Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Oscar's 80th Birthday: Academy Awards 2008 Recap

Oscar turned 80 this year! I only wish his party could have been a little more exciting, but then the Oscars are always somewhat exciting even if the show itself could have used a bit more zip. I love the Oscar ceremony and look forward to it every year, but sorry, Jon Stewart just doesn't do it for me as a host. He's spectacularly unfunny (with a few exceptions), has zero charisma, charm or edge, and is just plain boring. Somehow he just didn't manage to make the ceremony seem special. I enjoyed the retrospectives of 79 years of Best Picture winners plus clips of the previous winners of the acting categories, but the musical numbers for Best Song nominees were outright pathetic. Hard to believe such drivel was selected while Eddie Vedder's exciting songs from "Into the Wild" were completely ignored by the Academy. Politics as usual.

The winners of the acting categories were all worthy for a change, with the possible exception of Tilda Swinton as Best Supporting Actress for "Michael Clayton". She was good in the movie, but I would have preferred to see Amy Ryan ("Gone Baby Gone"), Cate Blanchett ("I'm Not There") or Ruby Dee ("American Gangster") take home the gold. What a thrill to see the deserving French actress Marion Cotillard score as Best Actress for her incredible performance as Edith Piaf in "La Vie En Rose", and charming Javier Bardem's acceptance speech (for Best Supporting Actor) was my favorite of the night. Glad that the fabulously weird Cohen brothers scored Hollywood's biggest prize with their Best Picture win for "No Country for Old Men" (along with their writing award). All in all, a pretty good night for Oscar.

Things to love about this Oscar show: Helen Mirren "knighting" Best Actor Daniel Day-Lewis with his Oscar; Marion Cotillard's uninhibited joy as she picked up her Best Actress trophy
Things to hate about this Oscar show: Jon Stewart as host (PLEASE choose another host next year);uninspired musical numbers (kudos to brave Amy Adams for doing a good job with "Happy Working Song" all alone on stage); rushing winners through acceptance speeches (as usual); pregnant actress jokes (and pregnant actresses for that matter-- I'm so sick of it); seeing young Heath Ledger in the tribute to entertainment figures who have passed on
Pleasant surprises: Bringing back Best Song co-winner Marketa Irglova for a touching acceptance speech after she was prematurely played off by that annoying kiss-off music
Unpleasant surprises: "The Bourne Ultimatum" a winner for Best Editing???? Yikes.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Movie Review: U2 3D

As exhilarating and inspiring as the band at its center, U2 3D wraps the viewer up in a magical cocoon of sound, sight and dazzling entertainment that even those clunky 3D glasses can't ruin. The documentary is a straightforward record of U2 concerts from the band's Latin American tour, filled with all those wonderful U2 classics ("In the Name of Love", "With or Without You", "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and many more) as well as more recent tunes such as the opening number"Vertigo". The marvel of 3D puts the viewer right in the concert hall with amazing clarity, letting us feel as though we're in the audience watching the Irish boys perform or, in some cases, right on stage with them. The staging of the concert enhances the 3D effects as band members venture out into the crowd on catwalks, coming so close to the movie audience we feel as though we could reach out and touch Bono, Adam Clayton, The Edge or Larry Mullen Jr. Very cool. Charismatic as ever, this kick-ass band is perfect for the 3D approach, exuding energy with just the right touch of media enhancement to make things pop in a really fun way. Bono's well documented political efforts towards peace and world reconciliation are put to good use at just the right moments, especially during "Bullet the Blue Sky" and "One".

I've been lucky enough to see this band live in concert many times. There's nothing like experiencing them in person, but this extraordinary document is the next best thing.

Things to love about this movie: That fabulous music, seamless editing, terrific use of 3D effects
Things to hate about this movie: Although they've been greatly improved, I still hate wearing those stupid 3D glasses
Pleasant surprises: The very exuberant audiences in the documentary become a thrilling extra component to the movie theater audience's enjoyment
Unpleasant surprises: A bit more expensive than your average movie, but well worth the extra bucks

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Movie Review: In Bruges

Where would you find two mismatched, hilariously nasty and surprisingly engaging hit men set against a backdrop of lovely, charming canals filled with swans? "In Bruges" of course. It's controlled chaos in a tourist filled town in Belgium as Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleason) hide out in the medieval-styled Bruges at the instruction of their boss (Ralph Fiennes as Harry) after a botched job. With the blackest of humor, a couple of very cool plot turns and three actors with plenty of talent and chemistry, writer/director Martin McDonagh serves up a rare treat for moviegoers who like their crime stories edgy.

Ray is tortured by his accidental killing of a young boy during the first job of his career. He hates Bruges, has no interest in obeying the instructions of his boss back in London and jumps between restless boredom and severe depression. Ken, on the other hand, falls in love with the beautiful Belgian town, sightseeing to his heart's content (and Ray's irritation). On a rare night out, Ray bumps into a film company shooting on the streets of Bruges and hooks up with Chloe (Clemence Poesy) as well as a feisty dwarf actor (Jordan Prentice). Ken is left to deal with the increasingly infuriated Harry, who senses that his two wayward employees aren't following the rules and throws a serious curveball at the conscientious, gentlemanly Ken. Although the storyline wouldn't necessarily warrant humor there's plenty, and it's definitely of the politically incorrect kind. Fun is poked at fat people (3 American tourists), small people (the dwarf actor) and race relations as well as smoking in restaurants and sacred tourist attractions.

Playwright McDonagh (an Oscar winning director of the short film "Six Shooter") makes an impressive feature film directorial debut. He keeps the action moving in unexpected ways while developing a touching relationship between the two main characters. The Bruges setting is used to glorious effect, becoming an additional character in the story.

