. Larry Gopnik may seem to fail at everything he attempts, but the Coens seem to be the exact opposite, turning his tale of righteous suffering into a parable for the ages.
Click here to read my full review.

Friday, January 22, 2010

There were a few surprising omissions in this years Oscar Foreign Language shortlist, most notably Korea's Mother (Magnolia, 3/12) and Denmark's fantastic Terribly Happy (Oscilloscope, 2/5), but the major players (i.e. A Prophet and The White Ribbon) are here.

Winter in Wartime

The other finalists are a mixed bag. And while I still think it comes down to A Prophet vs. The White Ribbon, they both need to be wary of The Netherlands' Winter in Wartime. While it has yet to pick up a US distributor, Winter in Wartime is a beautifully shot, if ultimately pretty basic, WWII drama about a young boy in occupied Holland who discovers a downed British fighter pilot in the woods, and secretly cares for him.

This is this kind of thing the Academy will eat up, especially older voters, who tend to be the ones who vote in the Foreign Language category, since all five nominated films must be seen in special, AMPAS approved screenings. Last year we saw Japan's schmaltzy Departures come out of nowhere to upset frontrunners The Class and Waltz with Bashir, could Winter in Wartime be this year's spoiler? It's not as blatantly sentimental as Departures, but it has Nazis, which is always a plus. It's basically a coming of age drama set against the backdrop of WWII, which has Oscar written all over it. As much as I love The White Ribbon (I'm pulling for it to win), I still think it may just be too bleak for the blue hairs, and A Prophet isn't exactly a walk in the park either. I'm not going to bet against the front runners right now, all I'm saying is they need to watch out.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Going into Misconceptions, I fully expected it to be a quickie, low budget, gay themed comedy that painted in broad strokes with cartoonish, caricatured characters; the kind of cheap niche exploitation film churned out for a quick buck that has come to be expected from this genre.

But, as its title suggested, I had a woeful misconception of what this movie would be. Misconceptions is none of the things I expected to be, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it is in fact a sweet, completely endearing and surprisingly moving comedy with great crossover potential.

It is the story of a conservative Christian woman named Miranda (A.J. Cook), who five years after the death of her young child at the hands of a rare disease, has a vision from God telling her to become a surrogate mother to a gay couple looking to start a family. The gay couple in question is Terry and Sandy Price-Owens (Orlando Jones and David Moscow), a choreographer/designer from Boston and a doctor who specializes in researching the disease that killed Miranda's son.

Orlando Jones, Sarah Carter, A.J. Cook looking at sonograms.
Photo courtesy of Regent Releasing/Here Films.

Things get complicated when Terry arrives in Georgia to micromanage Miranda's pregnancy before she has informed her husband, Parker (David Sutcliffe), of the situation. Parker is an adamant anti-gay activist, in the midst of a gay marriage protest campaign with their church. Terry's arrival not only scandalizes the community, but puts a rift between Miranda and Parker, as well as between himself and Sandy, who begins to feel the long distance strain.

Misconceptions skillfully avoids the pratfalls of many socially conscious comedies, never coming off as preachy or heavy handed. It admirably treats both sides as human beings, rather than broad caricatures, never once feeling like it is condescending to its characters or the audience. It is a good natured film, warm hearted, funny, and surprisingly quite moving, using comedy as an emotional and even spiritual journey rather than for meaningless laughs.

Orlando Jones, A.J. Cook, David Moscow.
Photo courtesy of Regent Releasing/Here Films.

The part where it missteps is in its rush to meet its ends, it often fails to develop its characters reasoning. Some people are a little too quick to change and abandoned their prejudices, often given no real reason to do so. The film has a tendency to take the easy way out to keep the tone on a more pleasant keel, which is a shame given the strength of its other parts. It misses the chance to show how problems are solved, and instead just solves them in an effort to celebrate togetherness while sacrificing meaning. But ultimately that doesn't necessarily make the film a less satisfying experience. Orlando Jones, for his part, has never been better, giving the film's best performance and showing off some dramatic range.

