February 28, 2008

Underrated MOTM: Romeo + Juliet (1996)

The Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM) for February, Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, has been largely overshadowed by the Australian director's other two films, 1992's Strictly Ballroom and 2001's Moulin Rouge!. His next project, this year's early Oscar favorite Australia, will thus mark only his fourth film in the last 16 years.
Romeo + Juliet was, obviously, an adaptation of Shakespeare's play by the same name, but Luhrmann's creative idea was to bring the tragedy out of the Globe Theatre and into the present day (the film was released in November of 1996). Cars, guns, and the seedy culture of Verona have never looked so spectacular, and the meticulous attention to detail and visual/pop culture referencing (media coverage, guns named "sword" and "dagger") was brilliant. Luhrmann created a bright, vibrantly colorful landscape thanks to his decision to film in Mexico and Miami, and the soundtrack was undoubtedly one of the best of the decade, featuring Radiohead, Garbage, Everclear, Quindon Tarver (an amazing cover of "When Doves Cry"), The Cardigans, Des'ree and more. It's incredible how well that collection has held up - listen to it again and feel like you're right back in the movie.

What's most impressive about Romeo + Juliet to me now is looking at who was on the short list for the cast, according to IMDB: Ewan McGregor, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Reese Witherspoon, Kate Winslet, Christina Ricci, Natalie Portman, and Christian Bale. Of course, none of them ended up in the film, but the actual ensemble cast was nothing to scoff at: Harold Perrineau (though I've never seen "Lost"), Dash Mihok, Jesse Bradford (great in Flags of Our Fathers), Pete Postlethwaite (Kobayashi from The Usual Suspects), Paul Sorvino, Brian Dennehy, John Leguizamo, and even Paul Rudd. Among those I've listed in this paragraph are some really great actors, and remember this was 12 years ago! Baz Luhrmann is either really lucky or has an amazing casting agent. Don't think I've forgotten future Hollywood legend Leonardo DiCaprio (who broke through two years later with Titanic) or talented underachiever Claire Danes. They were a great pair at the perfect point in their careers. I shudder to think at who would be cast if this film was made in 2008 - Paul Walker and Jessica Alba?

The biggest digs at Romeo + Juliet involved its visual style and contemporary setting contrasted with Luhrmann's decision to keep the dialogue in its 16th-century form (DiCaprio as Romeo: "He that hath the steerage of my course, direct my sail!"). Roger Ebert gave it one of the worst reviews I've seen him give of any movie, the NYT's Janet Maslin was a little more forgiving but still called it a "frenetic hodgepodge," and The San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle called this "true tragedy" a "monumental disaster."

Wow. Well it should go without saying that your initial reaction to the film almost entirely depends on how sacred you regard Shakespeare's work. Speaking for myself: eh. The stories are rich with symbolism and I'm sure are very useful in college literature classes, but I'm not one to gush about dialogue like, "
If I profane with my unworthiest hand this holy shrine, the gentle sin is this. My lips, to blushing pilgrims, ready stand to smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss." I'm sorry, it just doesn't do much for me, and I accept that that makes me culturally degenerate. I enjoy the novelty of an old language ("Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?"; "A curse on both your houses!"), but it takes something like Romeo + Juliet to bring it life for me.

I also have to mention here the reaction to 2005's highly acclaimed Brick, which (awkwardly, in my opinion) featured dialogue in film noir style: "Your muscle seemed plenty cool putting his fist in my head. I want him out." In his glowing review of Brick, Ebert observed that these "contemporary characters...inhabit personal styles from an earlier time," before describing director Rian Johnson as "very good." What gives?

I'm going to go ahead and speculate that if Ebert and LaSalle sat down and watched Romeo + Juliet again, they would have a different reaction (probably similar to Slant's take in 2002). With Moulin Rouge!, Luhrmann clearly showed again that his motive is not protecting the sanctity of language but rather imagining new ways to mix art, pop culture, music, and love. At least Maslin recognized this "visual universe fully in tune with the characters' ageless passions." Luhrmann's
style is wholly unique, similar to Julie Taymor, and he's not given enough credit for exploring new dimensions in film. Romeo + Juliet was, in my opinion, a successful experiment and fascinating stimulus for the senses. And yes, I think it did make a 400 year-old story more relevant.

February 26, 2008

REVIEW: Be Kind Rewind (C)

Background: French writer/director Michel Gondry followed up his cult favorite Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with 2006's The Science of Sleep. Both films heavily feature surrealism, dreams, and memories - they don't make sense, and you're not sure if they're supposed to. Be Kind Rewind, Gondry's most mainstream fare to date, stars Jack Black (Margot at the Wedding, The Holiday), Brooklyn hip-hop artist Mos Def (16 Blocks), and Danny Glover (Honeydripper), with appearances by Mia Farrow and Melonie Diaz (A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Raising Victor Vargas). Filmed on location in Passaic, NJ, Be Kind Rewind was apparently inspired by Dave Chappelle, whose 2005 documentary Dave Chappelle's Block Party was also (oddly) directed by Gondry - a French surrealist who enjoys American hip-hop and urban cultural humor.

Synopsis: Mr. Fletcher (Glover) owns a dilapidated video (only VHS) store called Be Kind Rewind in Passaic, NJ. As you'd guess in the world of movies, the location is being threatened by a planned condo development. Fletcher has told his "adopted" son, Mike (Mos Def), that the store and their upper floor apartment is also the historic birthplace of jazz legend Fats Waller. Local vomiting mechanic and outrageous weirdo Jerry (Black) is Mike's best friend and, to Mr. Fletcher's disgust, the store's most loyal visitor. When Mr. Fletcher leaves on an unnecessary trip, Mike is left in charge of the store, and an unbelievable accident causes all of the tapes to be erased. With no way to procure extra copies of all the movies in the catalog, Mike and Jerry decide to recreate each movie (they call it "Sweding") with their own video camera and the help of local wallflower Alma (Diaz). Their versions of Ghostbusters, Rush Hour 2, and Robocop prove so popular that they can't meet the neighborhood's demand. Mr. Fletcher returns in time to help them transfer the videos to DVD and streamline the Sweding process, which now allows the customers themselves to play a part in their film of choice. As the group is about to save the store by raising enough money to stop the condo development, the feds (Sigourney Weaver) shut down their project due to copyright violation guidelines. By now, the community has banded together around the store, and they predictably decide that creating a biopic about Fats Waller will warm the hearts and minds of the greedy developers once and for all.

I Loved:
+ The realism achieved by filming on location in Passaic, NJ.
+ The creative use of "special effects" in the film recreations.

