Sunday, February 24, 2008

2008 Oscars predictions

I didn't have the date for the Oscars filed away in my brain, so I ended up making other plans for this evening. While the little gold men are being handed out, I'll be seeing St. Vincent in concert. I'll be recording the 80th annual Academy Awards on the DVR, so I may get the best of both worlds in this deal: going to a concert and watching the Oscars with all the commercials and boring parts fast forwarded.

Everyone and their mother have made predictions for how this year's awards will go, so I might as well join the pile.

Will win: No Country for Old Men
If I voted: There Will Be Blood

Honestly, I'll be satisfied with any of the nominees winning except for Juno. I liked the upstart comedy, but I think it's been overrated to a ridiculous degree.

Will win: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, No Country for Old Men
If I voted: Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood

Will win: Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
If I voted: Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood

He has to have this sewn up, right? If he doesn't, ten bucks says George Clooney says something about drinking Day-Lewis' milkshake.

Will win: Ellen Page, Juno
If I voted: Laura Linney, The Savages

I'm not buying the Julie Christie frontrunner status, and I don't think the other nominees are formidable enough. Linney should have won a Best Actress Oscar by now and deserves it tonight, but it isn't going to happen.

Supporting Actor
Will win: Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men
If I voted: Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

What a loaded category.

Supporting Actress
Will win: Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
If I voted: Cate Blanchett, I'm Not There

The Academy loves Cate--they must if they nominated her for that lousy Elizabeth sequel--but my gut tells me that Todd Haynes' film may have been a turn-off to enough people to counteract their affection for her. Plus, since I'm working from the assumption that each Picture nominee needs to take home something, this seems like a good place for Michael Clayton to snag a win. Nothing against Ruby Dee, who may very will win, but her tiny, tiny part doesn't merit inclusion here.

Adapted Screenplay
Will win: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, No Country for Old Men
If I voted: Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood

An upset for Picture could be in the works if the vote goes the way I'd prefer it.

Animated Feature
Will win: Ratatouille
If I voted: Ratatouille

I liked Persepolis and Surf's Up, but they aren't in the same league as Ratatouille.

Animated Short Film
Will win: I Met the Walrus

It's what Entertainment Weekly is picking.

Art Direction
Will win: Atonement
If I voted: There Will Be Blood

This is the kind of award tailor-made for films like Atonement.

Will win: Robert Elswit, There Will Be Blood
If I voted: Robert Elswit, There Will Be Blood

Congratulations to Roger Deakins for two nominations. Condolences to Roger Deakins for likely having his votes divided.

Costume Design
Will win: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
If I voted: Atonement

Documentary Feature
Will win: Sicko
If I voted: No End in Sight

I'm going with Michael Moore's film to win because this looks like a classic instance of similarly-themed films splitting votes. For what it's worth, I've only seen the two above films from this category, which is why I'd vote that way.

Documentary Short
Will win: Sari's Mother

Like I have any clue...

Film Editing
Will win: No Country for Old Men
If I voted: There Will Be Blood

Should be an indicator of Picture winner.

Foreign Language Film
Will win: The Counterfeiters

Haven't seen any of them.

Live Action Short Film
Will win: The Tonto Woman

Your guess is as good as mine.

Will win: La Vie en Rose
If I voted: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

If I voted, I'd be more likely to abstain. I couldn't bring myself to watch 140 minutes about Edith Piaf, and there's no way I'd vote for Norbit.

Original Score
Will win: Atonement
If I voted: Ratatouille

No gripes if my preferred nominee loses to Atonement.

Original Screenplay
Will win: Diablo Cody, Juno
If I voted: Brad Bird; story by Bird, Jim Capobianco, and Jan Pinkava, Ratatouille

Anything but Juno here would likely be the most pleasant surprise of the night.

Original Song
Will win: "Falling Slowly", Once
If I voted: "Falling Slowly", Once

Call this prediction a bit of wishful thinking and practicality. Three Enchanted songs, and no obvious favorite, would seem to cancel out one another.

Sound Editing
Will win: Transformers
If I voted: There Will Be Blood

Sound Mixing
Will win: Transformers
If I voted: The Bourne Ultimatum

The biggest, noisiest films usually win the sound categories, don't they?

Visual Effects
Will win: Transformers
If I voted: Transformers

The film was a mess, but the visual effects work is pretty spectacular.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Charlie Bartlett


Tossed out of yet another private school, this time for making fake Connecticut driver's licenses, Charlie Bartlett (Anton Yelchin) is forced to enroll at the most fearsome of places: the public high school. The seventeen-year-old worries that he won't be popular with his new classmates. Sure enough, the blazer-wearing, attaché case-carrying kid is on the receiving end of a swirly and hallway beatdown courtesy of mohawked bully Murphey Bivens (Tyler Hilton) on his first day.

Charlie is no stranger to psychiatrists' offices, although he doesn't find the solution to his problems on their couches but in their prescriptions. Ritalin makes him manic, but it also delivers the buzz that other students are more than happy to pay for. Seeing a lucrative and popularity-building opportunity staring him in the face, Charlie forges a business arrangement with Murphey. He will fake symptoms during his therapy sessions so he can procure the drugs. Charlie will then set himself up as a bathroom stall shrink and prescribe pills that Murphey will dispense. Thus a big man on campus is made in CHARLIE BARTLETT.