Misconceptions is really a surprising film in many ways. It is sweet, funny, and entertaining without being maudlin or inane (and has a great gospel music soundtrack), allowing the comedy to spring naturally from the situation rather than forcing it (at least after the opening scene) and making it feel false. I was reminded in some ways of Adrienne Shelley's Waitress, and while Misconceptions isn't quite on that level, their tones are similar, and they left me with a similar feeling. This is a film that deserves to be viewed as more than just a "gay" niche film, and break out to a wider audience. It has the strength, and the quality, to make an impression with a very diverse audience.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

MISCONCEPTIONS; Directed by Ron Satloff; Stars A.J. Cook, Sarah Carter, David Sutcliffe, David Moscow, Orlando Jones, Tom Bower; Not Rated; Opens Friday, 1/23, at the Quad Cinema in New York and the Laemmle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles, as part of's film series.
Gay cinema, like many niche market sub-genres, is often overlooked not only for its potentially divisive subject matter, but also, frankly, because of its frequent lack of quality. There are occasional break outs of course, like Brokeback Mountain or Milk, but films like this (as groundbreaking as they may be) are often much "safer" than their low budget brethren, made innocuous enough for America's multiplexes and mainstream audiences. They have to have an appeal beyond an exclusively gay audience.

We have yet to see the arrival of the queer cinema revolution that many have hoped for after the success of Brokeback Mountain. Mainstream films dealing with gay themes have been few and far between, with films like David Oliveras' Watercolors relegated to the ghetto of playing gay themed film festivals or premiering on television stations like Logo that cater specifically to gay audiences.

Enter, which is sponsoring a film series opening at the Quad in New York and the Laemmle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles, featuring Watercolors and two other gay themed films, Misconceptions and Murder in Fashion.

Photo courtesy of Here Films.

Admittedly, Watercolors has the production values of a made for television movie one might see on Logo, a kind of Lifetime movie for gay people (or maybe I should say, a Lifetime movie ABOUT gay people). It's the story of an artist named Danny Wheeler flashing back on his childhood as he opens his first art show and remembering his inspiration, his first love, Carter. Danny was a shy, artistic teenager with few friends, while Carter was a troubled jock. New to the school and deep in the closet, he meets Danny when his father asks Danny's mother to keep him at her house while he goes away for the weekend. The two form a tentative friendship, which soon begins to blossom into something more. Soon, Carter is spending more and more time at Danny's house, posing for Danny's increasingly erotic sketches. But while Carter tries to keep their friendship a secret, the homophobic jocks on Carter's swim team soon begin to suspect, and the pressures of young, forbidden love in an unaccepting world threaten to destroy them both.

Photo courtesy of Here Films.

It's a pretty standard gay romance, as gay romances go. Two young high school students, one in the closet and unwilling to admit to himself or to others that he is in love with a boy, fall in love amidst prejudice and hatred, while hurtling toward an inevitably tragic foregone conclusion. But Oliveras treats his subject with great tenderness, and its hard not to get caught up in their story. While he may use some admittedly goofy directorial flourishes that threaten to veer into gay porn territory (the love scene in the bedroom with the symbolic imaginary rainstorm feels painfully overwrought), the two young leads are endearlingly likable with their non-professional earnestness.

Watercolors is by no means a great step forward for gay cinema. It is unlikely to break out as a mainstream hit nor does it shake off the trappings of a low budget niche film. It is, however, a very likable and often quite moving piece of entertainment, a film likely to please its target audience without breaking any new ground.

GRADE - ★★½ (out of four)

WATERCOLORS; Directed by David Oliveras; Stars Tye Olson, Kyle Clare, Ellie Araiza, Casey Kramer, Jeffrey Lee Woods, William Charles Mitchell, Brandon Lybrand, Ian Rhodes, Edward Finlay; Not Rated; Opens Friday, 1/22, at the Quad Cinemas in New York, and the Laemmle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles as part of's film series.
I recently spoke with a friend of mine who is a member of SAG, and while I don't really feel much like playing the prognostication game this year (at least until the Oscars), I asked if I could share their picks here on the blog.

BEST ENSEMBLE - Inglourious Basterds
BEST ACTOR - Morgan Freeman, Invictus
BEST ACTRESS - Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR - Woody Harrelson, The Messenger

While I doubt that Harrelson will win over Christoph Waltz, I really think he deserves it, and Freeman will probably lose to Crazy Heart's Jeff Bridges, but he gave a very good performance. Mo'Nique is going to win her award walking away. The most interesting race of the night is going to be Best Actress. My source went with Streep, but Sandra Bullock has some strong support as well.