I Liked:
+ The camouflage fence scene - clever and amusing for a little bit.
+ The montage filming scene, starting with the When We Were Kings bit. The take was unnecessarily showy, but still entertaining.

I Disliked:
- Jack Black's character, Jerry. How I would have enjoyed his character Barry from High Fidelity here instead. Jerry could have been the video know-it-all like Barry was the music know-it-all. Instead, Black is stuck in an exaggerated, obnoxious, and rarely funny role.

I Hated:
- Jack Black's multiple vomiting scenes.
- The first 15-20 minutes. The power station scene was totally useless, the eating-while-wearing-colanders-on-head scene was distracting, and the rest (graffiti, Mr. Fletcher leaving on train) was overdone and boring.
- The dialogue, in general - Gondry
still does not have a comfortable handle on this type of American humor. The lines came off as awkward and flat.

Grade:
Writing - 6
Acting - 8
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 7
Music - 5
Significance - 3

Total: 38/50= 76% = C

Last Word: The meaningless term "Sweding" is symbolic of Be Kind Rewind's consistent weakness - its clever exterior hides a hollow center, and its ambiguity leaves you scratching your head and wondering if you've just been had.
I'm most disappointed because I'm a fan of the ingredients (Black, Def, Gondry, Glover, Diaz) in the film and I was left with a bland, sour taste in my mouth. I won't address the idea that the story is meant to poke fun at Hollywood and the YouTube generation other than to say it just doesn't work. Any meaningful interpretation is lost in a jumble of bizarre plot elements, clumsy pacing, and seemingly ad-libbed dialogue. Imagine, if you will, a simpler story about two guys who accidentally (not in this way) lose a store's video collection and have to recreate it in a certain period of time. Throw in some Gondry art - and that's it. Leave it and go. I don't know about Mos Def, but that's a role for Jack Black to do in his own creative way. Get rid of the totally exaggerated characters, get rid of the Fats Waller piece, get rid of the copyright violation and condo ordeals, and just a let a funny situation sort itself out. I'll still make my way to Gondry's next film because I enjoy his visual style, but after this and The Science of Sleep, it's hard to find positive words to say about his muddy storytelling.

February 24, 2008

80th Academy Awards: A Running Diary


Because it's easier to do this while I'm watching instead of trying to remember everything afterward:

7:08 PM (Red Carpet coverage):
Sigh. Wow. Miley Cyrus. NOT a good start to the 80th celebration of the Oscars.

7:18 PM (Red Carpet coverage):
84 year-old Sarah Golden and two teenagers are interviewed as some kind of superfans in the bleachers. Regis leads a cheer for Miley Cyrus that sets the crowd into a frenzy. Am I watching the right program?

7:25 PM (Red Carpet coverage):
Regis introduces a huge crowd of dancers (?) who will perform during one of Enchanted's three song performances. He mentions again the BILLION people who will be viewing the awards around the world. I'm no demographer, but I'm pretty sure it's impossible that a billion people are ever doing anything all at once.

7:28 PM (Red Carpet coverage):
Regis enters the theater and shows us who's sitting in the front row, including "Xavier" Bardem. Nice, Regis. Let's start the show.

7:30 PM:
The opening montage is a CGI truck driving to Hollywood while driving around and dodging stars from 80 years worth of movies. This was a little too much like the Monday Night Football opening. Schwarzenegger ends up as the driver of the truck, which was carrying the Oscar statues. Huh?

7:36 PM:
Jon Stewart's off to a great start as he roasts the dark mood of the nominated movies, Hillary Clinton, Norbit, Iraq movies, the Republican presidential nominees, Barack Obama's name, and last year's exaggerated "green Oscars."

7:42 PM:
First award is for Best Costume Design? I always thought the first one was for Best Supporting Actress. Hmm, oh well. Winner is Alexandra Byrne for Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Dang it, I'm 0/1.

7:48 PM:
Clooney introduces the first 80th anniversary montage and gives us 80 reminders of why I wait all year for this night. A little self-congratulatory, but that's why we're here, isn't it?

7:54 PM:
Steve Carell hilariously steals the show from Jon Stewart as he introduces Best Animated Film with Anne Hathaway. As expected, Ratatouille takes it. 1/2.

7:57 PM:
Katherine Heigl is disconcertingly nervous (I wouldn't make it as far as she did) as she presents Best Makeup - winner La Vie en Rose, I'm 2/3. Marion Cotillard looks like an 8 year-old on Christmas morning, setting herself up for an explosion of tears if she wins Best Actress.


8:02 PM:
Hmm, "Happy Working Song" is performed by Amy Adams alone on a stage. A little Broadwayish, a little bare. Hope the other ones are a little more show-stopping. Except for "Falling Slowly" - that should be bare.

8:09 PM:
The Rock (gonna be a while before he earns back "Dwayne Johnson") introduces Best Visual Effects. HUGE win to get me 3/4 - The Golden Compass. As I said in my review, best effects of the year.

8:12 PM:
Ouch, big loss for There Will Be Blood. I thought the Art Direction was top-notch. Stewart has a nice turn with Cate Blanchett's acting range. He's on fire so far.

8:20 PM:
Here we go, Supporting Actor for Bardem. Oh, not yet. First another anniversary montage, ending with Cuba Gooding Jr.'s now-embarrassing acceptance speech. How his career has fallen. OK, nominee clips. Ah, our only look at Philip Seymour Hoffman on screen - man, he had a year. There it is, Bardem, who delivers a beautiful speech in Spanish.

8:24 PM:
Stewart keeps it going with the "montages that could've been" had the writers not settled: binoculars, periscopes, and bad dreams. This will be forgotten, but it was pretty funny.

8:28 PM:
A minute into third nominated song "Raise It Up," and I immediately regret missing August Rush. I thought it was a smarmy movie about that little kid from Millions?

8:30 PM:
An uncomfortably quiet Owen Wilson presents Best Live Action Short to Le Mozart Des Pickpockets. Had a feeling that was going to win over my pick, The Tonto Woman. "That's what you get for being a rebel," says my sister. Yeah, no prize for correct predictions. That's what I always get.

8:33 PM:
Jerry Seinfeld as Bee Movie's Barry B. Benson presents Best Animated Short to Peter & the Wolf. As I said in my reviews of the nominees, no way to have predicted this. Nevertheless, this was the most entertaining one.

8:36 PM:
Right about now, we need Jack Black and Will Ferrell back up in this show again.

8:39 PM:
Tilda Swinton steals away Best Supporting Actress - great for me, but I'm still only 5/9. She'll be thrown to the wolves for her outfit, but she gave a terrific speech. Good for her. Michael Clayton was terrible, if I've failed to mention that yet. Hope this is the only statue it receives tonight...