Charlie attracts the attention of alcoholic Principal Gardner (Robert Downey Jr.) when his enterprise expands to selling DVDs of Murphey's assaults on schoolyard weaklings. Dating Gardner's daughter Susan (Kat Dennings) doesn't put him in the administrator's good graces either.

CHARLIE BARTLETT borrows extensively from FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF and RUSHMORE but leaves behind a key ingredient for its teenage outsider hero: likability. Charlie is a self-entitled twerp who is not the least bit sympathetic no matter how much the filmmakers want to blame his overmedicated mother (Hope Davis) and absent father for his behavior. Speaking in a pinched voice and carrying himself with unfathomable smugness, Yelchin irritates every second he's on screen. Even Gandhi would be tempted to sock this self-satisfied brat in the nose a few times.

Ferris Bueller and Max Fischer, Charlie Bartlett's cinematic forebears, may have been self-absorbed, but fundamentally they were decent kids who accepted responsibility for their youthful misdeeds. Charlie's brazen disregard for anyone's best interests but his own is bad enough. That the film nurtures those feelings only makes it worse.

Plus, Ferris and Max were ingenious, puckish rebels who believed in what they were doing. Charlie applies a market analyst's approach to his subversive acts. He doesn't necessarily believe in his corporatized, co-opted rebellion; it's just what sells.

What makes the film even more unsavory is that Charlie, whose family is obscenely rich, technically keeps his hands clean when it comes to distributing the drugs or the school fight videos. The dirty work is for his presumbly blue collar classmate. Charlie isn't the one handing the drugs to the customers or dishing out the physical abuse recorded for entertainment. He's simply profiting from it.

Least appealing is the "laugh at the retards" material, an ugly side of a film with little charity available in it except for its supposedly beleaguered protagonist. (Considering how much Charlie takes advantage of the people who come to idolize him, it's curious that he becomes their folk hero.) The humor in general is stylized cleverness that seems more amused with itself than it really is. For instance, Charlie duets with his Klonopin-zonked mom on the theme song from All in the Family because it's ironic or something.

While CHARLIE BARTLETT'S spitting in the face of authority may thrill disenchanted teens, its obnoxiousness and phoniness is enough to make me feel like an old man yelling at kids to get off my lawn. We get it. Adults suck. Now shut up, junior.

Grade: D

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Cassandra's Dream

CASSANDRA'S DREAM (Woody Allen, 2007)

Again using London as a backdrop, Woody Allen continues his exploration of the evil that people do with CASSANDRA'S DREAM. Working class brothers Terry (Colin Farrell) and Ian (Ewan McGregor) manage to get by, but like most people, both want just a little bit more. First it's a small sailboat they can't afford until Terry wins a sizable bet at the dog track. They name the boat Cassandra's Dream after the dog that brought them the unexpected windfall.

Terry's hot streak continues at the poker tables. While he vows to stop before getting in over his head, Terry is seduced to continue so he can rake in enough to buy a home for himself and his girlfriend Kate (Sally Hawkins). Inevitably his luck ends with disastrous consequences.

Ian, though, is in no position to bail out his brother. He also needs money. He fantasizes about investing in California hotels that could give him the financial freedom to ditch the drudgery of working in his father's struggling restaurant. Ian speaks as though this dream is the reality he is living. Such big talk, along with the luxury cars he borrows from the auto shop where Terry works, allows Ian to impress and begin dating Angela (Hayley Atwell), an actress with expensive tastes. To hold onto her, he must become the bigtime investor he claims to be.

Terry and Ian cling to the hope that their wealthy Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson), always so supportive of his less fortunate sister and her family, will give them the cash they want. Howard is happy to help as long as the boys will do him one favor. He is under investigation and faces the possibility of losing everything and going to prison. If Terry and Ian will kill the the man ready to testify against Howard, all will be well for everyone.

As in MATCH POINT, Allen is fascinated with the wickedness humans are capable of justifying in the name of self-preservation. Terry relies too much on alcohol, pills, and gambling, and Ian's ambition outstrips his ability; however, neither are bad guys, just flawed individuals, until they accept the terms of Howard's proposal. CASSANDRA'S DREAM slowly ups the ante and provides the means for escape, but no matter how reluctantly they entered into the agreement, Terry and Ian make a choice that cannot be reversed.

CASSANDRA'S DREAM is fraught with uneasy tension as the brothers debate ethics and plot murder. The decision the characters ultimately choose seems as predestined as any in Greek tragedies, yet the film is chilling in depicting how Terry and Ian convince themselves that they have no other recourse. Divine supervision and reproach is absent in the universe Allen constructs, which is precisely why he theorizes people are capable of committing terrible acts.

McGregor shows Ian effortlessly slipping into amorality when tempted with the promise of a comfortable life. He's like the cat that eats the canary after a cost-benefit analysis. Terry, a car mechanic accustomed to dirty hands, doesn't have the compartmentalizing ability of his brother. Farrell's tortured performance is the film's guilty conscience. Seeing the insides of this rough-and-tumble actor gnaw at him brings the torment into sharp focus.

CASSANDRA'S DREAM is not a top-notch Woody Allen film, but this dark drama is a worthy addition to the director's career-long search for meaning in a world where randomness and cruelty often reign.

Grade: B

Monday, February 18, 2008

Definitely, Maybe

DEFINITELY, MAYBE (Adam Brooks, 2008)

Dissatisfied at work and on the verge of divorce, Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds) wonders how he ended up where life has brought him. In DEFINITELY, MAYBE he gets the opportunity to revisit his post-college path into adulthood when his daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin) quizzes him about how he met her mother and why he doesn't love her now.

