Oscar bait

3 12 2007

Here are short capsule reviews of titles hoping to leaving with Oscar in hand come next February.

eastern_promises.jpgEastern Promises (Focus Features)
David Cronenberg’s latest thriller has the elements of becoming an Oscar favorite from stellar performances (Naomi Watts and Viggo Mortensen), an engaging screenplay and the directors’ trademark unique visuals and story telling method. The films follows a mid-wife (Watts) who discovers an intrigue diary that sets her on a path to collide with the Russian mob. Mortensen’s seemingly frightening turn as a driver eager to join the ranks of the London crime family is a revelation. The actor single-handedly delivers one of the best fight scenes in the last five years and one that will stay with viewers days after seeing the film. For all its accomplishments, Eastern Promises starts to fall apart which it enters its final act as the unpredictable film begins to fall into a well-traveled path. You will be hard pressed to find a better thriller than Eastern Promises in today’s crop of thoughtless celluloid that fills theaters across the country.
Possible Oscar nominations: Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor
Long Shot nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor

margotatthewedding_l200707111540.jpgMargot at the Wedding (Paramount Vintage)
Another touching drama about people with issues, but Writer/Director Noah Baumbach knows how to create interesting, identifiable flawed characters we can all connect with. The man behind 2005’s celebrated The Squid and the Whale invites viewers into the inner-workings of a relationship between two very different sisters. Margot (Nicole Kidman) visits her sister and disapproves of her choice of husband. Margot at the Wedding boasts sensational performances from Kidman, Jack Black and in particular, Jennifer Jason Leigh. The cast takes these characters and infuse them with humanity that in other less experiences hand could have been simply unlikeable. The film is a beautiful character driven story and a great companion to his previous body of work.
Possible Oscar nominations: Best Original Screenplay
Long Shot nominations: Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress

american_gangster_poster.jpgAmerican Gangster (Universal)
Ridley Scott, Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe are a powerhouse who have managed to produce one of the fall’s first blockbusters, American Gangster with a whopping $120 million in the bank. The movie chronicles the rise of drug thug, Frank Lucas (Washington) and the detective, Richie Roberts (Crowe) eager to bring it to an end. The movie has immediately caught attention, but mostly has been labeled as entertaining and good. American Gangster faces comparisons with last year’s Best Picture winner, The Departed, a battle that Gangster can’t win. The film may be able to snag a few nominations but don’t expect this movie to pull any type of upset.
Possible Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay
Long Shot nominations: Best Director, Best Supporting Actor

no_country_for_old_men.jpgNo Country For Old Men (Miramax)
The Coen Brothers’ are back with No Country For Old Men after a string of badly developed projects. The team that brought audiences Raising Arizona and Fargo have returned to their roots for this incredibly original crime drama. A trio of men all try escape/in hot pursuit are tied together by a $2 million that was found. Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones all deliver career defining performances helping to bring this unique tale to life. No Country For Old Men is exactly the type of film that makes you want to spend $14 and wait in line to see. The film blends together many different genres all the while keeping the viewers on the edge of their seat.
Possible Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor
Long Shot nominations: Best Original Score

intothewild_bigreleaseposter.jpgInto the Wild (Paramont Vintage)
The tragic story of a young man who leaves everything behind and unknowning becomes a cautionary tale for millions is stirringly captured in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild. Emile Hirsch, known most recently for Alpha Dogs, surprisingly is very haunting in this doomed role. The film has become a box office top 20 mainstay since its release and has slowly gone on to gross nearly $16 million without much hype besides word of mouth. If the good word continues through December, Into the Wild could be rewarded with a few prestigious nominations. The film is wonderful but it is not without its flaws. At certain moments the film seems to drag and all to often Penn’s directing is all too typical looking more like a special on the Discovery channel rather than a film.
Possible Oscar nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay
Long Shot nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress


Sunday at the Multiplex

9 04 2007

What similarities do The Reaping, The Hoax and The Lookout share (besides the obvious fact they all begin with “the”)? I paid for one but saw all three on Sunday.

