Wednesday, February 28, 2007

"American Idol" 02/28/07 -- Top 10 Women Perform

On Tuesday night, the Idol Men raised the bar to somewhere below where the Women already were last week. On Wednesday (Feb. 28) night's American Idol, the best of the women raised the bar to a place the men couldn't reach if they tried.

Singer: Gina Glocksen
Song: "Alone"
My Take: Gina starts off in a coma, letting her va-va-voom red dress serve as the lone expression of her personality. The Heart song builds to a climax and for a brief period, Gina comes to life before botching the end of the song, coming in sharp on each and every note. I won't add any commentary about the enthusiasm with which A.J. was singing along on the side.
Wynken, Blynken and Simon Say: She started pitchy for Randy, but worked it out. Paula references Carrie Underwood's version two seasons ago, but concludes that Gina was excellent. Simon correctly notes the forced closing vocals and warns her to figure out who she wants to be. He wants her to be edgier. Ryan ends with an awkward plea for Gina's boyfriend to propose. Ryan Seacrest: Preventing Contestants From Becoming Old Maids Since 2007.

Singer: Alaina Alexander
Song: "Not Ready To Make Nice"
My Take: Did anybody really get "Mad as Hell!" out of Alaina's occasional hand-flapping, limp-wristed manual stop-signs and her anemic attempts to shout over the superior background singers? At times Alaina circled the melody of the song, but I'm not sure she's ever actually there. She lacks the brassy assuredness of the Dixie Chicks original. She lacks any confidence at all. Going back to the first auditions, we've never gotten any indication of what the judges have seen in her.
Wynken, Blynken and Simon Say: Randy says it started off good for the first couple bars, but Alaina lost the tune and pitch early. Paula agrees that it was pitchy, but not so awful. "It was like Randy taking part in a 100 meter sprint, i.e. three-quarters of the way through the race, he would run out of steam," Simon deconstructs. They agree she looks fine.

Singer: Lakisha Jones
Song: "Midnight Train to Georgia"
My Take: Last week, Lakisha came out of nowhere and blew everybody away. She lacks the same shock factor this week, but Lakisha delivers a strong reproduction of the Gladys Knight original, easily standing out from her fill-in Pips. However, in the future, Lakisha should make sure that the production team isn't going to light her so that she blends in with the wall.
Wynken, Blynken and Simon Say: Randy stutters about her spirit and vibe, telling her not to be nervous. Paula expresses love. Simon is less a fan of Lakisha's dancing, but he calls her a phenomenally good singer. He tells her the outfit was distracting and that she should think she's a star. Ryan and Simon engage in an awkward debate on whether Lakisha's shirt is salmon or orange.

Singer: Melinda Doolittle
Song: "My Funny Valentine"
My Take: Remember that awful version of "My Funny Valentine" that Constantine did a couple seasons ago? If you don't feel like throwing on an old Blue Note Chet Baker record, this is an excellent (and different) alternative. Some of her mannerisms are a smidge too torchy, too put-on, but her vocals are out of this world. It's a beautiful cover, modulated and textured to a degree that no other contestant this season (or last season [or since Fantasia, really]) could approach, including Lakisha, who seemed to have a temporary lead last week. This is the season's first truly defining performance, Melinda's "Summertime."
Wynken, Blynken and Simon Say: Randy asserts that Melinda is in it to win it and the one to beat. Paula praises her phrasing and applauds her. "That was incredible," Simon gushes.

Sure, Melinda was great, but how did Dan make fun of the far-less-great Antonella Barba? And why do stupid internet pervs keep searching for "Antoinette Barba"? In any case, check out my full recap over at Zap2it.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

"American Idol" 02/27/07 -- Top 10 Men Perform

"The Guys are back," Ryan Seacrest warns, kicking off Tuesday (Feb. 27) night's American Idol performance episode. "And this time it's personal."

I believe he's referring to the fact that every judge, observer and armchair critic is pretty much ready to nuke the male side of the bracket entirely after last week. The dudes have something to prove.

After the episode begins with a classy and quick salute to Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, the performances begin.

Singer: Phil Stacey

Song: "Missing You"
My Take: Last week it was notable how well Phil picked up once the song broke into its powerful chorus, so choosing a song with very little initial ebb or flow doesn't play to his strengths. The vocals are competent, though he doesn't get to the most passionate (and difficult) part of the track in his 90 allotted seconds. In the absence of any active performance, I find myself distracted by his shiny bald skull and his equally blinding white shirt.
Cerberus Says: Randy says "Yeah" several times and announces that Phil started the night off hot. Paula loves the tone to his voice, which she calls radio-ready. "I'm not jumping out of my chair," Simon says, calling Phil a good karaoke singer. We're only eight minutes in and we've already had three cuts to Jeff Foxworthy.

Singer: Jared Cotter
Song: "Let's Get It On"
My Take: Any time you can dedicate the performance of a Marvin Gaye song to your father, there's some unintentional irony at work. Jared starts off sharp on a song that isn't naturally compatible with his voice at all, forcing the arrangement to keep shifting octaves whenever it gets either too high (straight out of his nose) or too low (probably better for him). Jared murders the last note and pulls the mic away quickly, a gesture that stifles the mistake, rather than savoring it.
Cerberus Says: Randy thought it was pitchy in spots and started rough, but he liked the mannerisms. Paula has a hard time critiquing male singers under any circumstances, but amidst her giggles and double-entendres, she sounds ready to say he tried too hard. "It did remind me, though, of 'The Love Boat,'" Simon suggests, calling it corny in parts. "That would have been a great 'Love Boat,' man," Jared responds.

Singer: A.J. Tabaldo
Song:"Feelin' Good"
My Take: It turns out that when I look away from my monitor, I like A.J.'s voice a good amount. He tries things. He works with the words and the pacing of the song and actually delivers some real nuance. I was surprised by how much I didn't dislike him last week, and this week I was surprised by how much I liked the way he sang. In terms of performance, he tries much too hard. Everything from his attire to his smile to his mannerisms seems geared toward making young girls and middle-aged women squeal.
Cerberus Says: Randy says it was kind of nice. Paula gives props to the background singers. "I have to say that was actually nearly very good," Simon says with some hesitation.

Singer: Sanjaya Malakar
Song: "Steppin' Out"
My Take: Wait. When did Sanjaya become a Southeast Asian Corey Clark? And when did anybody request a Southeast Asian Corey Clark? Hair in a ponytail (a good idea), face engulfed by a hat (misidentified as a top-hat in the lyrics), he's unrecognizable. Where's Sanjaya? Not here. The song accentuates both his smooth, affectless tone and his woefully limited range. He gets lost in the rhythm of the song, falling into an embarrassed whisper at times. The last note is so slight the audience isn't sure if they're supposed to applaud, causing some awkward dead air.
Cerberus Says: Randy calls him a nice kid, but compares it to a bad high school talent show performance. Paula raves that she couldn't call him pitchy. That's all she's got. Simon goes back to the well of comparing it to a child performing at a family lunch.

Check out the rest of my recap, including the best and worst of the night, over at Zap2it.

MovieWatch: "Black Snake Moan"

"Black Snake Moan"
Director: Craig Brewer
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 65
In a Nutshell: I actually saw this one back in early January before interviewing Craig Brewer for a Filter magazine feature and I held off on even a quickie review because I was underblogging at the time. Now? Blogging up a storm (ask me to sing a chorus of "Daniel Won't You Blog" to the tune of "Someone's In The Kitchen With Dinah" sometime).

It's interesting and probably a mistake that "Black Snake Moan" is being pushed out there as a wide release, though I hear it's tracking relatively well, largely on the strength of a fantastic ad campaign accentuating only images of Christina Ricci in her panties or Daisy Dukes. There's a problem: "Black Snake Moan" is two different movies -- The first half is a ballsy, exploitation movie straight out of the late-70s. It's gritty, sweaty and just plain nasty fun, with a killer soundtrack to match. That part of the movie requires at least some awareness of its down-and-dirty antecedents. If you don't know the game Brewer's playing, you'll probably think he's playing it wrong, but he's a smart enough guy that he knows every button he's pushing, every loaded image he's reproducing.

The second half of the movie, though, is an earnest, clear-eyed story of redemption and rebirth. It isn't nearly as effective, but I get the feeling that people who love the first half will hate the second and vice versa. The movie is sure to prompt debate, misinterpretation and too-quick condemnation from some circles. Like "Hustle & Flow," "Black Snake Moan" has aspects that ought to make it a mainstream crowdpleaser, but exactly the elements that make it good are the elements that will alienate multiplex viewers. I just don't know if people who go to drool over Christina Ricci are necessarily going to respond to the movie as a whole.

Ricci is amazing, incidentally. I've found her vaguely sexy at times in the past ("The Opposite of Sex," I guess), but she goes for broke here, both physically and emotionally. I suspect that "Black Snake Moan" will mostly be remembered as the movie that opened doors for her to get endlessly better roles. Samuel Jackson is good, but I never got past the fact that he was playing old and broken and a little overweight, but that he mostly carried himself like a man capable of ridding planes of snakes.
Expect some folks to adore that audacity of "Black Snake Moan" and others to try to tear it to shreds.

