Saturday, January 27, 2007

MovieWatch: "Blood Diamond"

"Blood Diamond"
Director: Ed Zwick
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 60
In a Nutshell: If Ed Zwick had a Barbie Dream Actor, it would probably be Djimon Hounsou. Just a hunch. Zwick has made a filmmaking career out of heart-tugging, action-oriented Important Dramas about white men in alienating environments learning Important Lessons. Hounsou has made an Oscar nominated acting career out of playing spiritual guide to alienated white men. Zwick meet Hounsou. Hounsou meet Zwick. Now give us free!

Zwick and Hounsou's first pairing, "Blood Diamond," is a well-meaning and old-fashioned yarn with just enough adventure and violence for the steak-eaters and just enough politics and family pride for the tree-huggers. Cast Robert Mitchum or Humphrey Bogart in the Leonardo DiCaprio role and Deborah Kerr or Katharine Hepburn in the Jennifer Connelly part and John Huston could have made the heck out of this movie in 1953. The problem is that they don't really make movies like this anymore, so Zwick is frequently clumsy. He never lets the actors, the plot or the narrative take priority over a well-composed valley vista or a breath-taking sunset (kudos to Eduardo Serra's gorgeous cinematography). The central romantic pairing is implausible and badly integrated into the plot, with Zwick slamming on the breaks to give Connelly and DiCaprio pleasing glamour shots between scenes of poverty or bloodshed.

One of the big questions on Oscar day -- asked only somewhat more than "How the heck did 'Click' come to get an Oscar nomination?" -- was "How did DiCaprio get his nomination for 'Blood Diamond' instead of 'The Departed.'" Having seen first-hand the misleading messages sent out about DiCaprio's role in the Scorsese film -- Is it a lead role or supporting?!?!? -- I wasn't shocked and after seeing this film, I'm comfortable with the choice. DiCaprio's Afrikaans accent here was much less distracting than his Bah-ston accent in "The Departed" and he keeps his roguish character admirably conflicted. Hounsou's Oscar nod seems to have been given on the basis of pure exertion -- he has a gift for over-emoting without looking like he's over-acting. [A bigger question on the Oscar nod front is the sound editing nomination, given that I was distracted by sloppy ADR on several occasions...]

"Blood Diamond" gets engulfed in sentimentality well before its predictable ending, and goes through five or six fake endings before the credits role (over a truly *awful* Nas composition). But I wasn't bored and, unlike the movie I saw yesterday, I didn't leave feeling like I'd been emotionally violated. Bravo!

Friday, January 26, 2007

MovieWatch: "Babel"

Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Fien Print Rating (Out of 100): 48
In a Nutshell: With good ol' fashioned porn porn, you know what you're getting as an end result. What, I'm tempted to wonder, is the intended end result of misery porn like "Babel" and who are the soft-headed people who get off on this stuff? You know how in "American Beauty," the Wes Bentley character has that ultra cheesy moment with the plastic bag and he gasps, "Sometimes... there's... so... much... beauty... in... the... world... I... feel... like... I... can't... take... it..." "Babel" like the very opposite of that, like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is so overwhelmed by all the misery in the world that he just can't take it. The movie is about the tapestry of tragedy and miscommunication that tie us all together, as if the common thread of globalism in the 21st Century were basically a primal wail of discontent and unease. Blech.

"Babel" wouldn't be so insufferable and unbearable an experience if Inarritu weren't such a clearly gifted filmmaker. That's the quality that sets "Babel" apart from "Crash," frankly -- The web of coincidences, petty ironies and caricatured characters here are presented by a man of cinematic talent with an awareness of the medium. That's why "Crash" is laughable and "Babel" is harder to dismiss, but also harder to sit through. Like "Amores Perros" and "21 Grams" before it, "Babel" is well-acted across the board (the presence of movie stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in one narrative is distracting, but becomes an imbedded commentary about the artistic imperialism and entitlement of Hollywood) and thanks to DP Rodrigo Prieto, it looks great. It's also numbing from the end of the first scene as two Moroccan boys playing around with a rifle set off a chain of unhappiness. I spent so much time dreading the next misfortune, but I wasn't invested in any of these people or their plights. They were pawns being pushed around a board by screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, whose "Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" script was both his best crafted and most humane (and a better meditation on linguistic and cultural borders, frankly).

Was this misery porn supposed to yield catharsis? I got no release. It's a dirge. A mood piece with only one tone. Is it your best picture Oscar winner?