The Reaping
reaping.jpgThe concept behind The Reaping had a simmer of promise, but the end results very anything but that. Its usually compelling leading lady won two Oscars. Stephen Hopkins, the film’s director, won an Emmy in 2005 for HBO’s The Life and Death of Peter Sellers.
Regrettably, though, The Reaping is another horror flick, filled with such genre clichés as crashing noise whenever there’s an intended shock and people, bodies, etc., popping out of nowhere.
Swank stars as an LSU professor who travels the world disproving miracles. She’s never met a miracle she can’t debunk. The film offers a hallucinogenic back story for this wonder-buster, scenes of the character in Sudan, where she worked as a missionary. But when her daughter and husband are killed by superstitious tribesmen, Swank loses her faith and turns to science to disprove the existence of miracles.
The Reaping manages to summon some creepy moments, but its horror-flick tricks lack big frights.
Swank learns that the townsfolk believe a girl who lives at the river’s edge is the root of Haven’s troubles. The professor smells a scapegoat.
Finally gaining momentum, The Reaping grows frantically busy as it races to a flashy climax. But this rising action comes too late and, furious and noisy as the climax is, it’s also empty and anticlimactic.
Despite the impressive, well-intentioned talent behind and in front of the cameras, The Reaping harvests no scares and little interest.
The Hoax
hoax.jpgIn 1971, writer Clifford Irving (Richard Gere) – financially desperate after the publication of his breakthrough novel is cancelled – tells his editor (Hope Davis) that he has been authorized to write the autobiography of the world’s most notorious mystery man, Howard Hughes. In fact, his claim is a total fraud, but he figures that
Hughes is so averse to appearing in public that the book will go unchallenged. Together with his wife (Marcia Gay Harden) and his best friend (Alfred Molina), he bases his manuscript on research, going so far as to illegally photocopy the unpublished memoir of longtime Hughes confidante Noah Dietrich (Eli Wallach, still a consummate actor at 91).
Anyone old enough to remember the case, which was one of the great amusing news stories in a period dominated by Vietnam, is likely to spot some major liberties with the facts in this film from Lasse Hallström (My Life as a Dog, Casanova); to the filmmakers’ credit, the press notes list many of the major ones. In most cases, Hallström and screenwriter William Wheeler have wisely chosen dramatic effectiveness over slavish loyalty to details. They are aided by a terrific cast, which also includes Stanley Tucci and Julie Delpy (playing Irving mistress Nina Van Pallandt, who coincidentally costarred with Gere in American Gigolo). Told almost entirely from Irving’s POV, the film is able to incorporate a host of possibilities that may or may not be the author’s delusions or playful inventions, e.g., that the Watergate break-in was the result of Nixon’s paranoid concern that the Democratic National Committee might have a copy of the manuscript, which revealed political hankypanky between Nixon and Hughes. Gere delivers totally here, and, for all the liberties, this is a fascinating look at a doomed fraud.
The Lookout
lookout.jpgFormer 3rd Rock From the Sun star Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a stunning performance in this character-driven crime thriller. He plays Chris Pratt, a star in high school who suffers brain damage in a car accident that renders him a bit “slow.”
Chris works the graveyard shift as a janitor at a Kansas bank, and shares an apartment with a perceptive blind man (Jeff Daniels as Lewis). The day to day struggles of these disabled characters by itself is enough to make for an interesting movie, but The Lookout turns into a thriller once a group of criminals dupe Chris into helping them rob the bank where he works.
And the underrated Daniels is also very convincing as his worldly-wise roommate. The Lookout is definitely worth a look.

Coming Soon
Full Length reviews
of Grindhouse, The Hills Have Eyes 2, 300 and The Namesake.

Undetected: Donnie Darko

22 03 2007

donnie-darko-directors-cut.jpgThis feature will highlight good/enjoyable films that may have gone unnoticed to the mainstream public. Once again, I ask that those reading this post feel free to comment leaving suggestion and concepts for further installments.

Why is it important?
Donnie Darko is not really important, but instead it is an intriguing work of cinematic art. Director Richard Kelly creates character with vibrant and unique personality traits which audiences can identify with throughout the film’s bizarre series of events. We are emersed into a world that seems like our own, but is just a bit more complex. The film also boasts some of the most memorable one-liners and a plethora of hilarious concepts. Donnie Darko is a film that really does offer something for everyone from humor to science fiction to action.