Monday, February 26, 2007

The Oscars Aftermath: I'm a Moron

If you read through my Oscar predictions and analysis, one thing must swiftly be clear: I don't have a clue what I'm talking about.

At least in terms of predicting, I wreathed myself in no particular glory. Out of the 21 categories that I attempted to guess, I got exactly 11 right. That means I did better than an untrained chimp picking at random, but not quite as well as a trained chimp that watched nearly every nominated film beforehand.

I made mistakes that everybody made: Look, I can't feel bad about thinking "Children of Men" was going to win cinematography. It deserved to win. All signs pointed to it winning. But "Pan's Labyrinth" won and I'm OK about that. And with all those songs from "Dreamgirls" nominated, surely *one* of 'em had to win, right? Right?

I made mistakes that nobody made: Look, I knew Eddie Murphy wasn't going to win best supporting actor. But if I'd just guessed Alan Arkin, I'd have been like everybody else guessing Alan Arkin. Nobody picking Alan Arkin deserves to say they picked an upset today. But if Jackie Earle Haley had actually won? I'd have gone out on a limb. I stand by that.

I made mistakes and hoped I was wrong: Look, I suspected that the editing award and the best picture award were going to line up. I wanted "The Departed" to win. I guessed "Babel" was going to win, because the Academy hates me. It turns out that the Academy didn't hate me quite as much as I feared.

The choice that made me happiest? "The Departed" for best picture, to be sure. Mostly, I was just glad with the things that didn't win.

The choice[s] that annoyed me most? I've said my piece on "Little Miss Sunshine" and its script. That was still less silly than the Melissa Etheridge song from "An Inconvenient Truth" winning. We get it: If the Academy got to vote for president last night, Al Gore would have won.

Just to recap, here are my picks, with the actual winners. I put an asterix next to the ones I got wrong, just for easier mockability. I could run screaming from my shame or embrace my own mediocrity.

The 79th Annual Academy Awards:

*Sound Editing: "Blood Diamond" [Winner: "Letters from Iwo Jima"]
Sound Mixing: "Dreamgirls" [Winner: "Dreamgirls"]
Special Effects: "Pirates of the Caribbean 2" [Winner: "Pirates 2"]
Make-up: "Pan's Labyrinth" [Winner: "Pan's Labyrinth"]
Score: "Babel" [Winner: "Babel"]
*Song: "Listen," "Dreamgirls" [Winner: An Inconvenient Truth"]
*Art Direction: "Dreamgirls" [Winner: "Pan's Labyrinth"]
*Costumes: "Dreamgirls" [Winner: "Marie Antoinette"]
*Cinematography: "Children of Men" [Winner: "Pan's Labyrinth"]
*Editing: "Babel" [Winner: "The Departed"]
*Animated: "Cars" [Winner: "Happy Feet"]
*Foreign: "Pan's Labyrinth" [Winner: "The Lives of Others"]
Documentary: "An Inconvenient Truth" [Winner: "An Inconvienent Truth"]
Adapted Script: "The Departed" [Winner: "The Departed"]
Original Screenplay: "Little Miss Sunshine" [Winner: "Little Miss Sunshine"]
*Supporting Actor: Jackie Earle Haley [Winner: Alan Arkin]
Supporting Actress: Jennifer Hudson [Winner: Jennifer Hudson]
Actress: Helen Mirren [Winner: Helen Mirren]
Actor: Forest Whitaker [Winner: Forest Whitaker]
Director: Martin Scorsese [Winner: Martin Scorese]
*Picture: "Babel" [Winner: "The Departed"]

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Oscar Preview/Predix -- Part V -- Best Picture

Mission accomplished. Between Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and Saturday's posts, I've covered all of the Oscar categories that I feel even vaguely qualified to speculate on. That leaves one lone category remaining.

Unfortunately, it's a big one. And equally unfortunately, I don't think I have a clue.

Best motion picture of the year
“The Departed”
“Letters from Iwo Jima”
“Little Miss Sunshine”
“The Queen”

In last week's issue of Entertainment Weekly, they anonymously polled a trio of Academy members and asked for their votes in several major categories. The screenwriter, allegedly a 25-year vet of the industry, said he voted for "Little Miss Sunshine" for best picture. His reasons? I quote, "It was amusing. You get a warm-fuzzy from it." EW owes it to the dignity of the Academy to out this fraud by name, lest anybody associated with the Oscars should want it thought that the industry's highest prize go to a film that was, at best, "amusing" and capable of generating a "warm-fuzzy."

If "Little Miss Sunshine" somehow wins the best picture Oscar on Sunday evening, it will become the slightest Best Picture winner in Oscar history, a film so insignificant that the jury at last January's Sundance Film Festival didn't give it a single prize. Despite its generally accepted status as a crowd-pleaser, it didn't even win the audience prize at Sundance [Editor's Note: Apparently "LMS" played out of the main competition at Sundance. That explains it not winning any competition awards, doncha think?]. "LMS" is a sloppy little feel-good indie, a poorly written, indifferently directed movie that's carried by a handful of genuinely fine performances. It's not an awful movie, or even a bad movie. It doesn't inspire that kind of passion in me. It was there. I chuckled a few times (and fewer times than I'd have liked) and then it ended. Why will it not be a surprise, then, if this little afterthought of a movie wins best picture? Guilds, baby. Guilds. After "LMS" lost to "Dreamgirls" in the musical/comedy category at the Golden Globes, it seemed like the darkest of dark horses to even early an Oscar nomination. Then it won the Producers Guild best picture and the Screen Actors Guild best ensemble and the Writers Guild best original screenplay (as original as a remake of "National Lampoon's Vacation" can possibly be). The only major guild prize it didn't get was the Directors Guild, but that's just because the groundswell of support for Martin Scorsese has made him unbeatable.

However, Scorsese's unbeatability is considered an isolated phenomenon, as is the likelihood of William Monahan taking adapted screenplay for "The Departed." Those presumptive wins, despite making "The Departed" the year's best written and directed films, are unlikely to make "The Departed" the year's best picture, at least in the eyes of the Academy. It's a straight-up genre movie, not usually the kind of thing that the Academy gives top prize to. On the other hand, it's the only best picture nominee to make $100-plus million, which means that even though "LMS" is seen as the crowd-pleaser, "The Departed" has pleased more crowds, cumulatively. It wasn't one of my five favorite films of the year, but it's the best nominated film, if you ask me.

The worst of the nominated films? "Babel." Forgive me, but I don't respond well to atonal filmmaking-as-dirge. "Babel" was every bit as contrived in its misery as "Little Miss Sunshine" was contrived in its comedy. Alejandro Gonzalaz Inarritu has directing talent, but he isn't a talented director. Two different things. "Babel" is a miserable mess of a movie. People have compared it to last year's undeserving best picture winner "Crash," but I'm not sure I agree. "Crash" was both a lesser film, but also a film with more clarity of purpose. Stupid people walked out of "Crash" nodding and saying, "My God. There's still racism and dischord in the world!" and they felt like they'd been cleansed. People are walking out of "Babel" going "Oh, I was so moved." "By what?" "Ummm... the difficulties of globalism?" If you're looking for award season precursors, "Babel" only has a couple. It won the Golden Globe for best drama, which only means that 30 or 35 members out of a buffet-loving 90-person voting board liked it. Big deal. It also split the Editors Guild prize with "The Departed," which is pretty inconclusive.

"The Queen" is a decent BBC or HBO movie with a heck of a leading performance. Helen Mirren will win. "The Queen" will be placated. It won't win best picture.

How about "Letters From Iwo Jima," though? The Academy loves Clint Eastwood. The Academy loves important movies about war. Will the Academy love an important movie about war that takes the losing side and does so in a language nobody in the Academy speaks and stars a group of foreign actors nobody in the Academy recognizes (Ken Watanabe aside, of course)?

So what does that mean?

Should Win: If I have to make a choice, "The Departed."
Will Win: In a shocking and unprecedented move, the Academy decides not to give a best picture Oscar this year! My hunch: "Babel" wins, continuing the Academy's multi-year campaign to transition from barely relevant to entirely irrelevant.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Oscar Preview/Predix -- Part IV

We're getting closer to the big ones now after Wednesday, Thursday and Friday's posts. Assuming that I decide who I think is going to win best picture tomorrow night, I think I'll unveil my guess.

Remember, Check the Fien Print provides these picks for personal interest only. I don't condone gambling on the Oscars with them. I totally condone gambling on the Oscars, just don't do it with my picks. I'd only lose you money.