8:45 PM:
The "always fantastic" (?) Jessica Alba summarizes her hosting (!) of the Academy's Scientific and Technical Awards earlier this week. As usual, that was made to sound a lot more boring than it probably was. They probably have all kinds of cool gadgets and tricks during that show.

8:48 PM:
Jack Nicholson is getting a lot of screen time for having only starred in The Bucket List in recent months. Coens take away Best Adapted Screenplay as the No Country train gets rolling. I'm 6/10. Ethan Coen awkwardly cuts himself off during his speech - oh well, they'll be back there in a couple hours again anyway.

8:50 PM:
AMPAS president Sid Ganis offers an actually funny peek into the Oscar voting process. Still no explanation as to how 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days is not receiving any attention tonight.

8:53 PM:
Whoops, changed the channel again. Miley Cyrus. How did I get to Nickelodeon? WHAT IS SHE DOING HERE? Kristin Chenoweth delivers "That's How You Know," #2 from Enchanted. Here are all of Regis' dancers, and a show-stopper, that's what I'm talking about it! If "Falling Slowly" tragically loses, it will be to this.

9:03 PM:
Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill ham it up - somebody realized Knocked Up and Superbad were both last year, and were both totally ignored. Nice save. They present Best Sound Editing to Bourne, leaving me 6/11 and pretty much out of any competition I'm in. Oh, they're still here for Sound Mixing, and still hilarious. Another Bourne win. Well, this should have been a lot more predictable as Bourne was all over the blogosphere lists in the last week. Hey there's that guy! (Back row, 8th from the right) He won an Oscar! That's awesome, even though his speech was cut off.

9:15 PM:
Forest Whitaker delivers Best Actress to a completely shocked Marion Cotillard. And cue the tears explosion I told you would come. The early favorite came through - blogger friend Dorothy is going to be happy. I'm 6/13 and plummeting.

9:19 PM:
Wii tennis on a theater screen - awesome!

9:20 PM:
"Falling Slowly" is sung with full feeling - Academy voters hang their heads in shame that Once received no other nominations.

9:24 PM:
Jack Nicholson takes us into a look at the last 79 Best Pictures. All we learn is that the award definitely used to mean a lot more than it used to, as Shakespeare in Love makes everyone blush with embarrassment.

9:30 PM:
Bourne is blowing up, taking all three Oscars for which it was nominated. Must be to make up for not winning the Oscar for Best Stunts. I mean not being nominated for Best Stunts. Or wait...

9:32 PM:
Nicole Kidman comes out of hiding to offer an Honorary Oscar to 98 year-old art director/production designer Robert Boyle. Good for him. A classy speech, but is anyone else sweating that they're going to cut him off with music after this long? The man is 98 - this is the greatest achievement of his life! Don't do it...don't...whew! Something is still sacred in Hollywood.

9:43 PM:
Penelope Cruz is typecast to present Best Foreign Language Film, which she does, with robotic style, to The Counterfeiters. Excellent speech by Stefan Ruzowitzky.

9:46 PM:
"So Close" is the last nominated song, and 3rd from Enchanted. That just ain't right. A Ben Affleck look-alike belts out the boring ballad.

9:50 PM:
Here comes Original Song - prepare the riot gear just in case "Falling Slowly" gets robbed...OK, put it away, we can all sleep soundly tonight. Glen Hansard gives the best speech of the night before Marketa Irglova gets cut off - before the orchestra cuts itself off to give her another chance. Whoops, too late, she's gone - that's what you get. You know what, bring out the riot gear again! Why didn't Once get the credit it deserved this year?

9:58 PM:
Oscar history has just been made. Marketa Irglova is allowed to come back out and give her acceptance speech, which she does magnificently, delivering what is now the best speech of the night.

10:01 PM:
Wow. Roger Deakins beats himself out by being nominated for cinematography twice and losing to Robert Elswit for There Will Be Blood. Is a double nomination a curse; split the vote? That's not fair.

10:06 PM:
In Memoriam. Surreal and sickening to see Heath Ledger on that screen.

10:10 PM:
Amy Adams, who has for some reason been all over this thing tonight, presents Original Score to Atonement. No surprise there - it was driven into your head throughout the entire movie.

10:13 PM:
Bizarre, uncomfortable introduction of the Documentary Short nominees by U.S. troops in Baghdad. Freeheld takes it. By my memory, Craig at LiC is mopping up in his own Oscar pool.

10:16 PM:
Alex Gibney wins Documentary Feature for Taxi to the Dark Side. Eh, it's no No End in Sight. My write-up here goes out the window, but I did announce it would win as the nominee clips were being shown. Just had a feeling. Good speech by Gibney, and he deserved one for Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, anyway.

10:25 PM:
Brook Busey has just received a standing ovation for Juno's Best Original Screenplay. Time to hear about Minnesotan screenwriters for the next life and a half. She's not even from Minnesota! Nevertheless, hungry-for-attention Minnesotans will throw a parade and soon rename the capital after her.

10:30 PM:
At the end of the Best Actor anniversary montage, Forest Whitaker almost makes me cry again. Helen Mirren delivers an atrociously written intro before handing the statue off to Lock #2, the always hooped earringed Daniel Day-Lewis. This guy's the bomb. Third best speech after Hansard and Irglova. Paul Thomas Anderson receives another shout-out from the stage. Too bad he won't make it up there himself in 10 minutes when Best Director is announced.

10:41 PM:
Scorsese steps out of the clip that was just shown from 2007 to give Best Director to the Coens. Ethan nails his speech by picking up where he left off for Screenplay - simply, "thank you." These guys are most deserving, and they always work together. Great work, boys.

10:45 PM:
Denzel - where have you been? Here to present Lock #3, Best Picture, and...yup, No Country for Old Men. No need for that drumroll, maestro. Well it's been several months, and it's still my best of the year. Worth seeing again, perhaps.

10:48 PM:
Jon Stewart, absent for the last hour it seems, comes out to boringly close it. He actually did a really good job overall, though.

Epilogue:
  • My prediction was 14 correct, I got 13.
  • Beaver wins the first annual Getafilm Oscar Pool with 15 correct, followed by Nicole with 14, Brendan and Josh with 13, and everybody else behind them. That site was a little messy, but it worked well on its own terms.
  • "Falling Slowly", Once, Glen Hansard, and Marketa Irglova make people smile. People like me.
  • The best movie of the year won Best Picture, a fitting ending to 2007 as the best movie year of the new millennium.
  • Someday I'd like to attend the Academy Awards. Anybody have an invite?

