Monday, February 28, 2005

Oscar reactions

As it turns out, this year's Academy Awards weren't any more unpredictable than most other years. I identified the winners in 17 of the 24 categories, although three of the misses were in the short subject categories where I might as well have selected a winner by throwing a dart at the nominees. My gamble on Scorsese to win Director was my only miss in the major categories, but at least that pick kept things interesting as far as the Oscar pool was concerned. (A Marty win would have carried the day for me too.) The full list of winners can be found here.

The show seemed leaner this year, which was a good thing. I liked how they mixed it up with the presentations by giving some of the awards from the audience. Chris Rock was a decent if unremarkable host. Like it or not, he had to play it safe for this show. The Oscars are, and always will tend to be, stuffy.

Did Emmy Rossum not perform the nominated song from THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA? I thought it was strange that she got to introduce "Learn to be Lonely" but not sing on the telecast, instead yielding to Beyoncé. (Answering my own question two days later: Apparently Minnie Driver sang this on the soundtrack.)

Most of all, I'm glad that the Oscars are over because the studios might start letting out some halfway interesting films again. This weekend's miserable slate of new releases--DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN, CURSED, and MAN OF THE HOUSE--were punishing, to say the least.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Oscar predictions

Before I head out to an Oscar party, I might as well post my predictions here.

Picture: Million Dollar Baby

Director: Martin Scorsese, The Aviator

In recent years Picture and Director haven't lined up as much as usual, and this year is a perfect example of why we'll see those categories split. Even though I don't think Scorsese's film will take Picture, THE AVIATOR should have enough support to get him a substantial number of votes. Toss in those who pick him as the sentimental favorite, and Marty gets his Oscar.

Actor: Jamie Foxx, Ray

He's deserving. He'll probably give the best acceptance speech of the night. But wouldn't it make the awards so much more interesting if someone else won because, let's face it, no one expects him to lose.

Actress: Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby

Not as much of a lock as Foxx but close.

Supporting Actor: Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby

My head has been telling me Clive Owen in CLOSER, but my gut tells me that Freeman will edge him. I'm hedging enough that I still may change my pick on my pool sheet, but Freeman's popularity, in addition to that of the film, will probably push him over the top.

Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett, The Aviator

Virginia Madsen's career has been revived with the other awards and this nomination. She doesn't need to win. Natalie Portman could have her crowning as America's ingenue solidified tonight, but Blanchett's due to win. The part she plays helps too. Hollywood loves itself.

Original Screenplay: Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, and Pierre Bismuth, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Adapted Screenplay: Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, Sideways

The Screenplay categories are the consolation prizes for the also-rans, right? Kaufman's deserved this twice before, but is his work just too weird for Academy tastes?

Art Direction: The Aviator

Cinematography: The Aviator

A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT won the American Society of Cinematographers award, but we all know that the acting branch is the largest in the Academy.

Costume Design: The Aviator

Film Editing: The Aviator

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. More often than not, Best Film Editing could be called Most Film Editing. The longest film tends to win.

Makeup: Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events

Original Score: Finding Neverland

I can't say that the nominees are very memorable--THE VILLAGE is the strongest of the bunch to these ears--but FINDING NEVERLAND has to win something, doesn't it?

Original Song: "Believe", The Polar Express

Ballads trump upbeat numbers, so better luck next time Counting Crows, even if your song is the only one that I'd recognize.

Sound Editing: The Incredibles

Sound Mixing: The Aviator

Visual Effects: Spider-Man 2

Foreign-Language Film: Downfall

Although THE CHORUS (LES CHORISTES) or THE SEA INSIDE are the most widely seen of the nominees--and that's not saying much--I don't think either will inspire enough voters. You can't go wrong voting for something about WWII Germany and DOWNFALL, which seems to have the industry buzz at the moment.

Animated Feature: The Incredibles

THE POLAR EXPRESS: robbed of a nomination. (I'm lookin' at you SHARK TALE!) Not that it would win.

Animated Short: Lorenzo

Like I have any idea.

Documentary Feature: Born Into Brothels

Serious beats snark, so sorry Morgan Spurlock and your McDonald's experiment. Of course, I'm still bitter about TUPAC: RESURRECTION getting a nomination when the Metallica doc didn't even make the shortlist.

Documentary Short: Autism is a World

Live-Action Short: Everything in This Country Must

Remember, play for entertainment purposes only, not money!

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The State I Am In

Sorry for no updates over the past week. Life's been busy, etc. Compared to other blogs, the lack of new content for eight days is either an eternity--ie., blogs that feature new posts on an hourly basis--or a blip--like those blogs that were started and likely abandoned.

I'm exercising diligence in repairing the formatting problem with many of my DVDMon reviews. It's a slow process, but I'm making progress. The most painful part may be rereading less-than-perfect pieces written years ago. For instance, I hope I've curbed the use of beginning statements of opinion with "I think", which I've noticed frequently used in many of my first online reviews.

I may start porting over these older reviews to this site to house everything under one roof, but if so, some nipping and tucking will take place. Anyway, more new stuff will be on the way soon.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Vera Drake

VERA DRAKE (Mike Leigh, 2004)

Imelda Staunton stars as the title character in VERA DRAKE, the new film from writer-director Mike Leigh. Vera is the model of the post-World War II working class wife in 1950s London. She cleans houses to help with expenses and cares for the ill and the lonely in her neighborhood. From all appearances, she’s the sweetest, most innocent person in the world. Secretly, though, Vera “helps young girls with their problems”, or, in other words, performs illegal abortions.