Performance by an actor in a supporting role
Alan Arkin in “Little Miss Sunshine”
Jackie Earle Haley in “Little Children”
Djimon Hounsou in “Blood Diamond”
Eddie Murphy in “Dreamgirls”
Mark Wahlberg in “The Departed”

Should Win: *This* is the category that Forest Whitaker should be winning in. Of the nominated performances, I'm split between Wahlberg -- who's barely in the movie but makes the most of every single second he's there giving a surprisingly smart and funny performance for an actor who isn't known as either smart or funny -- and Haley -- who challenges viewers to understand and sympathize with (but never forgive) a reprehensible character.
Will Win: This one has been a lock for Murphy for months and I thought he was pretty decent, really. There have been bloggers launching campaigns against him because he's a bit of an ass and he doesn't play the publicity game, plus he made "Norbit." The obvious dark-horse, upset pick is Arkin, who's almost in line for something of a career achievement award here, despite the fact that the character is a badly written mess. I'm intrigued, though, by Haley. The movie has a bit of Oscar support, obviously, what with its three nominations. It won't win for writing and it won't win for Winslet. Maybe voters choose to respect "Little Children" and to respect Haley's incredibly encouraging comeback. I'm picking Haley, because you don't impress anybody by guessing Murphy.

Performance by an actress in a supporting role
Adriana Barraza in “Babel”
Cate Blanchett in “Notes on a Scandal”
Abigail Breslin in “Little Miss Sunshine”
Jennifer Hudson in “Dreamgirls”
Rinko Kikuchi in “Babel”

Should Win: Blanchett goes head-to-head with one of the best actresses on the planet and looks like she belongs. Hudson goes head-to-head with Beyonce and looks like she belongs. Do I need to explain to you which is a more impressive task?
Will Win: Blanchett winning an Oscar isn't a story. Hudson winning an Oscar is and the voters know it. Hudson does good work on "I Am Telling You," but the rest of her performance isn't on the same level as Blanchett's, or even Barraza's, really. That doesn't matter. Hudson will win because there's a tradition of using the supporting actress category as a platform for discovering new talent.

Performance by an actor in a leading role
Leonardo DiCaprio in “Blood Diamond”
Ryan Gosling in “Half Nelson”
Peter O’Toole in “Venus”
Will Smith in “The Pursuit of Happyness”
Forest Whitaker in “The Last King of Scotland"

Should Win: For Peter O'Toole, it's autobiography. For Leonardo DiCaprio, it's a solid performance in a so-so-movie. For Forest Whitaker, it's a fantastic supporting performance in a so-so movie. The two actors in this category who carry their films completely are Gosling and Smith. Gosling's movie is better than Smith's and the performance is strong as well. He doesn't stand a chance.
Will Win: Whitaker is a pro's pro. He's been turning out worthy performances dating back to "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." If you look at things like "Bird" or "Ghost Dog," calling him an Oscar winner makes sense. But I'll keep saying this: "Last King of Scotland" is James McAvoy's movie, for better or for worse. Whitaker is in the wrong category and he's going to win it.

Performance by an actress in a leading role
Penélope Cruz in “Volver”
Judi Dench in “Notes on a Scandal”
Helen Mirren in “The Queen”
Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada”
Kate Winslet in “Little Children”

Should Win and Will Win: Great year for leading actresses. Historic, almost. Mirren can't lose, but each of the other actors against her would be deserving winners under other circumstances. The depth in this category is much deeper than the best actor race, something that may never have occurred before in Oscar history.

Achievement in directing
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu for “Babel”
Martin Scorsese for “The Departed”
Clint Eastwood for “Letters from Iwo Jima”
Stephen Frears for “The Queen”
Paul Greengrass for “United 93”

Should Win and Will Win: It's a great story: Martin Scorsese, long denied an Oscar, goes Oscar-bait-crazy and makes "Gangs of New York" and "The Aviator" seemingly just for the hardware. The Academy teases him, but gives the trophies to other people. Scorsese turns around and goes back to making crime movies, goes so far as to do a remake of a relatively recent Hong Kong thriller, abandons all pretensions and... Boom! In comes Oscar. Who says that playing hard-to-get doesn't pay off in life as well as love? I'm not in any way convinced that "The Departed" is a better directing achievement than either "Gangs" or "Aviator," but I guess Oscar voters had a point to make and it helped that 2006 was such a poor cinematic year. Of the nominated directors, Scorsese is the deserving winner here, but this is like Al Pacino finally getting his Oscar not for "Dog Day Afternoon" or "The Godfather 2" or "Serpico," but for "Scent of a Woman." On some level, I'm sure even Martin Scorsese finds this funny.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Oscar Preview/Predix -- Part III

I'm slowly making my way through the nominees in the direction of the awards that people care about. I'm still on track to cover the four acting categories and best director tomorrow (I promise at least one surprise prediction!) followed by best picture on Sunday, I assuming I decide what film I reckon's gonna win.

Best animated feature film of the year
“Happy Feet”
“Monster House”

What Should Win: I haven't seen "Happy Feet," so I'm already at a disadvantage in this category. I have, however, seen "Cars" and "Monster House." The former was hugely disappointing by Pixar standards, but still superior to the mostly plotless haunted house flick, which was released at the wrong time and probably should have only been seen in 3-D. So am I supposed to say that "Cars" should win? Screw that. Go Penguins!
What Will Win: Some people seem to like "Happy Feet" but Pixar's got all the power. "Cars" wins. I Yawn.

Best foreign language film of the year
“After the Wedding”
“Days of Glory (Indigènes)”
“The Lives of Others”
“Pan’s Labyrinth”

What Should Win: Well, you know that "Pan's Labyrinth" was my favorite film of the year in any language, so what do you think I'm going to pick?
What Will Win: "Pan's Labyrinth," with six nominations, has across-the-board Academy support, plus it's a great movie. The only way it could lose would be to a movie that the Academy thinks is "important," i.e. a Holocaust film or something like that. "The Lives Of Others" is the only other film with a shot, since there are people (not me, but "people") who think it's brilliant. It isn't, however, important. I look forward to hearing Guillermo Del Toro's acceptance speech.

Best documentary feature
“Deliver Us from Evil”
“An Inconvenient Truth”
“Iraq in Fragments”
“Jesus Camp”
“My Country, My Country”

Should Win: Yes, yes. "An Inconvenient Truth" is an important movie that everybody should see and I'm a moron for thinking that as a *movie* it's only so-so. "Deliver Us from Evil," while flawed, is still a shocking and powerful portrait of a pedophile priest and his victims. It's honest and fully realized, even if it over-reaches in its final act.
Will Win: "An Inconvenient Truth" could hardly lose. Then there will be confused people wondering why the director of "Gossip" (David Guggenheim) is picking up the trophy instead of Al Gore.

Adapted screenplay
“Borat Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” Screenplay by Sacha Baron Cohen & Anthony Hines & Peter Baynham & Dan Mazer Story by Sacha Baron Cohen & Peter Baynham & Anthony Hines & Todd Phillips
“Children of Men” Screenplay by Alfonso Cuarón & Timothy J. Sexton and David Arata and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby
“The Departed” Screenplay by William Monahan
“Little Children” (New Line) Screenplay by Todd Field & Tom Perrotta
“Notes on a Scandal” Screenplay by Patrick Marber

Should Win: Probably Monahan, though I'm not passionate about the choice. I think Christopher and Jonathan Nolan should have been nominated for "The Prestige," but they weren't.
Will Win: My favorite film in this pack is "Children of Men," but I know its script isn't its biggest strength. Field and Perrotta's adaptation is, honestly, a bit too literal at times. "Notes on a Scandal" is an effective camp-fest, but who gives Oscars to intentional camp? That leaves "Borat" and "The Departed." While you can imagine some younger Oscar voters thinking it'd be cool to see Sacha Baron Cohen et al win this prize (and save the evening with his speech), there's bound to be even more confusion about what the script was adapted from, etc. Monahan wins easily for "The Departed."

Original screenplay
“Babel” Written by Guillermo Arriaga
“Letters from Iwo Jima” Screenplay by Iris Yamashita (Story by Iris Yamashita & Paul Haggis)
“Little Miss Sunshine” Written by Michael Arndt
“Pan’s Labyrinth” Written by Guillermo del Toro
“The Queen” Written by Peter Morgan

Should Win: Guillermo del Toro should win. He doesn't have a chance.
Will Win: This is a really interesting category, actually. Michael Arndt is my guess as the likely winner, despite the fact that his script for "Little Miss Sunshine" is a hideous amalgam of poorly rendered characters, contrived circumstances and indie sap. If the movie works at all, it's because of the actors and not the over-praised script. For shame. Peter Morgan is the most probable alternative for his intelligent, multi-layered "Queen" script, even if I found the movie a bit slight overall. Arriaga's "Babel" script is also dreck, which makes me sad since I thought he deserved a nomination last year for "Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada," a better film in every way.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

First Four 'Idol' Contestants Eliminated. Oh well.

Damn, my man Seacrest be killin' off token minorities and cute, skinny white women like he's Jason Voorhees.


That's my only real reaction after watching Thursday (Feb. 22) night's "American Idol."

Of the four contestants who were sent home, only Rudy Cardenas' elimination seemed timely. Rudy stunk on Tuesday and he stunk without sufficient distinction to get the support of the Vote for the Worse folks.