February 22, 2008

2008 Oscar Predictions


Busy week, so no time for in-depth analysis here. Not that I have any spectacularly unique insights anyway. Let's just get on with 80th Annual Academy Awards, as I've had 2/24/08 marked on my calendar for just about a year now.

I'll say that I'm not nearly as confident in these as I have been in previous years. Of course I say that every year, making me look great if I do well and OK if I don't.

Final disclaimer: NOT what I WANT to win (those are here and here), only what I EXPECT to win.

Best Picture
Atonement
Juno

Michael Clayton

No Country for Old Men

There Will Be Blood

Actor
George Clooney, Michael Clayton
Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah
Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises

Actress
Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Julie Christie, Away From Her
Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose
Laura Linney, The Savages
Ellen Page, Juno

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

Supporting Actress
Cate Blanchett, I'm Not There
Ruby Dee, American Gangster
Saoirse Ronan, Atonement
Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone
Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton

Director
Julian Schnabel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Jason Reitman, Juno
Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men
Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood

Foreign Film
Beaufort, Israel
The Counterfeiters, Austria
Katyn, Poland
Mongol, Kazakhstan
12, Russia

Adapted Screenplay
Christopher Hampton, Atonement
Sarah Polley, Away from Her
Ronald Harwood, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men
Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood

Original Screenplay
Diablo Cody, Juno
Nancy Oliver, Lars and the Real Girl
Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton
Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava and Jim Capobianco, Ratatouille
Tamara Jenkins, The Savages

Animated Feature Film
Persepolis
Ratatouille
Surf's Up

Art Direction
American Gangster
Atonement

The Golden Compass

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

There Will Be Blood

Cinematography
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Atonement

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
No Country for Old Men

There Will Be Blood

Sound Mixing
The Bourne Ultimatum
No Country for Old Men

Ratatouille

3:10 to Yuma

Transformers

Sound Editing
The Bourne Ultimatum
No Country for Old Men

Ratatouille

There Will Be Blood

Transformers

Original Score
Atonement, Dario Marianelli
The Kite Runner, Alberto Iglesias
Michael Clayton, James Newton Howard
Ratatouille, Michael Giacchino
3:10 to Yuma, Marco Beltrami

Original Song
"Falling Slowly" from Once, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova
"Happy Working Song" from Enchanted, Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz
"Raise It Up" from August Rush, Jamal Joseph, Charles Mack and Tevin Thomas
"So Close" from Enchanted, Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz
"That's How You Know" from Enchanted, Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz

Costume
Across the Universe
Atonement

Elizabeth: The Golden Age

La Vie en Rose

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Documentary Feature
No End in Sight
Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience

Sicko

Taxi to the Dark Side

War/Dance

Documentary (short subject)
Freeheld
La Corona (The Crown)

Salim Baba

Sari's Mother

Film Editing
The Bourne Ultimatum
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Into the Wild

No Country for Old Men

There Will Be Blood

Makeup
La Vie en Rose
Norbit

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Animated Short Film
I Met the Walrus
Madame Tutli-Putli

Meme Les Pigeons Vont au Paradis (Even Pigeons Go to Heaven)

My Love (Moya Lyubov)

Peter & the Wolf

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Live Action Short Film
At Night
Il Supplente (The Substitute)
Le Mozart des Pickpockets (The Mozart of Pickpockets)

Tanghi Argentini

The Tonto Woman

Visual Effects
The Golden Compass
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Transformers


Most Oscars: No Country for Old Men

All Around Biggest Dark Horse: Michael Clayton

Looking forward to:
Live performance of "Falling Slowly"
Daniel Day-Lewis' acceptance speech
80th anniversary montages
In Memoriam tribute

Correct Predictions Estimate: 14/24

February 20, 2008

The 21st Century Academy Awards

Do the Oscars matter ? Do they nominate the right movies ? Do the right movies win ? All of these have been discussed recently and I’m here to say…I have nothing new to add to the conversation. But I thought it’d be fun to look at all of the nominees of the 21st century, and pick out who would be nominated, and who would win, if it was all one long year. So with 35 possible nominees for each category, here’s what I came up with:

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Nominees---Benicio Del Toro (Traffic- ’00); Chris Cooper (Adaptation- ’02); Ed Harris (The Hours- ’02); Alec Baldwin (The Cooler- ’03); Morgan Freeman (Million Dollar Baby- ’04)

Honorable Mention---Clive Owen (Closer- ’04); George Clooney (Syriana- ’05)

I thought that out of all of the categories this would have a slew of worthy candidates, and as you can see, I was wrong. Freeman, Harris, and Baldwin are all the best in the world at playing exactly what they play here, which would be wise, conflicted, and douchey, respectively. Cooper stole the show in Adaptation, which just so happens to be one of the most original movies of the decade. But the winner is Del Toro in a role that there is nothing supporting about. He is front-and-center in a remarkable movie, and his performance here made his every subsequent movie a must-see. He has since disappointed, but the bar had been set pretty high.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Nominees---Kate Hudson (Almost Famous- ’00); Meryl Streep (Adaptation- ’02); Cate Blanchett (The Aviator- ’04); Amy Adams (Junebug- ’05); Adriana Barraza (Babel- ’06)

Honorable Mention---Julianne Moore (The Hours- ’02); Natalie Portman (Closer- ’04)

This was by far the weakest category, as evidenced by the non-creative choices that I have made here. The only note I would make is that Adams’ nomination represents a rare occurance of the Academy thinking outside-the-box. And since none of the other four are all that noteworthy, I’ll just name her the winner. If you haven’t seen her hilarious performance in Junebug, do yourself a favor.

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

Nominees---Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (’00); Amores Perros (’00); Amelie (’01); Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (’05); The Lives of Others (’06)

I usually go out of my way to see foreign films, but I had only seen less than half of the 35 nominees. I am guessing that this has something to do with the ridiculous process that pervades this category. I don’t know enough about how it’s done, but I know that there can be no argument for a list of rules that doesn’t allow the nomination of City of God, which make all five of these look like a Paul Walker movie with subtitles. I might be exaggerating, but the point remains. Back to the point, I would say that these five movies are every bit as good as the five that are listed for best picture below. For a winner it has to go to Crouching Tiger which, though a touch overrated, was a phenomenon that’s success hopefully led to a number of people opening their minds to foreign films.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Nominees---Traffic (’00); LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring (’01); Adaptation (’02); City of God (’03); Before Sunset (’04)

Honorable Mention---Ghost World (’01); The Hours (’02)

This is one category that I don’t understand how someone can intelligently discuss without reading the source material. For winner I’ll give it to Fellowship, which managed to take a beloved book with a rabid fanbase, and the previously-held belief that it was unfilmable, and make it the movie event of the 21st century.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Nominees---Almost Famous (’00); Amelie (’01); The Royal Tennenbaums (’01); Memento (’01); Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (’04)

Honorable Mention---The Incredibles (’04); Syriana (’05)

This is my favorite category as it seems they consistently manage to throw a bone to the best movies of the year that would otherwise go unnominated. With no denial of being a complete Wes Anderson fanboy, I’m saying the winner is Tenenbaums, which had a great cast of characters and hundreds of new laughs upon every reviewing.