There are probably few subjects more inflammatory for a film than abortion, but Leigh’s evenhanded treatment approaches the issue from a realistic perspective than a rhetorical one. Leigh doesn’t shy away from the actuality of what Vera does. He shows us the procedure and explains how it works. Some of the women depicted don’t think twice about choosing to have abortions while others experience great physical and emotional anguish. Leigh examines the public health and economic issues that affect why some women are able to terminate their pregnancies without any trouble from the law and why others must do so in hiding. Although those in opposing camps would have us believe otherwise, determining whether abortion should be legal is not simple. While I think Leigh has a specific viewpoint, his film is slippery to pin down and is stronger because of it. The toll of abortion and the consequences of its illegality are balanced, leaving us to decide what to make of it all. VERA DRAKE succeeds because Leigh is not interested in sloganeering but in looking at the human and moral cost. Vera is an apolitical character who, correctly or not, ignores the law to do what she believes is right for these women. Staunton’s tender performance puts a face on the struggle. Her conflict is society’s. VERA DRAKE’S expert framing mitigates the combustible subject matter.

Grade: B+

(Review first aired on the February 15, 2005 NOW PLAYING)


TARNATION (Jonathan Caouette, 2004)

Today’s affordable, available technology offers anyone the chance to be a filmmaker as long as the individual has a story to tell. Jonathan Caouette is proof that you don’t need a hundred million dollar budget or big-name stars to make a movie. He used an iMac to compile old photos, footage he started shooting as a teenager, answering machine messages, and film and TV clips into his feature TARNATION. In fact, he made the film for the widely quoted amount of $218, although rights clearances and the distributor’s associated costs quickly shot that price into the hundreds of thousands once the film was purchased. Caouette directs, edits, and stars in this video diary of his dysfunctional family. TARNATION tells the story about his mother Renee, a child model who was injured and unnecessarily put through electroshock treatment. She never recovered from the damage. The aftereffects caused great harm in Jonathan’s formative years too, but through it all his love for his mother never dwindled.

TARNATION is a confessional film so emotionally naked and fearless that at times it can be uncomfortable to watch. Caouette reveals himself and his family life to a startling degree. It would feel exploitative if we didn’t see how much he cares for his mother and his grandparents. Typically, harrowing personal stories like Caouette’s are marked with anger and victimization, but TARNATION is relatively free of those qualities. As a first-time experimental filmmaker, Caouette displays remarkable directing and editing skills. TARNATION is a dazzling piece of work that proves imagination is not limited by lack of money. While it is quite the impressive technical exercise, what lingers is Caouette’s relationship with his mother. Both have gone through their own hells, but rather than abandon his mother, he becomes her caretaker as best he can. The depth of his affection is powerfully shown in one of the film’s final moments, a gesture that says more than any of the flashy flourishes used to assemble the raw materials of his life.

Grade: B

(Review first aired on the February 15, 2005 NOW PLAYING)

(I first saw TARNATION at Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival in 2004. My thoughts at the time on the film can be found here.)

The Wedding Date

THE WEDDING DATE (Clare Kilner, 2005)

THE WEDDING DATE answers that age-old question about what to do when a single person must go to a matrimonial ceremony at which their ex-fiancé will be in attendance. Why, pay an escort to be your companion, of course! Facing this dilemma is Kat, played by Debra Messing. Rather than show up without a date at her sister’s London wedding, she drops thousands of dollars on Dermot Mulroney’s stud-for-hire Nick.

When romantic comedies work, they often reflect the measures people take to fall in love. Even when characters in the genre exaggerate their actions, there’s still something familiar in what they’re doing. THE WEDDING DATE reveals no trace of recognizable human behavior in it. Neither of the main characters is ever defined beyond broad sitcom brushstrokes. Messing and Mulroney struggle mightily and fail to give Kat and Nick personalities or reasons for how they conduct themselves. The scenario is a screenwriter’s invention combining PRETTY WOMAN, with a gender reversal of the main characters, and a splash of the BRIDGET JONES movies thrown in for some British flavor. Things occur because someone saw it once in another romantic comedy, not because people are this way. THE WEDDING DATE is one of the worst romantic comedies I’ve seen in a long time.

Grade: F

(Review first aired on the February 15, 2005 NOW PLAYING)

Pooh's Heffalump Movie

POOH'S HEFFALUMP MOVIE (Frank Nissen, 2005)

Winnie the Pooh and friends return for another adventure in POOH’S HEFFALUMP MOVIE. Strange sounds from the forest lead the residents of the Hundred Acre Wood to believe that Heffalumps are out there. Pooh, Tigger, Rabbit, Piglet, and Eeyore decide to go on a trek to capture one of the scary beasts.

Oddly enough, about the first half of POOH’S HEFFALUMP MOVIE could be thought of as the children’s version of THE VILLAGE. Something dangerous lurks in the woods, and youngsters like Roo shouldn’t doubt that the others say to be afraid of it. The story turns, though, from fear of the unknown into a nice lesson on tolerance. Roo encounters a Heffalump close to his age and realizes that although they are different in some ways, they have much more in common. This gentle film imparts its message without being heavy-handed. The relaxed pace and good-natured spirit are a welcome relief from the hyperactive and crass kids’ films that traffic in poop jokes and kicks to the crotch. At 68 minutes, the abbreviated POOH’S HEFFALUMP MOVIE tests the limits of the minimum time required to qualify as a feature film, but in this case, I’d rather the filmmakers tell their story in the time they need than pad it out unnecessarily.

Grade: B-

(Review first aired on the February 15, 2005 NOW PLAYING)

Monday, February 14, 2005

Happy Valentine's Day

MGM ♥s me

No promises, belated GET SHORTY sequel, but I hope to love you too.

After all, patience is a virtue

I'm posting this in full since the column at this link will change. My comments follow.

By Matt Roush on TV Guide Online:
I'll admit my eyes rolled when 24's Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) pretended to rob a convenience store at the end of this season's third hour. This ridiculous twist served two purposes: keeping a terrorist from escaping and giving the show yet another cliff-hanger.