Most of the winners seem to be a foregone conclusion, but I always like getting an inside look at what the voters are voting for. Maybe SAG will surprise us after all.
From The Dispatch:
"Up in the Air" calls to mind the socially conscious screwball comedies of Preston Sturgess, whose 1941 masterpiece, "Sullivan's Travels," examined the importance of escapist entertainment in Depression-era America. It may make a misstep here and there (especially in some of the underdeveloped sequences involving Ryan's family and a throwaway wedding subplot), but "Up in the Air," more than any other film in recent memory, seems like a quintessential portrait of our times.
Click here to read my full review.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Clooney: "It's OK, HFPA, you really do matter."
rick: "The fuck you say?"

Part of me thought about posting Golden Globe predictions today, but then the other part of me said "I don't care this year, remember?" So after a brief argument with myself (which I eventually won), I decided to throw together a little prediction/preference piece just for the hell of it.

Motion Picture, Drama
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire
Up in the Air

Prediction - Up in the Air
Preference - Avatar

Motion Picture, Comedy/Musical
(500) Days of Summer
The Hangover
It’s Complicated
Julie & Julia

Prediction: (500) Days of Summer
Preference: (500) Days of Summer

Part of me feels like Julie & Julia may creep up here and take it, though. I don't know why. This isn't a very strong lineup.

Actress, Drama
Emily Blunt, The Young Victoria
Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Helen Mirren, The Last Station
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabby Sidibe, Precious

Prediction: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Gabby Sidibe, Precious

Actor, Drama
Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
George Clooney, Up in the Air
Colin Firth, A Single Man
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Tobey Maguire, Brothers

Prediction: George Clooney, Up in the Air
Morgan Freeman, Invictus

Actor Comedy/Musical
Matt Damon, The Informant
Daniel Day Lewis, Nine
Robert Downey Jr., Sherlock Holmes
Joseph Gordon Levitt, 500 Days of Summer
Michael Stuhlbarg, A Serious Man

Prediction: Robert Downey Jr., Sherlock Holmes
Michael Stuhlbarg, A Serious Man

Actress, Comedy
Sandra Bullock, The Proposal
Marion Cotillard, Nine
Julia Roberts, Duplicity
Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
Meryl Streep, It’s Complicated

Prediction: Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia

Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
James Cameron, Avatar
Clint Eastwood, Invictus
Jason Reitman, Up in the Air
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds

Prediction: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
James Cameron, Avatar

Best Supporting Actress
Penelope Cruz, Nine
Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Mo’nique, Precious
Julianne Moore, A Single Man

Prediction: Mo'Nique, Precious
Preference: Mo'Nique, Precious

Supporting Actor
Matt Damon, Invictus
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Christopher Plummer, The Last Station
Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

Prediction: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Preference: Woody Harrelson, The Messenger

Neill Blomkampt & Terri Tatchell, District 9
Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker
Nancy Meyers, It’s Complicated
Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds

Prediction: Up in the Air
Preference: Up in the Air

Original Score
Michael Giacchino, Up
Marvin Hamlisch, The Informant
James Horner, Avatar
Abel Krozeniowski, A Single Man
Karen O. and Carter Burwell, Where the Wild Things Are

Prediction: Up
Preference: A Single Man

Animated Feature
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Princess and the Frog

Prediction: Up
Preference: Fantastic Mr. Fox

Foreign Language Film
Baaria (Italy)
Broken Embraces (Spain)
The Maid (Chile)
A Prophet (France)
The White Ribbon (Germany)

Prediction: A Prophet
Preference: The White Ribbon

Original Song
“Cinema Italiano,” Nine
“I Want To Come Home,” Everybody’s Fine
“I See You,” Avatar
“The Weary Kind,” Crazy Heart
“Winter,” Brothers

Prediction: "The Weary Kind," Crazy Heart
Preference: "The Weary Kind," Crazy Heart

