Monday, January 31, 2005

Thai Me Up, Thai Me Down

...and if that's the worst pun you've heard in your life, don't feel shy about telling me. I work hard at being this inane, and I never get any credit.

But moving on—the stars and planets finally aligned properly this week so that I might finally catch a glimpse of not one but two of the crowd-pleasing centerpieces of the recent New Wave of Thai cinema, both of them big and beautiful in 35mm. One really jazzed me, and one disappointed me a little: "up," "down" get the drift. Still, the excitement of seeing them both was a pleasure that exceeded the discrete merits of either film. It's fun to catch a wave of hype, but even more fun to touch down on what for me, and for many others on these shores, is a brand new playing-field of film aesthetics.

Granted, this is much more true of Blissfully Yours, easily the jewel in this pair. The film possesses the same combination of frisky charm and mournful undertows that you feel in a work like Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, even though on the surface these movies couldn't seem more different. Indeed, on the surface, it's hard to know what Blissfully Yours feels like, period. After an anxious opening sequence in a doctor's office, where two Thai women escort an obviously undocumented refugee through an appointment with a skeptical doctor, Blissfully Yours reveals a funnier, weirder side; the older of the two women now visits her husband at work, slyly treating him to a taste of a vegetable-and-cold-cream casserole she's just whipped up. From here, the refugee hitches a ride with the younger woman from the opening—his girlfriend, as it happens, and thus his companion on a long, unrushed, occasionally unclothed picnic/siesta in the deeps of the Thai jungle. Viewers made skittish by the long shots of desolate driving that carry us into the forest might start worrying that this is Twentynine Palms Redux, this time with real palms. Rest assured, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's temperament is too buoyant and too oddball for something so grim, although the very, very dark sides of fugitive living, sexual isolation, and encroaching middle-age will not go unremarked. Still, this is a fetching love story. With fire ants. And hand-painted Flintstone figurines, which you chuckle at until you realize the horrors they imply. No, really. Just check it out. Yes, the increasing abstraction of the final moments winds up sealing off the picture's emotions just when it should be ready to really let them breathe, but by that point you've had such a compelling experience that you're highly unlikely to care, or even notice.

It's a testament to the glorious eccentricity of Blissfully Yours that the strange-in-its-own-right Last Life in the Universe feels very nearly predictable. Much of the problem derives from the willingness of director-cowriter Pen-ek Ratanaruang to pilfer and retrace the well-known moods and motifs of so many cohorts. Baldly swiping Wong Kar-wai's food-for-love obsession, hiring d.p. Christopher Doyle to rig up his now-overfamiliar framings and color schemes, and ultimately ordering up a Faye Wong haircut for his pixie-ish female lead (when she's seen wiping tables at a diner, no less), Pen-ek is such a copycat that you might mistake him for one of Francis Ford Coppola's children. Casting Takashi Miike in a small part, inserting an Ichi the Killer poster, and slipping in a wink at his own 6ixtynin9 only makes the referentiality more self-serving and belabored...this guy even nicks something from the human xerox machine himself, stranding a hitman on the toilet at a truly inopportune moment. None of this would be as aggravating if Pen-ek did much of interest with his own story about a laconic Japanese librarian in Thailand and his impromptu connection with a gamin he meets via a traffic accident (fast becoming the meet-cute of 21st century world cinema). The film ably conjures one of those gossamer melancholic moods that Asian movies can do in their sleep, which is how much of Last Life seems to have been mounted (and also how I experienced it for about two minutes near the halfway mark; oops). It's all pretty easy to take and just as easy to forget. Doyle can't get away with neon-limned anomie forever, and the screenplay's tinkering with chronology and reality smacked more of Zhou Yu's Train than Chungking Express. Thankfully, this kind of movie has a pretty self-selecting audience, and it has enough wile and charm to reward the two hours we spend with it, but once the novelty of Thai cinema has waned a little for Western audiences, this curio of the moment will quickly look like the minor work that it truly is. Not so Blissfully Yours; that one has the gleam and the soft surge of something valuable and new.

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Sunday, January 30, 2005

Keeping It Real: The Oscar-Nominated Documentaries

Snoop Dogg, as usual, says it best: "It was about being real but also being real. You know what I'm saying? You gotta keep it real, but you gotta be real at the same time. Only the real will understand what I'm talkin' 'bout."

