Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Best of 2006: Art Direction & Costumes

The Visuals & Editing division of my Best of 2006 feature expands with the new citations for Best Art Direction/Production Design and Best Costume Design. From hungry houses to sinking ships, shimmy-shimmy dresses to expensive faux-hipsterism, these spreads were splendid and these duds weren't duds.


Best of 2006: Visual Effects and Makeup

Categories #8 and #9 out of 20 join the ranks, and as in the Academy, the fields are narrowed: Best Visual Effects, where elaborate CGI shares the stage with a thrilling and cost-effective fantasy, and Best Makeup, where an ounce of careful, informative, and imaginative character work is worth a pound of scenery-chewing latex.


Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Best of 2006: Screenplay Awards

The hits keep on coming with the year's best Original Screenplays and, if you scroll down a little, the Adapted Screenplays. Overlap with the Oscar lists amounts to exactly one shared honoree—William Monahan's expert script for The Departed. Then again, none of my Score, Sound, or Sound Effects nominees matched with Oscar's, either, even where you might have expected some common enthusiasms, as with Children of Men. Who's right? Who's wrong? Spill it in the comments. Amended at 11:08pm with runner-up citations in Original Screenplay.

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Best of 2006: Doc's, Sound, and Music

And we have liftoff! The curtain of the 2006 Nick's Flick Picks Honorees starts rising on the Best Documentary category and the four Sound & Music rosters, for Best Original Score, Best Sound, Best Song Score/Adaptation Score (since I thought the Original Songs were pretty bunk this year), and Best Sound Effects. Rationales all around and, wherever the competition was close, some runners-up. Comment away, and keep checking back for more updates!

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Eleventh, But Not Forgotten

After much hemming and hawing, and a great deal of Mountain Dew, I've managed to hack out a Top Ten List that I'm happy with. I'll unveil it on Tuesday along with the Best of 2006 awards, but between now and then, reserve a fond thought for the four movies that were hardest to leave off the list. Not in the sense that I adore them; in a better year, there would have been little question of their inclusion. But I adore a great deal about them, and in a different moment, or after another Dew, I might have swapped them up. The graphics were ready to go. In fact, if I didn't have a little projected version of Nathaniel perched on my shoulder, admonishing me, "No ties! No ties!" I might have done some creative math to squeak these under the wire.

(P.S. to Clive Owen: So sorry to vote you out twice in the final round. Don't take it personally. But if you are taking it personally, call me, and we'll get to the bottom of this. Which is to say, please take it personally, so that you have a reason to call me. Clive? Clive??)

(Images © 2006 Universal Pictures; © 2006 Universal Pictures; © 2006 Lions Gates Films/Lakeshore Entertainment; and © 2006 Kino International)


Saturday, January 27, 2007

Best Unsung Performances of 2006

Why this tribute? Because none of these turns quite made the cut for my year-end honors, but I want to give them some public props anyway. Because in an era where Cate Blanchett in Notes on a Scandal and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain are considered "supporting" actors, it's important to recognize true-blue and top-flight support when it happens. Because some of the best-reviewed movies of 2006 hit some rough patches in their scripts that required a strong, smart, inevitably under-appreciated actor in a second- or third-tier part to smooth the path and keep things interesting. Because it's hard to create a person when some roles or films only want a silhouette, a stereotype, or a warm body to wear a fabulous outfit; we all know Vera Farmiga made the best of a mechanistic character this year in The Departed, but she wasn't the only one who spun a lot out of a little. And speaking of The Departed, that movie may well have boasted the year's most exciting ensemble, but at least four smaller movies worked comparable magic with their large, stellar casts.


A Boy in Trouble

There is nothing clever, euphemistic, or hyperbolic about this admission: I have never been so scared in any movie as I was during the last half-hour or so of INLAND EMPIRE. The rough, scraping atmosphere of dread that permeates the whole film—alleviated but also somehow intensified by the elusive plot and the surreal cutaways to talking rabbits and Locomotion enthusiasts—culminates in a devastating thirty minutes, comprising a terrible death unfolding against an absurd, indifferent conversation between two strangers, and then a vaporizing of the reality/illusion boundary even as the movie purports to reinstate it, and then a preeminently Lynchian prowl around dirty corners in underlit hallways, at the end of which Laura Dern's "character" has a horrific encounter with a grotesque distortion of herself. I was just terrified, by the ambience and psychic logic of these scenes even more than by the action they depicted. Then I walked for ten minutes in the semi-dark, boarded a city bus, and cried most of the way home with my eyes wide open. INLAND EMPIRE made me insane, and intensely bereft. I'm barely more coherent or less bereft as I write this.

I'll have much to say about INLAND EMPIRE in the coming days, weeks, months, but to begin with the most frivolous and inconsequential frame of reference, I sure am glad I waited: the Best of 2006 feature will require some serious reshuffling to accommodate this film. Meanwhile, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu suddenly has a potent rival for its previously uncontested claim as the best movie of the year. A dying man and a woman dismantled now emerge as the king and queen of a morbid, frustrating, but finally surprising year at the movies. Stay tuned...

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

And Then There Was One

No glory for Days of Glory. No life for The Dead Girl. Breaking and Entering can't find its way in. Despite highly credible suggestions to the contrary, none of these films will open this weekend in Chicago, meaning that only Inland Empire stands between me and my Top Ten List. In a way, this is a relief, given that I'm already having trouble sorting about 15 films I admire about equally into spots 7-20. Plus, having lived so recently in much smaller film markets where I know I'd be waiting on a lot more titles than this, I'm hardly complaining. I just hope the others eventually emerge here, especially The Dead Girl, which doesn't have a name director or a brand new Oscar nomination to advertise it.

Another reason I'm anxious for these three movies? When I look ahead at the release calendar for 2007, I am forced to ask myself: will I ever go to the movies again? Give or take platform and holdover releases like the Oscar nom'd The Lives of Others and Black Book or the always interesting Philip Haas' The Situation (with Connie Nielsen), I might be on sabbatical till David Fincher's Zodiac on March 2, or Zack Snyder's 300 the week after. Can anyone think of a reason why I wouldn't be?

(Image © 2006 StudioCanal/Inland Empire Productions)

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Very Brief Notes on Many Scandals

Little Miss Sunshine here, dashing off some first impressions on the way to work:

YAY! for Gosling. The Dreamgirls camp must be reeeeeeeally glum. Surely it's never happened that the movie with the most nominations isn't even nominated for Best Picture? By my count, the five movies that did squeeze into the top race only racked up 26 nominations among them—an incredibly low number, even lower than last year's 29. In 1998, for example, the Best Picture nominees combined for 45 nominations, with Shakespeare in Love getting 13 by its damn self. This downward trend is bad for Best Picture producers, but good for the Academy, and for audiences, because the categories don't repeat each other so endlessly.

By the way, speaking of Best Picture producers, how come everyone's still figuring out who gets credit for The Departed and Little Miss Sunshine? Is Brad Pitt, co-producer of The Departed, about to get two smackdowns this morning?

Nice showings for Children of Men (Lubezki!) and Pan's Labyrinth...with 6 noms, I can't have been far off with all those Pan's predictions, even though I'd counted on higher-category mentions.

Only five nominations for The Departed? And Wahlberg's the only acting nominee? That's a little bit Rod Serling, isn't it?

Here's what it looks like when Oscar truly doesn't care about your movie, though: I came thisclose to predicting against Volver (I was right when I said the Academy "might be a little Pedro'd out"); the movie missed in Original Screenplay and even in Best Foreign-Language Film. More surprising to me is the flat-out rejection of Casino Royale; even though I didn't hate Blood Diamond the way some of my colleagues did, it's a much less inspiring film to rack up all those technical nods—to say nothing of the weird Leo problem. (I didn't even hear "Blood Diamond" when they read that nom.)

