January 30, 2008

REVIEW: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (A)

Background: The "New Wave" of Romanian cinema was officially embraced last May when Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. I haven't seen either 12:08 to Bucharest or The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, so my first foray is Mungiu's horrific feature on abortion in the darkest days of Communist Romania. A fixture on loads of critics' Top Ten of 2007 lists, the film stars Anamaria Marinca (Youth Without Youth), Laura Vasiliu, and Vlad Ivanov. Filmed primarily in Bucharest, 4 Months is based on a true story told to Mungiu and has most recently been buzzed about for having been snubbed for the short list for this year's Oscars.

Synopsis: In Communist Romania circa 1987, Gabita (Vasiliu) and Otilia (Marinca) are university roommates and best friends. Gabita is accidentally pregnant, but abortion is outlawed under Nicolae Ceausescu's regime. In an environment of ID cards and harsh criminal sentencing, such a procedure is hardly easy to get away with. Nevertheless, Otilia agrees to help Gabita seek an illegal abortion from a black market "professional" named Bebe (Vlad Ivanov). Having borrowed money to pay for the steep expenses, Otilia reserves a hotel room in Bucharest for the weekend and escorts Bebe through the hotel to the room where Gabita is nervously waiting. The procedure is simple; the terms are not. At this point we're witness to some extremely unsettling situations, to say the least. His work done, Bebe leaves, but so does Otilia, who has promised her boyfriend she will visit for his mother's birthday. While at their flat, neither we nor Otilia knows what's happening with Gabita, who is locked in the hotel room and won't answer the phone. Panicked, Otilia returns to the hotel to check in on Gabita. Cue second nightmarish scene. Otilia has one last task, and it requires her to navigate the dark streets of Bucharest. Remind me never, ever to walk those terrifying streets.

I Loved:
+ The amazing, absorbing long takes - they were incredibly natural.
+ The lack of a soundtrack.
+ The simplicity of the story - this is where other directors would misstep and try to add characters or plot lines that are totally unnecessary.

I Liked:
+ The excellent acting by Anamaria Marinca and Vlad Ivanov.

I Disliked:
- The shakiness of the camera work when Otilia is running through the streets. Effective in making me even more frightened, but nevertheless unenjoyable.
- Laura Vasiliu, only when her character was whiny and lying.

I Hated:
- Squirming through two of the most uncomfortable scenes of the last few years.

Writing - 10
Acting - 9
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 10
Music - 5
Significance - 5

Total: 48/50= 96% = A

Last Word:"Unflinching" is the best word I can use to described 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, one of the most disturbing movies in recent memory - and one of the best of 2007. I can only recommend it, however, with the disclaimer that it belongs in the small (but growing) group of recent films with scenes that sear your memory - and not in a good way. The Passion of the Christ, Cache, and Eastern Promises come to mind as well. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is not pro-choice or pro-life, it's just there - raw, real, and right in your face. We intimately experience the horrific measures that women go through when seeking illegal abortions, and we intimately witness the horrors of abortion itself. I haven't seen any of Cristian Mungiu's other movies, but I was very, very impressed with this. It's been a few days and I still don't know if I can call it "good" or say that I "liked" it - that would send a strange message. It's masterfully done and has given me some new insights about stirring subjects - certainly abortion, but also communism, friendship, and Romanian culture. And new insights, I should emphasize, are why I go to the movies in the first place.

January 29, 2008

The Rest of the Best (and Worst) of 2007

I have as much fun as everybody else in listing the best movies and etc. of the year, but I really enjoy using my own categories. Here goes:

Wait, first of all - here are the Best Documentaries of 2007:

1. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters - Let's just say I didn't think there would be any point in spending time watching this, but somehow I ended up catching it with Matt right before it disappeared. Fortunately for me, it turned out to be the best documentary of the year. I only wish more people could have seen it, as I can't think of anybody I know who wouldn't find Steve Wiebe's story absolutely hilarious and truly touching. See it now.

2. My Kid Could Paint That - Caught an advance screening of this with director Amir Bar-Lev present for Q & A afterwards. Like in the film, he basically refused to come down on either side of the fascinating debate about the legitimacy of Marla's painting. Great hands-off documentation of a pretty interesting story.

3. Manufactured Landscapes - Where do barges go to die? Edward Burtynsky's photographs of industrial influence on the landscapes of China are shocking and a bit hard to fully comprehend. This is not about global warming or environmentalism; it's simply a record of how humans change the physical makeup of the world. Cellphone mountains, concrete valleys, millions of Chinese factory workers. It takes some patience to sit and watch pictures for an hour and a half, but you're not likely to forget what you see.

4. In The Shadow of the Moon - It's been almost 40 years since "one small step" was taken for mankind - this is the fascinating story of the astronauts' experience. If you're Earth-minded you might be bored, but if you're space-curious like me, you'll love it. The only thing missing is the reclusive Neil Armstrong, but the film is good enough without him, and I think it will live on as an extremely important piece of American history.

5. War Dance - I'd like to think otherwise, but I think there are generally two kinds of people in the world. Those who care about the future of Africa, and those who simply don't. If you're in the first group, see this and be inspired. If you're in the second group, get your mind right.

Honorable Mention:
No End in Sight - Excellent, but doesn't necessarily set itself apart from other Iraq docs. Will win Oscar.
Manda Bala - A unique, stylish look at crime and corruption in Brazil. A little scattered, but worthwhile.
God Grew Tired of Us - Another in the list of Lost Boys of Sudan documentaries, but a touching one. Nice supplement to "What is the What," one of the best books I read last year.
The Devil Came on Horseback - Disturbing in its own right, this documentary about Brian Steidle's experience in Darfur is all the more sickening because the genocide is still happening. Without really trying, I've been to a Q & A with director Annie Sundberg, attended a few screenings and discussions, and met Brian and his sister Gretchen. Somehow, though, this slipped through the cracks and was pretty much ignored after it played at Sundance last year. Has anybody seen it? Sigh.