Will decides to spare Maya no details, including some a father probably ought to omit, as he tells her about the three primary women from his past. He changes the names so she can try to figure out which might be the one she calls mom.

The candidates include Emily (Elizabeth Banks), the college sweetheart Will leaves in Wisconsin when he goes to New York City to help with Bill Clinton's 1992 Presidential campaign; Summer Hartley (Rachel Weisz), a journalist and acquaintance of Emily's; and April (Isla Fisher), an apolitical worker at campaign headquarters who becomes his best friend.

DEFINITELY, MAYBE'S framing device feels especially contrived since Maya knows her mom. The way she's spoken of in the present makes it sound as though she's been out of the picture for years. In theory Maya would be familiar enough with her parents' story or mother's history that this needlessly complicated recounting of Will's love life wouldn't have her guessing nearly as long as she does.

While the uncertainty of which woman Will marries is a nice change from the many predictable romantic comedies, the mystery gets stretched out a little beyond the point where it still holds interest. Will is a storyteller who doesn't know what parts are extraneous.

Yet it is the attention to the messy details in each of Will's relationships that serves as DEFINITELY, MAYBE'S strength. Romantic comedies can often be mindless sprints to the altar. This film gets entrenched in the mundane issues that test and frustrate people who may be good together if it weren't for different choices or circumstances.

Will and Emily might have been the perfect couple if he hadn't left her hundreds of miles behind. Will and Summer might have made great partners if professional interests didn't cause conflict. Will and April might have become more than wonderful friends if the timing of their availability wasn't so rotten. Love is seldom as easy as it appears in the movies. DEFINITELY, MAYBE does an admirable job of presenting the struggles inherent in finding the love of a lifetime.

I've found Reynolds insufferable in many of his other films, but here he dials down the smug self-assurance in exchange for confused idealism. He dives into politics with hope and energy only to be disappointed by his heroes. (The Clinton campaign can seem too visible in the film, but the former President's problems brought on by character flaws function as a barometer of Will's dashed expectations.) Personal life proves to be no easier to sort out.

Writer-director Adam Brooks smartly positions none of the women as villains. Emily, Summer, and April are appealing in their own ways. Banks has the most thinly written part of the the three. Weisz, an actress whose projected intelligence Hollywood sometimes treats as a liability, gives interesting shadings to a character whose independence and knowledge can get in the way of her own happiness. Bubbly and good-hearted, Fisher lights up the screen with with her energy and easygoing demeanor, yet by no means is she a pushover.

DEFINITELY, MAYBE stumbles along the way to its destination just like its protagonist does, but the humor and heart compensate for the lack of sure footing that extends all the way to the uncertainty in the title.

Grade: B-

Fool's Gold

FOOL'S GOLD (Andy Tennant, 2008)

Benjamin "Finn" Finnegan (Matthew McConaughey) is obsessed with finding the Queen's Dowry, a trove of jewels and coins claimed by the ocean in 1715. His pursuit of the Spanish treasure knows no bounds, even if it means being deeply indebted to gangsta rapper Bigg Bunny (Kevin Hart) and ruining his marriage to Tess (Kate Hudson). In FOOL'S GOLD the bumbling treasure hunter accidentally sinks his boat, but when the vessel hits the ocean floor, it uncovers a piece of a plate that suggests he may have located the long lost riches he's been seeking. Too bad for Finn that his financier wants him dead and has hired another crew to dig up the goods.

Tess would be Finn's one ally if she hadn't had enough of his adventure-seeking and irresponsibility. He can't even show up on time for their divorce hearing. (In his defense, he was preoccupied making sure that he wasn't going to join the treasure at the bottom of the Atlantic.) Tess had some good times with the hunky and dim Finn but views their marriage as a youthful mistake to be corrected. Although currently working as a steward on the yacht of Nigel Honeycutt (Donald Sutherland), she has plans for returning home to Chicago, going back to school, and forgetting her former husband.

It follows that of all the boats in all the oceans Finn ends up aboard Nigel's in a bid to get the wealthy man to bankroll his search for the Queen's Dowry. Tess objects but Finn charms Nigel and his vapid socialite daughter Gemma (Alexis Dziena) into going along with his scheme.

Like its namesake mineral, FOOL'S GOLD looks like one thing (a romantic comedy), turns out to be something else (an action-adventure), and has zero value. The film plays in the spirit of ROMANCING THE STONE but produces none of the humorous give and take between its lead characters. Preferring to bask in each others' radiance, Finn and Tess never get down to the delicious bickering that should take place between them.

With an overabundance of supporting characters, subplots, and treasure clues to be followed, there's barely time for the protagonists to engage in verbal duels and fall in love again. McConaughey and Hudson don't exhibit much chemistry, but surely an effort to create some romance would have been preferable to side stories about Nigel and Gemma's strained relationship and Finn's rivalry with his former mentor (Ray Winstone).

The threat and depiction of casual violence in FOOL'S GOLD clashes with the tone of this otherwise breezy getaway in the sun and sand. The bloodshed is not graphic, but it is stronger than the surrounding material demands. It is just another indication of director Andy Tennant's scattershot approach to a film lacking a defined personality.

Grade: D+

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy Valentine's Day

What more could one want for Valentine's Day than a card from Lionsgate featuring Larry the Cable Guy holding a rose in his mouth?