I'm still waiting for someone to explain to me what Borat is "adapting" (wasn't Nia Vardalos an "original" for doing the same thing, even with a one-woman playscript in her hand?), or how Iris Yamashita didn't adapt the published letters of Gen. Kuribayashi, as the on-screen credits attest. Why aren't those nods flipped?

I don't have a single memory of the Good German score; the composers sure jacked The Painted Veil, but at least Desplat got in for The Queen.

An Oscar nomination for Click is sort of a hurtful thing, at least in the abstract, but I guess I'll take a look at the movie in an attempt to understand. Conversely, I am quite pleased for the unfairly maligned Poseidon, though I don't think its visual effects were even at the level of its cinematography, production design, and sound work.

I have to admit I'm kind of bored by the magician movies in Cinematography. The Prestige looked good but not incredible, and The Illusionist looked inexpensively fussed-over but sort of blah. I know all the reviews said it was brilliantly in keeping with Victorian palettes and lighting effects, etc., but I actually thought it looked tacky. Still, I hate to kick a movie when it's down and all, but I'm really gratified that Dreamgirls missed out in this particular category: that was one fugly movie, from a lighting or framing perspective. (I'm thrilled, though, for costume designer Sharen Davis, who hopefully has a decent shot against Devil Wears Prada's Pat Field. I think they're each other's competition.)

Am I right to have called for a three-wide category for Best Song? "Our Town" from Cars? Seriously? Did the Academy understand, or did I misunderstand, that within the logic of Dreamgirls, "Patience" represents a blandified selling out to a conservative, quietistic 80s aesthetic?

I bet Modern Fabulousity is pissed about Dreamgirls, but happy for Paul Greengrass; Nathaniel is trying to deal with the Clint Eastwood steamroll through Picture, Director, and Screenplay; StinkyLulu is having his worst fears confirmed about an uninteresting roster in Best Supporting Actress, even though I saw Little Miss Sunshine with him, and I remember how much he liked Abigail Breslin; and Tim R, like me, is ready to congratulate Ryan Gosling and go back to sleep. Even though a lot of us Oscar queens will find plenty to be miffed about, I loved that Salma Hayek, at least, was so emotional and excited.

Meanwhile, "I Need to Wake Up," but it's time that I Departed. That's All.

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

2006 Oscar Nom Predix: Can't Live With 'Em, Can't Live Without 'Em

Brad learns from his agent that he's less talented than Abigail Breslin

My guess is that the Academy voters and I share a problem this year of sifting out our favorites from a hefty pile of good-but-not-great contenders. Granted, we're sifting through largely different piles. Of the eight films that I can imagine in Oscar's Best Picture lineup, only one will appear on my Best Picture lineup, and two—Pan's Labyrinth and The Queen—would have to catch me on a good day to even get a thumb's up. On the other hand, even these films have their evident merits; there's little to love but also comparatively little to hate in 2006. Furthermore, in a large field of flawed successes and deeply split decisions, I find it much more urgent and interesting to debate the comedic and political psychologies of Borat or the lurking conservatisms of The Queen, Notes on a Scandal, and The Pursuit of Happyness or the meta-structural tensions both within the montage and among the stars of Dreamgirls than to speculate about any of their Oscar possibilities.

Sharon bought a dress months ago, only to discover she won't need it

Even more than in most years, Oscar forecasting feels like the wrong way to be talking about these movies—and yet, even if you can occasionally teach an old dog new tricks, it's hell to wean him away from his old ones. Plus, what did God have to go and do? Muck up the joint with the widest, most contentious horse-race in years. Has there ever been a year when Best Picture could plausibly go to any of the five nominees, and even to some films that won't make the final cut? Best Actress is the only foretold acting race; Hudson's probably a lock to win Best Supporting Actress, but It's On to fill those other four spots, and Best Supporting Actor is even more up in the air. The Screenplay categories are interesting, Best Foreign-Language Film is a frigging horse-race among films people have actually seen, and the bumptious combat for Best Picture slots is trickling down into the so-called "technical" categories. Editing will be a dead heat among most of the same films gunning for Best Picture, while the Cinematographers are, rightfully and interestingly, playing in a totally different sandbox. (Could this finally be Emmanuel Lubezki's year?)

Years ago I realized that a worm had turned, and that nomination day had become much more exciting and rewarding to me than the actual ceremony. This year, in the famous words of Daniel Vosovic, it's a motherf***in' walk-off in more races than not. From the pure standpoint of wagering, who wouldn't want to play this game? I'm not as good at it as Nathaniel is, but, like ModFab, I'm willing to bet on some wild horses this year, and I'm eager for some of the front-runners to take a spill. Since I barely care who wins on a qualitative level, I'm all about the drama of the qualifying heats and the sweaty race to the finish line. And so...

Iwo Jima officers plot a last, desperate bid for Oscar survival

MY GUESSES: The Departed, Dreamgirls, Little Miss Sunshine, Pan's Labyrinth, The Queen
Barely Trailing: Babel
And Don't Forget: Letters from Iwo Jima, United 93
Which is crazier—calling a snub for Babel, whose momentum felt notably down before the Globe win (by which point Oscar ballots were already cast), or replacing it with Pan's Labyrinth, the movie everyone around me is talking about, and which Oscar voters would have been discovering just in time? I don't see the rabid enthusiasm for Babel or Iwo Jima that I do for the other five, and though United 93 has vehement proponents, we learned last year from Brokeback's loss that there are some movies you just can't convince Oscar voters to watch. Americans who weren't critics stayed away from United 93, and I don't see why AMPAS would behave all that differently.

MY GUESSES: Dayton & Faris/Little Miss Sunshine, Del Toro/Pan's Labyrinth, Eastwood/Letters from Iwo Jima, Frears/The Queen, Scorsese/The Departed
Barely Trailing: González Iñárritu/Babel, Condon/Dreamgirls
And Don't Forget: Greengrass/United 93
My Best Picture lineup, with Dreamgirls swapped out for Iwo Jima. Even if Pan's Labyrinth misses out up top, I'm feeling Del Toro pretty strongly for the Artsy-Fartsy Fifth Spot™.

MY GUESSES: Cruz/Volver, Dench/Notes on a Scandal, Mirren/The Queen, Streep/The Devil Wears Prada, Winslet/Little Children
And Don't Forget: Gyllenhaal/Sherrybaby
I might be contrarian, but I'm not an idiot. This lineup has barely changed in any of the pre-Oscar awards races. Gyllenhaal only pops in if the Globe nod prompted enough people to watch Sherrybaby, and it suddenly felt cooler to vote for her than for Cruz or Winslet. But I doubt it.

MY GUESSES: DiCaprio/The Departed, Gosling/Half Nelson, O'Toole/Venus, Smith/The Pursuit of Happyness, Whitaker/The Last King of Scotland
Barely Trailing: Craig/Casino Royale, Baron Cohen/Borat
And Don't Forget: Watanabe/Letters from Iwo Jima
Buzz around Gosling has been awfully quiet all season, while Craig, Baron Cohen, and Watanabe have only been building. So what am I doing here? Partially, I'm banking on Connery loyalists, subtitle phobics, and the easily offended to balk at the three runners-up, whereas it's hard for me to imagine any categorical beefs with Gosling. Plus, the perf and the actor have been building hype for longer than the other three. And the American History X thing happened for Norton in '98. Still, I'm having a harder and harder time leaving Craig off the list. (There's a "Craig's list" pun waiting to happen here, but I just can't make it work.)