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

From The Dispatch:
In Jackson's vision, the family scenes seem almost anecdotal, secondary to Susie's life in heaven. The heavy-handed narration is both distracting and tonally askew. In fact, much of the film is plagued by a strange inconsistency of tone, wildly switching gears seemingly at random from moments of grave import, to moments bordering on high camp, to something straight out of a horror movie, none of which ever quite jell with the delicate tone of Sebold's novel. The movie is so all over the place that it's almost like Jackson never decided what kind of film he wanted it to be. He takes highlights from the novel and strings them together with some beautiful CGI creations but fails to connect them into a meaningful whole.
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Since the late 19th century, sheep herders have driven large flocks of sheep into Montana's Absaroka-Beartooth mountains to graze for the summer. It is a time honored tradition of the American West, rugged cowboys grazing their flocks on public lands. But slowly and surely it is a tradition that has died out, becoming every bit a part of the past as the romance of the wild west.

In 2001, producer Ilisa Barbash and recordist Lucien Castaing-Taylor trekked up into the mountains with the last ranch to carry on the old traditions. Culled from over 200 hours of footage, the resulting film, Sweetgrass, is a lyrical, elegiac portrait of a forgotten way of life.

Foregoing the usual documentary trappings of interiews with talking heads, Barbash and Castaing-Taylor simply set up their cameras and allow life to happen around them, following the sheep and the sheep herders who drive them.

Over the course of the film, we get a peek at the lives of these sheep herders (or are they shepherds?), in a refreshingly unstructured and intimate way. There is no pretense to these men and women at all, they have an unassuming "just folks" quality that adds to the film's earthy charm. Some are the very model of the strong, silent cowboy. Others are more excitable and volatile. But they love what they do, and it's easy to see why. Despite the grueling difficulties of the job, be it the bitter cold, the long hours, or bears, every single frame of Sweetgrass is breathtakingly beautiful, often recalling some of cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto's work on Brokeback Mountain.

The real stars here, however, are the sheep. Very little time goes by without hearing the ever present bleating of the sheep, moving in unison over the grassy Montana landscapes. The natural sounds of the wilderness provides the soundtrack of Sweetgrass. Barbash and Castaing-Taylor wisely don't pepper the film with unnecessary music or songs and just let nature speak for itself. The silences of Sweetgrass are as powerful as any great monologue, with the wind whispering through the trees acting as a haunting accompaniment.

I can't imagine it would be easy to sell someone on a documentary about sheep-herding, but the portrait that Barbash and Castaing-Taylor paint is inherently cinematic. Sweetgrass is a moving and poetic ode to days gone by. There is an almost aching quality to its beauty, a paradoxical sense of finality and timelessness. This isn't a romanticized old west, but the romance is inherent in its very essence. Even as we see these modern day cowboys cursing a blue streak into their cell phones, or communicating with each other via walkie-talkies, there is still something intrinsically romantic about heading into the wild frontier on horse back, and living off the land. And of course, we always come back to nature, whose constant presence provides a breathtaking backdrop for the film and its grand subject.

Sweetgrass is, above all, a chronicle of the last sheep drive, the end of an era, the death of a way of life, and the closing of a chapter of American history. Its simple, unassuming beauty makes for a quietly engrossing ode the the shimmering mystique of the west, whose appeal is as timeless as it is enduring. And now, thanks to Sweetgrass, it is a piece of history that will not be forgotten.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

SWEETGRASS; Directed by Ilisa Barbash and recordist Lucien Castaing-Taylor; Not Rated; Now showing at the Film Forum in NYC.
Lone Scherfig's An Education, a coming of age drama about a sheltered 16 year old girl's tempestuous affair with a wealthy, worldly older man, has gotten quite a bit of critical acclaim and awards buzz in the past few months. Yet despite all the effusive praise, I found it too buttoned down, too calculated, too safe. It is a well crafted film, but I never felt it really took the chances it needed to transcend its immaculately produced period trappings.

Enter Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank, a gritty, hard hitting British drama that is everything An Education isn't. Its themes are similar; a 15 year old girl's life is suddenly turned upside down by the arrival of her mother's charismatic new boyfriend. But unlike An Education, Fish Tank takes chances. Its protagonist, Mia (Katie Jarvis, in a revelatory performance), leads a hard scrabble existence far from the charmed life of An Education's upper middle class suburbs. Her mother is a drunken floozy, her little sister a foul mouthed brat, and her dirty little apartment is sandwiched into a sardine-like high rise complex on the rough side of town. Mia spends her days roaming the street looking for trouble, whether its breaking some mouthy girl's nose, or trying to set loose a chained horse she begins to feel a kinship with, Mia is loud, confrontational, and downright rude.