I can't help but find it sad that of the 2006 films by the Three Amigos (Inarritu plus Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron), *this* is the one nominated for best director and best picture. Sigh.

Monday, January 22, 2007

My Oscar Nominations Wish-List

When the Oscar nominations are announced on Tuesday (Jan 23) morning, none of these will make the cut. They should, darnit.

Rian Johnson, best original screenplay for "Brick" -- It's shouldn't work. High school students talking like rejects from a Raymond Chandler novel, trying to solve a mystery that I don't understand despite seeing the movie multiple times in the theater. But the dialogue, complete with created slang and near-Mamet rhythms, often seems to sing, making actors like Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lukas Haas seem plausibly tough and hard-boiled.

"The Aura" for foreign language film -- Did anybody see Fabian Bielinsky's bizarre thriller about a narcoleptic taxidermist forced to mastermind the perfect crime? It's a pity. The late director of "Nine Queens" turned in the kind of intellectual puzzle picture that David Mamet turns in at his best. Throw in a great performance by Ricardo Darin and you have Argentina's Oscar submission, so at least it's eligible.

"Dave Chappelle's Block Party" for documentary feature -- If the odds of every other ideal nomination here taking form are *near* zero, they're still better than this one. Michel Gondry's subversively political, unexpectedly hilarious, exuberantly musical concert flick wasn't even on the documentary branch's short-list, meaning that the year's best non-fiction film is fated to join docs like "Grizzly Man" or "Hoop Dreams" on the too-good-for-Oscar list.

"Click" for outstanding makeup -- While "Block Party" may not have made the Academy short-list in its main category, "Click" was announced as one of the potential finalists in the make-up field. The old-age make-up in "Click" was horrible, as was the film itself. The idea of it earning an Oscar nomination just makes me giggle. Sorry.

Wally Pfister, outstanding cinematography for "The Prestige" -- As Christopher Nolan has grown more confident as a cinematographer, he's brought Pfister along with him, as the DP has grown ever more assured. Or perhaps it's the other way around. "The Prestige" is a beautifully made on every level, full of memorable images, none moreso than the field of light-bulbs charged from the ground, as lovingly composed a frame as I saw at the movies all year. "The Prestige" is a near-brilliant movie about illusion and Pfister was complicit with Nolan on every level, weaving the magic.

"Marie Antoinette" best costumes (because outstanding achievement in cinematic pastry isn't available)-- With "Marie Antoinette," Sofia Coppola may have made the year's most superficial film, but that doesn't mean that you can't give awards to those pretty surfaces. Heck, no film last year won more Oscars than "Memoirs of a Geisha."

Warren Ellis and Nick Cave, best original score for "The Proposition" -- Perhaps the year's finest 100 minutes of pure mood, John Hillcoat's mediation on human savagery flowed by like a haunting dream, punctuated only by moments of extreme violence. The violence sold itself, the backwards-looking score sold the rest of the movie.

Ellen Page, best actress for "Hard Candy" -- I think the genius of her performance is that even after all of the facts were revealed and everybody's motivations were laid out on the table, I still wasn't sure if I was supposed to believe that she was who she said she was and I built an entirely different backstory in my head based on details from the performance. What I'm saying is that she was good enough that she created an entirely world around her character and that's kinda cool for a tiny Canadian gal.

Edward Norton, best actor for "Down in the Valley" -- I thought Norton gave one of his worst performances in "The Illusionist" and I still haven't seen "The Painted Veil," but he did vintage work in "Down in the Valley," not that anybody saw David Jacobson's warped vision of The Valley as a Western frontier town, with Norton as the last outlaw hero. At times charming and sympathetic, at other times charming and off-his rocker, Norton created a portrait of complete self-denial and self-illusion.

Alfonso Cuaron, best director for "Children of Men" -- Watch the entire 'Fugee camp sequence, an unflinching and kinetic depiction of hell-on-Earth, and tell me how any director could have done it better.

"Pan's Labyrinth" for best picture -- Magic. Pure and simple. The idea that a contrived and utterly mediocre indie-by-numbers comedy like "Little Miss Sunshine" will be nominated for best picture but the best film I've seen in three or four years will have to pick up scraps is part of why nobody with any sense takes the Academy seriously.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Best and Worst Best Actress Oscar Winners?

Edward Copeland, who keeps threatening to rename his blog something other than Edward Copeland on Film, is compiling a survey on the best and worst Oscar winners for Best Actress. You may recall Edward's fantastic best picture winner survey earlier this year.