What is it about?
The movie follows Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal)’s strange visions and his relationship with Frank the rabbit. I know that at first glance the plot sounds like something straight out of a horror B-movie from the 1950s, but all the other elements (stellar cast, witty script, etc.) aid in helping make the transition into the world of a disturbed teen. He has 28 days until “the world ends” and he must unravel several abstract clues to find a way to keep Frank’s prophecy from coming true. It is a hard sell but with overwhelming positive reviews there is no way you leave unhappy, maybe a bit confused. donnie_darko_02714_rc1.jpg But it will all be worth after this satisfying ride through a mind so perplexing you’ll be glad its not yours.

Who is in it?
The cast includes Jena Malone, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Patrick Swayze, Noah Wyle and Drew Barrymore. The ensemble all put forth wonderfully rich performances, working to give their characters an identifiable life of their own. The main draw here is a young, pre-Brokeback Mountain Gyllenhaal who is spectacular going from innocent to demented in a matter of moments. His performances make Donnie more than just a typical, troubled teen and brings much needed believability to the title role.

Final Thought…
Donnie Darko is hard to lump into one category because of its broad range of topics but one thing is certain, this is one hell of a movie. Though not all the questions are answered, the journey from point a to point b is enjoyable enough that you don’t care if those pesky questions are ever answered.
Here are two short scenes from Donnie Darko:

Deconstruction of a scene: Before Sunset

19 03 2007

This is hopefully to become an either weekly or monthly feature on a past film and why a particular scene works to illustrate the general feeling of the entire picture or in some cases how it fails. I would love to hear your insights and thoughts on this idea. And maybe even a few suggestions as to other movies that could be showcased in this format. I hope you enjoy.beforesunsetposter.jpg

Before Sunset
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ethan Hawke and Julie Deply
Released: 2nd of July 2004
Runtime: 77 minutes
Rating: R for language and sexual references.
What we have here is a simple picture about two people set against a lovely French backdrop. Before Sunset picks up exactly nine years after the events of Before Sunrise, in which both characters meet and fall in love, and we are introduced to two people who have a had a rotten love life. In the beginning the relive past memories and discuss about their current relationships, but never letting on that each is miserable. The film’s greatest asset is that it doesn’t use anything besides conversation to move the story along. All we see are two people with natural chemistry taking a strole through the streets of Paris and that’s enough. The magic behind the movie is that the characters seem real and attainable something that has been missing from this genre of film for quite a long time. By the end of the film I want Celine (Deply) for myself because I have become so drawn to her character. This is a modern rarity, a film which actually brings the viewer into it and forces them to care for these flawed characters. Before Sunset is a massive achievement because its proof that a witty, intelligent, adult romantic comedy does exist.


Setting up the scene:
We are nearing the final act of the film and the two characters are preparing to part ways again. Up to this point, we have learned that Jessie (Hawke) is still in love with Celine and that the two of them are simply pretending to be happy in their current situations. As the film has unfolded we have be granted the rights to see into both of these characters who because of an unexpected death missed the chance to see what could have been. FYI: At the end of Before Sunrise the two promise to meet up again in six months but we discover that never happened because Celine’s grandmother passed away shortly before.

The Scene (this post may contain images and language that is not suitable for all ages):

The scene I have selected is the limousine ride back after their trip through the streets of Paris. In this scene every emotions is crystallized due to a explosive performance from Deply. The characters finally expose the truth of how each has been doing since their failed reunion. Celine has an emotional outburst about her inability to love and her past relationships. She speaks candidly about how this has made feel cold or numb to the world and as if all his romanticism was lost on that night they shared nine years ago. Then Jessie tells her how unhappy he is in his marriage. The scene is sensational because it is easy to see them as real people with real problems that we all experience at some point in life. beforesunset-horiz.jpgBefore Sunset succeeds because of this scene and the filmmakers uncanny ability to make this characters believable. The sincerity we see in these nearly 80-minutes are unmatched by the standard rom-com fares in which gimmicks such as house swapping, hookers who find millionaires or pretending to be engaged with someone to get someone else is the norm. I only wish more films were made as honest as this one.