No, I'd have had Amy Krebs -- extremely cute from certain angles, but vocally unremarkable -- going home next week and Nicole Tranquillo -- a bit less cute than Amy, but a bit better musically -- being eliminated the following week. Based on the popularity of "Antonella Barba nude photos" as a Google search phrase (just go here, you web-surfing pervs), it's no surprise that the talent-free New Jersey resident skated by for another week, though Alaina Alexander's survival is a bit of a quandary. But not a huge quandary. She's not making it to the Top 12.

Paul Kim was the only person whose eliminate bothered me a little. He has a better voice than four or five of the remaining males, but he over-sings and he over-relies on irksome affectations. I know why he didn't strike a chord with anybody after his Tuesday performance, but I feel like the guy had potential to make it at least to the Top 10 or Top 12.

Oh well.

For my discussion of the popular "Idol"-watch theory that "It's better to be memorably bad than not to be memorable at all" check out Zap2it.

Oscar Preview/Predix -- Part II

Yesterday I covered the first four categories on my ballot, the minor categories some might say. I wouldn't. Today I mostly cover the crafts categories, the behind-the-scenes stuff that most people in the flyover don't care much about.

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score)
“Babel” Gustavo Santaolalla
“The Good German” Thomas Newman
“Notes on a Scandal” Philip Glass
“Pan’s Labyrinth” Javier Navarrete
“The Queen” Alexandre Desplat

Should win: Navarrete's theme is simple, but beautiful and works its way into every frame of Del Toro's film. Is it too simple and too humable? Perhaps, but this is my pick.
Will Win: Glass's "Notes on a Scandal" score is *awful*. It's like somebody said, "I'm going to write a loud parody of a Philip Glass score," but it got passed off as the original. Nobody (including me) saw "The Good German," but Newman's been ripping off his "American Beauty" score for nearly a decade now. I think Santaolalla would be a sure thing, but he won last year for the superior "Brokeback Mountain" score, but I still think he holds off Desplat, who confusingly won the Golden Globe for a different score ("The Painted Veil").

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original song) “I Need to Wake Up” from “An Inconvenient Truth”
“Listen” from “Dreamgirls”
“Love You I Do” from “Dreamgirls”
“Our Town” from “Cars”
“Patience” from “Dreamgirls”

Should Win and Will Win: For my money, "Dreamgirls" is a one-song musical and that song, "I Am Telling You," wasn't eligible. The best thing I can say about the three new songs is that they don't seem out of place. "Listen" isn't a fantastic song -- it's no "Hard Out Here For a Pimp" -- but it's the best of the "Dreamgirls" lot and that certainly should be enough to beat generic Randy Newman (that "Cars" thing) and generic rocker chick (Melissa Etheridge's out-of-place "Inconvenient Truth" theme).

Achievement in art direction
“The Good Shepherd”
“Pan’s Labyrinth”
“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”
“The Prestige”

Should win: I wasn't a huge fan of "Dreamgirls" as an overall film, but the production design was top-notch on every level.
Will Win: This is a weird category, since "The Queen" and "Marie Antoinette" both feel like they ought to have been included, certainly over "Pirates." Adding to the oddities, the Art Directors Guild went with "Curse of the Golden Flower" (not nominated), "Casino Royale" (not nominated) and "Pan's Labyrinth" over the weekend. Since "Pan's Labyrinth" is the only guild winner in the race here, it's probably the only competition for "Dreamgirls." I still see "Dreamgirls" winning.

Achievement in costume design
“Curse of the Golden Flower” (Yee Chung Man)
“The Devil Wears Prada” (Patricia Field)
“Dreamgirls” (Sharen Davis)
“Marie Antoinette” (Milena Canonero)
“The Queen” (Consolata Boyle)

Should win: Without a doubt, "Marie Antoinette," though "Curse of the Golden Flower" sure looks pretty in still photos.
Will Win: This category is a problem: It's almost impossible for contemporary films to win, because they're just not showy enough, so however great Patricia Fields' "Prada" duds may have been, they can't compete. With only one nomination and minimal box office, "Marie Antoinette" isn't really in the race and "Golden Flower" probably hasn't been seen by enough people. That leaves "The Queen" and "Dreamgirls." The latter has more flash and pizzazz. I see "Dreamgirls" winning, well on the road to taking the year's most Oscars, best picture nomination be damned.

Achievement in cinematography
“The Black Dahlia” (Vilmos Zsigmond)
“Children of Men” (Emmanuel Lubezki)
“The Illusionist” (Dick Pope)
“Pan’s Labyrinth” (Guillermo Navarro)
“The Prestige” (Wally Pfister)

Should Win: I was so unmoved by "The Illusionist" that even the cinematography didn't attract my attention. Otherwise, I see the virtues of every film on this list, even the peculiar Vilmos Zsigmond nod for a movie I liked much more than anybody else. It comes down to Pfister and Lubezki for me. One is prettier. The other more challenging. After nominations for "The New World," "Sleepy Hollow" and "A Little Princess" (all proving he can do "pretty" as well as anybody), it's just time for Lubezki, perhaps the most respected cinematographic artist in the biz, to get his recognition. Pfister will have his time.
Will Win: "Children of Men" may have left some viewers cold, but nobody walked out unimpressed by those darned tracking shots. Alfonso Cuaron has gone out of his way to emphasize Lubezki's role in the collaborative process. Lubezki gets the win.

Achievement in film editing
“Babel” (Stephen Mirrione and Douglas Crise)
“Blood Diamond” (Steven Rosenblum)
“Children of Men” (Alex Rodríguez and Alfonso Cuarón)
“The Departed” (Thelma Schoonmaker)
“United 93” (Clare Douglas, Christopher Rouse and Richard Pearson")

Should Win: "United 93." The film cuts between locations and characters and storylines masterfully. That's good. What's more impressive is how the editors keep a story where the end is well known in a constant state of tension. I also get the impression that piecing together a Paul Greengrass movie must be a real chore. All those hand-held shots must be hell on continuity.
Will Win: There's a school of thought that says that the reason "Little Miss Sunshine" can't win best picture is that it isn't nominated for best editing and that the editing winner between "Babel" and "The Departed" will take best picture. Well, the Editors Guild couldn't choose between them, delivering a tie. Schoonmaker is an industry icon, a legend, but will voters think that Scorese's inevitable win is honor enough for the both of them, particularly since Schoonmaker just won (her second) for "The Aviator"? Here's the problem: While badly edited movies are easy to recognize, well-edited movies are almost impossible to pick out, because nobody knows what the editor had to work with. Even editors themselves can't say for sure which cutters made a masterpiece from a pile of loose celluloid and which had the advantages of a precise and demanding director. As a result, the award usually goes to the film that looked most edited, be it the choppy war film or the film that balances the most storylines (even if that stuff was all in the script). Mirrione got one of those Oscars for "Traffic" and I'm picking him to get another here.

Does that mean I'm also picking "Babel" to win best picture? Stay tuned!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

"American Idol" 02/21/07 -- Top 12 Women Perform

That was much more encouraging than last night, wasn't it? If you took Chris Richardson, Chris Sligh (for humor), Blake Lewis and Brandon Rogers from the male side, eliminated Antonella Barba, Alaina Alexander, Leslie Hunt and Amy Krebs from the female side, we could start the Top 12 tomorrow.

Singer: Stephanie Edwards
Song: "How Come You Don't Call Me?"
My Take: After the men last night, I'd forgotten what a really good singer sounds like. Stephanie has a torch singer's swagger -- she flirts and plays to both the crowd and camera -- and a voice to match. Is she flawless? No. She misses a couple notes on her first shot, but she's good at making adjustments in midstream. She's even checked her Idol playbook to see that the judges like singers who get down on their knees mid-performance. She's in another league from the stuff we saw last night.
Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Simon say: Randy notes the difference from last night and says she set it off. Paula, in shock, calls her a star. I like the cuts to the men, who are already getting tired of hearing how much they stank, as well as one shot of Antonella Barba, who looks to be chewing gum. Simon calculates the improvement from last night at a million-times.

Singer: Amy Krebs
Song: "I Can't Make You Love Me"
My Take: Bonnie Raitt may be one of our most underappreciated vocalists. That's what I think every time I listen to an Idol contestant do a so-so cover, lacking the smoky character of Raitt's voice. Amy doesn't do anything wrong vocally, but she's nearly expressionless throughout. Granted that her expression is placid and beautiful, but she turns a song that ought to be a manifestation of true melancholy into an "Aw shucks, I can't make you love me so I just date somebody else" statement of meaninglessness.
Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Simon say: Randy goes with "boring, middle-of-the-road," and he calls it safe (he doesn't appreciate Bonnie either). Paula agrees. Simon can't remember her already and says she has the personality of a candle.

Singer: Leslie Hunt
Song: "Natural Woman"
My Take: Simon has just coined my new favorite expression: "You're just this thing that sings." Leslie, like Amy, is just another thing that sings. Boots slowly making their way up to her neck, Leslie does the deodorant or female hygiene commercial version of "Natural Woman," all corny smiles and clumsy attempts to follow the camera, all sunshiny and bland. That make sense? It feels like a supporting or background performance. Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Simon say: Randy was hoping for definite greatness and says the song was too big for her. Paula thinks she did a great job, but warns her on song selection. Simon implies that her comfort zone is walking dogs and she looks embarrassed and ungainly. Leslie's husband/boyfriend/father looks ready to hit him.