OK, here are some other lists:

Most Overlooked Performances of 2007:
+ Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford - Just can't say enough.
+ Adam Goldberg, 2 Days in Paris - What a hilarious performance.
+ Glen Hansard, Once - Look, the guy's not even an actor, but he owned those awkward flirting scenes.
+ Benicio Del Toro, Things We Lost in the Fire - Only a handful of actors can pull off playing a heroin addict: learn how to here.
+ Halle Berry, Things We Lost in the Fire - Halle Berry is usually emotionally unstable, but always good.
+ Reece Daniel Thompson, Rocket Science - Quirky, stuttering, and on his way to bigger and better roles.
+ Mathieu Almaric, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - I don't understand why this performance wasn't more celebrated. Sure it was Oscar bait, but it was still amazing.
+ Marisa Tomei, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead - I don't even remember the last movie she was in, but this is as good a way as any to restart your career. The nudity was pretty gratuitous, but I suppose she didn't want people to forget her role.
+ Christian Bale and Steve Zahn, Rescue Dawn - Stunning performances (especially Zahn) in a totally ignored film. Why?
+ Josh Brolin, No Country for Old Men - Lots of attention to Bardem and Jones, but Brolin carried this from beginning to (almost) end.
+ Anamaria Marinca, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days - An amazing, heartbreaking performance.
+ Eva Mendes, We Own the Night -
With limited screen time, basically out-acted Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg and Robert Duvall.
+ Don Cheadle, Talk to Me - I thought for sure we would have been hearing about this movie by year's end - it's almost like it never even happened.
+ Ryan Gosling and Emily Mortimer, Lars and the Real Girl - If it wasn't for them, there would be no way to take the movie seriously.
+ Charlotte Gainsbourg, I'm Not There - Apparently you only got recognized in this movie if you played Bob Dylan. Too bad for her excellent performance opposite the late, great Heath Ledger.
+ Jeff Daniels and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, The Lookout - An old favorite and a rising star got lost in the shuffle this year. Daniels is simply brilliant, especially in the kitchen confrontation scene.
+ Ben Foster, 3:10 to Yuma - Utterly intolerable = excellent acting.
+ Paul Schneider, Jesse James AND Lars and the Real Girl - No love for this guy in two hugely important supporting roles?
+ John Carroll Lynch, Zodiac - Probably second to Bardem in No Country as the creepiest character of the year.
+ Khalid Abdalla, The Kite Runner - It's to be expected that the criticism of the movie would overshadow all of its elements, but Abdalla was perfect in this.
+ Jennifer Garner, Juno - Jennifer Garner's performance was the best thing about Juno, which either means she was superb (but she was only really good), or Juno wasn't that good.
+ Forest Whitaker, The Great Debaters - He can do no wrong.
+ Kal Penn, The Namesake - Unfortunately he'll continue to be known as Harold or Kumar (I'm unfamiliar) until he starts taking real roles, which he proved more than capable of doing here.

Best Action/Stunts of 2007:
Matt Damon, chase and fight scene in Morocco in The Bourne Ultimatum
Bruce Willis, pretty much anything in Live Free or Die Hard
Will Smith, falling from wire trap into puddle in I Am Legend

Funniest Scenes of 2007:
Adam Goldberg on subway in 2 Days in Paris
Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, all car scenes in Hot Fuzz - "Do you want anything from the shop?"
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney outside "Greenhill Manor" in The Savages
All interviews in The King of Kong - "No matter what I say, it draws controversy. It's sort of like the abortion issue."
Will Ferrell's introduction in Blades of Glory
Tim Meadows' first bathroom/drug scene in Walk Hard - "No, Dewey, you don't want this. Get outta here!"
Jerry Seinfeld's subtle monologues in Bee Movie
Josh Kay and Reece Thompson in the bedroom spying scene in Rocket Science
Justin Long and Bruce Willis break into a BMW in Live Free or Die Hard - "How'd you do yours?"
Seth Rogen throwing dice in Knocked Up - "Dude, I think he's doing the dice thing too much."

Worst Movie Titles of 2007:
I Am Legend
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
There Will Be Blood

We Own the Night

Lars and the Real Girl
Music and Lyrics
Dan in Real Life
Aqua Teen Hunger Force Movie Film for Theaters
P.S. I Love You
Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married

In the Valley of Elah

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry

The Brave One
Balls of Fury

Most Annoying Characters of 2007:
Juno MacGuff, Juno
Margot, Margot at the Wedding
Larry, The Savages
Entire cast, Southland Tales
Robert Ford, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Joanne Herring, Charlie Wilson's War
Mitch Wilkinson, National Treasure: Book of Secrets
Grendel, Beowulf
Stephen Malley, Lions for Lambs
Helen McCready, Gone Baby Gone
Charlie Prince, 3:10 to Yuma
Judge Turpin, Sweeney Todd
Eugene "Gene" McBroom, Rescue Dawn
Billy Mitchell, The King of Kong

It's True, I Missed:
Away from Her

Paris, je t'aime

La Vie en Rose

Grindhouse/Death Proof

And finally, The Worst Movies of 2007 (I was burned on these - I only go if I think it might be good):

Southland Tales
The Kingdom
Love in the Time of Cholera
Youth Without Youth
Margot at the Wedding
Spider-Man 3
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

And the unchallenged WORST Movie of 2007: The Invasion

Alright then, it's officially time for 2008 - after the Academy Awards...

January 27, 2008

2008 Sundance & SAG Awards Wrap-Up


Awards were passed around at Sundance last night as follows:

Grand Jury Prize, Documentary Feature: Trouble the Water
Grand Jury Prize, Dramatic Feature: Frozen River
World Cinema Jury Prize, Documentary: Man on Wire
World Cinema Jury Prize, Dramatic: King of Ping Pong
Audience Award, Documentary: Fields of Fuel
Audience Award, Dramatic: The Wackness
Directing Award, Documentary: American Teen
Directing Award, Dramatic: Ballast

Nice. Both of the American dramatic features were on my earlier Sundance list. Also, I got to see U2 3D earlier today - definitely worth checking out if you're any level of U2 fan.

So, I'm looking forward to seeing what's picked up and distributed throughout the year. And evidently no overt Little Miss Sunshine/Juno silliness this year. Looks like we might be back on the Half Nelson/Hustle & Flow track.


The Screen Actors Guild Awards were held earlier tonight. Not as much fun predicting these, since it's only the actors choosing each other and is therefore a lot more predictable. For the same reason, a SAG award (especially an individual one) is generally regarded as a pretty special trophy. Here's who's heads got a little bigger tonight:

Outstanding Performance by Actor in Leading Role: Daniel-Day Lewis, There Will Be Blood
Outstanding Performance by Actress in Leading Role: Julie Christie, Away from Her
Outstanding Performance by Actor in Supporting Role: Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men
Outstanding Performance by Actress in Supporting Role: Ruby Dee, American Gangster
Outstanding Performance by Ensemble Cast: No Country for Old Men
Outstanding Performance by Stunt Ensemble (there's shamefully no Oscar for Stunts): The Bourne Ultimatum

Along with the Director's Guild of America awarding the Coen brothers this weekend, it looks like No Country for Old Men is poised for a busy Oscar night. Fine by me.