BEST DIRECTOR

Nominees---Steven Soderbergh (Traffic- ’00); Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon- ’02); Martin Scorsese (Gangs of New York- ’02); Fernando Meirelles (City of God- ’03); Peter Jackson (LOTR: The Return of the King- ’03)

Honorable Mention---George Clooney (Good Night, and Good Luck- ’05); Paul Greengrass (United 93- ’06)

You couldn’t go wrong picking any of the five nominees here. My head says Jackson, but my heart and the award go to Meirelles, whose City of God might be the best movie listed in this whole post.

BEST ACTRESS

Nominees---Ellen Burstyn (Requiem for a Dream- ’00); Nicole Kidman (The Hours- ’02); Charlize Theron (Monster- ’03); Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line- ’05); Helen Mirren (The Queen- ’06)

Honorable Mention---Laura Linney (You Can Count on Me- ’00); Kate Winslet (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind- ’04)

This post is ending up a lot longer than I intended, so we’re cutting off a few of these mid-acceptance speech. While a lot of times a great movie is measured by how many times you’ve seen it, Requiem is so spot-on disturbing that one viewing is more than sufficient. And the best part is your winner…Ellen Burstyn.

BEST ACTOR

Nominees---Daniel Day-Lewis (Gangs of New York-’02); Leonardo DiCaprio (The Aviator- ’04); Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Capote- ’05); Forrest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland- ’06); Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson- ’06)

Honorable Mention---Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain- ’05); Ben Kingsley (House of Sand and Fog- ’03)

All seven nominees listed here were excellent, but this one isn’t even close. Day-Lewis’ performance here is top five all-time, and easily number one of the decade.

BEST PICTURE

Nominees---Traffic (’00); Moulin Rouge! (’01); Gangs of New York (’02); LOTR: The Two Towers (’02); Good Night, and Good Luck (’05)

Honorable Mention---The Hours (’02);) The Aviator (’04)

I love Gangs, but my memory always focuses more on the greatness of Day-Lewis’ performance than on the greatness of the entire movie. Towers is the best of the LOTR movies, but it’s hard to give the award to a sequel. I don’t like musicals, Kidman, or McGregor, but I love Moulin Rouge!. And Good Night, and Good Luck is my obligatory dark horse selection. But the winner is Traffic for seamlessly intertwining three great stories into one great movie which is loaded with outstanding performances.


In conclusion, I would say that I was pretty underwhelmed by the nominees of the current decade. As far as which years are the strongest, I unintentionally gave at least five nominations to each of the seven years. The top years ended up being 2002 (10 noms) and 2000 (9). So what does it all mean ? Absolutely nothing.

February 18, 2008

REVIEW: 2008 Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts







I had the great pleasure to catch the five Animated Short nominees last weekend. In contrast to the Live Action Shorts, these are truly a trip into some new dimensions in film. Each of the nominees features breathtaking animation, some of which I've never seen before (or seen so impressively), and since none of them are American you get a little slice of culture, too. You can try to see them here, but it's a really great experience in the theater - go whenever you have a chance in the future. I do not think you'll regret it.

Instead of "grading" these, I'm going to match them up with what I consider their 2007 Best Picture nominee equivalents. No reason - I liked all of these, so it's just a match game.

The nominees:

I Met the Walrus - Josh Raskin (Canada, 5 min, ink drawing/computer graphic animation):

  • This is not so much a short film as it is an animated visualization of words. A 1969 recording of John Lennon rambling about peace, war, governments, and the world is turned into an impressive layout of graphics, images and words in pink, brown, and ivory hues. Something about this reminded me of a Gap commercial or something "hip" like that. It's very cool, but it's just not what you would traditionally call a film. It's the most uplifting of the five nominees, and the political ideas and rants might appeal to the Academy.
  • 2007 Best Picture equivalent = Michael Clayton

Madame Tutli-Putli - Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski (Canada, 17 min, stop-motion/CGI animation)

  • If David Lynch made an animated film, this would be it. A meek woman boards a train to an unknown destination. Stuck in a sleeping car with a disgusting tennis player, a creepy kid, and two chess players, her trip turns downright macabre when a mysterious blue light signals organ-harvesting thieves to board the train and gas the passengers. Ah, and I haven't mentioned the moth, white bright light and chirpy sounds that the woman follows in her desperation. I'm already lost again, which I think was kind of the point. This was the most disturbing, most impressively animated, and most memorable nominee.
  • 2007 Best Picture equivalent = No Country for Old Men

Meme Les Pigeons Vont au Paradis - Samuel Tourneux and Simon Vanesse (France, 9 min, 3-D CGI animation)

  • The ultimate battle between good and evil, life and death, angel and demon. When "Death" is supposed to come calling, a "Priest" steps in and saves the elderly Frenchman whose time has come. The priest's motive? Milking the man of his last dollar before death. A humorous trick is played before one character receives a karmic comeuppance in a very abrupt ending.
  • 2007 Best Picture equivalent = There Will Be Blood

Moya Lyubov - Alexander Petrov (Russia, 27 min, hand-painted animation)

  • A teenage Russian boy is caught in a love triangle in 19th-century Russia. His dreams and fantasies are lovely, disturbing, and really hard to follow. But I guess that's how dreams are. Watching this was like seeing the world in watercolor - hard to describe. Petrov is the only previous nominee in this group, and a previous winner at that. Maybe that makes him the favorite.
  • 2007 Best Picture equivalent = Atonement

Peter & the Wolf - Suzie Templeton and Hugh Welchman (UK/Poland, 27 min, silicon model/stop-motion animation)

  • The classic story of poor Peter and his heroic task is retold here in stunning stop-motion animation. This was the funniest and overall most entertaining of the nominees, but its ending drags - and I don't even know if it's the "right" ending. Something didn't feel right about it, but I'm not going to spend time looking up the accuracy of children's stories (not that I wouldn't look up other trivial information). The music was great, as you would expect.
  • 2007 Best Picture equivalent = Juno

Predicting which of these five will on Sunday is, at least for me, a complete shot in the dark. They are so different from each other that I don't know what will appeal to the Academy members' tastes. I Met the Walrus seems totally out of place here, but maybe that's why it will win. Madame Tutli-Putli is the most impressive artistically, but the story is creepy and weird. Peter & the Wolf is a classic, and the other two are terrific stories. Without having a serious inside connection, I don't know how this can be accurately predicted.