Beyoncé stares down J.Hud in the Kodak: "To the left, to the left..."

MY GUESSES: Blanchett/Notes on a Scandal, Breslin/Little Miss Sunshine, Collette/Little Miss Sunshine, Hudson/Dreamgirls, Kikuchi/Babel
Barely Trailing: Barraza/Babel, Blunt/The Devil Wears Prada
And Don't Forget: Epps/Half Nelson
One way or another, we're going to have a doubly nominated film in this category, but I'm wondering if it won't be the minivan gals of Little Miss Sunshine over the international sufferers of Babel. I'm guessing that Oscar voters relate better to parents than to nannies, and better to reliable go-to stars (like Collette) than to people they'd never heard of till a month ago (like Barraza). Then again, since Blanchett has a long Oscar history of falling just short of the finish line, and since they just Oscared her for an actual supporting performance two years ago, and will have plenty more chances in the future, maybe she'll take the dive. All of these women have marked out a plausible award-season path onto this roster, but there just isn't room at the inn.

MY GUESSES: Arkin/Little Miss Sunshine, Haley/Little Children, McAvoy/The Last King of Scotland, Murphy/Dreamgirls, Nicholson/The Departed
Barely Trailing: Wahlberg/The Departed, Sheen/The Queen, Hounsou/Blood Diamond, Pitt/Babel
And Don't Forget: Carell/Little Miss Sunshine, López/Pan's Labyrinth, Affleck/Hollywoodland
James McAvoy is screaming "Ethan Hawke in Training Day" to me, insofar as my hunch is that a lotta actors will be seeing Scotland for the first time in order to follow up on the Whitaker hype, and will discover that there are actually two hardworking male leads in that film, and they'll permit the necessary category fraud to acknowledge them. Same thing could happen for Sheen, except I'm expecting The Queen to be slightly older news, giving him less of that enticing new-car smell. Wahlberg's drop from the SAG roster isn't a fantastic sign in a race this close, while Little Miss Sunshine and Pan's Labyrinth, at least in my amateur imagination, seem to be growing coattails faster than Pinocchio grew a nose.

MY GUESSES: Black Book, Days of Glory, The Lives of Others, Pan's Labyrinth, Volver
Barely Trailing: After the Wedding, Water
And Don't Forget: Avenue Montaigne, Vitus
As in the Best Picture field, which might wind up speaking some foreign tongues of its own, almost any of these films is a plausible winner. It's like someone paid a surreptitious call on Oscar's preferred street-corner drug dealer and bought him two kilos of World War II (Black Book and Days of Glory), three hits of crossover box-office (Pan's Labyrinth, Volver, and Water), a finely cut European blockbuster (The Lives of Others), a recognizable star (Bond villain Mads Mikkelsen in After the Wedding), a dime-bag of "little kid pairs up with an old turnip" (Vitus), and a piece of France (which somehow always gets nominated). These are my guesses, and Pan's, at least, isn't budging, but several permutations are possible here.

Helen takes yet another call from cry-baby snubbee Michael Sheen

MY GUESSES: Apocalypto, Babel, Children of Men, The Illusionist, Pan's Labyrinth
Barely Trailing: The Black Dahlia, The Painted Veil, Letters from Iwo Jima
And Don't Forget: Dreamgirls, The Departed, The Good Shepherd, United 93
Apocalypto, Children, and Illusionist should all hold from the ASC guild list, but something's gotta give to make the list more Oscary. The logistical challenges and past nods for Babel d.p. Prieto should help, as should the late surge for Pan's Labyrinth. The cinematographers, though, just like the writers, can really stir things up sometimes, so it's always a fun race to track. And speaking of...

MY GUESSES: Babel, Little Miss Sunshine, Pan's Labyrinth, The Queen, Volver
Barely Trailing: United 93, Stranger than Fiction, Bobby
And Don't Forget: Cars, Borat
2002 all over again, with a distaff star vehicle, an indie breakout (My Big Fat Dysfunctional Beauty Pageant), and a whole lotta Spanish! I'm thinking the Academy might be a little Pedro'd out—he's who goes if United or Stranger than Fiction or Bobby makes it in. I know Borat counted as an adaptation for the WGA, but it's not really adapting anything, and the Writers increasingly do whatever they want to nominate the films they like.

MY GUESSES: The Departed, The Devil Wears Prada, Little Children, Notes on a Scandal, Thank You for Smoking
Barely Trailing: The Last King of Scotland
And Don't Forget: The Illusionist, Casino Royale, Children of Men, Borat, Dreamgirls
Whatever my reservations about the movie, I'd love to see Last King stamp out the weak ash of Thank You for Smoking, but that sucker's had impressive staying power in lots of other races, and King scribe Peter Morgan is already getting his for The Queen. Devil Wears Prada looks a little vulnerable, but that "cerulean" speech will work its magic. A tight six-way race, with plenty of credible spoilers waiting in the wings.

MY GUESSES: Cars, Happy Feet, Monster House
And Don't Forget: Over the Hedge, A Scanner Darkly, Ice Age 2: The Meltdown
Another seemingly stable list. Sadly for Mr. Linklater, innovative animation for adults is, for today's Academy, what crowd-pleasing documentaries like Roger & Me and Hoop Dreams were for the Academy of old. I.e., syphilis.

"Don't play that equal-opportunity 'co-lead' bullshit with me!..."

MY GUESSES: Deliver Us from Evil, An Inconvenient Truth, Iraq in Fragments, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, The War Tapes
Barely Trailing: My Country, My Country, Blindsight
And Don't Forget: Shut Up & Sing, The Ground Truth, Jesus Camp, five other finalists
How much Iraq can one Documentary Branch take? Especially when the alternative is a whole bunch of ecclesiastical misery and flapdoodle? Those singin' Dixie Chicks and blind Tibetan children might start to look like a refreshing break from all the despair.

MY GUESSES: Babel, The Departed, Dreamgirls, The Queen, United 93
Barely Trailing: Little Miss Sunshine, Casino Royale, Letters from Iwo Jima
In many ways, Casino and Letters are more conventional nominees for this group than The Queen is, but interpolating the archival footage with the dramatic reenactments was a pretty tall order for skilled editrix Lucia Zucchetti (Morvern Callar). If Little Miss Sunshine shows up here, consider its chances for the Best Picture win about doubled.

MY GUESSES: Children of Men, Dreamgirls, Letters from Iwo Jima, Pan's Labyrinth, The Prestige
Barely Trailing: Marie Antoinette, The Black Dahlia, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
And Don't Forget About: Curse of the Golden Flower, The Good Shepherd
Let's get to the bottom of this: how much did the entire world actually hate Marie Antoinette? Will K.K. Barrett's fellow production designers smile on his unprecedented access to Versailles, and grin along with his cheeky set-dressing of same, or will they all just thumb their noses? I'm guessing they'll thumb, especially since my man K.K. couldn't even get any love for his 7½ floor.

Meryl and Emily calling: "Hey, do you ever feel like Jan Brady? That's all."

MY GUESSES: The Black Dahlia, Dreamgirls, Marie Antoinette, The Painted Veil, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Barely Trailing: The Prestige, The Illusionist, The Devil Wears Prada
And Don't Forget About: Curse of the Golden Flower, Miss Potter, The Queen, Casino Royale
The good news for Marie Antoinette is that even when some future-past visual phantasmagoria freaks out the art directors, the costumers remain steadfast, especially if Milena Canonero is involved. (See also: Titus.) The bad news for Prada: fun for the audience, but Pat Field is more of a New York designer than an LA costumer, and they might close the ranks on her. Plus, way more often than not, the costumers break out in rashes and welts when they see a movie set in the present day.