January 25, 2008

Underrated MOTM: Lean on Me (1989)

The Underrated Movie of the Month for January is an oldie but a goodie. Originally I thought of High School High, the actually funny parody of all of the movies like Lean on Me. Then I ran across Lean on Me on TV a few weeks ago and decided that IT was actually the gem.

Released in the spring of 1989, Lean on Me featured Morgan Freeman fresh off an Oscar nomination, Robert Guillaume, and Lynne Thigpen - best known as The Chief from "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" (Did you know she died suddenly in 2003? Tragic.). Rounding out the cast were a bunch of unknown actors and actual students from Eastside High, where the story is based. Karen Malina White had a nice turn as Kaneesha Carter, and everybody's favorite character, "Sams," was played by Jermaine "Huggy" Hopkins, who based on his IMDb credit list went on to act in predominantly African-American movies (Juice, Phat Beach, How to Be a Player) before disappearing in 2002. Actually somebody was trying to contact him through IMDb recently- kind of funny.

The plot of Lean on Me was neither original or complicated, but it was a true story like its parent Stand and Deliver and its child Dangerous Minds. Hard-nosed principal Joe Clark (Freeman) brandishes a baseball bat and the personality of a grizzly bear to whip the underachieving students and faculty into shape at Eastside High School in Paterson, NJ. He alienates everybody from the superintendent to the mayor before the students dramatically change and the school pulls a sharp 180. By the end, the students have joined forces to march on the city jail, where Clark is being held on some bogus charge. And along the way we get to enjoy dialogue like this:

Leonna Barrett: The school board's going to hear this at 7:00, and we are going to vote your black ass out!
Thomas Sams: Yo, witch! Vote on THIS!
[gestures angrily]
Joe Clark: That won't help me, Sams.

Here's why I like the movie, aside from memorable performances and a tear-jerking story: It didn't shy away from nastiness. The first 10 minutes are like a nightmare! "Welcome to the Jungle" plays over a montage of drug dealing, fights, and a teacher stretchered out of the cafeteria after having his head repeatedly smashed into the floor during a busy lunch hour. The perfect tone is set. We're scared of the drug dealers, the criminals, and the future of the school. We can't stand Joe Clark, but we all know he's right in what he's doing. I don't know if it was a true representation of Joe Clark (who helped in production and who resigned from Eastside High the year after Lean on Me was released to become a motivational speaker), but I don't really care either. It stands the test of time as an example of urban American schools in the crack-addled late 80's.

Lastly, I've come to realize that the film was directed by John G. Avildsen, who won the Oscar for Best Director for Rocky and also directed all three Karate Kid movies (and Rocky V - but don't remind him). That's all fine, but what's most pleasing is that Avildsen also directed my favorite movie of all time, The Power of One.

REVIEW: Meet the Spartans


January 24, 2008

The Top 10 Films of 2007

No real science to this (especially #'s 2-10), just what I've been feeling lately as the year ends.

1. No Country for Old Men - All things considered, I don't think any other film was made as well as this all year. It probably helps that my experience was heightened dramatically by not having read the book or seen the trailer.

2. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford - Casey Affleck.

3. Into the Wild - Incredible performances across the board round out a stunningly successful adaptation of the book.

4. Once - A genre-less masterpiece. I missed it at the MSP Int'l Film Festival in April but fortunately caught it at the Uptown in early June. Little did I know it was going to be around for months.

5. Zodiac - True stories are never told that well, but it was March. I thought, "nah, that couldn't have been as good as it seemed. Anything that good should be coming out in December." Who missed the mark on this release date?

6. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - True stories are never told that well (or that artistically), unless you're talking about Zodiac, Into the Wild, or Jesse James. Dude wrote a book with his eyelid. His eyelid. Does that compute?

7. The Kite Runner - The best story brought to life on screen all year. I didn't read the book, so save your breath.

8. The Namesake - This coming-of-identity tale was right up my alley. Probably takes the immigrant experience to really appreciate this one.

9. I'm Not There - It took me a while to realize how much this stuck with me. Quite the artistic feat.

10. There Will Be Blood - It didn't blow me away, but it was a top-notch production and deserves the technical accolades.

If I knew how to count past 10:

Charlie Wilson's War - Amusing.
Hot Fuzz - Biting.
The Lookout - Satisfying.
3:10 to Yuma - Scolding.
The Host - Exhilarating.
Across the Universe - Sparkling.
Rescue Dawn - Inspiring.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days - Unsettling. (Would be in my top 10 but I saw it right after this original post)
The Savages - Depressing.
Vanaja - Enriching.
Knocked Up - Mocking.
I Am Legend - Amazing.
Talk to Me - Uplifting.
Lars and the Real Girl - Pleasing.
2 Days in Paris - Entertaining.
Bamako - Challenging.

Overall, 2007 was probably the best year in film so far this millennium. I'm satisfied, despite the usual Oscar frustration.

January 22, 2008

2008 Oscar Noms Announced: There Will Be Injustice

Sorry, but the TWBB reference comes too easily.

After watching Kathy Bates (?!) announce the nominees this morning I had to take a deep breath and remind myself that great movies (if the link works, find your 2007 favorites on the full list) will continue to be made, regardless of how often they continue to be ignored by AMPAS. The Academy members have their own connections to maintain, mind you, like any business. You have to make sure the "right" people win so you can maintain your professional connections. If the public had their say, movies like Cloverfield would win Best Picture, and we don't want that either.

In any case, here are my thoughts on the six nominees I got wrong from my predictions:

Best Actor:
- Tommy Lee Jones: Well, this was kind of out of nowhere. He got a lot of attention when Elah came out, but I thought that had all died down. Oh well, he had a good year and deserves it. Emile Hirsch still got robbed.

Best Actress:
- Laura Linney: Fine. This was unexpected but a fine choice.
- Cate Blanchett: Fine. This was somewhat expected, but a fine choice, even though I didn't see it. Can you tell I'm excited about the Best Actress race?

Best Supporting Actress:
- Ruby Dee: Not a shock, as a lot of bloggers heard the buzz on this one. My thinking that was if American Gangster was going to get one nomination, it would get six, and I didn't think that was happening. She was great though, sure, give it to her.

Best Director:
- Tony Gilroy: Look, people love George Clooney, and anybody who works with him. A disastrous pick, but not a surprising one.
- Jason Reitman: ARE YOU KIDDING ME!? The Juno lovefest has officially gone way too far. What an insane reality this is.