How about VERTIGO in 70mm at the Wexner Center and buzz band Vampire Weekend in Mershon Auditorium? Yeah, that's more my speed.

(For a blast from promos past, here's Lionsgate's 2006 Valentine's Day card.)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Cleveland 08

The films playing this year's Cleveland International Film Festival can now be found on the Cleveland Film Society's website. The Director's Spotlight is focused on John Sayles. Helen Hunt's directorial debut opens the festival. AMERICAN TEEN closes the event.

It's easier to flip through the program to set a schedule of what to catch, so I've only taken a quick look at what films are coming. Still, it's always exciting to dig through the descriptions and find what I hope will be good films that might not ever come my way again. Happy browsing.

The year's festival takes place March 6-16 and will be held primarily at Tower City Center, with some screenings at the Cedar Lee.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


DEDICATION (Justin Theroux, 2007)

Children's book author Henry Roth (Billy Crudup) finds himself in a bind when his illustrator and best friend Rudy Holt (Tom Wilkinson) dies. Henry is prone to crude outbursts and eccentric behavior, such as stacking books on his chest to comfort himself, which impede his ability to work with a new collaborator.

With the deadline bearing down on Henry for his latest book about Marty the Beaver, editor Arthur Planck (Bob Balaban) assigns Lucy Reilly (Mandy Moore) the unenviable task of replacing Rudy. The ample compensation she's offered will allow Lucy to break free from the controlling grip of her mother (Dianne Wiest), but it will be hard-earned considering the insults she has to endure from Henry.

Although positioned as a quirky take on relationships, DEDICATION'S romance isn't all that different from the professional bond that becomes more personal in MUSIC AND LYRICS. Works fades into the background as the unlikely lovers learn more about each other. Where the Hugh Grant-Drew Barrymore film is like enjoying a fizzy bottle of pop, DEDICATION is akin to taking a few swigs of vinegar, though.

Still, director Justin Theroux's film sticks to romantic comedy traditions and is rooted in two time-honored clichés. Two people who dislike one another will fall madly in love, and the love of a good woman will be the saving grace for a damaged man. DEDICATION'S problem isn't its idealized conception of love but the thoroughly unconvincing way in which it is realized. Lucy takes Henry's verbal abuse with relatively little objection, which might be believable since she stands to rake in a couple hundred thousand dollars for her troubles, but the affection she develops for him is harder to rationalize.

At a lean 95 minutes, DEDICATION is both overstuffed and undercooked. (Its running time was 111 minutes when it played festivals, which may explain why this version feels incomplete.) In addition to the central concerns--Henry and Lucy's relationship and their progress on the book--there are also subplots about Henry's emotional health in general, his coming to terms with Rudy's death, Lucy's fights with her intrusive mother, and her confusion regarding an old thesis adviser (Martin Freeman) who wants to rekindle their affair. Cramming in these elements means giving short shrift to all of them, including the primary thrust of the film.

Theroux energetically directs DEDICATION, and the Deerhoof-laden soundtrack freshens and enhances the spiky tone in the narrative. Like many actors who step behind the camera, Theroux attends to the performances and gets good work from his cast. Crudup is very mannered but keeps the character's tics under control. He gets a nice scene when Henry declares his feelings near the end. It's not an easy admission for him to make, and Crudup almost redeems the film's shortcomings with this moment alone. Moore does the best she can with an underwritten part. Wilkinson sparks the film to life even if his character is dead during most of it. Balaban gives the kind of sly comedic turn expected whenever he appears in films. Only Wiest seems out of place, a matter due more to her character belonging in a more conventional picture.

DEDICATION bears the earmarks of a festival movie that stands out on the crowded circuit, where seeing four or five films in a day is common, but has its weaknesses revealed outside of that experience. Performance-driven by a name cast and quirky enough to seem unique, it's watchable, if not altogether likable. Separated from the festival hothouse atmosphere and viewed on its own merits, DEDICATION can be better seen for what it is: a director's distinct but flawed debut and actor's workshop.

Grade: C

Friday, February 08, 2008

The Best Films of 2007

1. THERE WILL BE BLOOD (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

Beginning in a silver mine and concluding in a lavish basement, THERE WILL BE BLOOD tracks the thirty-year descent of a man pursuing wealth at all costs. Daniel Day-Lewis' performance as Daniel Plainview is one for the ages. Without a doubt, the ferocity he applies to this hateful man is responsible for much of his acting's power. Electrifying as his monstrous moments are, he isn't all bluster and scenery-chewing. His quiet moments as an observer of people and rare times of vulnerability have some of the greatest impact.

Biblical in scope, THERE WILL BE BLOOD can be viewed as an origin tale of contemporary corporate greed and the danger to organized religion when intermingling with capitalism, but the film is more compelling in how it connects to the past. It’s a story of costly sacrifice as promised in the title.

On a formal level THERE WILL BE BLOOD is an astounding accomplishment. The cinematography and production design’s caliber is second to none. Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood's dissonant score scrapes and swells like Daniel's distaste for mankind. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson brings it all together with his superb direction and a screenplay he adapted from Upton Sinclair's OIL! A spectacular achievement, THERE WILL BE BLOOD seems, at this early date, worthy to be mentioned alongside cinema's avowed masterpieces.