MY GUESSES: Casino Royale, The Departed, Dreamgirls, Letters from Iwo Jima, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Barely Trailing: United 93
And Don't Forget About: Superman Returns, Blood Diamond, Flags of Our Fathers, Children of Men, Apocalpyto, World Trade Center, Miami Vice
Sound technicians, on the other hand, break out in rashes and welts when they watch a movie that isn't full of gunfire and explosions, or at least musical numbers, or at least buffalo stampedes, or at least the sound of a lot of lapping water. As in Editing, this category will be a referendum on how far Hollywood was willing to go along with the 9-11 Cinema thing, and it's also where a lot of expensive underperformers (see: that entire list at the end) will try to save a tiny bit of face.

MY GUESSES: Apocalypto, Babel, Blood Diamond, The Painted Veil, The Queen
Barely Trailing: Little Children, The Illusionist, The Da Vinci Code, Notes on a Scandal
And Don't Forget About: Apocalypto, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, The Fountain
The double nominations for brilliant upstart Alexandre Desplat (The Painted Veil and The Queen) are probably wishful thinking, but since John Williams didn't compose a single score this year, the roster has already tipped into the realms of the unreal. Inevitably, there will be at least one genuflection toward old bores (Horner, Howard, Zimmer) recycling old tricks. The branch has typically been up and down on Philip Glass (The Illusionist and Notes on a Scandal), and virtually alone in its skepticism toward Eastwood. Another category that won't look much like any of the other ones, I'm guessing. Which is a good thing.

[Just waking y'all up for the final laps here...]

MY GUESSES: "I Need to Wake Up"/An Inconvenient Truth, "Listen"/Dreamgirls, "Love You, I Do"/Dreamgirls, "The Song of the Heart"/Happy Feet, "Til the End of Time"/Little Miss Sunshine
Barely Trailing: The choice for a three-wide category
And Don't Forget About: "Never Gonna Break My Faith"/Bobby, "A Father's Way"/The Pursuit of Happyness, "Patience"/Dreamgirls, "Circle in the Sand"/Friends with Money
Just last year, the songwriters made a rare acknowledgment of what the rest of us already know: many of the tunes nominated from year to year are bilgewater. Contractually, the voters don't have to assemble a full list of five nominees, and in that scenario, any of the leading contenders could be the ones to drop. The exception, I think, is Etheridge. She seems like the sort of gal the Academy would love to host onstage for the evening—though with, Ellen DeGeneres hosting, you can count on someone at FoxNews to gripe, "The telecast was full of lesbians!"

MY GUESSES: Apocalypto, Pan's Labyrinth, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Barely Trailing: The Prestige
And Don't Forget About: X-Men: The Last Stand, The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause, Click
Now, everyone turn your secret decoder rings at once, and you'll find that this category is actually called "Most Makeup" (Men in Black and Mrs. Doubtfire won) or, in alternating years, "Movies We Liked Anyway" (Frida and Elizabeth won). Three of the seven finalists feel like awfully weak sauce to designate as "Oscar nominated films," even in a category this far below the fold. As with the composers, the Makeup artists can narrow the field from three to two if they aren't feeling the magic.

MY GUESSES: Cars, Casino Royale, Flags of Our Fathers, Miami Vice, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Barely Trailing: Superman Returns, Letters from Iwo Jima, Children of Men
And Don't Forget About: The Departed, Apocalpyto, World Trade Center
Meanwhile, the sound-effects editors got a bee in their collective bonnet this year and decided they wanted five nominees instead of the historical three, and that they weren't tipping their hand anymore with a published list of semi-finalists. So, it's anyone's guess. If they really want to stake a claim for this category, they'll want to differentiate the list from the Best Sound roster. Miami Vice certainly deserves a nod for all that heavy ballistic action.

MY GUESSES: Eragon, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Superman Returns
Barely Trailing: Night at the Museum
And Don't Forget About: X-Men: The Last Stand, Poseidon, Casino Royale
When movies as cheesy as The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Dragonheart can roll into this category, the path looks well-paved for ersatz junk like Eragon to squeak by (though the reviews I skimmed did seem to feel like the dragon was an accomplishment). Night at the Museum is at least a bigger hit, which should help, as should Casino Royale's status as by far the most critically dignified title on this list.

The average Oscar voter, aghast at his Shortbus screener

NOMINATION LEADERS: Dreamgirls (9), The Departed (7), Little Miss Sunshine (7), Pan's Labyrinth (7), The Queen (6)
Barely Trailing: Babel (5), Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (5), Apocalypto (3), Letters from Iwo Jima (3), Little Children (3), Notes on a Scandal (3), Volver (3), Cars (2), Casino Royale (2), Children of Men (2), The Devil Wears Prada (2), Happy Feet (2), An Inconvenient Truth (2), The Last King of Scotland (2), The Painted Veil (2)
And Don't Forget About: The Black Dahlia, Blood Diamond, Eragon, Flags of Our Fathers, Half Nelson, The Illusionist, Marie Antoinette, Miami Vice, Monster House, The Prestige, The Pursuit of Happyness, Superman Returns, Thank You for Smoking, United 93, Venus, and the one-offs in Foreign-Language Film and Documentary Feature (1)
Unloved: Bobby, Borat, The Good Shepherd, Stranger Than Fiction, World Trade Center

Come back on Tuesday morning, after 5:30am PST (that's 7:30am in Chicago), and we'll find out how I did, shall we?

(Images © 2006 Paramount Vantage; © 2006 MGM Pictures; © 2006 Warner Bros. Pictures; © 2006 Dreamworks Pictures; © 2006 Miramax Films; © 2006 Fox Searchlight Pictures; © 2006 20th Century Fox; © 2006 Sony Entertainment; and © 2006 Picturehouse Entertainment)

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

Nick Davis' Block Party 2006

I think because I write such long, academic reviews, and because I put so much emotional and intellectual pressure on movies to be so many things in my life, I am often asked why I can't, or won't, "just sit back and enjoy" what I'm watching. My most sincere answer to this, as my students know, is that I actually think that objects of love—which for me include bad movies as well as good ones—prompt us to want to know more rather than less about how they work, who they are. My friends who like sports never tire of statistics and minutiae and possible trades and fantasy playbooks, and these knowledges seem to draw them into the excitement of the game rather than chuting them out of it. My friends who know (and love) cars or cooking or math or travel or clothes or landscapes or medicine or music feel the same way.

For me, it's movies. I don't want to "turn my brain off," whatever that means. However, I do know a pleasure cruise when I'm on one, and if you're ever haunting the video stores, wondering what to rent when you're looking for an effusive, energizing good time, these are the titles I'd recommend from 2006...

(Images © 2006 Lions Gate Films/Starbucks Entertainment; © 2006 MGM/Sony Entertainment; and © 2006 Lions Gate Films/Lakeshore Entertainment)


Still Not Smiling

My kindest benefactors on the web, over at Stop Smiling Magazine, have given me yet another forum to sing the praises of a stunning DVD, this time for When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, Spike Lee's 4-hour documentary on the flooding of New Orleans and its nearly apocalyptic aftermath for so many residents of that city. Levees actually expands as a nearly 6-hour film on the DVD, and once you've gotten started, you really shouldn't stop; the exclusive 105 minutes of previously trimmed material is actually some of Lee's best, correcting for some of the main feature's tendency to muffle its critique of Mayor Ray Nagin. The whole work, whatever its flaws or self-imposed limitations, is prodigious, detailed, expansive, and important in a way that precious few films in 2006 were, and despite appearing on HBO, it's certainly making an active end-run for my Top Ten List.