Thankfully, that situation was resolved during the next hour, and 24 and Jack moved on to another preposterous, electrifying crisis.

Shows like 24 and ABC's Wednesday-night one-two punch of dynamic thrills, Lost and Alias, bring a jolt of creative and reckless energy to a medium so often locked into predictable formula. They're a blast to watch and to talk about.

And yet, much of the mail and e-mail I get from fans brings new meaning to the word "spoiler" — not as in plot spoiler, but as in spoilsport.

"Look, I don't want to be critical," a 24 buff named Steven writes about another mole (Aisha Tyler) infiltrating CTU, "[but] don't you think it pushes the credibility boundary just a little?" I suppose it does. And I simply don't care. With these wild rides, I prefer not sweating details or fretting over plot holes that could swallow a freeway.

Fans are miffed that Alias ignores continuity from previous, less-watched seasons. What happened to the Covenant, to the Rambaldi prophecies? (Good riddance.) And how many times can Lost make us think someone has died, just to resurrect them? I've even heard the "jump the shark" phrase applied to this brand-new show.

There may be sharks in the water on Lost, but we're years away from any of these shows taking a leap past entertaining implausibility to a point of no return.
I couldn't agree more. I've just about given up reading the threads dedicated to these shows on Home Theater Forum because all the "fans" do is bitch and moan about every little thing.

Some of it stems from a lack of understanding about commercial television or an unwillingness to accept that reality. I don't know where to begin when people complain about the cliffhanger elements at the end of each episode of 24. Griping about how unbelievable it is that all these things happen to one person and in one day doesn't make much sense either. You buy into the show or you don't. While the real world parallels can add to the drama--and make it politically touchy at times--in the end it's an escapist serial, not a realistic look at the domestic war on terror. The BBC's excellent series MI-5--or SPOOKS, as it's known in the UK--stays closer to what one might expect to be the true activities and lives of spies, but even it must contain a healthy dose of fiction.

Some ALIAS fans are ticked that the first three seasons' mythology has been mostly ignored in the self-contained episodes composing season four so far. Blame is laid on the network's desire to gain new viewers. ABC has been very patient with the series but wanted to put it in front of more eyeballs. Gee, imagine that. The passionate but small fanbase that ALIAS built seems put off that the series has been rejiggered to make it less intimidating for new viewers. The increasingly complicated mythology--not the show's primary appeal to me--made it difficult for newcomers to jump into the show without being totally lost. This season welcomes newbies, has succeeded in drawing the show's highest ratings, and remains at a creative peak (a point on which the detractors would disagree). So what exactly is the problem?

The complaints that I don't understand at all focus on the mysteries of LOST, namely, that there are mysteries. Some viewers apparently can't stand the fact that everything hasn't been explained. The series is only fifteen episodes old. Have we become so spoiled by the immediacy of modern life that we can't wait? (I'm not talking about the three week waiting period between episodes. THAT'S cruel.)

Granted, when it comes to internet message boards, snark is easier and more fun to write, but after awhile it gets tiresome to read. These three shows are among the best narrative programs currently on television. Nitpicking them to death doesn't seem that enjoyable to me.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

The Film Journal's 2004 International Cinema Poll

In addition to voting in the Central Ohio Film Critics Association yearly awards, I participated in The Film Journal's 2004 International Cinema poll. Depending on the day of the week, I might make a change here or there, but my ballot accurately reflects what I felt was the best in cinema last year. Since the nominees aren't ranked, they are listed alphabetically.

-The Aviator
-Before Sunset
-Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
-The Five Obstructions
-Kill Bill Vol. 2
-The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
-Metallica: Some Kind of Monster
-Million Dollar Baby
-The Village

No surprises here since it matches my Top 10.

-Wes Anderson, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
-Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby
-Michel Gondry, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
-Richard Linklater, Before Sunset
-Martin Scorsese, The Aviator
-M. Night Shyamalan, The Village
-Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill Vol. 2
-Lars von Trier, Dogville
-Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth, The Five Obstructions
-Zhang Yimou, Hero and House of Flying Daggers

These match my picks in Film, except for tossing aside METALLICA doc directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky in favor of Zhang Yimou.

Lead Performance
-Julie Delpy, Before Sunset
-Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby
-Jamie Foxx, Collateral
-Bryce Dallas Howard, The Village
-Nicole Kidman, Dogville
-Catalina Sandino Moreno, Maria Full of Grace
-Clive Owen, Closer
-Natalie Portman, Closer
-Kurt Russell, Miracle
-Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby

It seems like an annual ritual for the entertainment media to bemoan the lack of worthy Lead Actress nominees, but the six I listed in the gender-neutral Lead Performance category are all aces in my book. Plus, I left out VERA DRAKE'S Imelda Staunton, who was no slouch either. I suppose the problem is that what the Hollywood scribes seek are lead actress performances in big, "important" movies, of which Swank is probably the only one to qualify. Let's face facts. Outside of romantic comedies or woman-in-peril thrillers, Hollywood doesn't structure many major films around female characters. As for the guys, no one remembered Kurt Russell in MIRACLE, but his tightly coiled performance as the Team USA Olympic hockey coach was one of his best. There's also a case to be made for another sports coach performance--Billy Bob Thornton in FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS--but I had just ten spots.

Supporting Performance
-Alan Alda, The Aviator
-Cate Blanchett, The Aviator
-Steve Coogan, Coffee and Cigarettes
-Willem Dafoe, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
-Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby
-Virginia Madsen, Sideways
-Alfred Molina, Coffee and Cigarettes
-Maia Morgenstern, The Passion of the Christ
-Natalie Portman, Garden State
-Sharon Warren, Ray

While I had mixed feelings about many aspects of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, Morgenstern's performance as Mary was not one of them. Switching gears, the Academy Awards ignore comedy most of the time, but the funny people I picked were as, if not more, memorable than those playing serious roles. Even if you can't abide Jarmusch, the Coogan/Molina scene in COFFEE AND CIGARETTES is worth a look.