Other surprises:
+ Surf's Up for Best Animated Film. Wow.
+ Enchanted gets 3 Original Song nominations!? Tragic.
+ Sarah Polley for Best Adapted Screenplay over Into the Wild and Charlie Wilson's War.

I'm thrilled that:
+ Angelina Jolie was not nominated for A Mighty Heart.
+ Julia Roberts was not nominated for Charlie Wilson's War.
+War Dance was nominated for Best Doc, though it has no chance against No End in Sight.

I'm disgusted that:
+ Jason Reitman is an Academy Award-nominated director.
+ I'm not a member of the Academy.

The final conclusion is that I love the Academy Awards, not because they celebrate the best films, but because it's fun to predict which of the best films they will ignore. That's it. That's why we do this.

January 21, 2008

2008 Oscar Nomination Predictions

It's almost that time - tomorrow at 5:30 AM PST we'll know who is on the way to Oscar glory. We'll be obsessed with them for a month while everything else from last year is forgotten forever. As this is the first year I'm not sending out an inbox-busting email, I have room to predict in every category. But I won't, because I don't have time to write it and you don't have interest to read it.

These predictions are not what I'm hoping will be nominated. I'll be listing my Best of 2007 later this week. I will, however, use an asterisk (*) again to denote whether a nomination is deserved, and a (?) if I haven't seen the film.

Best Picture:
There Will Be Blood*
No Country for Old Men*
Michael Clayton
Threatening: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly*, Into the Wild*, Charlie Wilson's War
Out of Nowhere Possibility: Sweeney Todd, Zodiac

Best Actor:
Daniel Day-Lewis* - There Will Be Blood
George Clooney - Michael Clayton
Viggo Mortenson - Eastern Promises
Johnny Depp - Sweeney Todd
Tom Hanks - Charlie Wilson's War

Threatening: Denzel Washington, American Gangster; James McAvoy, Atonement
Out of Nowhere Possibility: Frank Langella(?), Starting Out in the Evening; Emile Hirsch*, Into the Wild

Best Actress:
Ellen Page - Juno
Julie Christie (?) - Away From Her

Morion Cotillard (?) - La vie En Rose
Angelina Jolie - A Mighty Heart
Keira Knightley - Atonement

Threatening: Jodie Foster (?), The Brave One; Cate Blanchett (?), Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Out of Nowhere Possibility: Laura Linney*, The Savages

Best Supporting Actor:
Hal Holbrook* - Into the Wild
Philip Seymour Hoffman - Charlie Wilson's War
Javier Bardem* - No Country for Old Men
Casey Affleck* - The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Tom Wilkinson - Michael Clayton

Threatening: Paul Dano*, There Will Be Blood; Tommy Lee Jones, No Country for Old Men
Out of Nowhere Possibility: Mark Ruffalo/Robert Downey, Jr., Zodiac; Steve Zahn*, Rescue Dawn

Best Supporting Actress:
Catherine Keener* - Into the Wild
Cate Blanchett* - I'm Not There
Amy Ryan* - Gone Baby Gone
Tilda Swinton - Michael Clayton
Saoirse Ronan - Atonement

Threatening: Julia Roberts, Charlie Wilson's War; Vanessa Redgrave, Atonement
Out of Nowhere Possibility: Jennifer Garner*, Juno

Best Male Director (Shame!):
Paul Thomas Anderson* - There Will Be Blood
Julian Schnabel* - The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Joel and Ethan Coen* - No Country for Old Men
Tim Burton - Sweeney Todd
Sean Penn* - Into the Wild

Threatening: Mike Nichols, Charlie Wilson's War; Joe Wright, Atonement
Out of Nowhere Possibility: Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton; Sidney Lumet, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

That's it. We'll see what I get out of 30 - I predict 23 right, as this is a tougher year than most. I predict Charlie Wilson's War, Michael Clayton, and Juno will each get a surprisingly high number of nominations, while Into the Wild, No Country for Old Men, and Sweeney Todd will receive fewer than expected. There Will Be Blood will receive the most nominations.

The most sure prediction, as always, is that some of the best performances and films of the year will be totally overlooked, which I'll address soon...

UPDATE (Tuesday morning): OK, they were just announced. Mental math says I got 24/30. Eh. Analysis forthcoming...

January 20, 2008

REVIEW: Cloverfield (C)

Background: Though it was a successful online/social networking campaign for the mysterious Cloverfield (named after an L.A. freeway exit), the secret came out early enough that it's simply a monster movie. Directed by Matt Reeves (writer of TV's "Felicity" and Under Siege 2: Dark Territory) and written by Drew Goddard (TV's "Lost" & "Alias"), Cloverfield stars a diverse bunch of good-looking young people who you've never seen before. The gimmick is that the whole film is supposed to be confidential government footage recovered from a camcorder recovered at the area "formerly known as Central Park." Ooooh...

Synopsis: The movie has no music, starting from the beginning. Seriously, it's "government property," with a confidential stamp and all kinds of "official" A/V garble. Anyway, we meet Rob and Beth, hot best friends who have recently become a couple (they had a one night stand?). Rob, all of maybe 22 years old, is the Vice President (why?) of some unnamed company that is relocating him to Japan. Footage of Rob and Beth on their dreamy date is cut off by a live recording of Rob's going away party three weeks later, which is where the story starts. Beth shows up with "Travis," Rob is crushed, Beth storms off, blah blah blah. After watching what feels like about 20 minutes of MTV's "Real World," a rumble shakes through Manhattan, followed by explosions and, shortly, the head of the Statue of Liberty rolling through the streets. Our narrator and videographer is Rob's friend Hud, the kind of idiot sidekick that would be ridiculous (and strong) enough to hold a camera up in front of his face for 7 hours - all while dodging monsters, little monsters, bullets, mortar fire, collapsing buildings, and a helicopter crash. Anyway, we're with Hud, Rob, Rob's brother's girlfriend, and Rob's friend's friend, who Hud has a major crush on. While the ENTIRE population of Manhattan evacuates over the Brooklyn Bridge, our foursome heads to Midtown to heroically rescue Beth. Here and there tragedy strikes, and more than once we see the plodding monster stomp through the streets, impervious to all military weaponry. By the end, our lovers have reunited in Central Park, which is of course where the camcorder was recovered...ooooh...

I Loved:
+ Some of the visual effects - buildings leaning against each other, explosion from the rooftop, monster shots.

I Liked:
+ That some significant plot pieces were unresolved (where did the monster come from, what happened afterwards, etc.).
+ The ending, in a way. A little cheesy, but ultimately satisfying.

I Disliked:
- The predictability of the Brooklyn Bridge and post-monster-bite scenes.
- When the video would obnoxiously cut back to Beth and Rob's happy date.