2. RATATOUILLE (Brad Bird, 2007)

RATATOUILLE is yet another triumph for Pixar, the computer animation studio that can seemingly do no wrong. The gorgeous animation and story's maturity give the film a richness worthy of the finest gourmet meal, let alone a summer movie presumed to be aimed at kids. Artistic creation is often attributed to divine inspiration or some other mystical source, but RATATOUILLE acknowledges and revels in the hard work necessary to make things. It finds joy in the process, something that Brad Bird and the Pixar crew apparently know quite a bit about if this film is any indication.

3. ONCE (John Carney, 2007)

ONCE is a film of modest means, yet this musical love story between an Irish busker and Czech immigrant takes on a grand emotional scale. Sweet in tone and simple in filmmaking technique, ONCE draws us in with a relationship that develops as naturally as unpredictably as any plucked from real life. The characters played by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová connect in songs seamlessly integrated into the film and thus in the hearts of moviegoers.

4. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2007)

The Coen brothers bring their unique sense for bloodshed and humor to their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Intense, thoughtful, and darkly funny, the film looks at a violent landscape where morality and mercy are absent. In a standout cast, Javier Bardem leaps to the fore as a ruthless man ushering in the wave of senseless killing.

5. ATONEMENT (Joe Wright, 2007)

A child's overactive imagination, busybody's curiosity, and an observational misunderstanding lead to life-altering consequences in the devastating ATONEMENT. Director Joe Wright demonstrates a remarkable ability to tell stories with the entire cinematic language. From the precise sound design to the sprawling tracking shot of the evacuation to Dunkirk, Wright attends to the small and the large with a masterful touch. ATONEMENT is an exquisitely crafted film bursting with the possibilities movies offer.

6. HOT FUZZ (Edgar Wright, 2007)

With HOT FUZZ writer-director Edgar Wright and co-writer and star Simon Pegg send up action films in the same vein that SHAUN OF THE DEAD goofed on the horror genre. Rather than engaging in outright parody, they construct an original story that lovingly lampoons cop movie conventions. Blessed with an airtight script, a sterling cast of comedic actors, and a director in peak form, HOT FUZZ is an arresting farce sure to keep audiences locked up with laughter.

7. MUSIC AND LYRICS (Marc Lawrence, 2007)

Like a catchy pop song you can't stop humming, the sublime romantic melody of MUSIC AND LYRICS puts a smile on your face and love in your heart. Romantic comedies, potentially the easiest genre for depicting familiar people and scenarios, regularly get mucked up with plot contrivances that make them alien to viewer experiences. Perhaps that's why MUSIC AND LYRICS is so refreshing. Marc Lawrence's film succeeds because it develops lovable, realistic characters and focuses on the budding relationship between the delightful Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore rather than tearing them apart so they can get together in the end.

8. I'M NOT THERE (Todd Haynes, 2007)

Todd Haynes' masterful portrait of Bob Dylan scrutinizes the musician-poet-actor-artist-husband-father-outlaw and leaves him at once as mysterious as ever and yet somehow knowable. Haynes' challenging film sets out to see how the disparate pieces of Dylan's persona fit together, if they're even part of the same puzzle. Edited like a puzzle worker's trial-and-error method of searching for what goes where, I'M NOT THERE juxtaposes eras in a structure that suggests chronology but avoids hewing to it.

9. SUNSHINE (Danny Boyle, 2007)

A mission to reignite our dying sun becomes an exploration of existential questions in SUNSHINE. Packed with spectacular visuals, tense moments, and philosophical musings on humanity's place in the universe, Danny Boyle's film is more than just an echo of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and SOLARIS.


THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY transcends the uplifting movie-of-the-week story through Julian Schnabel's artful direction and deep empathy. Often shot from an incapacitated Jean-Dominique Bauby's subjective view, the film excels at expressing the unsettling feeling of his fixed perspective and the constricting sensation of immobility. Schnabel and actor Mathieu Amalric approach the situation with the single-minded purpose of providing a virtual experience that reveals the power of the mind to animate.

2007 in Film: The Honorable Mentions

2 DAYS IN PARIS (Julie Delpy, 2007)

Among her many credits on the film, Julie Delpy writes, directs, and stars in this charming romantic comedy that brings the verbal wit and intelligence of BEFORE SUNSET to a MEET THE PARENTS scenario. Playful and philosophical, 2 DAYS IN PARIS is a nice antidote to its dunderheaded cinematic brethren.

28 WEEKS LATER (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 2007)

A tense and terrifying trip through a chaotic urban environment, 28 WEEKS LATER is Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's respectable follow-up to Danny's Boyle's 28 DAYS LATER (which made my 2003 honorable mentions). The rage virus that ravaged London is believed to have been eradicated, so the city begins to be repopulated. The characters and audience are forced into reactive mode when faced with sensory bombardment, creating palpable fear in one of 2007's scariest movies.


AFTER THE WEDDING'S anguished portrait of family, charity, and mortality peels back layers in the characters that defy their easy categorization. Director Susanne Bier takes a soap opera plot and wrings every last ounce of human emotion out of it. What good is charity to others if none exists for those who are closest? The film's invitation to look closer doesn't challenge what's on the surface so much as it searches for core truths.

AIR GUITAR NATION (Alexandra Lipsitz, 2006)

Bringing pretend rocking out of the bedroom and onto the world stage, AIR GUITAR NATION follows the search for the United States' initial ambassador of air. This very funny documentary should get audiences strumming along on their own air guitars and flashing devil horns in support of these masters of mock rock.


Andrew Dominik's deconstruction of celebrity creation and worship features a stunning performance by Casey Affleck as the unlikely killer of the famous outlaw.