I'll go with Madame Tutli-Putli.



...(or Moya Lyubov). Forget it, who knows.

February 16, 2008

REVIEW: Jumper (F)

Background: In this post-award season of Hollywood fluff, studios dump as many shelved films as they can into the mainstream. Occasionally I venture to the multiplex to see what the temperature is, as I did yesterday afternoon with Jumper, an adaptation of Steven Gould's 1992 novel by the same name. Directed by Doug Liman (Swingers, Go, The Bourne Identity), Jumper stars Hayden Christensen (Star Wars..., Shattered Glass), Samuel L. Jackson (Black Snake Moan, Snakes on a Plane), Rachel Bilson ("The O.C.") and Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot). Based on the premise, the marketing, and the stars, Jumper appears to be simply an excuse to make a video game in the future. Oh, it's already done? Huh.

Synopsis: David Rice (Christensen) discovers during his adolescence that he is a "jumper" - he can teleport anywhere, any time. Naturally he spends his time robbing banks, cavorting with women around the world and scoffing at newscasts of people suffering ("but no one can get to them," moans the news anchor). In short, he's a jerk - he knows it, and so do we. Eventually Roland Cox (Jackson), leader of the "Paladins" (mortal enemies of jumpers since ancient times), tracks down Rice, who meanwhile has inexplicably decided to court his childhood crush, Millie (Bilson). While in Rome with Millie, Rice meets Griffin (Bell), another jumper who is obsessed with killing Paladins and who has numerous hand-drawn sketches of Roland Cox on the walls of his "lair" in the middle of some desert. Rice and Griffin spend a really awkward 20 minutes flirting with each other while walking and driving through Tokyo (why was Griffin so desperate to go there again?). Rice is trying to persuade Griffin to agree to some juvenile superhero pact that will allow them to go after Roland Cox together. Griffin finally agrees, and the last 10 minutes are a painfully cliched mess (girl in danger, boy down but not out, boy finds incredible strength, saves girl, bad guy outfoxed, sequel foreshadowed).

I Loved:
+ The on-location filming in several locales - NYC, Italy, Egypt, Japan, France, and...Michigan.


I Liked:
+ Jamie Bell, for about two seconds when I could imagine him in any other movie.

I Disliked:
- Samuel L. Jackson's ridiculous hair-do. Does this guy really need a silly look for every role?
- The waste of Diane Lane - we see her in photographs more than in person.
- Hayden Christensen - good grief, get a personality and get out of sci-fi movies. Stick with roles like Life as a House and Shattered Glass, if you're going to do anything at all.

I Hated:
- The meaningless plot - what is this "war" about and how has it remained under wraps since "medieval times"? (And on that note, has no one in history ever asked, "Where did you just come from?")
- The stomach-churning cinematography - why vigorously shake the camera when a character is just standing in place doing nothing? Oh yeah, it adds "realism," because we all live in a perpetual earthquake.

Grade:
Writing - 4
Acting - 5
Production - 7
Emotional Impact - 4
Music - 5
Significance - 1

Total: 26/50= 52% = F

Last Word: I started grading this and just couldn't find low enough marks. Across the board, Jumper is an entirely lackluster, highly obnoxious production that doesn't even try to make up for its lack of characters. Oh, there are people "acting," but it would be a stretch to say that any of them have a personality or interesting quirk of any kind (OK, so some of them can teleport, but that becomes less and less interesting when you learn they aren't actually going anywhere with any kind of purpose). Between unnecessary close-ups and nauseating camera work, we're subject to offensive dialogue (it's not profane, just idiotic) and a confusing-yet-somehow-familiar plot. Doug Liman seems to be trying to launch his own Bourne trilogy here, but without Matt Damon, cool action, and a plot, it's going to be a difficult task. I really had some hopes for Jumper, if for no other reason than as a trip around the world, which is about the only thing it does moderately well (but Hayden Christensen eating a sub sandwich on top of the Sphinx?). Fanboys I'm sure will defend this through its trilogy, but as a newcomer to the story I am utterly disappointed. Yet another example of a relatively cool idea messed up with romance, jerks for characters, and cliched plot elements. Save the trip - you'll wish you could teleport out of the theater.

Breaking News: The Oscars Are Controversial


TIME magazine's film critic, Richard Corliss, recycles the age-old question yet again in this week's issue: Do the right films win Oscars? The short answer, to no one's surprise, is "no." But did I really need to read the article to hear that for the thousandth time? Granted, it's the 80th anniversary of the Academy Awards ("pop culture's equivalent of the Nobel Prize" - ?), and the average TIME reader might not see many movies, but for those who do this is like hearing that ticket prices are going to increase in the future. Not the most shocking revelation.

Corliss runs through an itemized list of films and actors that should and should not have won Oscar, but what's the point? The fundamental backbone of the entire process is subjectivity, so why try to prove that your picks are better than the actual winners? Instead, enlighten us further about "the problems with the Academy Awards: political pressure, suspicion of outsiders, resistance to innovation." There's really no point in discussing anything else, let alone providing "evidence" (a graphic in the print edition of the issue) of poor voting - Tootsie should have won Best Picture over Gandhi?

What Corliss and most everyone else still fails to understand is that we don't get excited about the "right" movies winning Academy Awards. It's great if they do (and his last mention of No Country for Old Men is right on), but it's never expected that they actually will. Instead, we're all just anxious to see which of the "right" films will sneak through for any recognition at all.
Sure, it's unfortunate that Hitchcock and Citizen Kane and 2001: A Space Odyssey didn't win Oscars, but I think (rather, hope) that people understand an excellent film or actor is not defined by that. Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, and The Shawshank Redemption were all up against each other for Best Picture in 1994. Could you have persuasively justified your vote as the unequivocal "right" one?

The reason to love the Oscars (and the reason for myriad pools and contests) is that it's a thrilling game of chance, with way too many variables to reconcile. That's what the "big" deal is.