That off-the-cuff philosphy, which oughta keep Žižek busy for awhile, comes off the commentary track for Tupac: Resurrection, one of the five movies nominated in the Best Documentary Feature category at the upcoming Academy Awards. Snoop here is letting us in on his idea of how Tupac's albums combined the gangsta-ism of some of his tracks (like "I Get Around," which keeps it real) with the social and political truth-telling of other tracks (like "Brenda's Got a Baby," which is real—see, I'm one of the realest, so I get this stuff). Still, Snoop could just as well be diagnosing the peculiar, aestheticized reality of all documentaries, which have to start with fact but structure, assemble, and polish it up like a story. This year's crop of nominees all do pretty well by the form, even if I wished any one of them had really blown my socks off. (By far the best documentary released in the 9/1/03-8/31/04 qualifying period was the mysteriously unnominated The Corporation, which is a straight-up masterpiece.)

Tupac: Resurrection—like last year's winner, The Fog of War—ultimately limits its reach and effectivity by limiting itself to a single voice, and yet the decision to frame the whole movie through Tupac's own interviews and other recorded remarks also makes the film a special glimpse into one complex performer's strong, articulate, but troublingly paradoxical persona. Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski's Born into Brothels offers a moving and detailed profile of eight children of prostitutes who live in Calcutta, India; though the movie is carelessly vague and unwittingly cruel in characterizing their beleaguered mothers, the children themselves are a fascinating study, especially as they learn to turn cameras on their own lives. Morgan Spurlock's breakout hit Super Size Me inflates its director in several senses: he sure can hog a spotlight, but the story he spins not just about the nefarious calorie-blobs being hawked at McDonalds but the sheer perversity of America's entire relationship to food is worth making a spectacle about. Then there's the Mongolian entry The Story of the Weeping Camel, which relies heavily on re-enactments and director-guided anecdotes to tell its admittedly winning story about a small family of herders who smartly conspire to save an adorable, all-white, newborn camel whose mother refuses to nurse or even acknowledge it.

The only nominee I haven't seen yet is Kirby Dick's Twist of Faith, about a man who was abused as a child by a Catholic priest but watches his life fall apart as he reveals this secret. Twist of Faith is bowing right now at the Sundance Film Festival, and based on how much I enjoyed two of Dick's other projects (Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist and Derrida), I'm intrigued to see Twist. For now, though, in an above-average field where all four movies would be satisfying winners, I'd have to give the edge to Super Size Me, which does the best job of probing the multiple dimensions of its premise: the detours into seeming sidebars like the school-lunch programs and the anti-obesity campaigns by the former heir to Baskin Robbins ultimately enrich our grasp of the more central material, whereas the other three docs all look a little fuzzy around the edges. Still, they're all real, and they keep it real, you feel me? Check this s**t out, man.

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Friday, January 28, 2005

A Child of War

I just finished reading Zlata's Diary (© 1994, Penguin Books), the journal of a Bosnian girl who was in her pre-teen years between 1991 and 1993, as her city of Sarajevo was engulfed in the Balkan Wars. I read the diary because I will be teaching three movies in the coming weeks that attempt to represent the horrors, the personal dramas, and the absurdities subsumed within the Balkan conflicts and the international (non)-responses to that crisis: the Macedonian film Before the Rain, the Oscar-winning Bosnian film No Man's Land, and the British war-journalist drama Welcome to Sarajevo (in which a young girl of Zlata's age plays an important role). All of these movies had significant critical pushes but still failed to catch on with audiences—continuing the American trend of incomprehension and seeming indifference to the crisis in the Balkans.

For better or for worse, the bestselling Zlata's Diary, rather sentimentally marketed (and self-consciously written) as a counterpart to Anne Frank's WWII journal, was the one cultural artifact that seemed to connect with American audiences. The book is still inspiring people, especially young children, to think and learn about the daily violence that confronts so many people in the world. And since the experience of war seems depressingly consistent from location to location, reading Zlata's Diary today gives some impression of what the passing days must feel like for any number of children in Iraq or Afghanistan, Sudan or the Congo, and in any zone of any country where either state violence or street violence continues to run rampant. Zlata Filipović may not say anything remarkably profound (she is eleven, after all), and reading her diary is not an excuse for ignoring the deeper facts about the Balkans or about the other wars that her journal may put you in mind of. Obviously, there are many other books that cut much deeper and say much more. But if you have two or three hours (it's a short book), it's not a bad way to remind yourself of what millions of children her age are experiencing, and it might well incite you to donate to UNICEF or any number of other charities and NFPs that are working to reduce the number of Zlatas in the world and take better care of the ones we already have.