Meanwhile, speaking of lists, and of earlier benefactors, my comrades over at Cinemarati, a terrific consortium of web-based critics to which I belonged from 2002-2005, has commenced their annual counting-down of the year's best movies. So far, we have gotten the party started with Nathaniel's eloquent summary of the virtues of Volver (which I'd imagined would place a little higher); at #19, Michael Dequina is dazzled by Dreamgirls; and at #18, my old college chum Lynn Lee directs our attention to A Scanner Darkly, a nervy midyear offering that deserved a better shot than the major, Car-prone and penguin-happy critics' groups afforded it. Cinemarati has a wide-ranging membership of amateur and professional critics with enormously different tastes, so expect an interesting list, and forage around the rest of the blog and the individual members' sites while you're at it.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

A Quick Reminder...

...that you shouldn't be anywhere else but here on January 30. Give or take the still-pending Chicago release dates for Breaking and Entering, Days of Glory/Indigènes, and The Dead Girl, I only have Roger Michell's Venus, bowing today in a single downtown theater, and the Great Crazy Hope of David Lynch's Inland Empire left to take in. From that point, It's On.

In the meantime, you'll be hearing a little bit about the movies I most enjoyed watching this year, regardless of their overall aesthetic merit, and about a flock of performances too tiny or peripheral to figure into my awards but highly deserving of their own spotlight. Otherwise, with only one solid A and three A–'s awarded in 2006, I'll need the next ten days to sort out which six titles out of a whopping 21 B+'s will squeeze their way onto my Top Ten List in a movie year replete with robust but flawed successes. Stay tuned, and enjoy your weekend!

P.S. For those of you who have written to ask, my students' marks are well above the grades I give to movies. I'm not the easiest A who ever walked a department hallway, but I'm not doggin' the transcripts, either.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

I Haven't Reviewed the Globes...

...because a) I'm busy running up against the cold, icy surface of a deadline for a review of an actual movie, to be printed in an actual magazine, and b) I can't think of a single nice thing to say about that plodding telecast. Okay, here's one: Meryl Streep is a luminous, generous person to use her time onstage to call attention to the smaller films that most need this kind of exposure on awards shows. And she was characteristically funny and impromptu besides—even though I'd hoped she'd get more suited up to her Prada occasion. Truly, I can't figure out why this woman, so vividly alive on screen and in her speeches, is so hellbent on washing herself out with her outfits.

That glowing compliment came with a backhanded chaser, so here's one more nice thing: I guess it's kind of fun that we have no idea who the Best Picture winner at the Oscars will be. And here's a third: genius composer Alexandre Desplat won a well-deserved honor last night, and I even predicted his success, so my happiness for him comes accessorized with bragging rights for myself. Sublimity. I don't care about the TV awards, but America Ferrara classed up the joint and made everybody cry. Lastly, Emily Blunt looked fabulous, even though she sounded... a little... odd.

From there onward, it sours. Dypso stars who were boring drunks or nasty drunks or stupid drunks instead of what the Globes are designed to provide: fizzy, charming drunks. A raft of uninspiring winners. (If that patchy, repetitive script of The Queen rakes in one more prize...) A disappointing moment in the spotlight from Forest Whitaker, though I can at least respect a modest man who gets overcome by this much adulatory attention, this late in an admirable career. Still, he is an actor. Whip it together, Forest! And you, too, John Lasseter, hollering "Animation is awesome!" as though you're Napoleon Dynamite minus the irony, and as though Cars were anything but a well-made and well-intentioned Pixar film minus the cleverness and the warmth.

The night's worst moment by far offered us brand-new evidence that America's "beloved" and "classy" and "decent" Tom Hanks is not above asking for a show of hands of Warren Beatty's past lovers, right there in front of his wife. (One insanely old Hollywood joke + one deeply insensitive and sexist ploy + a head that has literally, visibly swollen + a thousand childish invocations of the word "balls" = can someone please fire Tom Hanks?) Mirren and Hudson barreled onward as surefire Oscar bets despite a proficient but finally uninteresting characterization from the former and, from the latter, a striking and often powerful vocal recital stitched to a stolid, wholly uninteriorized performance. Jennifer Hudson is a formidable singer, a cheering and pretty incredible success story, and from all appearances a very nice and decent person, but is she any more suited to the screen than Julia Roberts was to the stage? Shouldn't some acting be involved in a prize-winning acting performance?

My inner grouch gets grouchier when it comes to the fashions, since even the anointed favorites of the night (bland but fussy Felicity Huffman, pretty but way way way too pink Drew Barrymore, Mattel-inspired Reese Witherspoon) left me cold, cold, cold.

Either last night was a notably joyless and slipshod Globes ceremony, or, as Sandra Bernhard said, "The critics are right; I am a petty, bilious girl." Perhaps both. For me, the question is this: if the Globes got me down this bad, how can I anticipate February 25 with anything beyond dread, or worse, a casual indifference? Have I been hijacked into some anti-Oscar deprogramming regimen without realizing it? Is this what it feels like to wander from the flock?

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Monday, January 15, 2007

Global Warming

Snow is actually falling in Chicago today, which is distracting me at least a little bit from the planet's recent impersonation of an E-Z Bake oven. It's a shallow, meaningless distraction, but I'm taking whatever I can get. So, for once, I'm not ranting about that kind of global warming. I mean Golden Global warming, the heat and hum of Hollywood awards season as it shifts into fourth gear. The mists of Oscar's inscrutable affinities should start to clear after tonight's wacky-tacky awards, but even better, we'll be treated to all kinds of sippy and slap-happy stars, Meryl Streep and Borat (surely in character) will Bring the Funny in their inevitable acceptance speeches, the TV stars will wish they were in more movies, and the movie stars will wish more people would turn off their damn TVs. Bizarre incompatibles will fumble their way through their loopy seating assignments (remember Ryan Phillippe with Shirley MacLaine last year?), and the world will grind to a halt for the approximately 8 hours it will take to congratulate Warren Beatty for work he accomplished decades ago.

In my life, a TV is sort of a computer monitor in service of my DVD player and VCR, so I've got nothing in the way of predictions and preferences in those categories, and I durn't care. Being the Bermuda Triangle of television reception also requires me to be away from my own house in order to watch the ceremony, so with florid regret, I won't be popping into ModFab's live chat. Instead, I'll be hanging out with some colleagues from work, thanking Babel for the excuse to eat sloppy burritos and sushi and couscous all at the same time, and expecting these nominees to come away with more than a champagne hangover:

BEST PICTURE (DRAMA) I'm going to go out on a limb and guess The Queen, even though most signs point toward a victory for The Departed, which deserves to win by a wide, wide margin.

BEST PICTURE (MUSICAL/COMEDY) ModFab and Nathaniel are feeling sanguine about underdog Little Miss Sunshine, but I'll be surprised if the HFPA doesn't recognize its own mirror image in the chintzy but delicious Dreamgirls. I gave every one of these nominees a B– (save the execrable Thank You for Smoking), so I barely care who wins, though my weather-vane inclines slightly toward the anarchic energies of Borat.

BEST DIRECTOR Eastwood for Iwo Jima is a dark horse worth worrying about, but I'm still guessing, and hoping, that Martin Scorsese has a safe lead. These are the two most deserving candidates, so it's hard to imagine things going too, too wrong.

BEST ACTRESS (DRAMA) Does anyone think Helen Mirren might win? My tea leaves tell me she is going to just eke it out over Maggie Gyllenhaal in Sherrybaby. Kidding, of course, but I'm not kidding when I say that Gyllenhaal would get my vote, unless the balloting caught me having a soft spot for the wonderful Penélope Cruz. (I know everyone's all about Mirren and Dench this year, but I don't get the fuss about either of their performances.)