February 15, 2008

A Trip to the Zoo: LAMBS and Muriels

On the way to the Kodak Theater on February 24th, why not make a stop at the zoo? There are a couple of current blog happenings worth checking out:

LAMB:
The brainchild of Dylan at Blog Cabins, LAMB is the Large Association of Movie Blogs, a community of 40+ movie bloggers from around the world. Over the last few weeks, each LAMB member has tackled one Oscar category to analyze. Mine, for Best Documentary Feature, happens to be up today, but definitely check out the previous categories and the rest of the LAMBs as well (see scroll box in the sidebar). There's also an Oscar pool if you're feelin' lucky.


The Muriels:

Craig Kennedy at Living in Cinema is one of 20 movie bloggers who took part in voting for the second annual Muriel Awards. From February 13th-29th, enjoy the winners in numerous "Best of 2007" categories, including several non-Oscar categories and some anniversary awards as well. Think of it as the bizarro Oscars, with better categories and a cuter mascot.

February 13, 2008

REVIEW: In Bruges (B)

Background: Accomplished British playwright Martin McDonagh won an Oscar in 2004 for his short film Six Shooter, which (from what I've heard) was loosely adapted into the feature-length In Bruges, also written and directed by McDonagh. Starring the principal of the short, Brendan Gleeson (Beowulf, Harry Potter...), as well as Colin Farrell (Cassandra's Dream) and Ralph Fiennes (Harry Potter..., The Constant Gardener), In Bruges was a hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival and was filmed entirely on location in Belgium.

Synopsis: Ken (Gleeson) and Ray (Farrell) are hit men from Dublin sent to lay low in Bruges, Belgium, because Ray's first job went awry. Ignorant as to why they are specifically in Bruges, the hyperbored Ray and the endearing Ken spend a few days sightseeing and cavorting with an attractive drug dealer, a dwarf, and some prostitutes - but mostly they just banter back and forth, and some dramatic scenes involving Ray's guilt are tossed into the mix. When Ken finally receives a call from their boss, Harry (Fiennes), he's forced to make a decision he hoped never to face. His choice brings Harry to fanciful Bruges for a drawn-out showdown between the three men.

I Loved:
+ The scene in which Ralph Fiennes meets Brendan Gleeson at the outdoor patio table in Bruges.
+ Colin Farrell, for the second 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.
+ The enchanting city of Bruges. It was like a fairy tale...

I Liked:
+ The musical score by Carter Burwell (No Country for Old Men - was there even a score?). It fit well with the setting of Bruges and worked for the story.
+ The scene with the American tourists.
+ The often very funny dialogue between Gleeson and Farrell.

I Disliked:
- The ugliness of Jordan Prentice's character - what a jerk. Good acting, though.
- The occasional feeling that this would have made a better play than a movie.

I Hated:
- The contrived and predictable ending - everything was going really well with this movie until the penultimate minute.

Grade:
Writing - 9
Acting - 10
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Significance - 2

Total: 43/50= 86% = B

Last Word: While it starts
out as a comedy, In Bruges eventually morphs into your standard crime thriller. This is a good thing, as there is only so much bickering and bantering you can take before you start to roll your eyes. The duo of Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson is natural and quite charming until Fiennes rolls in and owns every scene he's in, most impressively in the one I mention above. Farrell especially nails the role of the neurotic, vulnerable rookie to Gleeson's seasoned, above-it-all veteran, and there are some hilarious lines throughout. Though there exists an almost troubling similarity to Farrell's character in Cassandra's Dream, it doesn't take anything away from In Bruges - in fact it fits better here anyway. However, while the acting is top-notch (and I didn't mention the great supporting performances), the story has a tendency to occasionally lag, even to the point where we feel as trapped as the characters. The most unfortunate piece of In Bruges - the bit that really got me down, was the ending. I know Martin McDonagh has this great reputation for storytelling, but that was really "Oh, come on!". It's as if he was out of his element in finishing the story on film, whereas on stage he could have found a better spot to cut it? The last bit of dialogue is nice, but it doesn't make up for the disappointing ending (after a great buildup) that precedes it.

Samsung's BlueSeat Gives Me the Blues

If you've frequented Landmark Theatres over the past few years (and if you haven't, you should), you'll agree that we're increasingly subject to commercials before the trailers. I expect this from the massive multiplexes, but as inevitable as it was, it's disappointing that advertising found its way into the independent realm.

It wasn't so bad when it started some years ago. Stella Artois (the Belgian lager) is one of the largest sponsors and produces some really entertaining film-like commercials. At one point they even had selections from a short film competition that played before the movie. I can enjoy that. Additional commercials have pitched HDNET, hybrid cars, Patrón tequila
and HBO documentaries (that one was fantastic), as well as a new addition in early 2007, Samsung's BlueSeat.

It's never been clear to me exactly what "BlueSeat" is, but the commercials are sticky. A scraggly animated short with a sardonic ending leads into a nerdy male voiceover: "True vision should lose nothing in translation." Then we're told to sign up to support independent film and be a "BlueSeat insider" at BlueSeat.com. Typically I laugh off such offers, but this one seemed right up my alley. Of course I signed up, expecting roses and gumdrops in return.

And so far? Nothing. They've had "features" on two movies in the last 8 months, the message boards are a frightening ghost town, and I'm not "inside" anything but a frustrating marketing gimmick. There are empty promises of preview screenings and behind-the-scenes access, even a drawing for a Samsung TV that, to my knowledge, never even took place.

Yesterday came another dangling carrot when they emailed me to announce the launch of "Movie Buzz" at BlueSeat.com. What, you might ask, is "MovieBuzz"? Simply a headline feed from Rotten Tomatoes and Cinematical. Why wouldn't I just go those sources, where the news is fresh and the site is vibrant? I sure hope no one on Samsung's payroll is making a living off of BlueSeat ideas. For all we "insiders" know, it could be run an intern, monkey, or a team comprised of both. The site is stale.

The point in all of this is that Samsung has pulled the wool over everyone's eyes in pretending to be some huge supporter of independent film, when in reality it's nothing more than an advertising scheme for suckers like me. No longer do I enjoy the creepy shorts, and no longer am I hopeful about the purity of independent film through Landmark Theatres. Do something, Mark Cuban.