Here it is Enjoy!

**Here is an added bonus because I love the song and her voice:**

The intricate spell of The Illusionist

18 03 2007

The Illusionist
The Illusionist casts an exquisitely bewitching spell with its dreamy atmosphere and pervasive sense of suspense.
Writer/director Neil Burger has fashioned a beautifully shot mystery, with precise and elegant attention to period detail, which heightens the sense of intrigue in this romantic thriller.
Set in Vienna circa 1900, the well-crafted tale is bolstered by the powerful performance of Edward Norton as a master magician named Eisenheim. Just as strong in their respective portrayals are Paul Giamatti as an ambitious but conflicted police inspector and Rufus Sewell as the villainous Prince Leopold.
At the insistence of the prince, Giamatti’s policeman closes down Eisenheim’s popular magic show, which is steeped with almost supernatural enchantments. The prince is engaged to marry the aristocratic Sophie (Jessica Biel), and when he sees her fascination with the seemingly inscrutable Eisenheim, he is increasingly motivated to end the illusionist’s career.
As it turns out, Eisenheim and Sophie were childhood friends whose close relationship was interrupted in their early teens by her high-born parents. Since then, Eisenheim devoted his energies to perfecting his magic skills. When he meets Sophie as an adult, he is sophisticated, handsome and the toast of the town. He uses his magic prowess to win her back.
After the two rekindle their affection, Leopold tries to run the prestidigitator out of town. Eisenheim, meanwhile, is bent on undermining the royal house of Vienna.
Though there is some occasionally stilted dialogue, a fascinating contest of wills ensues, with mesmerizing plot twists.
Based on Eisenheim, the Illusionist, a short story by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stephen Millhauser, this suspenseful and stylish film has a welcome sense of originality given the derivative and predictable nature of so much summer fare. The story is rendered fluidly, with gorgeous production design, and the haunting score by Philip Glass adds to the spellbinding quality.
It’s a pleasure to see Norton deliver yet another remarkable performance. He shines in a wide range of disparate roles, from American History X to Fight Club to The Score.
The alluring and absorbing Illusionist proves that a film need not be mindless fluff or ridiculously far-fetched to qualify as escapist entertainment.

Breach, a game of spy vs. spy

18 03 2007

With his second feature, director Bill Ray continues his fascination with liars who have redefined history.
Breach is a film inspired by true events about the one of our country’s greatest traitors and at first glances appears to be a boring history lesson. The movie is any but boring, rather than focusing on cheap gimmicks, it relies on a lean helping of drama engulfed by suspense. The film is a treat because it doesn’t play like most other entries in the spy genre.
Eric O’Neill, played by dead ringer Ryan Phillippe in Billy Ray’s low-key Breach, was Hanssen’s photonegative—a baby-faced go-getter trying to work his way up the ranks, a kid who loved his former job as an alleyway shadow trailing suspected terrorists. Robert Hanssen, on the other hand, was a burned-out veteran who, as early as 1980, had grown bitter toward the agency, which he considered full of Neanderthals who didn’t understand or appreciate his genius. Hanssen wasn’t merely a traitor, he was also a thrill-seeker, an Opus Dei–dreaming Catholic with a penchant for strippers and a thing for posting to the Web sexually explicit fantasies about his wife Bonnie.
Breach, which details Hanssen’s final days as a turncoat, plays like a sequel of sorts to Billy Ray’s last film, Shattered Glass, about the fabulist Stephen Glass, fired from The New Republic for proffering fiction as fact. Only this time, Ray need not stretch too far to give his story weight; he need not remind people that “The New Republic is the in-flight magazine of Air Force One” in order to justify telling the story of a twerp who did some egregious shit. This is the FBI we’re talking about, and Hanssen, played here by Chris Cooper with stolid, brute force, was a certified bad man—and a mesmerizing one as well, despite his being known as “The Mortician” within the bureau for his deadly dull demeanor. Cooper plays him as history has portrayed him: a sneering, self-righteous counterintelligence genius whose Nowhere Man exterior belied a darker truth.
Phillippe, up to now seeming like a minor-leaguer swinging a small stick in the bigs, is perfectly cast as O’Neill, who got lost in bureau offices the first day he was assigned to work undercover as Hanssen’s assistant. He positively shrinks in Cooper’s estimable presence; there are moments when you forget he’s even in the scene. Everyone in the film, including O’Neill’s direct supervisor, Kate Burroughs (Laura Linney), speaks to him like he’s incapable of deep thought. Initially, Burroughs even lies to O’Neill when giving him the assignment, telling him that Hanssen’s under surveillance because he’s a sexual deviant, not a man giving the names of U.S. spies to the Russians so they can kill them.
Like the inferior The Good Shepherd, whose release late last year caused Universal to bump Breach to the February graveyard, this is a spy movie bereft of the genre’s usual, casual kicks. But Ray’s more interested in dissecting the relationship between O’Neill and Hanssen, who resists the kid initially but then takes him in as one of his own, insisting that they go to church together and inviting him into his home. As his affection for the boy grows, Hanssen ends up trusting the last person on earth he ever should have.
The movie does not and cannot hide its ending. The finale is referenced in the very first scene, when John Ashcroft speaks to the media about Hanssen’s 2001 arrest near a footbridge in a Virginia park, where he was dropping off a cache of documents for his KGB contacts. But Ray, a storyteller in love with liars he wants to hate but cannot, doesn’t need a surprise ending. The real one’s heartbreaking enough: a tragic love story between the ticked-off traitor who thought he’d found a kindred spirit and the true believer who didn’t want to admit that his father figure was one of the world’s most dangerous men.