-The Aviator
-Before Sunset
-Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
-I Heart Huckabees
-The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
-Maria Full of Grace
-Million Dollar Baby
-Spider-Man 2
-The Village

I'd try to explain why I picked some of these over DOGVILLE, but it's such an ineffable thing that I can't. I suppose it has something to do with dialogue--see SPARTAN--and structure--see MARIA FULL OF GRACE--but ultimately it's just a gut feeling.

Formal Design
-The Aviator
-Before Sunset
-Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
-House of Flying Daggers
-The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
-Million Dollar Baby

Nothing to add here as the films speak for themselves.

Actor of the Year
-Cate Blanchett (The Aviator, Coffee and Cigarettes, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou)
-Jamie Foxx (Collateral, Ray)
-Isabelle Huppert (I Heart Huckabees, Time of the Wolf)
-Nicole Kidman (Birth, Dogville)
-Jude Law (Alfie, The Aviator, Closer, I Heart Huckabees, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow)
-Bill Murray (Coffee and Cigarettes, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou)
-Natalie Portman (Closer, Garden State)
-Mark Ruffalo (13 Going on 30, Collateral, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, We Don't Live Here Anymore)
-Peter Sarsgaard (Garden State, Kinsey)
-Billy Bob Thornton (The Alamo, Friday Night Lights)

With this being a "body of work" category, some of these are more deserving than others--Kidman's two exceptional lead performances trump Huppert's supporting HUCKABEES turn and lead, but minor, role in the Haneke film, for example--but we're not selecting anything of vital importance here, are we?

Non-Fiction Film
-Control Room
-The Corporation
-Fahrenheit 9/11
-The Five Obstructions
-Los Angeles Plays Itself
-Metallica: Some Kind of Monster
-Riding Giants
-Super Size Me
-Touching the Void

Since rights clearances will probably make it impossible to release on home video, LOS ANGELES PLAYS ITSELF is the must-see if it plays your town.

The Film Journal poll didn't ask for Sound Design, Ensemble, or Breakthrough Film Artist nominees, so, as a bonus, here were my picks in the COFCA vote:

Sound Design
-The Aviator
-Before Sunset
-House of Flying Daggers
-The Incredibles
-Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

I had THE VILLAGE here and took it off for some reason. It should probably be there.

-Coffee and Cigarettes
-I Heart Huckabees
-The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
-Million Dollar Baby

If you've looked at my other acting nominations, these choices ought to be self-explanatory.

Breakthrough Film Artist
-Zach Braff, Garden State (for acting, writing, and directing)
-Bryce Dallas Howard, The Village (for acting)
-Joshua Marston, Maria Full of Grace (for writing and directing)
-Rachel McAdams, The Notebook (for acting)
-Catalina Sandino Moreno, Maria Full of Grace (for acting)

Howard is my top choice in this category. If THE VILLAGE hadn't been so maligned, she might have even been in the running for an Academy Award nomination. McAdams' movie star turn in THE NOTEBOOK--and the film's surprising box office success--ought to keep her in casting directors' minds as America's next sweetheart.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Post Super Bowl reaction

Yawn, New England wins again. A headline on Slate gets it right in labelling the Patriots "The Lamest Dynasty Ever". For what it's worth, I nearly hit the Eagles' points with my prediction, but close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. At least THE SIMPSONS episode following the game was better than the series' recent shows this season.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

A Super Prediction

I'm rarely right when it comes to making Super Bowl picks, so here's my latest futile effort. (I think the last time I picked the right team was when St. Louis nosed out Tennessee.) I'm going against the grain and picking Philadelphia 20-17, with Donovan McNabb as the MVP.

The first Super Bowl I remember watching was the Eagles/Raiders tilt, and unless memory hasn't been colored by the intervening years, I wanted Philly to win, probably in part because I had an Eagles' coat. I was and am a Bengals fan, but I had it because the team's kelly green and silver was similar to my school's green and white. So, go Eagles!

Friday, February 04, 2005

The Best Films of 2004

As it was with the honorable mentions, the years listed with these films indicate world premiere, not U.S. premiere/domestic run, which explains why my top two are not identified as 2004 releases.

1. DOGVILLE (Lars von Trier, 2003)

DOGVILLE is Lars von Trier's wildly ambitious film rich with themes and cinematic extravagance. Via a Depression-era story centered on the porcelain-skinned beauty Grace (Nicole Kidman), von Trier examines the impulse to despoil beauty and goodness. His film THE IDIOTS was, among other things, about the death of communism. DOGVILLE explores the death of idealism. Certainly it can be viewed as an allegory for the exploitation of immigrants. Yet my second viewing uncovered von Trier's main interest, which is staging a morality tale steeped in the book of Revelation. Those familiar with the director's BREAKING THE WAVES or DANCER IN THE DARK know that he loves to yank the carpet from underneath the audience in the third act, and he does so here in a way that you'll find either necessary for his purpose or infuriating. Themes aside, this is a stunning technical achievement. The austere production--a set on a stage with minimal props--feels stifling even though it should open up the space. Von Trier lays out Dogville's geography with masterfully composed overhead shots, high angles that also hint at God looking down upon a world resistant to His message of love. Kidman's performance is nothing short of astonishing, but the real star is the director, whose artistic brillance makes DOGVILLE a masterpiece.

2. THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS (De Fem benspænd) (Jørgen Leth and Lars von Trier, 2003)

Lars von Trier challenges his mentor, filmmaker Jørgen Leth, to remake his short film THE PERFECT HUMAN according to rules of the apprentice's choosing in THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS. Imagine an art film/world cinema version of a reality television show with von Trier hosting and playing up his reputation as an enfant terrible. THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS examines how an artist unwittingly divulges information about himself in his work even if the observer gets no closer to seeing through the creator's eyes. The film also digs into the artistic process and how expression can be refined and improved even when in the most limiting circumstances. In the end, THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS is a commentary on life, how all manner of things obstruct us from doing what we desire but we push on and make a go of it regardless.

3. BEFORE SUNSET (Richard Linklater, 2004)

In Richard Linklater's 1995 film BEFORE SUNRISE Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are American and Parisian twentysomethings who meet on a train going through Eurpoe and decide to spend the day together wandering around Vienna. Nine years later their characters, Jesse and Celine, are reunited in BEFORE SUNSET. BEFORE SUNRISE posed questions on the nature of romance and destiny and was itself a modern masterpiece. The sequel may be even better. BEFORE SUNSET is funny, romantic, and formally perfect. Linklater presents the film in real time, which lends a sense of urgency to everything, yet the tension builds to an almost unbearable point because of the complex emotions generated between Jesse and Celine. Hawke and Delpy embody these characters with performances so natural that they don't appear to be acting at all. A lot of words pass between them, but they say more with how they touch one another and, in one sublime moment, when they don't. BEFORE SUNRISE proffered a romance both real and fantasy. BEFORE SUNSET remembers that beautiful time and wonders how an idealized moment has changed them, especially when life hasn't matched that day. Where BEFORE SUNRISE encapsulated their starry-eyed twenties, BEFORE SUNSET captures the thirties, when some disappointment has caught up with them. Over a period of years François Truffaut followed Jean-Pierre Leaud as Antoine Doinel from childhood to middle age. If only we can be so lucky that Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy revisit Jesse and Celine in another five or ten years.

4. THE VILLAGE (M. Night Shyamalan, 2004)

M. Night Shyamalan's THE VILLAGE may have been the most misunderstood film of 2004, but make no mistake, it's the director's best film. Shyamalan looks at a community withdrawn from the world and the fear that compels the villagers not to venture outside their boundaries. The film's boldest stroke isn't the "twist" ending, which the director's fans have expected since THE SIXTH SENSE even if this one is hard to foresee, but a scene that is concerned with something Bryce Dallas Howard's blind character Ivy knows isn't true yet still causes her great anguish. Even those of us in the audience, well aware that the film firmly states something is not there, cling to the belief of what we had been told before the truth was revealed. It's a vivid depiction of fear's overwhelming power. Shyamalan's use of empty space on the screen and soundtrack to create dread and overall lyrical direction display his growing formal control. Howard's breakthrough performance announces her as an actress to watch.


THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU, co-writer-director Wes Anderson's comic riff on MOBY-DICK, has Bill Murray's title character embark on a quest to avenge the death of his friend. Anderson creates a wondrous visual space in Steve's ship, the Belafonte. From the very first shot THE LIFE AQUATIC displays Anderson's masterful eye for composition and color, treating us to eye-popping images that make most other films look like the dingy work of amateurs. Not to be overlooked is the arch humor that lightens the film's ennui.

6. THE AVIATOR (Martin Scorsese, 2004)

THE AVIATOR is the old-fashioned Hollywood picture Martin Scorsese seems to have been itching to make. Astonishing period recreations, including lavish locations like the Coconut Grove, and the replicated film processing looks of yesteryear let the film burn with Scorsese's passion for the old films he loves so well. Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a dynamic performance as Howard Hughes, breathing life into the qualities that helped Hughes thrive in his work and ultimately brought about his ruin. Cate Blanchett's turn as Katharine Hepburn is also terrific fun.

7. MILLION DOLLAR BABY (Clint Eastwood, 2004)

Clint Eastwood's exceptional boxing movie MILLION DOLLAR BABY reveals itself, under closer inspection, to be a great love story. As one of the main characters, the boxing trainer Frankie, Eastwood uses his gruff screen persona differently than audiences are accustomed to seeing. He shows Frankie to be all bark and no bite rather than the pit bull we expect. His interactions with aspiring boxing champion Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman, who plays his best friend Eddie, are terse and brittle, but there’s little doubt that it’s his way of masking the affection he’s afraid to reveal. The three central performances rank among the finest these actors have given in their impressive careers, an achievement that can be credited in part to Eastwood’s unobtrusive, classical direction.


For all of its plot complexities and gimmickry, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND is really a very simple film about love and the impact others have on us. Charlie Kaufman's elliptical screenplay takes us through Joel's (Jim Carrey) memories of his relationship with Clementine (Kate Winslet) while a technician tries to eliminate them. The result is a touching story of a man who learns how this woman enriched his life and how valuable those experiences were and are, even if he ended up with heartache. Michel Gondry's inventive direction is of the same spirit that inhabits his music video work with artists such as Bjork and The White Stripes. Gondry assembles ETERNAL SUNSHINE like an M.C. Escher drawing made real. The performances are terrific across the board, including good supporting turns from Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, and Tom Wilkinson. Carrey's work in this film is among his best, and Winslet captivates and frustrates us just like she does Joel.

9. KILL BILL VOL. 2 (Quentin Tarantino, 2004)

KILL BILL VOL. 2, a continuation of rather than a sequel to Quentin Tarantino's KILL BILL VOL. 1, features Uma Thurman as the payback-seeking former assassin known as The Bride. Tarantino pushes the story toward the climax promised in the title as well as revealing more of The Bride's backstory. Regardless of the reasons to cleave KILL BILL into two films, VOL. 1 and VOL. 2 are significantly different and work very well as stand-alone movies. The first was a cartoon orgy of violence that paid tribute to grindhouse and martial arts cinema. The second is an operatic ode to westerns and spaghetti westerns in which the landscapes and perhaps God himself look down on the story, as many shots take an overhead perspective. The languid pacing and extreme close-ups are in keeping with Sergio Leone's style, leaving lots of time for Tarantino's signature dialogue. VOL. 2 has fewer action scenes, but it has a doozy when The Bride and Elle Driver (Darryl Hannah) square off in the confined space of a trailer. Tarantino divided both films into chapters, giving them the feel of a novel. This storytelling device allows him to continue to work non-linearly but also affords him time for scenes that would otherwise be omitted. KILL BILL VOL. 2 is equally as good as its predecessor, which combine for a vital cinematic experience.

10. METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 2004)

Metallica, the lumbering behemoth of heavy metal, agreed to document the recording of the album ST. ANGER, but with the group starting to come apart at the seams, METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER captures something much more interesting than what would typically comprise a standard making-of picture. The film transcends being a fans-only memento. In fact, it may be of more interest to those with nothing invested in the band. METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER details the music-making process with great skill. Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky show how songs are built, from laying the musical foundation, to experimenting with vocal delivery, and then figuring out how to put it together in an album that satisfies the artists. More fascinating is the sight of these wealthy, macho metalheads trying to get in touch with their feelings during the band therapy sessions. Hearing them speak in psychological terms and strategies is often hilarious. The therapy scenes provide a lot of laughs, but it's in these emotionally naked moments that we can see the band members' humanity. Although they've accumulated more material possessions than they could ever need, it isn't enough. After all, Metallica will now struggle to stay at the top as they enter middle age in what is a young man's arena. METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER is a remarkable study of the creative process and group psychology.

2004 in Film: The Honorable Mentions

It should be self-explanatory that I liked these films a lot but couldn't find room for them in my top 10. If it isn't, then keep reading. I liked these films a lot but couldn't find room for them in my top 10.

(The years listed with these films indicate world premiere, not U.S. premiere/domestic run, which explains why so many of these are not identified as 2004 releases.)

BON VOYAGE (Jean-Paul Rappeneau, 2003)

A kitchen sink movie with a who's who of French stars. The Nazi invasion of France provides the backdrop for a story about an actress (Isabelle Adjani) guilty of murder, the man mistakenly imprisoned for her crime, and a scientist who must find safe passage out of the country with some dangerous materials. BON VOYAGE has the sweep of classic cinema, being at turns comic, romantic, thrilling, mysterious, and historical.

CODE 46 (Michael Winterbottom, 2003)

The versatile Michael Winterbottom's futuristic tale of global totalitarianism and forbidden love makes a fine cinematic companion to novels like Aldous Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD and George Orwell's 1984. Like the best science fiction, CODE 46 explores contemporary issues from the perspective of the world to come, in this case looking at genetics and globalization in a woozy, hypnotic tomorrow.

COWARDS BEND THE KNEE (Guy Maddin, 2003)

Canadian director Guy Maddin makes distinctive films that frequently recreate silent-era cinema, with inspirations as disparate as German mountain climbing movies and Soviet propaganda films. COWARDS BEND THE KNEE, his comic rumination on hockey, hairdressing, and sex, is as imaginative and provocative as anything Maddin has done.

THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD isn't a silent film, but it retains much of the tone and style of those old melodramas. Maddin is some kind of aesthetic genius in how he mimics film's early days. He gives the images a bygone era's texture and authenticity. Yet modern technology is what permits him to make something as altogether fresh and astonishing as this. Formal aspects aside, THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD is worth seeing because it is a consistently funny film. Isabella Rossllini plays a Depression-era, double amputee beer baroness who holds a contest to find what country plays the planet's saddest music. Maddin takes good-natured pokes at cultural stereotypes and the absurdity of what he's putting on screen. The film also works as a sort of musical, with Maria de Medeiros' nymphomaniac Narcissa providing a song highlight.

GARDEN STATE (Zach Braff, 2004)

Written, directed by, and starring Zach Braff of SCRUBS as an aspiring actor who returns home for the first time in nine years, GARDEN STATE takes its place as a film for the generation growing up in a time when parents and doctors try to manage them with Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, or any other similar drugs. Braff creates an absurdist environment where someone wearing a suit of armor in the kitchen simultaneously looks correct and out of place. He inserts sly visual jokes, often as punctuation to scenes, that are similar to those in SCRUBS, except in this film they're based in reality rather than fantasy. GARDEN STATE shares the postmodern angst and the humor derived from it that exists in Douglas Coupland and Dave Eggers' novels. Contemporary life is amazing, bewildering, and feels like it is experienced at a distance. Braff has a terrific eye as a director and turns in a good, low-key performance. Natalie Portman is sweet and eccentric in one of her two great performances of 2004, the other coming in CLOSER. Peter Sarsgaard also does some fine work as Braff's gravedigging friend. The music leans toward emo selections and is well suited for the film.

HERO (YING XIONG) (Zhang Yimou, 2002)

Zhang Yimou's HERO, finally allowed off the studio shelf, and HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS delivered a one-two chopsocky combination punch for the Chinese director. HERO'S poetic martial arts scenes with superstars Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, and Zhang Ziyi are staged against gorgeous scenery and landscapes and captured in Christopher Doyle's color-drenched cinematography. The visually sumptuous wuxia spectacle HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS contains breathtaking action and passionate romance. A sight to behold for the eyes and a treat for the ears, the physical and emotional violence rises to operatic proportions.

MARIA FULL OF GRACE (Joshua Marston, 2004)

MARIA FULL OF GRACE provides an authentic and compelling view of a drug mule's experience. The difficulties of carrying the pellets, not to mention the danger, are spelled out in a few terrific scenes. As Maria, Catalina Sandino Moreno gives a natural and assured debut performance. Moreno's skillful acting and writer-director Joshua Marston's screenplay convey why an intelligent young woman with a future would choose to risk everything to serve as a one-time drug courier.