CONTROL (Anton Corbijn, 2007)

Electrifying musical performance scenes and Sam Riley's riveting star turn sear the screen in the biopic of Joy Division's Ian Curtis. CONTROL'S uniqueness comes through in its moody and ordinary portrait of a rock legend.

IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON (David Sington, 2007)

NASA's Apollo missions are remembered in a breathtaking documentary that reminds us how amazing manned space travel is.

LARS AND THE REAL GIRL (Craig Gillespie, 2007)

This comedy about a man and his life-size sex doll isn't as outrageous as it sounds in concept. LARS AND THE REAL GIRL could have felt overly precious, like a cheap stunt or joke, but the emotional depth and warmth make this quirky regional character study anything but plastic.

THE LIVES OF OTHERS (DAS LEBEN DER ANDEREN) (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)

As a Cold War thriller about the East German secret police, THE LIVES OF OTHERS is gripping stuff replete with the nuts and bolts of all-encompassing surveillance. It's greater impact, though, is as a character study of the spy and those spied upon.

MY KID COULD PAINT THAT (Amir Bar-Lev, 2007)

A four-year-old girl's abstract paintings make her the darling of the art world in the intriguing documentary MY KID COULD PAINT THAT. Although the film is about this particular case and whether or not it is a hoax, it wrestles with the larger question of what makes something art and how important extra-textual considerations factor into the evaluation.

NO END IN SIGHT (Charles Ferguson, 2007)

About the last thing I wanted to see in 2007 was yet another documentary about the war in Iraq, but Charles Ferguson's film features the kind of objective journalism sorely missing in the national debate.

PARIS, JE T'AIME (22 directors, 2006)

Gus Van Sant and Joel and Ethan Coen contribute some of the best shorts in this omnibus film about the neighborhoods of Paris. With twenty segments, there will inevitably be a few less successful pieces, but the good easily outnumber the mediocre. Alexander Payne's "14th arrondissement" may be the best work he's ever done.

RESCUE DAWN (Werner Herzog, 2006)

In RESCUE DAWN Christian Bale gives himself over completely to his performance as Dieter Dengler, a U.S. fighter pilot held as a prisoner of war by the Laotians during the Vietnam War. Director Werner Herzog is drawn to obsessives--in fact, he told this story before in the documentary LITTLE DIETER NEEDS TO FLY--and he tells this tale of escape with the verve and visual flair expected of him.

THE SAVAGES (Tamara Jenkins, 2007)

Finding the proper care for a parent with declining health is never easy. It's especially difficult when the father in question has been estranged from the siblings now tasked to make arrangements for him. Tamara Jenkins' THE SAVAGES locates the humor and heart in a situation where those qualities are badly needed but hard to see. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney excel as the brother and sister who want to do right by their dad but also wish to have the circumstances not interfere with their lives.

SUPERBAD (Greg Mottola, 2007)

Relentlessly crude teen comedies aren't usually the stuff of best films lists, but the raunchy SUPERBAD distinguishes itself with clever wordplay and a keen understanding of high school male friendships. With SUPERBAD and JUNO, Michael Cera builds upon the comedic chops he first showed on ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT. Jonah Hill is hilarious as his vulgar pal. But it's newcomer Christopher Mintz-Plasse who runs away with the movie as McLovin, a geeky, would-be Casanova.

WAITRESS (Adrienne Shelly, 2007)

Keri Russell shines in this sweet and funny tale about a woman seeking a fresh start. One of the film's happy surprises is Andy Griffith stealing his scenes as the curmudgeonly diner owner. Russell's character has to make the best of a bad situation, something those involved with WAITRESS had to do in light of the murder of Adrienne Shelly, who wrote and directed the film and played a supporting character in it.

ZODIAC (David Fincher, 2007)

Based on the unsolved case, the decades-spanning ZODIAC documents the intensive search for a killer who haunted Bay Area citizens and taunted authorities with promises of unpreventable future murders. In a year littered with the corpses of films that tackled the war in Iraq, this was the movie that best expressed life in a post-9/11 environment.

Festival prizes

Some other crumbs from the moviegoing year...

-COLD PREY (FRITT VILT) (Roar Uthaug, 2006)
-REPRISE (Joachim Trier, 2006)
-SONS (SØNNER) (Erik Richter Strand, 2006)

This four-pack of Norwegian films at the Cleveland International Film Festival probably didn't come anywhere near you, but collectively they were among the best entries I saw at the fest.

-A MAP FOR SATURDAY (Brook Silva-Braga, 2007)

This documentary about solo backpacking around the world could be seen as a counterpoint to INTO THE WILD. Brook Silva-Braga, the film's director and subject, discovers the joy and loneliness that come in going on a worldwide adventure on your own.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et le papillon)


Based on a true story, THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (LE SCAPHANDRE ET LE PAPILLON) depicts 42 year-old Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby's (Mathieu Amalric) struggle to communicate after having a massive stroke. Paralyzed from head to toe, he suffers from a very rare condition known as locked-in syndrome. Brain function appears normal, but he is unable to move or speak.

Rehabilitation at the Berck-sur-Mer hospital looks to be a long, slow process for Jean-Do, as his friends call him, although he draws some comfort from having beautiful women around to assist him. Physical therapist Marie Lopez (Olatz López Garmendia) must teach him how to swallow. The slightest movement of his head is considered a major improvement. Speech therapist Henriette Durand (Marie-Josée Croze) introduces him to a method of communicating through blinking his one good eye. (His right eye has been sewn shut.) She reads the letters of the alphabet, from those most commonly used to the least. When she arrives at the one he wants, he selects it by blinking. The interminable process repeats until words and sentences are formed.