BEST ACTOR (DRAMA) The HFPA seems like the right organization to go along with the Peter O'Toole renaissance. The big payoff for telecast viewers if O'Toole wins is that we'd have a royal flush of funny, funny people winning all the top acting prizes. Venus hasn't opened in Chicago yet, so I can't say how I'd feel qualitatively about an O'Toole victory, but Whitaker (my pick), Smith, and DiCaprio in The Departed already set a high bar for this race.

BEST ACTRESS (MUSICAL/COMEDY) Never mind that my favorite here was Annette Bening, to whom I am usually pretty indifferent. If you can't see that Meryl Streep has this one sewn up, take a hint from Miranda Priestly and go "bore someone else with the details of your incompetence." Meanwhile, here is the most burning question I have about this year's Globes: what does one wear to accept a trophy for Prada? Play to the rafters, Meryl.


BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS With any luck, Jennifer Hudson will sing her acceptance speech, since she's so much more alive when she's belting and wailing. With any real luck, Emily Blunt or Adriana Barraza would pull an upset, but while I'm hoping for that to happen, I'll also keep my fingers crossed for a tree that grows real money, an eighth day in the week, and an evacuation of American troops from Iraq.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR Eddie Murphy manages the neat trick in Dreamgirls of playing a show-stopping, scene-stealing character without actually trying to steal and stop the movie. In my own mind, this gives him a slight edge over the potent and reliable Mark Wahlberg. For the Globes voters, I'm hoping he clears the serious threats posed by Jack Nicholson and even Brad Pitt.


BEST SCREENPLAY Just like in the Best Picture category, The Departed so outclasses the rest of this field that it's hard for me to understand why there is a competition, and even harder to understand why the HFPA probably won't go for it. I think it's safe to discount Little Children and Notes on a Scandal as aspirants. My instinct here tells me the same thing as in Best Picture (Drama)—that The Queen's shelf of awards is about to get a lot more crowded—but this is also Babel's best shot for a win, and presumably the HFPA doesn't want to send their leading nominee home empty-handed.

BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM I still expect Pan's Labyrinth to manifest some real presence on the Oscar roster, and it will surely make a game attempt at this prize. Still, I can already hear the tinkly piano in the hotel ballroom as Clint swipes the win for Letters from Iwo Jima. Like most Americans, I haven't had any opportunity to see The Lives of Others, but among the other four, Letters would certainly be my pick.

BEST ANIMATED FILM Happy Feet, I guess, but for an organization that bestowed Best Picture awards on Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, what's with the ghettoization? Maybe, in a year where even the trailers of all the computer-animated movies made me crazy, I'm especially averse to singling out the format for special recognition. Plus, Monster House obviously won't win, even though it was better integrated and more satisfying than the two blockbusters.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE The Globes voters, bless them, are much more willing to go out on an unpredictable limb in this category than the AMPAS composers are. Maybe it's silly to predict againt Babel, since this is another promising arena for saving that picture from a possible 0-for-7 batting average. Still, I'm licking my finger, testing the wind, and sensing an upset blowing in from the East for The Painted Veil. I'd be fine with that, though a win for Clint Mansell's majestically ethereal mood music for The Fountain would make my heart leap.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG Y'all better let the girl sing and give her a blue ribbon, or her daddy will have your asses on the phone in the middle of the night. Seriously, you best know whom you're dealing with. Matthew isn't going to start it with Meryl, especially if he saw Prada, but don't think he won't knock you and Prince if his daughter loses to a limping song about penguins. A father's way, indeed.

BEST ACTOR (MUSICAL/COMEDY) I'm sorry, I keep falling asleep when I try to think about this category. I cannnnnn Yikes! It's coming on again! I'mmmm sure Sacha Baron Cohen willlllll [Blacks out]

(Image © 2006 Canal+/Miramax Films)

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Curse, Indeed, of the Golden Flower

My friend Bob on Curse of the Golden Flower: "It's a slog, man. Very beautiful colors, but if I wanted to see a bunch of people just walking through a palace, I'd watch The West Wing." Does anyone still need a review?

Oh, why not. I will add (and you thought I was being so nice yesterday!) that a corollary problem to the endless power-walks through the palace of Emperor Ping, which are already more repetitious than the arpeggios in a Philip Glass score, is that Zhang Yimou indulges the tacky, sticky Rainbow Brite explosion of his mise-en-scène but fails entirely to construct a coherent physical space. For a movie that did precious little beyond sinking me into a Day Glo fortress, I wish that Curse had allowed me to know a little something about that fortress. It certainly didn't help that Gong Li—who has given poor, predictable, inexpressive performances in six straight movies now (Zhou Yu's Train, the partial exception of 2046, her lurid segment of Eros, Memoirs of a Geisha, Miami Vice, and now this)—can't assemble or communicate Empress Phoenix's villainy in any but the most banally perverse and overstated ways. Maggie Cheung could swoop through a carnelian castle in Zhang's Hero and hold the screen because that gal is a full-throttle cinema actress, with an ideal face and a subtle but heat-seeking instinct for how to use it. Gong used to give off a comparable vibe, but I think her gifts have coarsened and frozen by now, and she's pushing her way onto the dread Danny Huston List of actors I hate to see cast in anything.

Curse of the Golden Flower raises a conundrum, both physical and philosophical, of whether matter and energy can go over the top if there's nothing there, no substance or idea, to go over the top of. Heidi, Nina, and Michael could search high and low for Zhang's "taste level" here without ever finding it, and the grim inadequacies of the performances, the script, and the montage aren't so much compensated as they are thrown into greater relief by the gaudy grandiloquence of the colors and the lighting. The images of violence that break through the glassy neon surface of Golden Flower are punishing and fetishistic in that Mel Gibson vein, and when Zhang ties up this whole tale of civil war, incest, royal alienation, and choreographed bloodsport with some mewling, ridiculous ballad about "traces of your smile on a yellowing scroll," the film has either reached the apex of its own absurdity or the nadir of its own expensive emptiness. Probably both. At least the sober and discomfiting nationalism of Hero has loosened up into a friskier, more iconoclastic take on Chinese imperial mythmaking, but Curse hardly reflects the perspective of a mature or self-disciplined filmmaker, and there are too many other movies to see without wasting time on this unseemly bauble. D+

(Image © 2006 Sony Pictures Classics)

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Saturday, January 13, 2007

Good Movies, but Split Decisions

Three movies in two days, and the best news is that all of them constitute thumbs-up material. But how far up? In all three cases, I'm having a tough time deciding. In ascending order of quality, Dreamgirls earns the peculiar distinction of being an exuberant, performance-centered movie that I enjoyed without really loving any of the performances. Eddie Murphy was best in show for me; his blurring of the lines between energy, mania, arrogance, cowardice, obedience, and defiance amounted to the only truly layered character in the movie. Everyone else had bright spots and major deficits, which is also true of the movie on the whole: yay for the costumes, yikes on the photography, and sympathy for the editor, who flourishes where the film allows her to but flails to make certain sequences and character arcs cohere. (They still don't.) Nonetheless, Dreamgirls is a buoyant couple of hours with just enough weight to avoid pure frivolity, and just enough sense of when to stop forcing the personal-social analogies and just let things go Bump on a glittering stage. The shaky technique, limited acting, and slow-witted direction make it hard to afford the movie more qualitative credit than a B–, but as with Casino Royale and the recently reviewed Devil Wears Prada, I enjoyed the movie more than the grade implies, and a slight bump upward is not out of the question.