I Hated:
- The cringe-inducing acting. Really bad. Really. Bad.
- Not being able to suspend my disbelief about some things (the little monsters would have hunted them through the city, no?), while totally accepting other things (a monster existing).
- Hud's unceasing sense of humor.

Writing - 7
Acting - 5
Production - 10
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Significance - 3

Total: 38/50= 76% = C

Last Word: Cloverfield is a movie with an identity crisis - bad enough to doom it, but unbearable when combined with terrible acting. It's easy enough to say it's Blair Witch meets Godzilla meets Jurassic Park meets 9/11 meets King Kong meets Alien. But that's not what I mean. What I mean is Cloverfield doesn't know what it wants to be. You can't have have some realistic elements (panic in Manhattan, accurate geography, real time, human weakness) and some ridiculous elements (ability to hold a working camera that long, nobody in the subway stations, functioning electricity, no cars on the subway line, etc.). Either go way over the top and make it funny, or take a subtle, scary approach (don't even show the monster, for starters). I'll give Cloverfield credit for at least trying a new style, but all it really showed was that that style doesn't work without a better story. This is where I desperately suggest seeing The Host, which has all of the elements of Cloverfield yet somehow manages a balance between comedy, fright, amazing visuals and characters you can care about. This is also where I'll mention J.J. Abrams - as only a producer, this is where his mention belongs. Had he written and/or directed, it might have been a better movie...

January 19, 2008

REVIEW: Persepolis (B+)

Background: Marjane Satrapi's highly anticipated, animated adaptation of her autobiographical graphic novel has arrived with Persepolis. I haven't read her book, but I have seen some op-ed comics she has written for the NYT, and her drawings have a very unique look to them. Voiced by important French film stars that I've never heard of, Persepolis was a winner of a Jury Prize at Cannes, and France's submission to the 2008 Oscars. Stunningly, it didn't even make the short list.

Synopsis: In colored animation, we meet Marjane as an adult (presumably in present day), where she is at an airport remembering days gone by in pre-and post-revolutionary Iran. These flashbacks, in black and white animation, make up almost the entire film. We see her as a precocious, curious little girl who doesn't fully understand the magnitude of the events surrounding her (including her parents' participation in the revolution); a rebellious teen who develops a love for Iron Maiden; and a fiery young woman who suffers heartbreak and identity episodes as she attends school in Vienna and Tehran, where she returns in the early 90's.

I Loved:
+ The animation. It was almost as if I'd never seen anything like it before, so familiar have I become with Pixar-style productions.

I Liked:
+ The emotional range of the story - it had a good balance of comedy, drama, tragedy, etc., without getting too bogged down.

I Disliked:
- The feeling that I didn't really get to know who Marjane is. It was ironically almost not personal enough. Maybe I needed some more present day context to see who she has become since then.

I Hated:
- The giggling gaggle of girls surrounding us in the theater and acting as if they were watching Saturday morning cartoons. And the smoochy kissy couple in front of us. Sigh.

Writing - 8
Acting - N/A
Production - 10
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 4
Significance - 5

Total: 35/40= 88% = B+

Last Word: When talking about Persepolis, the discussion will either focus on the politics or the animation. I don't know enough about the first to judge the film's motives or its historical accuracy, but I can say with some authority that the animation is revolutionary in its own right. The absence of color is not just an artistic touch, but the symbolic lens through which Marjane remembers her life in Tehran - black, white, and lots of gray. The two-dimensional style of the animation is nostalgic, simple, and lovely to watch. I don't think Persepolis would have been nearly as good in live action, or even in color. Production aside, Marjane's story is really interesting, though not enough to keep me from wondering about what else was happening in Iran. Her romantic escapades don't add much to the story, though fortunately they're blown through pretty quickly. But I guess a lot of her life was, and maybe that's the problem. Tell someone's life story in 95 minutes and that's bound to happen.
I never really got hooked into her character, but that may have been a result of the yahoos around me in the theater. Nevertheless, I did get a unique glimpse into Tehran during the revolution and fall of the Shah, and that's enough to recommend seeing Persepolis.

REVIEW: Cassandra's Dream (C+)

Background: It appears as if writer/director Woody Allen (Annie Hall) at some point became bored with quirky comedies. His third London-based film in a row, Cassandra's Dream, is another crime thriller in the vein and style of 2005's Match Point. This version stars Scotsman Ewan McGregor (Moulin Rouge!, Big Fish), Irishman Colin Farrell (Miami Vice, The New World), and Englishman Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton). If it's not obvious while you're watching, the original score is done by violinophile Philip Glass (Notes on a Scandal).

Synopsis: Ian (McGregor) and Terry (Farrell) Blaine are brothers in working-class London. Ian is hoping a risky hotel investment will allow him to leave his work in their father's restaurant; Terry is a jittery auto mechanic with a drinking and gambling problem. Though neither brother has any money, they for some reason decide to buy a boat - perhaps just to underscore their poor decision making. The brothers decide to ask their rich uncle Howard (Wilkinson) for financial help, who in turn asks them to kill a former associate who has incriminating information about Howard's business dealings. The hit is in trouble from the start as the brothers fumble through plans and motives before finally deciding to do the job. Afterwards, Terry is wracked with guilt to the point where he is considering turning himself in. Howard and Ian, of course, decide their only option is to kill Terry before he brings them down. Oh, and Ian also has a steamy relationship with an actress that is totally wasted and adds nothing to the story.

I Loved:
+ Colin Farrell, for the first time. It makes you wonder why he considers roles like Phone Booth and Miami Vice. Stick with an accent and role that you can actually do well.

I Liked:
+ The uncomfortable walking/running/hunting scene through the streets of London.

I Disliked:
- Ewan McGregor. It wasn't so much a bad performance, just a limiting role. He couldn't really show any depth.
- The awkward turning-point scene in the rain, which changed gears way too quickly.

I Hated:
- The last 20 minutes or so. Colin Farrell is depressed, blah blah blah, predictable and totally unsatisfying ending.

Writing - 7
Acting - 9
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 7
Music - 5
Significance - 3

Total: 39/50= 78% = C+

Last Word: I really liked Match Point, though I have seen it just the one time in the theater. Clearly, my hopes for another gripping thriller were dashed with Cassandra's Dream. I think the main problem is that the story seems like it was written by an amateur, not a multiple Oscar winner and nominee. The characters are shallow and kind of boring, and the most suspenseful parts are on par with network TV shows, in that they're not very suspenseful. Colin Farrell's best performance to date is wasted here, and Ewan McGregor is handcuffed inside a jerk of a character. It certainly doesn't help Allen that last year's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead tells a similar story in a much better movie. It seems Allen, who writes great character dialogue, just got lucky with Match Point. So much the better, I guess - he has his own niche, so why try to do something else? I'll expect he's back in form with his next film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, starring - surprise, surprise, Scarlett Johansson.