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Thursday, January 27, 2005

Screenings: Secret Things and Sex Is Comedy

If you've been struggling with the recent low temperatures, thank goodness there's always French cinema to warm things up. Who needs a fireplace when you can hold your hands up to the TV?

Both of these films were produced and released in France in 2002 but just made it to urban American screens last year. Both manage to be about a variety of things at once, though sex is never far from their minds—and in the case of Secret Things, sex occasionally clouds its mind. After beginning with the most authentically erotic stripshow performance I've ever seen a film, Secret Things continues to pursue its sociological and primarily sexual theses about power, capital, and curiosity. Basically, two down-and-out women devise a LaBute-like plan to use their own sexual wiles and the whole bewildering complex of confusion around female sexuality as strategies for grabbing high-powered jobs at a French bank. The film's conviction is both its strength and its folly; serpentine plot-twists and elaborately concocted sex scenes occasionally maroon the viewer and compromise the seriousness of the film's ideas. But that seriousness is sharply achieved elsewhere, and the film manages some surprising laughs and some real heat on its way to what we'll call its memorable climax. Performances are sharp, especially from Coralie Revel as a humbled provocateur and Roger Mirmont as a victim of the women's plans. Any film with a "victim of women's plans" is bound to raise some eyebrows, but Secret Things is smart, sexy, and serious enough to answer back.

Sex Is Comedy gives off much less erotic charge, primarily because it's about the remarkably unsexy process by which a film director has to coax two young, mulish, and uncomfortable young actors through a key sex scene in her film. When the film in question is an undisguised reprise of the centerpiece deflowering in Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl, and when Anne Parillaud, the original femme Nikita, is giving a fussy, mercurial, and perversely passionate characterization of Breillat herself, the stakes go even higher. Miraculously, though Sex Is Comedy is itself directed by Breillat, the film is stylistically and intellectually distinctive: it's actually about what it's about, and nervily so, instead of just self-indulgently returning to the scene of Breillat's own cinematic crimes. Unexpected doses of humor, as in Secret Things, do a great deal to enrich the tone, and again the performances win the day—not just Parillaud's but the casually reptilian work of Grégoire Colin as the inflexible actor giving Jeanne so many headaches. Secret Things is available now on DVD; Sex Is Comedy will be on Feb. 22. Rent them both. Smoke a cigarette after.

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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

A Philosophical High

All this Oscar-watching can make a person feel a little shallow, especially in the midst of international disarray, the looming "deadline" for Iraqi "elections," the Senate Democrats' debates over Condi, the contentious anniversary of Roe v. Wade (marked by new, severe, and unprecedentedly perverse laws being introduced for discussion in state and federal legislatures), and any number of weightier topics of conversation. And then, since it always comes back to me—it's my party, and I'll self-obsess if I want to—I've still got a dissertation to finish, somehow, someway, amidst wondering whether Cate, Virginia, or Natalie will be declared the year's Best Supporting Actress. (My money is currently on Virginia.)

So, to the rescue comes Ian Buchanan's Deleuzism, a monograph from the Duke University Press that attempts to make an "-ism" out of Deleuze the way people already have out of Marx, Freud, and comparably copious philosophers. Holding Deleuze on a level with those thinkers is already an implicit value claim on the book's and the subject's behalf, and one of which I totally approve. If you're new to Deleuze, he was a French philosopher and critic who virulently opposed transcendental systems like Freud's or Marx's that attempted to construe all of human history and activity through a single model of behavior, psychology, or politics. Deleuze, in his own work and in several scholarly collaborations, focused his ideas around the paradigmatic figure of the "schizophrenic" (as opposed to Freud's Oedipus or Marx's worker), not just in the medical-diagnostic sense of a divided personality but in the sense most of us understand of moving through a world of profound divergences, irregularities, and discontinuities, even within our everyday thoughts, routines, and world impressions. Deleuze's system emphasizes the ceaseless iterations of difference in the world, believing that they supersede any false ideas of the stable personality/subject or of massive Marxian or Freudian-type systems with which we falsely attempt to bring a sense of order and conformity to a world of infinite and tumultuous variation.