Because I'm an agreeable and helpful blogger, I've done my best to participate, though looking through the list of winners, I was shocked to realize how many of the honorees from the '30s, '40s and '50s I've managed to miss. Thus, if it turns out that Jennifer Jones ("The Song of Bernadette"), Helen Hayes ("The Sin of Madelon Claudet) or Shirley Booth ("Come Back, Little Sheba") deserve places on either of these two lists, I've been obviously delinquent.

I put the worst first here, because it was just a more competitive race. Skim through my choices and then feel free to zip over to Edward's site and submit your own opinions.


1 [the worst]) Helen Hunt, "As Good As It Gets" (1998)- It's almost impossible to figure out what point the Academy was making with this award. Was it that TV actors are people too? Or was it just that Hunt was the only American against four far superior Brits (Julie Christie, Judi Dench, Kate Winslet)? Hunt's punishment came the next year when she presented Robert Benigni with the least deserved best actor trophy in Oscar History.

2)Katharine Hepburn, "On Golden Pond" (1982)- This takes nothing away from her other Oscars, frequently (but not always) deserved, but I shouldn't be laughing so hard at a performance that isn't intended to be funny.

3)Nicole Kidman, "The Hours" (2003)- Plenty of other best actress wins have come for supporting roles, but none have ever come for supporting roles fueled by a bad English accent and a putty nose.

4)Jessica Lange, "Blue Sky" (1994)- Perhaps the worst year for actresses in Hollywood history. Jessica Lange may have been twitchy and over-the-top in a truly bad movie, but her competition included Jodie Foster for "Nell" (Ouch) and Susan Sarandon for "The Client" (Really?) and Winona Ryder for "Little Women" (REALLY?!?!?)

5)Audrey Hepburn, "Roman Holiday" (1954)- Many supporting actress Oscars have been given just for being adorable and winsome, but how many lead trophies have been presented merely for being tremendously loveable? Oh and don't take this as a sign I don't like the performance or the movie, but is it really Oscar-worthy? [In retrospect, perhaps the greatness of this performance is in how bad I feel about listing it here?]


1)Meryl Streep, "Sophie's Choice" (1983)- If you're grading on "Degree of Difficulty," this performance is impossible to top.

2)Jodie Foster, "The Silence of the Lambs" (1992)- It's a very internalized turn, but I admire it for this reason: Going opposite one of the hammiest best actor performances in history, Foster never loses control or ceases to hold every shot. That's impressive.

3)Jane Fonda, "Klute" (1972)- Oscar voters love to honor beautiful women for playing prostitutes, which may be the Academy's attempt to encourage other beautiful women to enter the Oldest Profession. Of all the Oscar-winning portrayals of hookers, though, this is the best.

4)Elizabeth Taylor, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1967)- I don't always like broad theatricality and shrieking, but for some reason this performance has an emotional core for me, even if Taylor is shouting to the back row at all times.

5)Claudette Colbert, "It Happened One Night" (1935)- Maybe not the most technically complicated of performances, but I just love the idea of an Oscar going for this kind of work. This goes on the list of most random Oscar-winning performances along with Julie Andrews in "Mary Poppins," Diane Keaton for "Annie Hall" and Kathy Bates for "Misery." Those three are great performances as well, but I'm going with Colbert here just for the historical value.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Dead... Tragic and Funny

While civilians die in numberless anonymity or in tragic handfuls, it's a well-known fact that celebrities die in threes. While I was overseas, that Rule of Three played out in full effect with what is quite possibly the strangest Trinity of Death ever assembled with James "The Hardest Working Man In Show Business" Brown, Gerald "The Least Elected President In History" Ford and Saddam "Co-Star of 'The Big Lebowski'" Hussein. It's the semi-unexpectedness of Hussein's execution (does that tamper with Death Pool rules?) that pushes this week's Deceased Trifecta ahead of the month's earlier odd menage a trois of Augusto "Where Have All The Dictators Gone?" Pinochet, Peter "Puttin' On the Ritz" Boyle, and Joseph "Ugly Animation" Barbera.

Really, though, I'm only posting about these dearly departed celebrities as an excuse to start the new year with the posting of my favorite YouTube clip from last year, Chiranjeevi's celebration of Michael Jackson's thriller. Forgive me for wasting quality blog space on recirculated clips, but this still makes me giggle and what better way to start the New Year than with a giggle? [I also like to periodically break up the litany of "MovieWatch" posts.]