January 17, 2008

Sundance 2008

The 2008 Sundance Film Festival kicks off today in Park City, UT. Noticeably absent this year is me. Like every year. Actually I think it would be a bit of an overload, so I'll just wait and see what filters out into wide release throughout the year.

After a very quick glimpse at the lineup in the Dramatic competition (only American made, not including documentaries), here are the ones that sound interesting to me.
There's no way I'll ever see all of these, since there's no way all of them will get picked up for distribution, but if I were attending I would probably mark them in my program:

American Son
Assassination of a High School President
Be Kind Rewind (already is on the way)
Birds of America
Blind Date
Diminished Capacity
Frozen River
Great Buck Howard
In Bruges (already on the way)
Last Word
Momma's Man
Mysteries of Pittsburgh
North Starr
Quid Pro Quo
Pretty Bird
Sleep Dealer
What Just Happened?

Who knows? One of them could get picked up and carried all the way to the Oscars in 2009, which seems to be a trend these days since studios are churning out "independent" releases in record numbers.

January 16, 2008

Good Times in 2007

At the end of every "movie year" (March-Feb), there are always a few that you remember and think, "Actually, that was a pretty good time at the movies." There are also some where you think, "Wow, that was a waste of time," but we won't go there now.

These are the movies that I'm glad I saw in the theater in 2007. They're NOT by any means the best of the year; they're just the ones that I have the fondest memories of going to.

The Host - Part horror flick, part monster B movie, part sci-fi, part heroic fantasy, part slapstick comedy, part family drama - and all fantastic. Sign me up for more of these, please.

Across the Universe - About as close as you can get to going to a Beatles concert, and that ain't happening anytime soon. The great moments in this more than made up for the bad ones, and it was fun to see how many songs you knew. Didn't hurt that it was a visual delight, either.

I'm Not There
- Another musical feature, with just enough head-scratching weirdness to keep you on your toes. Phenomenal soundtrack and some really great scenes - I'd love to see "Pressing On" again.

Live Free or Die Hard - Awesome, and really funny.

Hot Fuzz - Despite some nasty deaths, it had two of the best characters and some of the best lines ("Have you ever fired two guns whilst jumping through the air?") of the year. Great fun on a summer evening.

I Am Legend - Tell me you were yawning with boredom when Sam went missing in the dark warehouse. Scariest scene of the year - after any scene with Anton Chigurh (scariest character of the year) from No Country for Old Men.

Bee Movie &
Ratatouille - Nothing like seeing dazzling animation on the big screen. Why would you even bother on regular old TV?

Blades of Glory - Went into this expecting an over-the-top, wacky showdown between Will Ferrell and anybody who dared face him. Turned out to be a really funny, over-the-top, wacky showdown between Will Ferrell and several people who dared face him. Probably not as funny the second time around, but oh well.

National Treasure: Book of Secrets
- As much fun as the first National Treasure, except I got to enjoy this one in the theater.

2 Days in Paris - Shocker of the year: a romantic comedy that was actually funny - sometimes hilarious, thanks to Adam Goldberg.

Stardust - It was either this or Rush Hour 3 (we were in St. Cloud, in August). I almost had as much fun as it looked like Robert de Niro was having in this fantastical adventure.

There you have it. There were other great outings to the theater, of course, but going to No End in Sight or There Will Be Blood is more of an academic affair than a "fun time."

January 15, 2008

Oscar Stunner - Foreign Film Short List Announced

I don't mean to turn this into an Oscar blog, but there's not much else to talk about right now as the movie season winds down. If you're hoping for reviews of Mad Money or The Eye, I'm afraid you'll be disappointed in the next few months.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) announced the nine finalists for Best Foreign Language Film today, and two popular favorites were snubbed. Both 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Day and Persepolis have been excluded from the race, to the shock of pretty much everybody who would care about such a thing. Neither film has yet to arrive in Minneapolis, but there's been buzz building online since last spring about both of them. More importantly, I haven't seen any of the nine films, which barring a miracle will be the first time in years that that's been the case.

Combine today's news with bizarre wins at the Golden Globes and a going-nowhere WGA strike, and you have what's shaping up to be the most turbulent Oscar campaign in recent memory...

January 13, 2008

Golden Globes - What Did I Miss?

I had a dinner date and missed the "news conference," but I've taken a look at the list of winners. As I mentioned earlier I'm not a huge Golden Globes fan, partly because I haven't watched a TV show in 10 years, partly because I don't like the split-genre (Musical/Comedy or Drama) categorization, and partly because the Golden Globes aren't the Oscars.

Was it boring? Who made the announcements? Was it a robot or something cool? I don't know why that would be cool, but it would be more interesting than the head of the HFPA, whoever he or she is.

So Atonement wins, not surprising since it led with the most nominations. Atonement is nowhere near the best film of the year, but I'm not sweating it - the winner of the Best Picture (Drama) hasn't been the same as the Oscar winner for 4 years, and the winner of the Best Picture (Musical/Comedy) almost never wins Oscar.

Two things I'm happy about:
1. Cate Blanchett winning for I'm Not There - she was amazing.
2. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly getting some love for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Director.

Two things I'm not too happy about (besides Atonement winning):
1. Casey Affleck not winning for what's definitely one of the top 3 performances of the year in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
2. Ernest Borgnine not winning for Best Actor in a TV Miniseries or Movie. His performance in "A Grandpa for Christmas" was amazing, right?! Uh, just kidding. That's why I don't watch the GG's.

UPDATE: OK, I just saw the rebroadcast on CNN, which had Larry King field a team of annoying people like AJ somebody and Melissa Rivers. That was awful. And my robot prediction from above was eerily close to the actual presenters.

What would have been great, I think, is if Russell Crowe would have come out in his costume from Gladiator and repeatedly yelled, "ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED!?" with a crowd of striking writers cheering and jeering behind him. In fact, that should have been the writers' battle cry for the last two months. Who's their leader?!

January 12, 2008

Oscars 2008 - And We're Off...

I'm getting a little worried about the hostage situation between the Writers Guild of America and the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences. Each day there's a better chance the show won't go on, which somebody accurately compared to an NFL season without the Super Bowl.