For that reason, Deleuze opposed the whole notion of his work as a system, even a self-disrupting one. What Buchanan does so nicely in this book, however, is to situate Deleuze as both a predictor and a participant in postmodern theory and as an intellectual compatriot (despite lots of denials, including Deleuze's own) of Hegel, Benjamin, and other dialecticians of history. The implications of Buchanan's reading not only help to explain Deleuze to readers who struggle with his work, but it elucidates several ways in which Deleuze's work might helpfully serve or "apply" in other critical, analytical, or intellectual projects, even though there's no single method or ideology imposed by Deleuze's work that seems to make this possible. I love the book and plan to draw on it extensively in my own dissertation. If any of y'all reading this blog are into a good scholarly head-exercise every now and then (esp. a 200-page, fairly quick read), I hope you'll consider this one.

Oscar and Deleuze. Schizophrenia indeed.

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Tuesday, January 25, 2005

(and I almost forgot...)

A good thing: Internationalism! Whatever their respective merits, both Les Choristes and The Sea Inside managed to rack up nominations outside of the foreign-film category. Meanwhile, outside that category altogether, The Motorcycle Diaries and A Very Long Engagement both scored twice, and House of Flying Daggers got a Cinematography nod. Nice to see Oscar spreading the multilingual wealth around.

A bad thing: Where the hell is the Birth score???

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Here's the Skinny on the Naked Guy...

By which I mean Oscar. Obviously.

So, I correctly predicted 65% of this year's nominees, which my friends tell me is impressive, but everyone who cares about this stuff knows is not all that good. Dang it. But, hey, the nominations are always a great excuse for a champagne brunch (special shout-out to Max's, the restaurant/bar of the Holiday Inn in Ithaca!), so I'm feeling happy.

As for the nominations, here's what I have to say. They are all personal estimations, cause you can get the facts and figures anywhere.

Best Reasons To Be Delighted
  • Kate and Catalina in Best Actress—Whew!
  • Vera Drake having such a good day. Plus, I've been saying all along that Imelda was going to win this, and all of a sudden, that doesn't sound quite as stupid.

More Good News
  • Marc Forster justly ignored for Best Director
  • The Polar Express stiffed for Animated Feature, even with three other nods (even if it means nominating the crappy-looking Shark Tale). Fie on you, Tom Hanks and Bob Zemeckis!
  • John Williams deserves his compulsory Scoring nod much more than he usually does, esp. since it wasn't for The Terminal (fie on you, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg!)
  • Nice job including the Collateral editors
  • Also in the Score category, James Newton Howard deserves his mention for the otherwise dismal The Village...and I'm always happy when voters remember how to isolate distinguished elements from lame vehicles
  • Luis Mandoki, perpetrator of Angel Eyes and When a Man Loves a Woman, denied a Foreign Film nomination for Mexico's Innocent Voices; even if the film is good, as it is rumored to be, this guy isn't done repenting in my book
  • I didn't get suckered into thinking the Alfie songs were going to work out.
  • I don't have to see The Notebook!

Worst Nomination, By Leaps and Bounds
  • Best Cinematography for The Phantom of the Opera, which has the most plodding camera and the fakest, most emptily "aesthetic" setups in recent memory

More Reasons to Kvetch
  • Alan Alda instead of David Carradine, who officially gave the best un-nominated Hollywood performance of the year
  • The Song performances look to be tough going, and where on Earth is Wyclef??
  • The inevitable Neverland nod in Best Picture
  • The inevitable Sea Inside nod for Foreign Film
  • Ray's mysterious entry in the Editing race
  • History may continue to mis-remember Jamie Foxx as a supporting actor in Collateral
  • Giamatti's missing perf wiped the floor with Depp's and DiCaprio's (as did those of fellow un-nominated contenders like Jeff Bridges, Gabriel García Bernal, Liam Neeson, Jim Carrey, Tom Cruise, and especially Sean Penn)
  • The Day After Tomorrow deserved a Visual Effects slot
  • Sophie Okonedo's perf is hardly Oscar-worthy, but I doubt anyone she bumped (Winslet in Neverland, Warren, Leachman, Streep, etc.) would have deserved the spot, either
  • This is unfair to complain about, but the mini-surge for Vera Drake makes me wish it had been a major surge (Art Direction and Cinematography at least, if not some of those stellar supporting actors. Who actually were supporting actors, Mr. Foxx.)
  • The nods for The Passion—even though I tolerated the picture more than many, I still think the Cinematography and Score mentions are bogus.