As I so often find with Clint Eastwood's movies, Letters from Iwo Jima occupies an uneasy precipice between rigor and conservatism. Its best moments and strongest decisions encourage loyal advocacy of the whole film, even as its missteps offer vivid warnings against a tendency to overrate Eastwood's movies. Often, especially in dialogue-heavy or character-focused scenes, individual shots are so weighed down with rhetorical or emotional intents that the film doesn't breathe as much as you want it to, and even such promising performances as Ken Watanabe's (as Gen. Kuribayashi), Kazunari Ninomiya's (as Saigo, perhaps the greenest soldier, and a virtual co-lead in the film), or Ryo Kase's (as the uncomfortably disciplined Shimizu) become muffled, their relationship to our world or to modern storytelling a bit stilted and antique. Also, someone should convince Eastwood to rethink his propensity toward weak and arbitrary framing devices. Still, Letters from Iwo Jima does more than capture the perspective, largely occluded in American cinema and history, of the Japanese soldiers. The film powerfully and thoughtfully evokes a sitting-duck atmosphere of pre-ordained defeat while nonetheless encompassing a wide variety of tones and formal approaches—lurking menace, wide panoramas, frenetic motion, forward marches, flickering faces, grisly chamber dramas, wistful moments of isolation. Even better, Letters glides elegantly among these registers, instead of flaunting or stumbling over its heterogeneity of pace and mood. The klutzy structural hiccups of Flags of Our Fathers are mostly avoided (and feel all the more perplexing in retrospect), and while I wasn't fully swayed by such key elements as the color palette and the epistolary motif, the film fought its way up, for now, from a B to a B+.

Finally, as ethically ambitious and horribly battle-scarred as Letters from Iwo Jima is, Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men has got Eastwood's movie beat on both counts. The long and frequent sequences of ambush, assault, and outright siege are intellectually provocative, and would be even more so if they weren't so viscerally upsetting. I had to force myself to keep watching the screen more times during Children of Men than during any other 2006 release, with the possible exception of Apocalypto. Thankfully, Cuarón's movie has all the integrity that Gibson's sun-dappled snuff film lacks. Indeed, Children of Men is so muscular, kinetic, and adult in its concerns, and so virtuosic in its formal and technical execution, that it's bound to look gargantuan compared to the limping irrelevancies (Stranger than Fiction, Bobby, Curse of the Golden Flower) and the hobbled half-successes (Borat, Pan's Labyrinth, even Dreamgirls) that have filled the plexes of late.

Still, Children of Men has its own seams and riddles to answer for. Does the context and density of the action actually deepen as the film continues, or do we simply behold more grand-scale dioramas of the same recurring ideas? Does the movie's nervy hodgepodge of fascism and anarchy actually make sense, and if the whole world is as scabbed as we are led to believe, what's keeping Danny Huston alive in his gleaming white palace, or Michael Caine protected in his hibernating-activist glade? If we followed the money, or the gasoline, or the coffee, or the still-circulating newspapers, or the prowling tanks, where would they lead? In fact, how is Britain, or even the world, still possible? I ask with a tone of slightly confused skepticism—a skepticism that becomes more curt and disappointed when it confronts some implausible escapes, an ill-placed monologue by a midwife, and the bizarre non-character extended to us by an atypically flat Julianne Moore. Still, so much is bracing and magnificent in Children of Men, a film thrillingly imagined even as it floods itself with despair, that I'm content to persist in my questions and second-guessing, taking them less as signs of muddy artistry than as felicitous products of a smart, complicated movie that deserves smart, complicated consideration. B+? A–? B+? Stay tuned.


Thursday, January 11, 2007

Todd and Me, Sittin' in a Tree, W-A-I-T-I-N-G

In fashion, as we know, you're either In or you're Out. Book publishing, however, appears to follow different rules. I can't tell if the anthology The Cinema of Todd Haynes, edited by James Morrison, is Out or Not. The original publication date from Wallflower Press in the UK was scheduled for last spring, with a joint publication from Columbia University Press, which later announced a June release. Then, both dates were moved to December. However, the Wallflower page indicates that the book has been out in the UK since September, and the unillustrated Amazon page says it's been available for purchase in the U.S. since November. But I haven't seen it anywhere, and nor has the editor.

Why do I care so much? Because I'm in it! Chapter 8, y'all. So, when the book eventually does come to a bookstore near you, give it some love! And don't begrudge a blogging academic who's geeked to see his name in print, particularly in connection to the work of a Living Genius, and who is therefore shamelessly hawking the wares. (It would help, of course, if the wares would appear, so that they might be hawked.)

Meanwhile, tomorrow's a big day for movie-going: I'll finally be hitting up Dreamgirls at midday and Children of Men in the afternoon. Comments and Globe predix soon to follow. I expect I'll also hunker down with When the Levees Broke over the weekend, and I've got a group date to go see Letters from Iwo Jima on Tuesday. Once those verdicts have rolled in, I'll just be waiting on this and this and especially this before my Top 10 list and all the other Best of 2007 features pop up on the main site. When that eventually happens, don't expect more than a nod apiece, if even that, for Our Brand Is Crisis, an intriguing documentary with a great subject that nonetheless holds back too far from the issues and events at its core, or for The Painted Veil, which is less precious and dainty than it might have been but still omits any fresh insights or directorial signatures, resulting in a movie with casual appeal but zero urgency.

(Image © 2005 Wallflower Press)

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

That's All

I would so be fired as Miranda Priestly's assistant. Here's a woman who needs a dozen Hermès scarves to land on her desk in the time it takes to purse her lips, and I can't even spit out a review in less than six months. Another... disappointment. Frankly, the movie's a bit of a disappointment, too, although its bright spots are very bright. One wishes that the director and screenwriter had taken equal care with all of their actors and subplots, and that everything bracing and deft in the opening sequences had survived into the crammed and abbreviated second half. Still, I gotta admit this movie is a hoot, and though nobody quite has me screaming "Oscar!", I have several nice things to say, especially with regard to the three leading ladies, in my new full review.

(Image © 2006 20th Century Fox)

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Supporting Actress Blog-a-Thon, Served Up with a Smile

One especially frustrating confluence of being away from the internet and having my blog infested by a code-devouring succubus was that I missed out on celebrating the 1975 Supporting Actress Smackdown alongside my comrades in arms. This Smackdown was exceptional for all sorts of reasons: a clipreel from Nathaniel that was even sassier and more illustrative of the nommed performances than usual; a new and very welcome participant in all the smacking; two exquisite nominees from the same legendary film; better-than-expected work from the two nominees I hadn't seen before, even though their films were horrendous; and the announcement of a hiatus in Supporting Actress Sundays for a few months while our fearless leader StinkyLulu recharges his batteries and considers some tweaks to the format.

But Stinky's just a little tired, y'all; he's not neurasthenic. Besides, the committed actressexual doesn't just plunge into celibacy at a moment's notice, so today's Supporting Actress Blog-a-Thon is more than adequate recompense for the January Smackdown that isn't to be. It's a glorious smorgasbord in and of itself, with movie bloggers all over the web stumping for one supporting actress performance from 2006 that they'd like to include in our collective, glittering time capsule. I haven't had time to read the other entries yet, but I'm already excited to hear praise for some overlooked gems, such as ModFab's ode to the very fine Kerry Washington in The Last King of Scotland, Nathaniel's gorgeous enthusiasm for the delicious Meryl Streep in A Prairie Home Companion (her best perf in 2006!), or Radio Allegro's praise for the superb Mia Kirshner in The Black Dahlia. I'm also ready to be convinced by some arguments for performances that I didn't quite love: for example, here's our resplendent host's commentary on Lindsay Beamish, the dyspeptic dominatrix in Shortbus.