Singer: Sabrina Sloan
Song: "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You"
My Take: Oooh... Can I be the first person to say that there's something just a bit drag about Sabrina? Good. Her voice is going to be an acquired taste, because she can unquestionably blow, but it's going to be hard to distinguish between when she's singing and shouting. Every second we heard from the audition rounds, Sabrina was shouting, not singing. Tonight, she seems to be singing, right under the shout-threshold and she's powerful and commanding. It will be a tightrope.
Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Simon say: Randy tells her that she properly put things down and that it was hot. Paula gives her a standing ovation. Simon praises Sabrina for her improvement since the audition, calling it the best so far.

Singer: Antonella Barba
Song: "I Don't Want To Miss a Thing"
My Take: Antonella's a pretty girl. In the words of the little-seen Canadian gem Fubar, however, she needs to turn up the good and turn down the suck. She oversings the song into mush. My feeling is that if you aren't getting the basic piece, trying to do advanced flourishes just makes everything worse, like putting rhinestone designs on parachute pants. She wasn't getting the basic song or the flourishes. Pretty girl, ugly karaoke.
Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Simon say: Randy wrings his hands before keeping it real and calling it pitchy and bland. Paula says she's an amazingly beautiful girl and she wasn't bad. Yes. Yes she was. "Well, the good news is you're attractive, the bad news is it didn't work," is Simon's response and predicts she's damaged her chances of remaining another week. "Antonella, it would be like Ryan doing the news," is Simon's assessment of how over-her-head the song was.

The night's best performances were in the second half of the show and the rest of my reactions can already be found over at Zap2it.

Oscar Preview/Predix -- Part I

There's a lot in the news lately and between Anna Nicole Smith dying, Britney shaving her head, Tom Brady posthumously impregnating Bridget Moynahan and pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training, it's easy to forget that the Oscars are coming up this Sunday. Sure, there are plenty of sure things. Helen Mirren's going to get her Oscar. Al Gore will get his (except that he won't, because it'll go to director Davis Guggenheim, but still). Martin Scorsese's going to get the Oscar he deserves, but not for the movie for which he deserves it. But for the first time in my memory, the best picture race isn't just up in the air, it's up in the air between three movies and whichever one wins, it will be considered an upset.

That's fun.

So in the spirit of busy blogging, I'm going to run through the Oscar nominees, or at least most of them. I haven't seen the short films, so I'm skipping those. Sorry. There's a strategy that I'll be working through to get the categories out of the way starting today. I'll have five or six more categories tomorrow, four or five more on Friday, a few more on Saturday and then maybe Sunday before the show, I'll make a Best Picture prediction. The only thing I feel comfortable saying now is that "The Queen" isn't going to win for best picture. Sorry.

Achievement in makeup
“Pan’s Labyrinth”

Should win: It isn't just the faun and blind creature with the eyes in the palms of his hands. No. "Pan's Labyrinth" also features a healthy among of gore that had to be delivered via make-up effects as well. So "Pan's Labyrinth" should win, but I'd still like to take several minutes to bask in the fact that "Click" got a nomination for drawing a couple lines under Kate Beckinsale's eyes and making Adam Sandler look like Al Pacino in the third "Godfather" movie. Sony really should have given "Click" a post-Oscar rerelease just to see if people were paying attention.
Will win: Is this a chance to give Mel Gibson a backhanded compliment and let "Apocalypto" win? I say no. "Pan's Labyrinth" comes in as the most acclaimed movie in the category with six nominations and it also gets the win.

Achievement in sound editing
“Blood Diamond”
“Flags of Our Fathers”
“Letters from Iwo Jima”
“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”

Should win: Even if I could tell you the exact difference between sound editing and sound mixing, I'm doubtful that I could distinguish between the different disciplines, even in a carefully controlled environment, nor could I tell you why four-of-five films are nominated in both categories, but "Letters from Iwo Jim" is distinguished by its sound editing and "Dreamgirls" is distinguished by its sound design. From what I can tell, nominees were determined by the Sound Branch of the Academy (folks who actually *might* know the differences), but the voting for the award is done by the Academy at large (95% of whom don't know the difference any better than I do). The fact is that I think sound editing has more to do with post-production sound effects, while sound mixing has to do with the overall auditory quality of the film, which would explain why the gunfire and explosions of "Iwo Jima" would be admired in the sound editing category, while "Dreamgirls" would get props for being generally pleasant to the ears. Whatever I answer here will thus be an utterly ignorant pick. Thus, I'm going with "Letters From Iwo Jima" as the most deserving winner.
Will Win: I was frequently distracted by bad ADR work on "Blood Diamond," but with five nominations overall, it's apparently the most respected film on this list by the Academy membership as a whole. Plus, it was loud.

Achievement in sound mixing
“Blood Diamond”
“Flags of Our Fathers”
“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”

Should Win: See above. I don't have a clue. In this category, though, I'm going with "Dreamgirls."
Will Win: Most overall nominations of any film in the category, thus, I'm saying that "Dreamgirls" will win.

Achievement in visual effects
“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”
“Superman Returns”

Should win: How could this year's big-ticket summer pics have been so inept that "Poseidon" was able to sneak in and grab a nomination in this category? I liked the flight effects in "Superman Returns" and didn't mind any of the parts were large crystals burst out of the ocean and caused cracks in Metopolis, but Davy Jones and his ship of lost souls were fantastic and so much of what made Bill Nighy's character so squid-y was all done with visual effects. I may not have cared for the movie, but even the Kracken (which didn't need to be in the movie at all) was tentacular.
Will win: Sorry, "Superman," but the movie that made $400-plus million is unbeatable here. "Pirates of the Caribbean" wins easy.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

"American Idol" 02/20/07 -- Top 12 Men Perform

From gigantic former cheeleaders to sentiment-inducing old men to one very weird Cowardly Lion, American Idol viewers have already had to put up with a lot this season, but on Tuesday (Feb. 20) night, with the first appearance of the Top 12 men, the competition is finally on.

Let the royal rumpus begin...

Singer: Rudy Cardenas
Song:Free Ride'
My Take: In his video montage, Rudy's soul patch ebbs and flows with the moon, like he's the least committed werewolf on Earth. If this is the first time America has really seen you, accentuating just how kitschy you can be isn't the best strategy, but I guess Rudy wanted to show that his voice can be cartoonish both low and high. When he isn't mumbling his lyrics ("Ca ma an ta a fee ri" the chorus seems to go), the energy is undeniable and the notes are close enough. But he's a theme park entertainer luring kids to hop on a flume ride between bites of fried dough. Mmm... Fried dough.
Three Blind Mice Say: Randy gives him a couple pluses for getting the party started, but little else. Amidst scattered boos, Randy insists he's keeping it real. Paula thinks Rudy started off fantastic. Simon says he isn't distinctive or unique.

Singer: Brandon Rogers
Song:Rock With You"
My Take: Even if we didn't know Brandon's history as a background singer, you'd still say that he's not quite ready for the spotlight. He comes out tentative and though the spirit eventually stirs, he's more smooth than dramatic or engaging. Also, if you're going to do Michael Jackson, you have to manage better than Brandon's nervous half-shuffle on the stage.
Three Blind Mice Say: Randy calls it pitchy and a little weird and warns him about the runs. Paula thinks it was great, but he needs to be a lead vocalist. Simon goes with "safe and predictable" and tells Brandon to come out on stage and make an impact.

Singer: Sundance Head
Song:Nights in White Satin"
My Take: Rather than trying to remind viewers of that gruff soul singer from the auditions, Sundance has chosen a song that lets him go 90 second without hitting a single note. He's not out of tune, just consistantly wobbly. By the time the song reaches its big notes, Sundance turns a melody that should be passionate into a high drone. Plus, he keeps reaching out to hug me through my TV. I know the chorus repeats "I love you," but stop that, Sundance.
Three Blind Mice Say: Randy wonders were the bluesy Sundance went. Even Paula tells him he picked the wrong song. Simon compares him to "dad at a wedding" and ends by saying that he didn't like him tonight.

Singer: Paul Kim
Song:Careless Whisper"
My Take: When Paul just plain sings, he has great tone. He barely ever just sings. When he reaches for the falsetto or digs deep for soul notes, the acrobatics distract him. I know where the notes are supposed to be, because he has tendency to make like a graphic equalizer with his hands, displaying exactly where he's trying to go. If he's willing to take coaching, he's got potential.
Three Blind Mice Say: Randy thought it started pitchy, weird and stiff. Paula observes that Paul oversang and says he never found his center. Simon cautions that it was a third-rate version of the George Michael original.