February 10, 2008

Picking Through the NYT Mag's 2007 Breakthroughs

This week's New York Times Magazine features 15 actors who had "breakthrough" performances in 2007. It's a nice glossy yearbook even though some of the photos are too artistic for my taste. There are some online pieces that complement the magazine:

+ NYT Mag editor at large Lynn Hirschberg narrates an audio slideshow of the magazine photos while making some odd observations:
  • "The Assassination of Jesse James by the 'Outlaw' Robert Ford." Uh? Really small, but how do you make that mistake - by that I mean where does it even come from? Oh well, great to see Casey Affleck as first up here.
  • Jim Sturgess - I loved him in Across the Universe, but saying "he will have one of the biggest careers that anyone will ever witness" seems a little much at this point.
  • Edith Piaf, as played by Marion Cotillard, is "probably one of the most well-known singers of all time." If that were true, La Vie en Rose would have been a box-office smash.
  • Seth Rogen has created a character that will carry him "throughout the next 50 years of his career." Ay, I hope he finds more defining characters in that time.
  • Hal Holbrook - fine, great, I liked him, but WHERE is Emile Hirsch in this group?! This is an even more incredible snub than his lack of an Oscar nomination.
  • Ellen Page is "this year's special star." Fine - truth be told, Hirschberg's accompanying article is one of the more concisely convincing pieces I've yet read about Page's talent. Makes me feel like she succeeded despite Diablo Cody's writing of Juno MacGuff's character, not because of it.
  • Josh Brolin - No Country for Old Men is covered, but shouldn't there have also been mention of his 2007 work in American Gangster, In the Valley of Elah, and Grindhouse?
+ Ryan McGinley's music video, "Shooting Stars," offers a behind-the-scenes look at the photo shoot:
  • The comedy in this is presumably unintentional - but really, really great. Each of the actors is placed in what look to be extremely uncomfortable settings and positions (laying down on ice, standing in front of fireworks or a fire, sitting in the snowy woods or a smoky cave, wading in cold surf, Seth Rogen feeding geese in a park?) while wearing a "What am I doing here?" expression on their face (best exhibited by Sienna Miller, Michael Cera, Casey Affleck and Josh Brolin). The music works, though.
+ Jake Paltrow - Gwyneth's brother - directs the short film Breakthroughs, in which 8 of the 15 breakthrough actors discuss the actors that inspired them:
  • The beginning of this was really cool.
  • Casey Affleck is a lot cooler than Ben Affleck.
  • Ellen Page - "I loved Jurassic Park. I thought Laura Dern was super cool....and I just thought, how cool is this person?"
  • Jim Sturgess (on River Phoenix - "This guy is very cool") is going to be really cool in future roles.
  • James McAvoy's accent is pretty cool.
  • Amy Ryan is cooler than Helene McCready.
  • Paul Dano is cooler than I thought.
  • Marion Cotillard's piece would have been cooler had she been speaking French.
  • James Brolin has some cool insights, but he's not quite as cool as he thinks he is.
Neither am I.

February 8, 2008

REVIEW: Taxi to the Dark Side (B+)

Background: Over the last year or so, public interest in the use of torture has waned quite significantly. It made a brief appearance in 2007's terrible Rendition, but has otherwise been relegated to obscure Abu Ghraib references in pop culture. Alex Gibney, whose Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room was one 2005's best documentaries, takes on the Bush administration's torture tactics with Taxi to the Dark Side. This was his second involvement on an Iraq documentary in 2007 - he was an executive producer on Charles Ferguson's No End in Sight. Both films received Oscar nominations for Best Documentary Feature.

Synopsis: Framing his attack on Bush around the story of innocent Afghan taxi driver Dilawar, who was murdered by beatings in American detention in 2002, Gibney takes us on a torture tour through Bagram prison in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib in Baghdad, and, of course, the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay. Amazingly, the (now discharged) military personnel involved with Dilawar's death are all happy to share their stories on camera, no doubt to shed some guilt and blame their actions on "following orders." Over and over we see mutilated, naked bodies of detainees in various stages of "interrogation." A few reenactments are oddly interspersed, along with some interviews from authors and experts on torture, the Geneva Conventions, and human behavior. The rest of the 106 minutes are filled with predictable clips of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Gonzales, et. al. defending torture by saying it can't be defined.

I Loved:
+ The interview with former FBI agent Jack Cloonan.
+ Some interesting statistics: 93% of detainees in U.S. military custody were "captured" for a bounty by tribal warlords and militia men. You can only assume that the majority of such detainees are likely innocent, but this unfortunately isn't further explored.

I Liked:
+ The interviews from the military MPs - straight from the source, like it should be.

I Disliked:
- The reenactments - maybe they were necessary (what are you going to do, actually torture someone?), but they just seemed strangely done.
- When Gibney went Michael Moorish at Guantanamo - catchy song with ironic lyrics while showing exaggerated examples of military attitude.
- Not hearing from any interviewees who could have defended the use of torture.

I Hated:
- The explicit male nudity, quite certainly the most I've ever seen in a film. And no, this isn't a "fairness" thing about male vs. female nudity on screen - it's a "dignity" thing. These men, if still alive, have been subject to enough humiliation already, haven't they? The blurred photos with which we are all (hopefully) familiar would have been appropriate and would have sufficed just fine in showing the horror of the situation.

Grade:
Writing - N/A
Acting - N/A
Production - 7
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Significance - 5

Total: 26/30= 87% = B+

Last Word: In addition to objectively painting a portrait of a given subject matter, a documentary is usually expected to be an expos
é of said subject matter; a story you've never heard, or a story you've heard before, but not in "this way." Though engrossing and often gross, the real weakness of Taxi to the Dark Side is the fact that it's the same story told in pretty much the same way we've always heard: poor leadership within the U.S. administration led to poor decision-making on the ground, which led to poor detainees being treated poorly. Everyone's guilty but no one is to blame. This circuitous chaos is the subject matter and not the fault of Alex Gibney, but I hold him accountable for not telling me anything I didn't already know about it (and for thoroughly confusing me with years and locations). If there was ever an instance of preaching to the choir, this was it. Why did I expect more? Because Gibney's Enron was a triumph - as much as you knew about that scandal (which was probably not much), he laid out a linear, exacting argument that left no room for debate. As ironic as it seems to say so, Taxi to the Dark Side is not going to convince anyone of anything. You either think torture is bad, or you think torture is good. I really don't see a middle ground, and if you're in the second group you won't change your mind from what Gibney presents, you'll just shrug your shoulders. For a brief moment he actually starts to get creative as we hear from a former FBI interrogator whose interrogation techniques were effective and peaceful (as much as he exaggerated). That started to be convincing, so why did it end? And what about the 30 second insight into how torture has been embraced by the American public thanks to the likes of 24? That's an interesting place to go, but we're left with more polarizing soundbites from Bush. How about the flash-quick glimpse into the future repercussions from torture survivors? Gibney even pushes his own personal connection to torture to the credits. Where was that the whole time? The short of it is, by focusing on the same old details and using some pretty tired arguments, Gibney prevents his merely good work from achieving real excellence. Though it's a good excuse to get angry for a few hours, Taxi to the Dark Side can really only be recommended for anyone who has had their head in the sand for the last five years.
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