Anyway, I finally had time to flip through the NYT's Oscar section from last Sunday, and found three AWESOME articles. I learned about how There Will Be Blood was made, why the use of sound was so amazing in No Country for Old Men, and how the Academy decides on Best Editing. If you have 20 minutes check these out:

If You Need a Past, He’s the Guy to Build It"

"Exploiting Sound, Exploring Silence"

"Which Editing Is a Cut Above?"

Ten days before the nominees are announced...

January 9, 2008

2007 in Music: The Soundtrack That Wasn't

I'm going to break my own rule here and bring an outside interest into the realm of movies.

When you're listening to music, do you ever imagine how it would perfectly frame a specific scene from a specific movie, even one that only exists in your mind? Sometimes I do. Here are the new songs from 2007 that made me think, "This would have been great in (movie) or a scene where (something) is happening." In other words, here are the best songs (and albums) of 2007.

Song: "Drivin' Me Wild" by Common feat. Lily Allen from Finding Forever
Scene: Opening Credits - Boom! Cue track for studio & production company logo/intros. Cut to black screen with white text, title. At 0:38, wipe left to close-ups of boots in stride, jewelry, back of head, purse, zoom out to young woman strutting through urban streets.
2007 Movie: N/A

Song: "Mango Pickle Down River" by M.I.A. feat. Wilcannia Mob from Kala
Scene: Nerdy friends or posse walking toward the camera in slow motion.
2007 Movie: Superbad, Ocean's Thirteen, Hot Fuzz

Song: "No Cars Go" by Arcade Fire from Neon Bible
Scene: Road trip montage.
2007 Movie: N/A

Song: "Creo" by Ozomatli from Don't Mess With the Dragon
Scene: Latino house party or any nightclub scene, preferably with a group dancing montage.
2007 Movie: Knocked Up

Song: "Malemolência" by CéU from CéU
Scene: Aerial panning of exotic location.
2007 Movie: Manda Bala, The Bourne Ultimatum

Song 1: "Intruder Alert" by Lupe Fiasco feat. Sarah Green from The Cool
Song 2: "The People" by Common from Finding Forever
Scene: Urban ghetto montage, single subject (Song #1) or multiple subjects (Song #2).
2007 Movie: American Gangster (starring Common!), I Am Legend, Southland Tales

Song: "Lesson Learned" by Alicia Keys feat. John Mayer from As I Am
Scene: Depressing end of a relationship.
2007 Movie: Things We Lost in the Fire; Reign Over Me; Gone Baby Gone

Song 1: "Flashing Lights" by Kanye West feat. Dwele from Graduation
Song 2: "Superstar" by Lupe Fiasco feat. Matthew Santos from The Cool
Scene: Glamorous nightclub scene in Times Square, Las Vegas, L.A. or South Beach.
2007 Movie: N/A

Song 1: "Me Llaman Calle" by Manu Chao from La Radiolina
Song 2: "Hoy Me Voy" by Juanes from La Vida es un Ratico
Scene: Young teenage boy sets off at sunrise for journey through Latin America, either for opportunity (to the U.S) or soul-searching. Montage of clips riding bus through Mexico City or other urban landscape, coastal road, desert road, etc.
2007 Movie: Into the Wild

Song 1: "Betterman" by Musiq Soulchild from Luvanmusiq
Song 2: "Because of You" by Ne-Yo from Because of You

Song 3: "Someday Soon" by KT Tunstall from Drastic Fantastic
Scene: Subtly sweet montage of young couple experiencing new love or sheepishly making up.
2007 Movie: Lars and the Real Girl; Juno; Into the Wild; 2 Days in Paris; Eagle vs. Shark; Rocket Science

Song 1: "Iron Bars" by Stephen Marley from Mind Control
Song 2: "Inner City" by Arrested Development from Since the Last Time (arguably my favorite album of the year)
Scene: Urban chaos and/or riots.
2007 Movie: Freedom Writers, American Gangster

Song: "We Got Love" by Ryan Shaw from This is Ryan Shaw
Scene: Celebratory party.
2007 Movie: Pride; The Great Debaters; Talk To Me

Song: "Paper Planes" by M.I.A. from Kala
Scene: Closing Credits - Cue music early. Long zoom out from two friends traveling in different directions after finishing some adventure with a witty line. Fade song up to full volume and cut to black at 0:56. This is simply the best closing credits song I've ever heard, topping Van Morrison's "Tupelo Honey."
2007 Movie: N/A

In reality, the best musical scenes in 2007 came from Across the Universe ("I Want You"), Sweeney Todd ("A Little Priest")
, I'm Not There ("Pressing On"), and of course...

Song: "Falling Slowly" by Glen Hansard And Marketa Irglova
Scene: Aspiring Irish songwriter and innocent Czech pianist fall in love during jam session in a Dublin music shop.
2007 Movie: Once

January 7, 2008

Uh-Oh: Golden Globes Cancelled

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association announced today that they will be canceling the 65th Annual Golden Globes Award Ceremony, following the announcement from the Screen Actors Guild last weekend that their nominated members would not cross the picket line of the Writers Guild of America. This wasn't really a surprise, but it is troubling to imagine what could happen to my beloved Oscar ceremony if the writers' strike is still happening in 6 weeks.

The Golden Globes will still be announced in a "press conference" this Sunday night on NBC. Boooo-ring.

I guess it will be interesting to see them announce 25 award categories in less than an hour. Lightning rounds! I know most people would hope for the same from the Oscars, but I enjoy the drawn-out speeches, nominated song performances, and amusing reactions. The worst acting in Hollywood is seen from the nominated losers on Oscar night.

Stay tuned for post-Globe analysis and Oscar predictions. I'm not doing my Top 10 of 2007 yet because I consider the "year" to end in February, and a couple of contenders (namely Persepolis) have yet to arrive in Minneapolis.

January 6, 2008

REVIEW: There Will Be Blood (A-)

Background: I haven't seen Hard Eight. I liked Boogie Nights. I loved Magnolia. I've forgotten Punch-Drunk Love. And along comes writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson's fifth film, There Will Be Blood, loosely based on Upton Sinclair's "Oil!" and starring the living legend Daniel Day-Lewis (Gangs of New York, The Last of the Mohicans), and Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine, Fast Food Nation). It also stars no women. Seriously, I don't remember a spoken line from any female in all 2 hours, 38 minutes. How is that possible? Anyway, There Will Be Blood has already been named Best Picture by the National Society of Film Critics, one of many, many awards it is likely to win by the end of February.