SIDEWAYS (Alexander Payne, 2004)

The week-long tour of California wine country with a prickly English teacher (Paul Giamatti) and his freewheeling friend (Thomas Haden Church) in SIDEWAYS made for one of the year's better blends of comedy and drama. Jim Taylor and director/co-writer Alexander Payne's screenplay gets under the tough exterior of a wounded man who is incapable of letting others see his true self. Sterling performances from the four principal actors and Payne's fluid direction bring out the characters' humanity with humor and deep feeling.

SPARTAN (David Mamet, 2004)

The President's daughter has been abducted, and Val Kilmer must find her in SPARTAN. Kilmer stars as a special forces ranger up against a ticking clock to find the girl before the story hits the media. The title refers to the lone warrior sent to assist in a conflict, but it could just as well apply to the film's style. David Mamet has fashioned a film as terse in story and character as his trademark staccato dialogue. The major pleasure of SPARTAN is trying to cut through the minimal, sometimes enigmatic words and keep up with the film. Big explanatory scenes have been eliminated. Mamet forces the audience to read between the lines. Although he may lose clarity in the moment, he gains a propulsive pace that makes this one of the more exciting thrillers in recent memory. His signature dialogue is highly stylized and wonderfully chewy. Kilmer delivers his best performance in a long time, maybe ever. He spits out words in a blunt, programmed manner while keeping his steeliness in check.

SPIDER-MAN 2 (Sam Raimi, 2004)

Improving on the original, SPIDER-MAN 2 features top notch action scenes and special effects work, but it's the character moments, like Peter Parker's struggle to accept the personal sacrifice being a superhero entails, that make the film stand above most other comic book adaptations.


This Buddhist fable about a master and pupil living on a floating monastery removed from society grants a window for meditation in our busy lives. SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER...AND SPRING is a film of few but select words that encourages reflection and appreciation of nature's beauty and the importance of simply being. The stunning cinematography shows the world with fresh eyes.

TOUCHING THE VOID (Kevin Macdonald, 2003)

The will to live shines through in TOUCHING THE VOID. Not quite documentary or narrative feature, the film mixes interviews with mountain climbers and recreated scenes of their harrowing climb in the Andes. The trip down should have resulted in certain death for one man, who broke his leg, was cut loose from his partner, and fell into a crevice. Somehow he found the inner strength to grit through the mental and physical anguish and make it to base camp in time to survive. Director Kevin Macdonald's excellent recreations give the viewer the firsthand experience and show how amazing it was that anyone could overcome these obstacles.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The Worst Films of 2004

Can you believe how much crap I see?

1. LITTLE BLACK BOOK (Nick Hurran, 2004)

With her cartoonish voice and ditzy blonde persona, Brittany Murphy has the potential to be a great screwball comedy actress. Until she gets those roles, she'll have to settle for parts that Melanie Griffith is too old to play. Actually, Griffith already played the role Murphy has in LITTLE BLACK BOOK, which ransacks WORKING GIRL--and admits as much, as though the theft is more forgivable when acknowledged outright--and adds a self-righteous message about the evils of reality television. This unpleasant romantic comedy flogs the genre's worst cliches, but it's most egregious offense is pretending to occupy the moral high ground.

2. YU-GI-OH!: THE MOVIE (Yûgiô: Gekijô-ban) (Hatsuki Tsuji, 2004)

The feature-length advertisement for a children's collectible card game, otherwise known as YU-GI-OH!: THE MOVIE, makes the POKEMON movies look like public service announcements directed by Steven Spielberg. Virtually unwatchable and totally incomprehensible, YU-GI-OH!'S ninety-minute running time felt interminable.


Pity the horny teenage boys who went to see NATIONAL LAMPOON'S GOLD DIGGERS in search of outrageous comedy and scantily-clad babes. The juvenile humor makes a feeble attempt to replicate recent raucous comedies. The main female characters consist of two grotesque elderly women that the penniless young studs marry and bed--blecch--in hopes of inheriting their wealth. Of course, what they don't know is that the old biddies are unable to get their hands on the family fortune and plan to off the dumbbells to collect their life insurance. If the National Lampoon brand had any value left, this disgusting, laughless film ought to wipe it out.

4. THE COOKOUT (Lance Rivera, 2004)

The dreadful comedy TAXI wasn't the worst movie Queen Latifah made last year. THE COOKOUT gets that distinction. A newly rich NBA draft pick invites a throng of stereotypes to a party at his swanky home to prove he is still able to keep it real. The usual hijinks inevitably send the family barbecue spinning out of control.

5. WHAT THE #$*! DO WE KNOW!? (William Arntz, Besty Chasse, and Mark Vicente, 2004)

The intellectually suspect documentary WHAT THE #$*! DO WE KNOW!? tries to make quantum physics accessible for the average joe. In floating many lofty theories, the filmmakers overload the viewer with mumbo jumbo in the hope that something will stick. Hard science is mingled with New Age cult teachings, with no distinction made between academics, at least one of which asserts the film quotes him out of context, and the woman who claims to channel the ancient warrior Ramtha. The wedding scene in which CGI-animated blobs lip sync to Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" rivals any other for the year's worst.


CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS sucks the joy out of the holiday season with its message in praise of excess consumerism and enforced Christmas cheer. Instead of spreading the festive spirit, this so-called comedy plays out like a nightmare.


An inessential sequel to one of 1999's worst films, SUPERBABIES: BABY GENIUSES 2 may be about the weirdest kids' film to come down the pike in some time. Jon Voight plays a former Nazi with "a soft spot for the laughter of babies". He's hellbent on world domination via subliminal messages through television programming but has his plans thwarted by an eternally seven-year-old superkid called The Kahuna. Seriously.