Things to love about this movie: Beautiful Bruges (I'd never heard of it, but after seeing this movie I want to visit!); great casting; Brendan Gleason brilliantly playing a type of character different from his usual; some fun plot twists
Things to hate about this movie: Several drawn out deaths (it takes a lot to kill these people)
Pleasant surprises: The character development of the two hit men; Gleason/Farrell chemistry
Unpleasant surprises: Ending was a bit of a letdown (though not enough to spoil the film)

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Movie Review: Michael Clayton

With 7 Oscar nominations (including Best Picture), "Michael Clayton" went to the top of my catch-up viewing list of movies I'm trying to see before the Oscar ceremony takes place. I was a bit surprised by the number of nominations this film received. Now, after seeing it, I completely understand the attention from the Academy. We've seen stories about the corruption and unethical practices of big corporations before, but seldom with the sophistication and subtlety shown here. George Clooney stars as corporate fixer Michael Clayton, a man whose life seems to have gotten away from him in ways he's powerless to address. He's tapped out, both morally and financially, struggling to connect with his young son, and caught at the center of a dynamite keg of a case involving his law firm. Although it's obvious that Clayton is adept at playing in the big leagues, his weariness with the ethical questions of his job is beginning to eat away at him. When he's assigned the seemingly impossible task of reigning in one of his firm's brilliant but mentally unstable attorneys (Tom Wilkinson) in time to avoid the collapse of a crucial case, Clayton reaches his limit. Slimy attorney Tilda Swinton, representing an opposing law firm, complicates matters even further. Oscar nominees Clooney, Wilkinson and Swinton, along with director Sydney Pollack (as Clayton's boss) and Austin Williams (as Clayton's young son Henry), turn in amazing performances. There's not a dull moment in the film, not to mention some stunning twists and surprises and a perfect ending.

Things to love about this movie: The whole package (wonderful direction and script by Tony Gilroy, great performances, satisfying ending), the character of Michael Clayton proved much more interesting and complicated than originally expected
Things to hate about this movie: The marketing of the movie was misleading for me, detracting from my interest instead of encouraging it
Pleasant surprises: The sophistication and subtlety of the script and performances, not a car chase in sight.
Unpleasant surprises: The throwaway character of a Clayton brother with drug problems

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Movie Review: The Great Debaters

This marvelous movie may have gotten a bit lost in the shuffle with all those high powered Oscar favorites, but for me it's equal to many of the Best Picture nominees, if not better than some ("Atonement" comes to mind). Based on actual events, the story involves a group of African American students at a small college in Texas during the 1930s who are inspired by their teacher (Denzel Washington in an outstanding performance) to work their way up through championships against debate teams from other states, eventually taking on the elite Harvard debate team in an unprecedented challenge between white and black students. This is Denzel's second directorial effort, and he continues to impress as a very talented director as well as a wonderful actor. He's put together an exciting young cast, including Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett, Jermaine Williams and Denzel Whitaker as the debaters, with the always incredible Forest Whitaker as the local minister and father of one of the students. It's fun watching two Oscar winning actors (Denzel and Forest) go head to head, although they only actually share a couple of scenes together.

This movie could have fallen into the trap of being one of those saccharine, uplifting and completely predictable films about triumphing over impossible odds. Although it does lend itself to being placed in this category, it somehow manages to escape the trap of sentimentality through an excellent script and characters who defy stereotype. There's more edge to the movie than I expected, plus important history lessons about a time, not that long ago, when race relations were truly dangerous and horrific. I'd love to see this film shown in schools since it personalizes the inequities of racism in a most effective way. Aside from its social importance, the movie is also tremendously entertaining. I hope audiences will keep it in mind while they're rushing out to see those Best Picture Oscar nominees.

Things to love about this movie: Charismatic actor Nate Parker, a smart script, Denzel's impressive performance and directing
Things to hate about this movie: Can't think of a one
Pleasant surprises: Takes on social issues with plenty of edge, refreshingly unsentimental, Jurnee Smollett's fiery female debate team member
Unpleasant surprises: Overlooked by most award groups (did receive a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture)

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Santa Barbara International Film Festival 2008: Recap

Latino Cinemedia (sidebar): "Imitation" is a Canadian film (directed by Federico Hidalgo) with much to recommend it, especially the performance by lead actress Vanessa Bauche who creates a complex, interesting lead character. Teresa (Bauche) has traveled from Mexico to Montreal in search of the husband who left her. Working as a cleaning lady and seamstress, she is angry and depressed but meets a local (Jesse Aaron Dwyre) who befriends her and offers to help her search for her husband. The story is muddled and confusing, unfortunately, which detracts from the excellent performances.

Documentary: "In the Company of Actors" is an exhilarating look behind the scenes of an Australian production of "Heda Gabler". Starring the exquisite Cate Blanchett and the fabulous Hugo Weaving, the documentary gives us fascinating glimpses into rehearsals, lighting and staging details and scenes from the production, as well as interviews with the director and actors. A must see for anyone who loves theater.

Santa Barbara Filmmakers: "We Played Marbles: Remembering a Stolen Childhood", another outstanding documentary, features interviews with 11 Holocaust survivors from Austria, Poland and Germany. Chilling details of their experiences as children during this horrifying time in history make the Holocaust become heartbreakingly personal, and even though the editing is a bit choppy the power of these survivors' stories is undeniable.

Independent Features: "Goliath" brings a quirky, surprisingly touching and funny twist to the story of an unhappy guy whose marriage is ending, job is depressing and cat is missing. Writer/director/lead actor David Zellner brings us an entertaining tale, making the lead character's loneliness and anger hilarious and poignant all at the same time. Though the story doesn't necessarily lend itself to laughs, Zellner finds the humor in little, every day details (such as David running an electric can opener at the open window in an attempt to locate the missing cat).