Synopsis: Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) is a misanthropic, alcoholic silver miner who strikes oil in early 1900's California. With his shrewd business practices and knack for efficient drilling, he soon becomes one of the foremost "oilmen" in the area. His greatest find actually finds him when Paul Sunday (Dano) tells him there is an ocean of oil under his family's ranch. Plainview and his young son, H.W., immediately stake their claim on the ranch and the surrounding area, but meet strong opposition from Paul's twin brother (?) Eli (Dano), who is the fiery preacher at the Church of the 3rd Revelation. Plainview's oil venture seems to be cursed from the start, as accidents (H.W. loses his hearing) and advantageous visitors (Daniel's "brother" shows up) almost bring him down. Enough damage is done so that years later we see Plainview as a wretched tycoon shooting sculptures in the hallways of his opulent mansion. He cruelly disowns H.W. and has a final, chilling confrontation with his rival Eli Sunday.

I Loved:
+ The first 10-15 minutes, in which there is no dialogue. Impressive and effective in pulling you in.
+ Daniel Day-Lewis, who is once again frightening, and frighteningly good.
+ The restaurant scene where Daniel confronts the Standard Oil group in front of his unassuming son.

I Liked:
+ The production design - amazing details and sweeping shots of the terrain in the Old West. Filming in Texas and New Mexico set the tone here, a la No Country for Old Men.
+ The actors who played H.W. Plainview, both as a child and as an adult.
+ The disturbing ending.

I Disliked:
- Some minor but noticeable similarities between Daniel Plainview and Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York.
- Paul Dano - he did well acting but I just didn't enjoy the scenes he was in.
- Some dragging in the production, mostly 20-30 minutes after Henry Plainview shows up.
- That I didn't sense any overarching lesson from the movie except the predictable warnings about greed and religious zealotry.
- At times, the way-too-present soundtrack. Here and there it added to the scenes, but when it disappeared in the last half hour I found myself able to get deeper into the movie.

I Hated:
- That the mystery of Paul/Eli Sunday isn't fully clarified. I've seen strong arguments that they are the same person and also that they are twins. Apparently there is more evidence that they are twins, but I think it's a much richer story if Paul is in fact the sinful persona of Eli.

Writing - 9
Acting - 10
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Significance - 4

Total: 45/50= 90% = A-

Last Word: There Will Be Blood is a major departure in almost every aspect from Paul Thomas Anderson's previous films, so don't expect anything similar. Instead, prepare for the dark descent of an opportunistic man into an evil, Howard Hughes-like loner. As I said above, I'm not sure if there are any really deep lessons from the movie - at least maybe not as much as their could have been - but it's still a compelling story that is masterfully told. For me, the sight of oil gushing from the ground was amazing, especially in thinking of just how significant it is to global everything in 2008. I don't even know how that was done - what do you use as fake crude oil? And if it was real, didn't it inflate the budget? In addition to incredible camera work, we also see Daniel Day-Lewis once again dare anyone to out-act him (reference the restaurant scene again). Fortunately no one tries, and the all-male cast is excellent. Will There Will Be Blood turn its late momentum into an Oscar win for Best Picture? I don't think it was the best movie I saw this year, but worse films than this have taken the top prize before.

January 4, 2008

REVIEW: The Kite Runner (A)

Background: I didn't read the book. Gasp. Go ahead. OK...done? The Kite Runner is the highly-anticipated film adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's novel by the same name, which, if you didn't know, swept America by storm in 2003. Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland, Stranger than Fiction) directs the screenplay that was adapted by David Benioff (The 25th Hour, Troy). Starring are Khalid Abdalla (United 93 - the best film of 2006) and a host of supporting characters (several from Iran), including three amateur child actors from Afghanistan whose safety was in danger in the months prior to the film's release due to the tribal shame expected from a scene in the movie. This in fact delayed the release of The Kite Runner, which was filmed in China and features authentic dialogue in Dari, a Persian dialect spoken in Afghanistan.

Synopsis: Amir (Abdalla) is the son of a wealthy Pashtun in 1970's Kabul. His best friend, Hassan, is a Hazara boy who works along with his father as a servant for Amir's father. The two boys ignore their tribal and class differences as they develop into the best kite flying duo in Kabul. On the day of their greatest victory, Amir silently witnesses the assault and rape of Hassan by local Pashtun teens. Their friendship immediately frays as Amir is privately racked with guilt and orchestrates the resignation of Hassan and his father as the family servants. As the Soviets invade, Amir flees for California with his father, where they work in the local flea market. Here Amir meets his future wife Sonaya and goes onto to become a successful novelist in the Bay Area, until in 2000 he receives a call from his father's oldest friend in Kabul who is asking him to return and rescue Hassan's son from the the Taliban. Amir reluctantly sets off on the journey that he hopes will atone for the sins that have haunted him for 20 years. Kabul has obviously become a different world, and Amir's only chance for redemption is to learn the local culture and fight his inner demons.

I Loved:
+ The sweeping cinematography and aerial shots of what was supposed to be Kabul and its surrounding mountains.
+ Khalid Abdalla, who carried the movie from the first to the last frame. Hopefully more to come from this talented actor, who reluctantly took the role of a terrorist in United 93.
+ The final scene and powerful, memorable last line. I cried through the credits.
+ The charm and talent of Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada as Hassan.

I Liked:
The scene in which Amir reads the letter from Hassan. Starts out schmaltzy, ends up devastatingly heartbreaking.
+ The scene in which Amir and his escort visit the orphanage in Kabul.
+ The supporting performances by Iranian actors Atossa Leoni as Soraya and Homayoun Ershadi as Baba. He'll be overlooked when Supporting Actor nominations are announced January 22nd.

I Disliked:
- The scene in which Amir speaks to Sohrab, which felt a little contrived and/or awkward.
- A little bit of drag here or there, which was the awkwardness that comes when a director can only communicate with the actors through translators.

I Hated:
- The poor special effects of all the fake kites flying around.

Writing - 9
Acting - 10
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 10
Music - 5
Significance - 5

Total: 48/50= 96% = A

Last Word: For those 3 or 4 of us in America who have not read the book, The Kite Runner is likely one of the best films we've seen all year. At least I can say that. It's certainly the best story told on screen in 2007, with The Namesake in second place. It's a visual delight with truly believable acting and moments of real suspense, humor, and drama. The casting was absolutely perfect and the only weakness in the production is the kite flying. Aside from your problems with how it differed from the book, I don't know what else you can criticize about the movie on its own merit, and of course that's what I'm interested in here. Marc Forster has done an admirable job as far as I'm concerned, and were it not for the millions and millions of people holding him accountable to the novel, he would probably be preparing a speech for Oscar night.
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