Films that Did Better than Anyone Expected
  • Vera Drake
  • Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events

Films that Did Worse than Anyone Expected
  • House of Flying Daggers
  • Kinsey

Irritating Trend
  • The Roger Avary Maneuver of pork-barreling story developers onto Screenplay nods, just so the non-essential members of the team can get a nod. Gondry deserved a nomination, but for directing. Kim Krazin deserved one, too, but in 1995, for Before Sunrise.

Most Appealingly Modest Post-Nomination Reaction
  • Virginia Madsen's live phone call on Good Morning, America. When asked who had been the first to phone their congratulations, she said, "Antonio, the father of my son." That's world-renowned hottie Antonio Sabato Jr. to you and me, but no flaunting. And when asked, rather dumbly, if she'd yet contemplated what to wear to the Oscars, she answered, "I've been contemplating what to wear since about 1972." Good luck, VA!

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Monday, January 24, 2005

Oscar Is a Punk

There is no good reason why a diluted, inveterately mainstream, persistently dubious, and politically compromised little movie award—what Addison DeWitt dismissively and fabulously calls "those awards presented annually by that, uh, film society"—should obsess me so. But in the days leading up to the nomination announcements, I really do find it hard to concentrate on other things. Which is bad enough. (Though, hey, Addison DeWitt himself didn't scoff when Oscar came calling.)

Worse, I start not being able to recognize myself. Oscar makes me do crazy things. I just came back from Hollywood Video, where I was frantically trying to rent The Notebook, seemingly a lily-white piece of schmaltz that I wouldn't go near during its summer release, despite the ameliorating presence of Joan Allen. Now, because Gena Rowlands and James Garner are being whispered about as possible spoiler candidates in the Supporting races, I'm in a tizzy at the notion that something might get nominated that I won't have seen. Then I find out that The Notebook doesn't debut on DVD till Feb. 8; frankly, they're probably waiting to see if they can flag "Nominated for # Oscars!" across the display box. So now I'm preoccupied by not being able to see a movie that I didn't want to see at all when it was everywhere around me. And if it doesn't get nommed, I'll probably never consider it again. What's my problem?

To help me relieve my own dawning dementia, here is a list that should put me back in my right mind and Oscar back in perspective. It's hard to muster surprise when Oscar ignores the Bergmans and Bressons and Godards, the Wongs and Sembènes and Makhmalbafs that have been pinnacles of world film culture at various times but, as if for that very reason, have no chance at love from the Golden Guy. And obviously experimental stuff never even registers, and documentaries are totally ghettoized to their own, infamously fickle race. But Oscar also has a nasty habit of passing over some of the best English-language narrative films that pass right under his nose. What follows are 20 inexhaustibly brilliant English-language movies that didn't score a single Oscar nod. I even limited myself to one film per director.

When you look at this roster, and you imagine for even a moment that the AMPAS voting body might conceivably honor The Notebook where these films were forbidden to's instantly difficult to care quite as much. Or, it's at least easier to sit out the two weeks till that DVD appears. (I'm insane.)

1. Modern Times (Chaplin '36)
2. His Girl Friday (Hawks '40)
3. The Scarlet Empress (Von Sternberg '34)
4. Touch of Evil (Welles '58)
5. New York, New York (Scorsese '77)
6. Safe (Haynes '95)
7. Holiday (Cukor '38) - read my review
8. Marat/Sade (Brook '67)
9. Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick '99) - read my review
10. Dead Ringers (Cronenberg '88)
11. The Wind (Sjöström '28) - read my review
12. The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock '38)
13. Daughters of the Dust (Dash '91)
14. This Is Spinal Tap (Reiner '84)
15. Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophüls '48)
16. 3 Women (Altman '77) - read my review
17. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jarmusch '00) - read my review
18. Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch '32)
19. Opening Night (Cassavetes '77)
20. Vanya on 42nd Street (Malle '94)

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Today Is the First Day of the Rest of My Teaching Life

Later today, I'll teach my first session of my newly designed seminar, International Cinema and Global Politics. Especially now that we've got the A/V equipment dilemma worked out for the classroom, I'm really looking forward to this new course. It feels like the right time for me to teach it, and it's my first chance to attempt anything like it. I hope the students are jazzed, and I hope they don't mind doing a lot of work if the rewards (hopefully) involve making them better writers, more globally aware citizens, and better readers of different kinds of movies.