Singer: Chris Richardson
Song:I Don't Wanna Be"
My Take: Somewhere, Gavin DeGraw is cringing, as Chris gives the occasionally rough-around-the-edges song a full-on pop make-over. That's not an insult, necessarily. The song comes mostly out of the top of his head and there's something a bit Ace Young-ish about the sound of his voice. On the other hand, Chris seems completely at ease on the stage and his ability to get the crowd engaged is more important than the limitations of his knee-bending bounce. Based on the audition footage, he should get better.
Three Blind Mice Say: Randy indicates that the night just started and that Chris made the song his own and did his thang. Paula's likes the performance, but mocks his dad's dancing. Simon says he sounded small and that without watching it was a below-standard vocal.


Monday, February 19, 2007

Top 10 Films of 2006: Part II

One of the problems with having opinions and stating them frequently is that year-end lists generally end up being forgone conclusions. I haven't missed a chance to plug for the films I most enjoyed this year, so most readers of this blog (or people I talk to in the real world) know what my five favorites were. There was a little bit of pseudo-suspense to the second-half of the Top 10, but the first half? Oh, just the usual suspects. It doesn't mean I like them any less, but I'll keep this short, since I've made my point before.

To recap my previously posted list of No.10-No.6:
10)"Casino Royale" (Martin Campbell)
9)"The Descent" (Neil Marshall)
8)"Down in the Valley" (David Jacobson)
7)"Half Nelson" (Ryan Fleck)
6)"Inside Man" (Spike Lee)/"The Departed" (Martin Scorsese)

And now, my anti-climactic Top 5:

5)"Brick" (Rian Johnson)- The best narrative feature I saw in the first half of the year was a little genre film that Focus had been sitting on for over a year. It's a genre-bending hard-boiled treasure full of memorable dialogue, surprising performances (who knew that Joseph Gordon-Levitt had an inner Humphrey Bogart?) and the sense of near-limitless potential (can't wait for Johnson's "The Brothers Bloom"). The pacing isn't exactly what it should be. The over-looped dialogue is frequently sloppy. The visual style goes between indie-chic and sloppy. But talk about making the most of what's available.

4)"Dave Chappelle's Block Party" (Michel Gondry)- Focus Features had some great movies in the spring, but never exactly figured out what to do with them. While "Brick" was never going to be a smash, "Block Party" should have been. Then again, the Academy documentary branch didn't get it either, as "Block Party" wasn't even one of 15 finalists for an Oscar nomination. The movie isn't just Chappelle's comedy and the performances by folks like Mos Def, Common, the Fugees, Talib Kweli and Big Daddy Kane. It's a kickass party that also includes an examination of American urban life and contemporary race relations. But mostly, it's a "wave your hands in the air" good time.

3) "The Prestige" (Christopher Nolan)- I rewatched it again over the weekend and it held up so well that I contemplated moving it up to my second slot. I've read message board posts from people who are all "I saw the twist coming the whole time." Do those people go to magic shows and go, "Dude, I totally knew your assistant wasn't really sawed in half?" As Christian Bale's Alfred Borden observes, "The secret impresses no one. The trick you use it for is everything." In this case, the trick involves a career-best performance from Hugh Jackman, reliably excellent work from Christian Bale and suspenseful direction from Nolan that deserves the description "Hitchcockian." This is a movie that's only going to look better as time goes on. That being said, Nolan somehow blew that final shot. Weird.

2) "Children of Men" (Alfonso Cuaron)- If you had to chart out the perfect build to a movie, you could do worse than look at "Children of Men." The script is thin on characters and occasionally heavy-handed when it comes to dialogue (even by the standards of fable or allegory), but the journey taken by Clive Owen's character is fairy tale classic, from self-imposed slumber, through hell to rebirth. The Fugee Camp tracking shots will win Emmanuel Lubezki a well-deserved Oscar, but "Children of Men" warranted more Oscar attention (and box office) than it received.

1) "Pan's Labyrinth" (Guillermo Del Toro)- When I saw it at the end of September, I said "Pan's Labyrinth" would be the best movie of 2006 and I swear I wasn't just making a self-fulfilling prophesy for myself. There's a level of storytelling in this adult fairy tale that I haven't seen for any film in several years. It reaffirms all of the skill shown in Del Toro's "Devil's Backbone" and makes it a bit sad when such an obviously brilliant filmmaker feels content to only make masterpieces every few years will doing proficient, but unremarkable genre films ("Hellboy," "Blade 2") the rest of the time. What does it mean that both of my top two films are fairy tales from young Mexican directors? Hard to know.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Netflix Watch: "Jesus Camp"

"Jesus Camp"
Directors: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 59
In a Nutshell: Great moments with evangelicals No. 4520: Playing in the schoolyard at recess, back when I was growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, a more Jesus-friendly classmate and occasional friend came up to me and asked, without irony or judgment, "If you believe what you believe and I believe what I believe, why can't you believe what I believe?" It may have been one of the least persuasive spiritual pitches ever made, but it sticks with me for a simple reason: To the other kid, it made absolute and perfect sense.

My point, I think, is that if you've lived a life in which you've never had a third or fourth grader attempt to convert you, the things in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's "Jesus Camp" are likely to seem shocking. I suspect there'll be a large number of viewers in the South or in the Midwest (where the movie was actually filmed), who will respond to the knowledge that one party of the evangelical movement is attempting to brainwash young children into becoming Warriors for Christ with, "Yeah that's sad, but duh."

Ewing and Grady aren't able to (or interested in?) progress very far beyond that surface level of shock. They show images of the same four or five kids -- Ramona Quimby Girl, Rat-tail Boy, Easy-to-Cry Moppet, etc. -- bawling, speaking in tongues or supporting Samuel Alito and think that's enough to create a developed portrait of what is obviously a cultural phenomenon. Me, I wanted more. There aren't nearly enough interviews with the kids or their parents. Certain kids and grown-ups appear in group scenes saying or doing things that almost demand qualification (I'm thinking of the one boy who gets looks of horror when he admits to watching Harry Potter movies at his father's house as one example), but I don't think the filmmakers had enough access. Despite the title, the actual Jesus Camp gets maybe 20 minutes of screentime, which leaves the movie feeling awfully diffuse, as if the main chunk of the movie wasn't enough for a feature and it was padded to get to a too-short 84 minutes. And what's up with radio talk jock Mike Papantonio? Why was he the lone vocal representative for the secular world? Why was a vocal representative of the secular world even required?

Being ever-handed isn't just avoiding a snarky voice-over and threatening lighting and camera angles. It's also letting the people speak for themselves, either to defend themselves or hang themselves, depending on the point of view of the observer. Becky Fischer, the shepherd to these impressionable sheep, comes the closest to getting a nuanced profile, managing to be alternatingly scary and reasonable. Given the material the filmmakers had, the movie probably should have been shaped around her, rather than shaped around the culty children, who are probably being exploited by Ewing and Grady, albeit on a different level.

Friday, February 16, 2007

MovieWatch: "Breach"

Director: Billy Ray
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 65
In a Nutshell: I was a big fan of Billy Ray's earlier directing effort "Broken Glass" and not just because I once had Stephen Glass lecture me on the importance of journalistic ethics. No, it was an intellectual thriller that knew its limitations and thrived within them. Ray's follow-up, the new drama "Breach," a very similar venture, a Washington-set thriller with no action scenes, few straight-up suspense set-pieces and nary a car chase or explosion. The similarities go so far as to "Breach" star Ryan Phillippe's strong resemblance to "Glass" star Hayden Christensen. Let's just say that Ray has a type of film he likes to make and that he has a type when it comes to leading men.

"Breach" isn't nearly as good a movie, I don't think, despite a story that has a good deal more at stake. Stephen Glass may have temporarily destroyed journalism as we know it, but he didn't actually get people killed. Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), the notorious FBI traitor, did. There was obviously a first script draft by Adam Mazer and William Rotko, after which Ray came in and did his thing, but even after his tinkering, "Breach" lacks the essential narrative economy of "Shattered Glass." Too many scenes are pulled from more generic TV-movie thrillers, many of which feature one of my favorite actresses, Caroline Dhavernas, sporting a German accent that gets less convincing the more she talks.

The movie mostly works when it concentrates on the game of cat-and-mouse between Hanssen and FBI newbie Eric O'Neill. An interesting thing about Phillippe: He's not a very good actor, but he's at his best when he players characters who have to bluff or play-act themselves. In those circumstances he feels realistic, because people who bluff in their regular lives are rarely as talented as Meryl Streep, but they might aspire to be as talented as Ryan Phillippe. Does that make sense. He doesn't embarrass himself opposite Cooper, who gives the latest in a career of expertly tightly wound portraits. The performance is all the more amazing when you consider that not only does "Breach" avoid explaining Hanssen's actions, but it makes repeated reference to the futility of understanding the man. With a different release time and different promotion, he could have been award-worthy. Laura Linney works hard to make her part slightly more than an afterthought.

"Breach" is a smart movies and a decent movie, certainly better than anything else in wide release now. I kind of view it as an appetizer while we wait for "Zodiac."

[Special shout-out to the film's ADR Editor Nancy Nugent, my very favorite Penn dropout. Huzzah.]