8. MY BABY'S DADDY (Cheryl Dunye, 2004)

The impotent urban comedy MY BABY'S DADDY might as well have been called THREE MEN AND THREE BABIES. Three buddies (Anthony Anderson, Eddie Griffin, and Michael Imperioli) have to become less like Dr. Dre and more like Dr. Spock. Hilarity does not ensue.


For the election year political documentaries were dumped by the bushel load into the film market. The worst by far was CELSIUS 41.11: THE TEMPERATURE AT WHICH THE BRAIN BEGINS TO DIE, a filmic response to Michael Moore's FAHRENHEIT 9/11. Structurally incoherent and philosophically muddled, CELSIUS 41.11 is for true believers only, and even they may fall alseep during this dull doc. Whether one loves or hates Moore's cinematic agitprop, he hopes to entertain while promoting his viewpoint. In fact, the most surprising aspect of director Kevin Knoblock's hastily assembled film is that it is as incendiary as a book of wet matches.

10. TAKING LIVES (D.J. Caruso, 2004)

The appropriately titled TAKING LIVES steals almost two hours better spent doing anything else. Angelina Jolie stars in yet another Hollywood serial killer movie that thrives on nonsense logic and predictable unpredictability.

Million Dollar Baby

MILLION DOLLAR BABY (Clint Eastwood, 2004)

In MILLION DOLLAR BABY Hilary Swank plays Maggie Fitzgerald, a hardscrabble waitress who dreams of becoming a boxing champion. Clint Eastwood directs and stars as Frankie Dunn, the crusty trainer who eventually gives in to Maggie’s persistent pleas to whip her into peak prizefighting form.

MILLION DOLLAR BABY is an exceptional boxing movie, but Paul Haggis’ screenplay, based on F.X. Toole’s stories, amounts to something greater than the familiar underdog sports tale. Frankie’s estrangement from his daughter and Maggie’s ability to fill that aching emptiness turn MILLION DOLLAR BABY into a great Hollywood love story. What people do in relationships often speaks volumes more than what they say. Eastwood and Haggis understand that as they let the actions of these characters articulate the feelings they might never verbalize. Eastwood uses his gruff screen persona differently than audiences are accustomed to seeing. He shows Frankie to be all bark and no bite rather than the pit bull we expect. His interactions with Swank and Morgan Freeman, who plays his best friend Eddie, are terse and brittle, but there’s little doubt that it’s his way of masking the affection he’s afraid to reveal. The three central performances rank among the finest these actors have given in their impressive careers, an achievement that can be credited in part to Eastwood’s unobtrusive, classical direction. MILLION DOLLAR BABY is one of the year’s best films.

Grade: A

(Review first aired on the February 1, 2005 NOW PLAYING)

Hide and Seek

HIDE AND SEEK (John Polson, 2005)

In the thriller HIDE AND SEEK psychologist David Callaway and his daughter Emily move from the city to the country in the aftermath of his wife’s suicide. Robert De Niro stars as David, and Hollywood’s favorite little darling Dakota Fanning plays Emily. Understandably, Emily has difficulty dealing with her mother’s death. Her emotional turbulence manifests itself in the form of Charlie, who may or may not be her imaginary friend.

For two-thirds of its running time HIDE AND SEEK plays out as an unremarkable thriller that at least has the good sense to take itself seriously and keep the nature of what or who Charlie is secret. The lack of supporting characters weakens the suspense, although ultimately HIDE AND SEEK isn’t a solvable mystery. Too many modern thrillers hinge on a hard right turn that viewers can’t see coming. M. Night Shyamalan’s film endings frequently catch audiences unaware, but he also leaves clues that repeat viewers will realize they missed the first time. HIDE AND SEEK goes off the rails when the secret is brought into the light because it feels like a cheap gimmick, and not an original one at that, as if the filmmaker is saying, “You didn’t see that coming, did you?” Dakota Fanning usually gives me the creeps, which makes her particularly well cast as a wicked little girl. De Niro is above material like this, even if the last few years demonstrate that he’s not being terribly selective. He doesn’t embarrass himself until the film’s end.

Grade: D+

(Review first aired on the February 1, 2005 NOW PLAYING)

Alone in the Dark

ALONE IN THE DARK (Uwe Boll, 2005)

Director Uwe Boll specializes in adapting video games into feature films. Previously he helmed HOUSE OF THE DEAD, with BLOODRAYNE to follow later this year. His latest, ALONE IN THE DARK, is based on a series of Atari games. Christian Slater stars as paranormal investigator Edward Carnby. Edward’s newest obsession is ancient Native American artifacts that may bridge the worlds of darkness and light. When he gets together with a museum archivist played by Tara Reid, Edward begins to see the danger of his pursuit.

ALONE IN THE DARK is the only Uwe Boll film I’ve seen, but on the basis of it and the reputation of his much-maligned oeuvre, he may be the closest thing I’ve found to a modern-day Ed Wood. Unlike Wood’s movies, the laughs don’t derive from exceedingly poor effects work, but Boll’s incompetently assembled film can be mined for a wealth of unintended hilarity. ALONE IN THE DARK is thoroughly incomprehensible, a matter complicated rather than clarified by the film’s absurdly long narrated text intro. One scene doesn’t seem connected to the next, and the stock dialogue attempts in vain to explain what’s happening. Slater and Reid’s wooden performances weren’t worth the money that probably elevated this to a theatrical release, although even with them it’s somewhat a miracle this didn’t go straight to video. Boll’s vague X-FILES rip-off isn’t scary or exciting, but inadvertently he’s made a movie funnier than a lot of the purported comedies Hollywood cranks out. ALONE IN THE DARK is a frontrunner for 2005’s worst film of the year.

Grade: F

(Review first aired on the February 1, 2005 NOW PLAYING)