Anyway, as the hilarious and worldly-wise fecundmellow knows, the first day of teaching is always a nerve-rattler, even when you know in your mind that you're well prepared and psyched up for the task. So I'm going to try to get some sleep and be all fresh-faced and high on life for tomorrow afternoon. It doesn't help that we're at T-minus 30 hours for the Oscar noms. How many reasons to be restless do I need in one weekend? It's too bad that, almost invariably, the Academy nominees for Foreign-Language Film won't take any of the political or aesthetic risks of the movies I'm teaching—though, from the group on my syllabus, The Official Story and No Man's Land did manage to win, and Woman in the Dunes, Before the Rain, and Amores perros all swung nominations. So it's not always impossible to get nominated, even if your movie isn't about a race-car driver who falls in love with a pretty lady, or a darling cherub who melts the heart of the world.

If you're curious what the nations of the world are producing these days, even beyond the crossover hits that have made it to your local arthouse, definitely take a quick (or long) tour of Nathaniel R.'s annual and invaluable index of all the movies submitted by their home countries as possible Oscar nominees. (That's how Oscar works in this category: a committee in every nation picks one, and only one, movie is the officially eligible contender.) After Tuesday morning, all but five of these movies will instantly be treated as yesterday's news, and even Oscar's anointed aren't guaranteed of US distribution...but doesn't this list make you wish you could see all of this amazing-sounding work?

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Sunday, January 23, 2005

Oscar Nom Predix

My full rationales for picks in Oscar's lead categories are available here, but here's where I've wound up—in advance of the nomination announcements which will take place this Tuesday, at 8:30am. Tune into any of the morning "news" shows like Today or Good Morning America to see Academy prez Frank Pierson and boho-ingenue du jour Adrien Brody read the lucky names.

PICTURE: The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Hotel Rwanda, Million Dollar Baby, Sideways

DIRECTOR: Eastwood/Million Dollar Baby, Gondry/Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Payne/Sideways, Scorsese/The Aviator, Zhang/House of Flying Daggers

ACTRESS: Bening/Being Julia, Sandino Moreno/Maria Full of Grace, Staunton/Vera Drake, Swank/Million Dollar Baby, Winslet/Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

ACTOR: Cheadle/Hotel Rwanda, Depp/Finding Neverland, DiCaprio/The Aviator, Foxx/Ray, Giamatti/Sideways

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Blanchett/The Aviator, Madsen/Sideways, Portman/Closer, Warren/Ray, Winslet/Finding Neverland

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Carradine/Kill Bill, Vol. 2, Church/Sideways, Foxx/Collateral, Freeman/Million Dollar Baby, Owen/Closer

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: The Aviator, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Incredibles, Kinsey, Ray

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Closer, Finding Neverland, Million Dollar Baby, The Motorcycle Diaries, Sideways

CINEMATOGRAPHY: The Aviator, Collateral, House of Flying Daggers, The Motorcycle Diaries, The Passion of the Christ

FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM: Les Choristes/The Chorus (France), House of Flying Daggers (Hong Kong), The Sea Inside (Spain), A Touch of Spice (Greece), Whisky (Uruguay)

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Saturday, January 22, 2005

Screening: Hideous Kinky

Y'all, I am touching the void up here in Ithaca. Yesterday it was only 1°F (-32°C) at 7pm, without wind chill. Today, we're in the midst of a 10" snowfall. I just walked a mile in this mess to get to the library to diss it up. And yeah, it was uphill the whole way. If you know Ithaca, you'll believe me.