Katie Jarvis in FISH TANK directed by Andrea Arnold. Photo credit: Holly Horner. An IFC Films release.

But the rough, street-wise veneer hides a desire for something more, a longing to break out and become a dancer. Cliche? Perhaps. Arnold ultimately has more on her mind than a rags to riches, girl from the ghetto makes good story of cheap inspiration. Fish Tank is a character-driven film, and Mia's dream to become a dancer is not the thread that holds it together. It is the journey of a lost and confused teenager, still trying to discover who she is while navigating the tricky waters of life in an unforgiving world.

Then something begins to change in Mia when her mother brings home a new boyfriend named Connor (Michael Fassbender, quickly becoming one of my favorite actors to watch). Connor is easy going, likable, something very foreign in Mia's run down world. And while she at first greets him with trepidation and disdain, his encouragement of her dance dream weakens her defenses. He provides her with music, and a camera to tape an audition piece. Slowly but surely, Mia lets down her guard to let the mysterious stranger in.

Katie Jarvis as Mia and Michael Fassbender as Connor in FISH TANK directed by Andrea Arnold. Photo credit: Holly Horner. An IFC Films release.

Where this is all going isn't particularly hard to guess, but Arnold consistently surprises and shocks, even while traversing thematically familiar territory. The first third of the film is an exercise in pure ugliness, a portrait of Mia's world that is both engrossing and repulsive. But Arnold draws us in, investing the audience in Mia's plight. 17 year old Jarvis, who did not have any acting experience before being cast in the film, gives a remarkably layered performance, showing us the vulnerable little girl beneath the hardened, street-smart exterior. She is the heart and soul of Fish Tank, a girl trapped in a glass bubble unable to escape. But when an escape route finally presents itself (beautifully symbolized in the film's quietly powerful final shot), it doesn't come in the form that she, or the audience, suspects.

Under Arnold's assured direction, Fish Tank comes to life with a thrilling verve. It's always vibrantly alive, teeming with energy and a raw, compelling power. She pulls no punches, taking consistently bold chances and daring choices that ultimately pay off. This is a rare coming of age drama with the courage avoid the genre's typically maudlin pratfalls, and emerges as an electrifying and triumphant piece of cinema.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

FISH TANK; Directed by Andrea Arnold; Stars Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing, Rebecca Griffiths, Harry Treadaway; Not Rated; Opens Friday, 1/15, at the IFC Center in New York

Thursday, January 07, 2010

From The Dispatch:
"Avatar" is a huge leap forward for filmmaking technology. And while it is impossible to talk about the film without constantly commenting on what an amazing technical achievement it is, it must be noted what a strong emotional connection Cameron is able to create with the Na'Vi and their plight. He wows us and sucks us in while simultaneously thrusting cinema into the next decade, changing not just how movies are made but the way we look at them. This is a watershed moment in film history, a true event movie that actually delivers on its promise to shock and awe.
Click here to read my full review.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

These are surprisingly mainstream - District 9? Star Trek? Could this be an indication of things to come at the Oscars? The producers usually go where the money is, but still those are interesting choices.

Producers: James Cameron, Jon Landau

Producers: Carolynne Cunningham, Peter Jackson

Producers: Finola Dwyer, Amanda Posey

Producer(s): Awaiting final credit determination.

Producer: Lawrence Bender

Producers: Clint Eastwood, Rob Lorenz, Lori McCreary , Mace Neufeld

Producers: Lee Daniels, Gary Magness, Sarah Siegel-Magness

Producers: J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof

Producer: Jonas Rivera

Producer(s): Awaiting final credit determination.

Source: Awards Daily
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

William Ernest Henley

Monday, January 04, 2010

I've already done my list of the most overrated films of 2009, so let's accentuate the positive and take a look at the films that I feel didn't get their fair shake last year.