Like anyone in his situation, Jean-Do is immensely frustrated with his circumstances. His breakthough comes when he decides to stop pitying himself. Imagination and memory are still at his disposal, so he chooses to fulfill the book contract he signed before his impairment. The publisher assigns Claude (Anne Consigny) to take his dictation for a novel about his experience of having a vibrant mind trapped in a paralyzed body.

Initially shot from Jean-Do's subjective view, THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY places the audience in his position. Fades, blurred images, and jarring edits give us his way of seeing amid the confusion and aggravation. The visual technique expresses the unsettling feeling of his fixed perspective and the constricting sensation of immobility. Director Julian Schnabel's experimental direction conveys what it must be like when one's body is no longer one's own and subject to physicians' prodding and manipulations. As Jean-Do allows his mind to travel, the film opens up and brings the liberating relief of movement, even if it is only mental.

Croze's compassionate performance is central to Jean-Do's transformation. We look at her as he sees Henriette. Her face reflects the potential she spots in the shell before her. Henriette's patience indicates her faith in the agonizingly slow and repetitive system and in him. By force of will her belief is manifested. Jean-Do becomes what Henriette knows he can be. Croze's delicate work gives access to the touching relationship between patient and caregiver.

THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY transcends the uplifting movie-of-the-week story through Schnabel's artful direction and deep empathy. One of art's important qualities is permitting us to inhabit the lives of others for a couple hours, something this film undertakes with great rigor. In casting the dashing Amalric, a coiled spring of an actor, as Jean-Do, we receive a fuller understanding of what it must be like to have one's appearance disfigured and energy quelled. Neither Amalric nor Schnabel grasp for cheap sympathy, though. Actor and director approach the situation with the single-minded purpose of providing a virtual experience that reveals the power of the mind to animate. Jean-Do's achievement of blinking a book is remarkable, but THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY inspires by showing what is available to everyone. We're as limited as we allow our minds to be.

Grade: A-

Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Eye

THE EYE (David Moreau and Xavier Palud, 2008)

The Asian horror style is about two cycles old in the scary movie genre. Even torture porn seems to have exhausted its trendiness. THE RETURN, THE GRUDGE 2, THE MESSENGERS, and ONE MISSED CALL, all made four years or more after THE RING debuted in 2002, are frighteningly similar examples of this atmospheric approach's staleness. The less successful films are high on mood and short on plot, comprehensibility, and scares. THE EYE, an American remake of the Pang brothers' 2002 spooker THE EYE (GIN GWAI), copies these failings like a blueprint.

Blind violinist Sydney Wells (Jessica Alba) receives cornea transplants to return the sight she lost in a childhood accident. New or restored vision can be overwhelming for someone used to relying on other senses, so Sydney visits Dr. Paul Faulkner (Alessandro Nivola), an eye specialist, to help with the transition to the world of the seeing. Paul is abrasive in their first session and remains skeptical of the problems she claims to have.

Sydney sees snarling, ghost-like creatures escorting souls to an afterlife and envisions people burning to death in a factory. She is convinced that so-called cellular memories in her new eyes are responsible for these nightmarish sights. Sydney's only recourse is to find the confidential donor and uncover what the dead woman must be trying to tell her.

The Pang brothers' uneven but effective original had an eerie tone and less predictable beats in its favor. It also helped that this style seemed fresher when their EYE reached U.S. theaters five years ago. THE EYE remake rolls off Hollywood's Asian horror assembly line like expired goods that have been repackaged. Get the same old boring secrets and visual aesthetic! As bad as or worse than before!

Not that THE EYE could have been salvaged with a different actress in the lead, but Alba's wooden performance works to the film's detriment. She possesses two looks, blank happiness and hurt puppy. With such limited expressiveness, it comes as no surprise that Alba is more charismatic on and between the covers of men's magazines than on screen.

Having Parker Posey play Alba's sister is one of the strangest casting choices to come down the pike in awhile. The pairing makes about as much sense as Sydney getting the eyes of a poor Mexican woman who lived fifteen hours away and thinking that placing a towel over broken mirror shards on the sink means her sister will fail to recognize the damage.

Poor acting and narrative inconsistency and stupidity can be glazed over if a horror film has the ability to scare. Here's one occasion when THE EYE doesn't have it.

Grade: D

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Strange Wilderness


Films by Adam Sandler's Happy Madison production company have a shambling, improvised quality about them. Sandler comes across as a regular guy making movies with his friends and for them (and those with similar senses of humor). STRANGE WILDERNESS, the latest release under the Happy Madison shingle, also possesses the shaggy vibe of buddies getting together with a movie camera and several kegs and goofing around until they have a finished product.

The two main characters in STRANGE WILDERNESS are named after the co-screenwriters, one of whom sits in the director's chair as well. The loose familiarity comes through loud and clear in the final shot. The actors break character and bust out laughing as though they can't believe their luck to be having so much fun making a film. Their good time doesn't include those paying to watch the half-assed effort they cobble together, though.