One good way to combat weather like this is to rent movies that take place in more temperate climes. If you turn off all the lights and draw the blinds, you cna forget. I didn't rent Hideous Kinky for that explicit reason, but it turned out to be a bonus side-effect. The whole movie takes place in Marrakech, Morocco, where 25-year-old "Julia" (a surrogate figure for Esther Freud, Sigmund's daughter, and the author of the novel Hideous Kinky) has absconded with her two young daughters in search of enlightenment, independence, and something a little cozier than the English fog. Julia will look anywhere to feed her appetites—Sufism, itinerant tourism, a casual love affair with an Arabic street performer. It's never altogether clear that she's going to find what she's looking for, nor is it clear that she won't. The distinguishing achievement of Hideous Kinky is that, compared to several movies about young sojourners—especially when those sojourners are women, and even more especially when they are mothers—this film does not exist to judge Julia. Neither an endorsement of her free spirit nor a condemnation of her behavior, Hideous Kinky manages to represent the texture, risks, and pleasures of this lifestyle without much editorializing, and the characterizations of everyone involved, including the young daughters, is pretty compelling. It helps to have Kate Winslet in the lead role of Julia; as we've come to expect, her performance is as committed, lucid, and notably unglamorous (despite her startling radiance, even when she's sweating, which is a lot). Saïd Taghmaoui (La haine) is also a bonus in the key role of Julia's sometime paramour Bilal.

If the tone and characterizations of the movie are kept nicely ambiguous, the visual motifs and the soundtrack straddle their own fences in less persuasive ways. The heavy reliance on 60s and 70s anglo-rock (America, Neil Young, Crosy, Stills & Nash) threatens to collapse the movie into kitsch a couple of times, and director Gillies MacKinnon is not invulnerable to Orientalist temptations. Though several shots imply that Hideous Kinky is a sort of dream-record of the characters' experiences—and that the archetypal exoticism of certain Arabic places, people, and spectacles might thus be taken as character points rather than simple weaknesses of the film—it's still a little distancing. (Jane Campion did something similar with the "Holly Holy" opening of Holy Smoke, also starring Winslet, but the visual technique and sound design made her intentions a little clearer.) Still, this is the kind of movie that you enjoy as you watch, appreciate even more as it continues to reveal new layers, and continue to reevaluate in the hours after you finish. Check it out: it's neither hideous nor kinky, and that's probably for the best.

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Thursday, January 20, 2005

Listen Up

A liberal blog called Running Scared has a special blogroll in the right-hand sidebar that lists several blogs written by Iraqi men and women. Particularly on our bleak inauguration day, this is an especially apt time to check in with some of these blogs and hear directly from some of the people whose lives are being terrorized and destroyed by the Bush administration's decisions—and by everyone who publicly endorses or voted for this administration.



I'll take "Mood Indicators" for $1000, Alex...

I treat you now to two of the most famous ass shots in modern movies:

This, as you probably recall, is what it looks like when the huge, hulking behind of the Titanic is suddenly looming large in the night sky, towering over the poor sots who had the good luck to make it alive off the ship and into the open water, but who are now a) freezing, and b) about to have the biggest ship in the world plunk down on their heads.

For one, I am already freezing. It's 21°F in Ithaca right now (that's -6° for my Celsius peeps), and my apartment is drafty. And beyond that, why do I feel like I have a huge-assed ship waiting to crack in half and rain down on me? The beginning of the "Spring" Semester, as we at Cornell perversely mis-name it, always feels like this. You start the Fall a little jealous that your summer is over, but kind of eager to get moving. But you start the "Spring" in a breathless rush to recover from the holidays, to finish what didn't get done in the Fall, to fret about what didn't even get started in the Fall... And I've got a dissertation to complete, a job talk to finalize (but no complaints there, 'cuz I'm a lucky duck with that one), an essay to re-jig for possible publication, and a new class on International Cinema & Global Politics to prepare. We'll be watching and critiquing movies every day in this course—but then, as I just found out today, I've been assigned to a classroom with no A/V.

I said, brrr. It's cold in here! I said this must be Cornell up in the atmosphere. At least I love my job enough to complain about it affectionately.

Helping to lighten the mood, as always, will be the on-campus moviehouse Cornell Cinema, whose delicious January/February programming commenced tonight, with a little bit of Marlon B. and the old butter trick. In the coming weeks, I'm especially psyched about Blissfully Yours, from Thailand; Last Life in the Universe, a coproduction of Thailand, Japan, and Hong Kong; and Wong Kar-wai's Days of Being Wild. That one was playing at the Film Forum in New York City in November and December, and the trailer I saw there looked amazing. So it's Asian Film-a-Go Go till early February. My hopes are high, even as I'm treading that icy water.