UNMISTAKEN CHILDIt's the best documentary of the year, so why aren't more people talking about it? Beautiful, transcendent, and deeply moving, the fact that this isn't getting more buzz is one of the great travesties of 2009.

A TOWN CALLED PANICIt has been a great year for animated films, but this manic Belgian comedy is being criminally overlooked. It's one of the year's most original and most energetic films.

MARY & MAXAnother animated treasure not getting its fair shake. The worst part? It's one of the best films of the year period. It's witty, astute, and ultimately very powerful.

MAKE-OUT WITH VIOLENCEZombie movies are all the rage right now, so why didn't this sublime coming of age film/zombie romance even attract a distributor? Someone release this film in theaters now!

BANDSLAMOn the surface it appears to be yet another High School Musical wannabe, when in reality it is anything but. Bandslam disarmingly smart and entertaining tween flick that points kids to actual good music like David Bowie, Velvet Underground, and Patti Smith, while extolling the usual follow-your-dreams message.

CAPTAIN ABU RAEDThis wonderful Jordanian film by Amin Matalqa deserved a much larger audience than it recieved. It's a beautiful and moving film.

PLAY THE GAMEPlaying to mostly regional audiences, this geriatric romantic comedy starring Andy Griffith, Doris Roberts, and Liz Sheridan got ignored by most critics. It's a shame, because it should have been the crowd-pleasing sleeper hit of the year.
Weak years tend to bring out overpraise in those desperately in want of a great film. That's not to say 2009 was a weak year, quite the opposite, but when it comes to mainstream Oscar-bait, 2009 was downright lousy. Hence, a lot of mediocre films started getting inexplicably large amounts of praise.

Now a lot of people I like and respect really love some of these films, so as always take my opinion with a grain of salt. Keep in mind that not all of these are bad films (although some are), but I just think they're consistently seen as being better than I thought they were. Here are the films of 2009 that I feel are overrated.

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDSHow did this exercise in Tarantinian cinematic masturbation end up as one of the five frontrunners for Best Picture? There are moments of Tarantino's genius on display here (the opening sequence is one of the finest of the year), but by the end it get buried in subplots and Tarantino's self-indulgence.

AN EDUCATIONIn any other year, Lone Scherfig's nice little coming of age drama would have disappeared without a trace. It's well produced, perfectly respectable, and features some fine performances, but we've been down this road before.

THE BEACHES OF AGNESWhy is renowned French New Wave director Agnes Varda talking to an animated cat? Your guess is as good as mine. I think general goodwill for the adorably elfin director led to the effusive praise heaped on it by critics. If anyone else had made this...god help them. I keep meaning to revisit it to see what I missed, if anything. Maybe someday I'll see what everyone else sees.

A PROPHETIt pains me to say that this will probably beat Michael Haneke's brilliant The White Ribbon for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars, but it seems a likely scenario at this point. That being said, it's probably the best film on this list, but I never felt its pseudo-supernatural "prophet" angle really came together or made any thematic sense. It's a solid film, but all the praise its getting just seems like overkill.

OF TIME AND THE CITYArtistic tone poem cinematic memoir, or painfully pretentious bore? I'm going with the latter.

THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCEAnother Soderbergh diddle that seems like a sidetracked artistic exercise in style over substance.

WATCHMENOutside of that opening montage, this thing is a complete atrocity. Seriously.

PARANORMAL ACTIVITYHype, hype, hype, all for this? Yes the nighttime haunting scenes are effective, but the rest of the movie is strictly amateur hour.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Now here's an interesting little piece of news, and a fitting first post of 2010. Disney has announced that Francis Ford Coppola's 17 minute long, 3-D Michael Jackson adventure, Captain EO, will be returning to Disneyland for a limited engagement in February.

The attraction will replace Honey I Shrunk the Audience in Tomorrowland. No word yet on how long it will run, or whether or not it will open at Disney World in Florida, where it ran from 1986 - 1997.

I remember seeing Captain EO at some point during its 11 year run. I don't remember when or how old I was, but I remember being wowed by it. I would like to see it again for nostalgia's sake, and to experience one of the great lost pieces of Michael Jackson's oeuvre.

For those who missed it, this is a great chance to catch up with a rare piece of film and music history.