For my own part, not just to avoid more consensus choices but because I think she's every bit their equal, I'd like to sing the praises of Ashley Johnson, a 23-year-old actress previously unknown to me, who contributed such an exemplary, unfussy, and wondrously humane performance as Amber in Richard Linklater's Fast Food Nation. I am still recovering from my astonishment at the public and even the critical indifference to Fast Food Nation, which has yet to eke out even $1 million after seven weeks of release, a sharp and witty trailer, an interesting and generally favorable reception at Cannes, and two years of hype about the resurgence of liberal politics in Hollywood cinema, often in films much inferior to this one—an admittedly flawed and occasionally clumsy but smart, eloquent, detailed, and vividly acted panorama. Yes, in some passages, Eric Schlosser's nonfiction investigation has not translated sublimely into mellifluous dialogue or satisfying dramatic structures, but increasingly, the film manages the clever and principled trick of eliciting deep emotion and educated ire without compromising on its subdued, almost creepily mundane tone, sound, and look.

Johnson's performance is fundamental to the film's grand success in this regard. Cast as a fetching, agreeable, and breathtakingly self-assured teenager—a type we rarely see in movies, who makes even Rory Gilmore seem mush-mouthed and unappealing—Johnson already achieves quite a bit by communicating decency, intelligence, and lively affection for her single mom (Patricia Arquette), her gadabout uncle (Ethan Hawke), her friends, her dreams of college, her co-workers, even her alienating job at Mickey's, where she's surrounded by plastic furniture, felonious uniforms, chemical smells, and dead air, to say nothing of the shit-stained burgers and carbonated sugar-water. Amber persists, because Johnson does, in being game without being a dupe, responsible without being officious, jovial without being silly, equally at ease with adults and peers, and quite obviously liked even by her disaffected, criminally tempted cohorts at Mickey's, especially the character played by Paul Dano. Essential goodness, as the Smackdowners agreed in the comparable case of Marianne Jean-Baptiste in Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies, is a deceptively difficult thing to conjure on screen, especially within the mandates of narrative film to complicate or "dramatize" that goodness through unexpected actions, accelerated evolutions, or contrived scenarios.

Kudos, then, to Linklater's direction and to his and Schlosser's script for clearing some space and defying some clichés so that Johnson can assemble the credible, layered, and intriguingly optimistic person that she does. Which isn't to say that Amber doesn't evolve over the course of the film. After involving herself with a student-activist group at a nearby college, Amber carries herself to the brink of a massive and dismaying realization, not just about her job at Mickey's but about the enormous social and political structures in which it participates. Amber soon finds herself engaging in anti-corporate guerrilla efforts that seriously jeopardize the ubiquitous approval and promised upward mobility that have surrounded her through the film. It's a tribute to Johnson that she has evoked Amber's potential and her soundness of character so strongly and uncloyingly that we shudder for Amber in these moments, even if we are politically sympathetic to her new intents; it's a further tribute that she doesn't jettison Amber's earlier personality in the throes of this epiphany, but expresses Amber's reluctance, panic, and mystification even as she sticks to her cadre's dangerous plan of action after several of her older, more experienced comrades have already fled the scene. The connecting thread is Amber's solid but complicated idealism: the very trait that once may have conditioned her blindness now forces her toward precarious action.

Amber teeters on a precipice between innocence and experience, helplessness and enlightenment, optimism and agitation at the end of Fast Food Nation, in a way that makes her both an audience surrogate and a gleaming projection of how we may wish to see ourselves. Few people in Fast Food Nation's audience are as legitimately green as Amber, even if we, like her, are allowing ourselves our very first frank look at the social and political enormities innate to corporatized food and abattoir economics. Johnson's performance poses germane and important questions: will political awareness require the tarnishing of Amber's happiness, even her goodness? By the same token, are her confidence and maturity fundamentally premised on naïveté and unknowing complicity? Where is the balance between communal responsibility and shallow self-interest within Amber's political enlightenment? We can see that her activism rewards, at least in part, her high-school dreams of sharper, more enriching friends, better invitations, more promising crushes on more interesting boys. She even suggests a nervous but powerful attraction for her uncle, or at least for his life of travel and thought and tale-spinning, so the connections between domestic influences and public conduct remain lucid and compelling in Johnson's delineation of Amber.

To ask more acting-specific questions, who besides Johnson could draw out the warmth and spontaneity in Patricia Arquette, who hasn't looked this comfortable or relaxed on screen since Flirting with Disaster? Who, short of Julie Delpy, has not only indulged Ethan Hawke in his freewheeling, coffee-shop improvisations but has actually sustained and improved them with her own bright-eyed, attentive, exquisitely pitched responses? How many actresses this young, and this new to cinema, can hold the screen so compellingly in shots of active listening, fond onlooking, genial small-talk, and the nearer and nearer tremors of a shifting inner life? Johnson is a terrific, fresh screen partner and a shrewd, disciplined actress, and she manages all of this with the ease of prime Kirsten Dunst, but without the aloofness or the heavy lids. She acts terrifically without ever seeming like she's auditioning for other roles, or straining to demonstrate her gravitas. In other words, she proves her superiority to most actors her age (at least when she's cast in the right part) without signalling that this, in fact, is her primary objective—a lesson from which the talented but sternly self-conscious Natalie Portman might take some notes.

Johnson's is the smile with which Fast Food Nation serves up its terrible news. The movie wouldn't work if the smile weren't so sparkling, and so real, or if the gathering storm of fear and knowledge weren't palpable beneath that smile.

(Images © 2006 Participant Productions/20th Century Fox)

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Saturday, January 06, 2007

Almost There... Maybe

This damn blog. It still barely works, and only for half-hour intervals every few days, for some mysterious, unspecified reason relating to mandrake roots, bubbling cauldrons, salamanders, FTP entropy, Beta software, and the great black-hole abstraction that is Blogger Tech Support. Those of us on externally-hosted blogs, i.e., Blogger-supported blogs that aren't hosted directly on Blogspot, could not possibly be a lower priority for the obviously overworked and yet patently neglectful and unresponsive staff at Google.

So, do not reel with astonishment if I bag this whole blog in 2007 and institute a major site overhaul at my main site in order to consolidate all of my writing on a domain that I can administer myself, without all the Blogger hocus pocus.

BUT! This, at least, is a start. For the time, please enjoy the now-outdated posts that I wrote four weeks ago, and don't believe anyone, especially Owen Gleiberman, who tells you that Sweet Land is an overlooked masterpiece. It's an agreeable film, and in the modern climate of exhibition, it's a miracle that anyone is seeing it; still, the movie resides firmly in that Tender Mercies tradition of reticent, simple films that mistake quiet for eloquence and natural beauty for artistic communication. C

Meanwhile, DO believe anyone, including Owen Gleiberman, who urges you to take a chance on The Good Shepherd, the exceedingly rare film about ubiquitous duplicity that keeps a tight hold on its tonal register and doesn't pump itself up into too many false climaxes. The treacheries here are constant, profound, and often quite upsetting, but neither the superb screenplay by Eric Roth nor the editing nor the score nor the director limns them with bombast or distracting rhetoric, and both the movie and the characters force themselves to soldier on, almost unflappably, every time another rug is pulled out from underneath them. In a person, as the film so clearly knows, this is called emotional stuntedness, as well as—for a CIA operative, at least—professional necessity. In a film—with this premise and these characters, at least—it's called intelligence and conviction. B+

(Image © 2006 Universal Pictures)