Following in the footsteps of his father, Peter Gaulke (Steve Zahn) hosts the wildlife TV show Strange Wilderness. Peter and his dimwitted pals, including sound man Fred Wolf (Allen Covert), assemble scientifically dubious programs banished to the 3 a.m. broadcast wasteland. Questionable content--topless blondes from Long Beach standing in for African natives, an alligator mauling a man--and declining ratings force station manager Ed Lawson (Jeff Garlin) to pull the plug.

The Strange Wilderness team needs a miracle to get back on the air. Old friend Bill Calhoun (Joe Don Baker) may be the desperate, paranoid angel who can provide one. He has photographs of Bigfoot in Ecuador and a map to the creature's habitat that can be purchased for the low, low price of one thousand dollars. If Peter can't pony up the money, Bill will sell to Sky Pierson (Harry Hamlin), a rival nature show host with a bigger budget.

Hoping to shoot several episodes on the way, everyone piles into the motor home for the trip south. Along for the ride is travel agent Cheryl (Ashley Scott), who is there for no other reason than the film needing a female.

Instantly forgettable and proudly lazy, STRANGE WILDERNESS feels like it's being made up on the spot. Internal story consistency is not valued. Potential subplots that might have given shape to the film--an ANCHORMAN-like competitiveness between Peter and Sky's crews, for instance--are scrapped for stoner humor in short attention span chunks. It's the sort of movie you can imagine a dorm rat finding hilarious when he's blotto and wondering what's so funny when he's straight.

Zahn makes a likable protagonist even if he struggles mightily to create laughter. Getting his penis gobbled by a turkey isn't as funny or outrageous as it sounds, but he and Covert have an amusing scene while waiting to see a dentist to fix their knocked out front teeth. STRANGE WILDERNESS does better with sight gags than one-liners. (Jonah Hill, reduced to a weird voice, whiffs on all the weak ones that come his way.) Eyes drawn on the eyelids, an old standby for the inappropriately dozing, are good for a few chuckles. The manner in which the guys try to make the best of their interaction with Bigfoot rounds up some stray laughs too.

Unlike some other Happy Madison productions, STRANGE WILDERNESS is oddly watchable despite how awful it might sound. The jokes are lightweight and inoffensive but connect infrequently enough to keep one awake. The cast, which includes Broken Lizard member Kevin Heffernan, Justin Long, Robert Patrick, and Ernest Borgnine, is up for anything but let down because of the material's flimsiness. There is no evidence of anyone breaking a sweat to make this movie. But hey, whatever, man.

Grade: C-

Over Her Dead Body

OVER HER DEAD BODY (Jeff Lowell, 2008)

A falling ice angel crushes pushy bride Kate (Eva Longoria Parker) on her wedding day in the romantic comedy OVER HER DEAD BODY. Kate returns as a ghost with a mission to complete, but what she's supposed to do is a mystery. Turns out she is just as demanding and overbearing in heaven (or limbo or wherever she went after dying) that her orientation angel dumps her back on earth without a clue for how to proceed.

A year after her death Kate's fiancé Henry (Paul Rudd) is still moping around and only leaving his apartment for his job as a veterinarian. Henry's sister Chloe (Lindsay Sloane) decides that the cure for his misery is to take him to a psychic, who can let him speak to Kate and allow him to move on with his life. He reluctantly agrees to a reading with Ashley (Lake Bell), but nothing happens to persuade him to change his ways. Determined to shake her brother out of his funk, Chloe provides Ashley with Kate's diary so she can convincingly lie to Henry about communicating with his dead fiancée and direct him to make a new start. Neither of them foresees that Henry will choose to rebound with Ashley.

Highly displeased that another woman is after her man, Kate determines that her purpose is to keep Ashley away from Henry. She makes herself visible to the psychic, who seems as shocked as anyone to have actual supernatural contact.

OVER HER DEAD BODY is neither romantic or comedic, which is the all the autopsy needed to ascertain the reasons for the film's death on arrival on screen. Its shifting perspective doesn't divide loyalties. Rather, it keeps the audience from identifying with anyone. Whose story is the movie telling? At first it seems to be about Kate, yet she disappears for long stretches. More on the periphery of the action than the driving force, she pops up solely to disrupt things. Ostensibly the film is about how a deceased loved one can be an obstacle in a new relationship. In that sense, there's no need for Kate to be exist as a character, but without her there wouldn't be any wacky hijinks.

OVER HER DEAD BODY isn't Henry's movie either. He's an afterthought, the prize to be won in Kate and Ashley's battle. No chemistry was detected between Henry and Kate, and he doesn't seem broken up about being alone. From all indications, Kate was a horrible nag anyway. Talk about keeping the stakes exceedingly low.

I suppose that OVER HER DEAD BODY has to be Ashley's story, although it isn't entirely. The best case to be made for it being her film is because she's the only character with anything resembling an arc. Still, it's a strange decision to focus OVER HER DEAD BODY on someone with the least vested interest in what develops.

What little saving grace the film has comes via Rudd even though the actor couldn't appear more uninterested to be in this lousy movie. Rudd's apathy and decent one-liners breathe a little life into what is otherwise a corpse of a comedy. Whether making fun of cat owners or having a conversation with his pet bird, he's the only one to exhibit personality or a sense of humor. He pulls off the most ludicrous race to the airport climax in a film genre hellbent on staging the dumbest ways to build to a big finish.

If it were considered unseemly to speak ill of dead films, then the only thing to recommend about OVER HER DEAD BODY would be the lead actor's palpable indifference. Better to bury this sitcom-level movie and look ahead.

Grade: D+