Deconstruction of a scene: Chicago

14 03 2007

This is hopefully to become an either weekly or monthly feature on a past film and why a particular scene works to illustrate the general feeling of the entire picture or in some cases how it fails. I would love to hear your insights and thoughts on this idea. And maybe even a few suggestions as to other movies that could be showcased in this format. I hope you enjoy.movie_poster_r.jpg

Directed by: Rob Marshall
Starring: Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere and Queen Latifah
Released: 10th of December 2002
Runtime: 113 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for sexual content and dialogue, violence and thematic elements.
This is an event picture because it has changed modern films and reignited a dormant genre. Chicago brought back the movie musical by daring to be original. The film won over critics as it waltzed away with 6 Academy Awards including the coveted Best Picture. It wasn’t limited to critics as Chicago grossed more than $170 million becoming the highest grossing musical in nearly 20 years. Without the overwhelming of the films, other such as The Phantom of the Opera, The Producers and Dreamgirls would have never gotten off the ground. A large debt is owed to Chicago.


Setting up the scene:
There is not much to setup this particular scene because it takes place early on in the film. Through this performance we are introduced to the two main players and the lure of Jazz. Not only is this the beginning scene for the movie but it also sets the tone in which the entire film follows. Chicago assaults us from the first moment with violence, sex and, of course, Jazz. This works to immediately draw viewers in and due to a strong screenplay and a keen eye on direction it never relents.

The Scene (this post may contain images and language that is not suitable for all ages):

I chose the performance of “All that Jazz” simply because it is the first clue audiences are given that this isn’t their grandfather’s musical. The number opens with Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones) arriving late to a gig, but then we see her in the dressing room washing what appears to be blood from her hands. An indicator this isn’t going to be one of those happy, sunny musicals, ie Grease. At the same time Roxie Hart (Zellweger) is in the club with a man who has promised to make her a star. During the performance, the audiences see the passion filled beginning of this affair and its rather abruff ending. Chicago was innovative in its approach to the musical. The filmmakers never make the performances seem hookey or stupid because all the musical number take place within Roxie’s mind. This allows for the performances to be grand without seeming unrealistic.chicagoboxoffice.jpgChicago is a musical like no before it. And this scene is the first taste of this new cocktail. Even months after viewing this is one scene and song that will still stay with you. Even people that have hated musical found some quality in this film. If you haven’t seen Chicago, do yourself a favor and check it out, because this film will Razzle-Dazzle you.

Here it is This is part of the scene, which I found through youtube, but I strongly recommend picking up a copy.