Thursday, February 15, 2007

"Idol" Top 24 Quick Thoughts: The Guys

In the previous post, I gave the requisite time to the "Idol" women, but I have a suspicion that we may be looking at a second consecutive male "Idol" winner unless Melinda Doolittle is so vocally dominant that she can't be denied.

But if we're somehow going to get an male winner, it's gonna have to be one of these guys and I'm skeptical.

A.J. Tabaldo: Apparently this was his fifth time auditioning for "Idol" before making it. My advice to producers: If a guy wasn't good enough the first four times, the fifth time may not be the charm, at least not if the one nasal, whining, sharp clip they showed us was any indication.

Blake Lewis: After the beatboxing at his Seattle audition, I remember being impressed that his singing wasn't bad. But was it good? All they showed us from Hollywood was beatboxing. Can he sing?

Brandon Rogers: Brandon can sing. But what else does he have? He strikes me as likeable, but maybe not a forceful enough personality to actually win?

Chris Richardson: Given his amount of screentime so far, he may be a darkhorse, since the guy seems to have a good voice. Is he too raw?

Chris Sligh: Seemingly smarter and more appealing than past "Idol" crown princes like Jon Peter Lewis and Taylor Hicks, but we've only heard him sing in a half-octave range.

Jared Cotter: I think last night was the first time we saw this guy. He was doing "Cupid" and he botched half the notes. Not a good sign. I do, however, look forward to calling him Mr. Cotter.

Nicholas Pedro: I similarly look forward to making fun of Nicholas for quitting last season, though he'll be gone within two weeks.

Paul Kim: He's smart and funny and he has a good voice, but he's part of the over-singing posse and if somebody doesn't tell him to chill, he'll get tiring.

Phil Stacey: A likeable, dorky older contestant. That spells disaster.

Rudy Cardenas: He should either be eliminated swiftly because he oversings through his nose, or he should be eliminated swiftly because of his soul patch. I don't care which.

Sanjaya Malakar: Voice like Stevie Wonder, with the look of a Southeast Asian David Cassidy? Until his limitations become obvious, I'm hopping on the Sanjaya bandwagon.

Sundance Head: On the basis of his first audition, he should be a favorite. On the basis of everything we heard from Hollywood, he should have been gone long ago.

On Zap2it, my guess for the Top Six men was: Brandon Rogers, Chris Richardson, Chris Sligh, Sundance Head, Sanjaya Malakar and Blake Lewis (Paul Kim will take Blake's space if the beat-boxer proves more of a performer than a singer).

"Idol" Top 24 Quick Thoughts: The Girls

I've already written a general post on the "Idol" Top 24 over at the Zap2it blog, but the great thing about "Idol" is that I almost always have enough thoughts to go around without duplication. I'm sad like that.

For example, I didn't mention this at Zap2it, but what happened to all of the vocal diversity of past seasons? Last year we had a rocker and several country singers and it would have made sense to continue in that direction given that the two biggest stars from the past two seasons are Carrie Underwood and Chris Daughtry, who has somewhat surprisingly outsold everybody else from Season 5, thanks to an annoying catchy rock song that's constantly on the radio. But nobody this season rocks and nobody this season seems to be country-fied. With the vast majority of this year's Top 24, in fact, we don't have any real indication of what, exactly, their strengths might be.

Because we wasted so much time on awful singers and then so much time on contestants who got Golden Tickets, but then got eliminated either in Hollywood or beforehand, this "Idol" Top 24 has the look of utter anonymity. And even the people are immediately memorable -- Chris Sligh or Sundance Head or That Annoying Jersey Girl -- don't seem like plausible winners, at least not thus far.

Here are my instant reactions to each member of the Top 24 based on nothing more than the limited screentime they've received thus far and, in some cases, watching their FOX-provided interviews. I reserve the right to change my mind:


Alaina Alexander: She seemed hyper-emotional and needy when she auditioned in Hollywood and her snot bubbling gratitude last night didn't help. Her voice? Not memorable.

Amy Krebs: I don't think we saw her audition, but she comes across as very cute, but vocally generic.

Antonella "Jersey Girl" Barba: So clearly inferior to that Marissa chick she was paired with for the last Top 12 spot that putting her through was "Idol's" way of taunting viewers. Not voting for her would be viewers' way of taunting Idol.

Gina Glocksen: There's a tradition of gals with big voices and big personalities making it to the Top 12 and being instantly eliminated (think Vanessa Olivares or Amy Adams). Sounds right.

Haley Scarnato: Quite attractive in certain pictures, but the limited clip of her performing in Hollywood was AWFUL.

Jordin Sparks: She has a bigger voice than her age might indicate, but she comes across as dull and young in her FOX interview.

Lakisha Jones: There's no way to say this without sounding mean, but she's like a less attractive, less talented Frenchie or Mandisa. That still means she's talented, of course.

Leslie Hunt: Almost aggressively bland. Her voice seems raspy, but not distinctive.

Melinda Doolittle: Girl can sang. If the competition is really about the voice, Melinda could be head-and-shoulders above the other women, if what we've heard to far is any indication. But what do you do with her if you're a record producer?

Nicole Tranquillo: One of several over-singers in the competition. I need an explanation for why she's here but Baylie Brown, Jory Steinberg, that Marissa girl and several others are gone.

Sabrina Sloan: Who? No. Really. Who?

Stephanie Edwards: She's got a good voice, but even after seeing her get in, the camera cut back to her several times and I didn't remember who she was at all.

On my Zap2it post, I predicted a Top Six of Amy Krebs, Gina Glocksen, Melinda Doolittle, Haley Scarnato, Jordin Sparks and either Lakisha Jones or Stephanie Edwards.


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Time for a New Fien Print Mission: Get Kathleen Robertson Employed

I should have claimed victory on this one several weeks ago, but I've been a wee bit busy.

You're welcome, Eric Balfour.

As regular readers of this blog know, last May, I began a crusade: Get Eric Balfour a job. It just seemed unfair to me that the star of "Hawaii," "Fearless," "Convictions," "Sex, Love and Secrets" and "Veritas: The Quest" could possibly go into the fall of 2006 without the possibility of having a single show fail. I went through every network pilot and offered suggestions on roles that Balfour could play. Instead, Balfour opted to return to "24," a show he'd previously failed to kill, rather than starting something new and when we talked to network presidents last month at the TCA press tour, not a single one of them had the nerve to suggest that the absence of Balfour was a direct cause of the swift failure of so many serialized dramas this season. Lesson learned. Balfour's Milo Pressman has had an enhanced profile this season, even getting to go into the field in this week's episode, showing off some evasive driving and hand grenade skillz. But don't expect Milo to be around forever, since Balfour has already been cast as a cop in CBS' mighty generic-sounding "Protect and Serve," which also features Monica Potter, a blandly lovely actress whose string of pilot failures is slowly approaching Balfour-ian heights (and yet I'll always support her just a bit because she was in "Without Limits"). There's no guarantee that "Protect and Serve" will get picked up, given how few holes CBS' schedule has and given the presence of Eric Balfour, but I feel like I've done my job.

Time for a new mission.

To be fair, I already started a new mission, my quest to get FOX's misunderstood (perhaps even by its stars) "Method & Red" released on DVD. Special thanks to those of you who signed my petition, all 18 of you. But it isn't too late to go and sign now.

I can wait.

Thank you.

OK. But my new mission is this: I want to see Kathleen Robertson on a primetime network series (or perhaps a top-tier cable series) by next fall. Now, more than ever, the world needs Claire the Chancellor's Slutty Daughter back in primetime. The major difference between this and my Balfour-esque quest is that I actually like Kathleen Robertson. It's not just that I was a "Beverly Hills 90210" devotee or that I watched all aired episode of "girls club." I also watched one episode of IFC's entirely unfunny Hollywood satire "The Business" and I totally would have watched Robertson's guest appearance on "Medium" if somebody had just warned me about it beforehand. I liked her in "Splendor," "XX/XY" and "Hollywoodland," while she and Anna Faris are the only two people I don't blame for "Scary Movie 2," the least funny movie ever made. She's beautiful, Canadian and, from what I can tell, a totally serviceable actress. Why would a casting director want to hire Monica Potter instead of Kathleen Robertson? I'm just not sure I understand. If Brian Austin Green got to be a primetime TV "star" for a full season last year, shouldn't Robertson get another shot?

Keep in mind that without Robertson, Hilary Swank might not even exist today. Steve Sanders was dating Claire the Chancellor's Slutty Daughter until Robertson exited at the end of Season Seven. That left Steve in desperate need of a new love interest. Enter single mom Carly (Swank). Next thing you know, Hilary Swank has two Oscars.

Currently, I'm powerless to do anything more than watch the trades to see if Robertson has been cast in anything. Heck, I don't even know if she's auditioning. But if upfronts role around in May without her popping up, I'll be viewing every pilot with her in mind.

Are you with me?

Good. Now go sign that "Method & Red" petition.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Top 10 Films of 2006: Part I

[It took a while, but I've finally reached the point at which I'm confident I've caught up on enough of the films I missed last year to throw a list together. I reserve the right to add or remove things at some point down the road, particularly since I'm really wobbly on several of these movies, especially the ones on this half of the list.]