(Photo from Titanic, © 1997 Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox, and Lightstorm Entertainment)

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Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Globes '04 Fashion Parade

Okay, so obviously this blog is my new favorite toy. I won't usually be posting three times a day, I promise. I literally have a two-person audience right now anyway.

But also, there was no way I was going to leave my discussion of the Globes fashions in such a paltry state. Here, as I call them, were the Magnificent Seven of the evening: in alphabetical order, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Annette Bening, Cate Blanchett (even with the weird flower pinned to the front of her dress), Sandra Oh, Sophie Okonedo (check out that amazing hair), Uma Thurman, and Kate Winslet.

The Blanchett and Okonedo pics are © 2004 the HFPA and the 62nd Annual Golden Globes. The rest are © 2004

There were a few fashion disasters, but they were bad enough to look at once, why commemorate them? But let me just say to Diane Kruger, Why you wanna hurt me? What did any of us ever do to you? And Renée Zellweger, I'm sure the hair is for a role, but sweetheart: eat, re-dye, pick a new color and new shoes, and get in the Primer machine.

Sometimes people are all, what about the best-dressed men? And frankly, shame on most of those men last night, who apparently consulted with each other and went in together on a bulk crate of black suits, white shirts, and silver ties. Credit at least to Clive Owen for showing us that the Tux is still The Thing; to Marc Forster for being a bad director but doing great things for baldness; to Jamie Foxx for wearing a sassy suit in fun colors; and to Patrick Wilson, who basically underdressed, but Patrick Wilson can pull that off.

All images © 2004

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Piece of Cake!

All righty then! This blog thing doesn't seem too tricky after all... Proof that 27-year-old dogs can still learn new tricks.

As I stated up top, the real action will all still go down at my website, where I've just finished a whole raft of year-end features, including profiles of my top ten movies of the year (though my understanding of the word "ten" is a little shaky), plus my finalized list of Oscar nomination predictions (tune in on Jan. 25 to learn who's happy!), and, best of all, the full list of the 2004 Nick's Flick Picks Honorees, which encompass not only the best movies of the year but the best performances, documentaries, foreign-language films, creative achievements, and everything else that fits in 20 categories. Plus some honorary citations for those exquisite little movie moments that don't fit anywhere else.

So that's the website. But the blog. The blog. Here is where I'll be dishing on events like the Golden Globes, which are as good a place to start as any. If you tuned in Sunday night, you know that Kate Winslet was the most gorgeous woman in the room, Annette Bening is a foxy fortysomething even if she seemed a little, shall we say, "stiff" at the podium, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind really is destined to be overlooked by Oscar, despite being the best American movie since at least The Thin Red Line. Have you got thoughts on the subject? On other subjects? Does the prospect of a Nick's Flick Picks blog bring you pleasure or fear? Be the first to click the "Comments" link, and let me know.

This blog will also be a great place for me to post brief comments on movies that I never quite get around to viewing in full, and for you to reply with your own thoughts and feelings. Every once in a while, I even experience a work of art that isn't a movie (!), and since my site isn't named Nick's Book Picks or Nick's Theater Picks, this will be a great place to write 'em up. And for those of you out there who are sick enough to be curious about what it's like to be a late-career graduate student, plugging away at a dissertation that just won't budge (hmmmmm... maybe because I watch so many movies?), you will hopefully tolerate a post or two about, you know, what I've been up to. Or about world events. Or charities and non-profit campaigns you should know about. Or local Ithaca happenings, for those of you up in the 14850. Karen Carpenter said it best, people. We've only just begun. A kiss for luck, and we're on our way!...

(Photo from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, © 2004 Focus Features)

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Testing: One.... Two.... Three....

One small step for me, one giant leap forward for my website, Nick's Flick Picks. Or maybe vice versa—who knows if I'm just entertaining myself. After all, if a blog originates in the deep forests of the web, but no one's there to hear it, is it really a new blog?

Either way, the blogosphere just got a little more polluted, folks. Now let's see if this thing really works...