Honorable Mentions: "United 93" (Paul Greengrass"), "The Proposition" (John Hillcoat), "Conversations with Other Women" (Hans Canosa), "Marie Antoinette" (Sofia Coppola), "Little Children" (Todd Field), "Volver" (Pedro Almodovar)

10)"Casino Royale" (Martin Campbell)- Granted that I've erased long stretches of "Casino Royale" from my mind -- Adios to the Miami airport sequence and the stairway brawl in Montenegro -- but the latest James Bond entry was far and away the year's most successful action. Daniel Craig was every bit as good as I'd hoped he would be, beating those Pierce Brosnan lean years into a lamentable, disappointing pulp. Throw in Eva Green as the best Bond Girl since I can't remember when and the requisite stunts and exotic locations and you have a 007 film worthy of repeat viewings.

9)"The Descent" (Neil Marshall)- Before Zap2it decided that movies weren't worth covering, I was subjected to 2006 films like "The Hills Have Eyes" and "Silent Hill" and "When a Stranger Calls" and "An American Haunting." None of those movies provided me with a single jolt, with a single nightmare, with a single moment of primal terror. With "The Descent," Neil Marshall had me nibbling on my fingernails and experiencing something resembling genuine fear. Horror-done-right is something worth respect.

8)"Down in the Valley" (David Jacobson)- ThinkFilm never figured out how to market this off-putting revisionist Western, though it's not as if it were ever destined to find a big audience. The great performances by Edward Norton, Evan Rachel Wood, David Morse and Rory Culkin are undeniable, but so too is the off-putting tone, that has the film careening between mismatched romance, gritty Valley realism and a perfect portrait of psychological confusion. Jacobson doesn't exactly grasp the pacing himself and the movie has a whiff of post-production tampering about it, but it's still smart and genuinely challenging.

7)"Half Nelson" (Ryan Fleck)- Thanks to Ryan Gosling, "Half Nelson" is a mostly-unflinching character study of addiction. Like Maggie Gyllenhaal's similarly strong turn in "Sherrybaby," though, Gosling's performance is occasionally undone by a screenplay that on one hand is too conventional by a half and then has to work extra hard to cheat a few expectations. But I kept watching Gosling's eyes and his mannerisms and his interactions with the well-match Shareeka Epps. Gosling's performance -- the year's best by a leading actor, regardless of what Forest Whitaker's supporters would have you believe -- often seems more carefully considered than the movie around it and he pushed any hints of sentimentality far into the background.

6) "Inside Man" (Spike Lee)/"The Departed" (Martin Scorsese): I'm putting these two together for several reasons. The first is that I'm not sure I liked either enough after one viewing to put them in the Top 10 alone, but I get the feeling that once I watch them again, they may get better. The second is that I like that after years of attempting to make Important movies, both Lee and Scorsese had their biggest commercial and critical successes in years by just making good-old-fashioned genre pictures, proving that a well-made thriller is a well-made thriller and shouldn't be taken lightly. And finally, I like pairing these together because, for my money, both Lee and Scorsese made better movies this year, but they just happened to be documentaries for HBO and PBS. Thus, "Inside Man" and "The Departed" get bonus points from "When the Levees Broke" and "No Direction Home."


MovieWatch: "Venus"

Director: Roger Michell
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 66
In a Nutshell: I'm prone to over-analysis ("Well duh," says the peanut gallery), but there are most certainly movies you're better off just taking for their surface pleasures and backing away slowly. I'll put Roger Michell's "Venus" in that category. You can enjoy Hanif Kureishi's breezy and biting script about aging and sexuality. You can take great pleasure in the supporting performances by Leslie Phillips and Vanessa Redgrave. You can get a sense of discovery from watching adorably accented newcomer Jodie Whitaker. But mostly you can revel in the fact that when he isn't looking like a cadaver, Peter O'Toole is as alive on the big screen as he's been since the '80s (watching his eyes light up from within his sadly sagging flesh is almost miraculous). If you do those thing and then turn off your mind, I suppose it's easy to avoid just how vaguely icky the movie is.

Perhaps the most striking thing about "Venus" is how the film itself avoids passing judgment on the plot, which involves an aging actor and former lothario leching after a young (her exact age is never mentioned) grand-niece of his best friend. Kureishi's script never exactly determines if the movie is about a crumbling Don Juan's love for women outliving his libido, or just about the way a master manipulator takes a wild child and gets her to cook fish and learn to love posing nude. It's not quite "Lolita" and not quite "Lost in Translation" and not quite "Taming of the Shrew," but it contains ample elements from all three. And if you stop to ponder the lessons learned by any of the characters, your brain may hurt.

Couple side notes: Is Roger Michell the most schizophrenic of contemporary British directors? Try figuring out a career trajectory that includes "Notting Hill," "Changing Lanes," "Enduring Love" and "Venus" in less than a decade. Maybe that's why the visual and editing style of "Venus" never exactly gels. And would it be fair to think of Corinne Bailey Rae (whose songs bog the movie down at regular intervals) as an even more somnambulistic Norah Jones? And did the world need such a thing?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

MovieWatch: "The Lives of Others"

"The Lives of Others"
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 71
In a Nutshell: Not quite as good as its supporters are declaring and if it beats "Pan's Labyrinth" for the foreign film Oscar, I may just shed a tear or two. It's a sturdier and more mature adult drama than anything made by an American filmmaker all year, with the possible exception of "Little Children." I would argue that it's mostly derived from a favorite genre of '70s filmmaking dealing with issues of paranoia, pervasive government control and the question of what it means to be a dissident and an individual and that if you compare it to something like "The Conformist" or "The Conversation," it comes up lacking in both craftsmanship and resonance.

Hmmm... That sounds too harsh, because "The Lives of Others" is far from an artistic disappoint. It's an amazingly evocative movie, capturing a chilly, atonal aesthetic best described as Iron Curtain Chic. Henckel von Donnersmarck (what a fantastic name!) and cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski create a GDR of grays and other muted tones, avoiding reds, yellows and oranges except in important symbolic contexts, with Ulrich Muhe's Stasi Agent Wiesler serving as the ideal representation of the ubiquitous, supposedly emotionless government. He looks like an outcropping of the cookie-cutter skyscrapers and generic tan or back automobiles. Of course, he finds his soul through his surveillance of non-subversive author and his actress girlfriend (Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck, matching Muhe).

Hmmm... That sounds too enthusiastic. How much of that evocation is based on a very conventional and predetermined idea of how to depict a certain kind of repressive regime? How much of Wiesler's character is based on a very archetypal sort of repressed foot soldier in his every action and character decision? And does the film's increasingly bittersweetly sentimental endings undermine some of what came before? And how much is the film's underlying misogyny an intellectual problem for me? The answer to each of those questions is "at least somewhat."

MovieWatch: "An Inconvenient Truth"

"An Inconvenient Truth"
Director: Davis Guggenheim
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 65
In a Nutshell: I'm a little bit late to the game on this one, but since I'm attempting to rush through the Oscar contenders I'd missed, I put in the necessary 90 minutes to enjoy Al Gore's impressively successful PowerPoint presentation. Here's a situation where we have to quickly distinguish between worthiness and quality. Maybe it's just that I'm in the process of plugging through Michael Apted's frequently brilliant "Up!" series via Netflix, but I'm currently inclined to require (request? desire?) more of a piece of documentary cinema than a clear-eyed slideshow mixed in with footage from the Al Gore 2008 presidential campaign mixed in with a commercial for the audio-visual capabilities of Apple computers. Despite Al Gore's reputation as vaguely robotic (a reputation that's never been deserved, despite it perpetuation by late night comics and Fox News pundits), "An Inconvenient Truth" is never boring and only occasionally less than persuasive. Gore manages to be both visionary and myopic -- he has his outline, corresponding to his slides and he never deviates, even to the exclusion of a complete telling of the story. Thus, Hurricane Katrina is presented as a tragedy caused by global climate change, despite the fact that the hurricane mostly *missed* New Orleans and the tragedy was really one of bureaucracy, faulty engineering and a particularly American head-in-the-sand approach to class and race, which you know Gore knows and just doesn't want to integrate into his presentation, as he were avoiding politicizing it, which is just silly. Really, I was constantly wanting to raise my hand to get clarifications or enhancements of certain things and the lack of that depth was a problem. I think Gore's attempt to universalize his message, to dumb it down, will play best to people who hadn't been concerned previously, but are inclined to agree.

Guggenheim's contributions in expanding the film from the stage are a problem as well. How many shows of Gore looking out care and plan windows in concern do we need? How many poorly integrated stories of tragedies or near-tragedies from his own life are necessary to make the point that he's learned to value our planet? Guggenheim should have noted what directors like Jonathan Demme and Steven Soderbergh did with the Spalding Grey monologues and treated Gore in the same manner. But yes, Global Warming deniers are pathetic morons. I get that. Accepting that fact, though, doesn't make "An Inconvenient Truth" a great documentary.