Sunday, March 28, 2010


Directed by Steve Pink

Starring John Cusack, Craig Robinson, Rob Corddry

Sometimes you need a movie like Hot Tub Time Machine. A movie as silly, stupid, and dumb as its name suggests, but one that's so consistently hilarious that, by the end, you're actually glad is silly, stupid, and dumb. Hot Tub Time Machine is a film that gleefully embraces its over the top title and high-concept plot, and that glee translates to an hour and a half of pure funny.

After their friend Lou (Rob Corddry) accidentally poisons himself with carbon monoxide (revving his engine in a closed garage while singing Motley Crue's "Home Sweet Home"), his friends Adam (John Cusack) and Nick (Craig Robinson) plan a trip to Kodiak Valley, a ski vacation destiny they used to frequent as hormonally abundant teenagers. With Adam's nephew Jacob (Clark Duke) in tow, the estranged men hope to rekindle their friendship and rediscover themselves by reliving their youth. They get to do this literally when, after a night of heavy boozing and other drugging, they discover the hot tub they partied in catapulted them through the space-time continuum back to the year 1986. They realize they've been sent to a pivotal weekend in their lives, a weekend involving Kodiak Valley's Winterfest '86, a Poison concert, a break-up, a beat-up, and a knock-up. Can they fix the hot tub, which broke after the time travel, and make it back to the future without changing anything?

What makes Hot Tub Time Machine work, even when the film swipes at low-hanging comedy fruit (the fashion, music, hair-styles, and pop-culture of the '80's is way too easy to skewer), is the chemistry and go-for-broke work of the lead actors. John Cusack has racked up an impressive list of performances both dramatic and comedic, and in Hot Tub Time Machine demonstrates he's not embarrassed to still be acting like a fool in his mid forties. Craig Robinson steals the show in practically every film he's in (he's one of the highlights of Pineapple Express) and has a knack for off-the-cuff one liners. Newcomer Clark Duke holds his own against the more experienced actors, and although the part he plays is more of a straight man to the goofballs, he has no shortage of very funny lines. And Rob Corddry excels at playing the love-able, egotistical jerk that you hate so much you love ("he's like the asshole of the group, but he's our asshole", explains Nick).

Supporting the main players are a mix of comedy veterans and relative newcomers. Chevy Chase has a small role as the hot tub handy man (a role that elicits a few laughs but ultimately isn't as funny as it should be) and Crispin Glover (who gets some of the films funniest moments and is involved in a gut-busting running gag regarding arm dismemberment) plays a disgruntled bellhop. Not to be outdone in the raunch department by their male counterparts, the female costars forgo embarrassment for a laugh almost as much as the men do. The unbelievably gorgeous Collette Wolfe has some especially great moments, playing Adam's slutty, ditzy, hard-partying sister.

Because of the great comedic pedigree of its stars, Hot Tub Time Machine works best when it lets its lead players react to a moment or work their way through a scene with offending and raunchy verbiage. There are scenes involving body-fluid and toilet humor, but thankfully the film doesn't rely on vomit and poo to sustain the laughs. The film is as quotable as other recent notable comedies like The Hangover and Superbad, but you probably won't be able to say any of its funniest lines in front of your priest, wife, husband, sister, mom, dad, coworkers, or dog, lest you have a bar of soap shoved in your mouth.

Not everything about Hot Tub Time Machine works. I glossed over Chevy Chase before because the film pretty much does as well. Chase is a funny, funny man, and it's disappointing to see him wasted in this. Also, the film falters when trying to inject some heart into the funny, but I suppose it wouldn't be a tribute to '80's comedy if the friends didn't learn some deep life lesson at the end of the film.

All in all, though, Hot Tub Time Machine is a joy to watch. A film isn't funny just because it pushes the boundaries of good taste. Luckily, HTTM blasts through those boundaries and comes out the other side covered in laughs.


Sunday, March 21, 2010


Directed by Roman Polanski

Starring Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Kim Cattrall

Last month Martin Scorsese made arguably his best film in years with Shutter Island. With The Ghost Writer, once again an influential '70's filmmaker has crafted an exquisite and important latter period work. Director Roman Polanski's film is a joy to watch even though its pace is deliberately slow, and it will surely end up on many end of the year top ten lists. Including my own.

A British writer (Ewan McGregor), referred to in the movie only as The Ghost, is hired (by an unrecognizable Jim Belushi) to finish penning the memoirs of the country's former Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan, whose character is not-so-loosely based on real BPM Tony Blair). The Ghost's predecessor was recently found washed up on the shore not too far from Lang's vacation house on an island off the coast of New England. The Ghost travels to the United States to interview the Prime Minister and finish what his predecessor started. But before he knows it, The Ghost becomes drawn into the private life of the PM, which may or may not involve a conspiracy theory regarding the CIA. Murder, danger, seduction, political conspiracy, and being tailed by a creepy unmarked black car all ensue.

While the plot and genre tics are prevalent in The Ghost Writer, Polanski is a master and at home in this type of film. The "every-man who has good intentions and before he knows it is in over his head" film is what Polanski excels at (think: Chinatown), and here he is at the top of his game. Like Scorsese did with Shutter Island, Polanski isn't content with approaching his thriller using the techniques of modern filmmakers. He lets scenes play out and doesn't rely on jump cuts or loud music to ratchet up the tension. He has faith enough in the screenplay and the actors to know that simple camera angles, facial reactions, and ambient sound is just as effective at putting people on seat-edges. There is a moving dolly shot towards the end of the film of a note being passed through a crowd that is so mind-blowingly simple but so completely effective that I would have stayed for another showing of the film, could I have afforded it. The film is also oddly funny (and I mean that in the best way possible), and that humor helps to break the tension and pace the film.

When you have a director at the top of his game it also helps to have a cast that is right there with him. Ewan McGregor is an actor that hasn't interested me in quite some time. He showed much promise with his early work in Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, but has since bounced between huge summer blockbuster fare (the Star Wars prequels) and low-budget independent productions. He hasn't quite been able to find his niche in either. The last time I remember really liking him in something was Tim Burton's Big Fish, and that film is seven years old. That being said, McGregor is so good here that he practically redeems himself from all of the shoddy acting choices he's made during the past fifteen years. His dry wit is part of what makes The Ghost Writer's humor go over well, and as an every-man in over his head McGregor just works.

Not to be out-done, Pierce Brosnan acts toe to toe against his co-star. The character of Alan Lang is one who was never into politics before he realized it could get him as many girls (and more power) as his chosen studies, the dramatic arts (acting) could. Brosnan has the right balance of ego, charm, charisma, and likeability to make you believe a person as shallow and empty as Alan Lang could become Prime Minister of Britain.

Olivia Williams also needs to be mentioned as Lang's wife Ruth. She's not a stunning beauty, but she's more than attractive, and has a sultry noirish look to her. She plays "helpless wife who knows more than she lets on" very well.

The supporting cast also does a fine job of making the film work, although Kim Cattrall is certainly a weak link in the chain. Her character is British, but I have no idea what accent she's attempting. It's a fairly minor but distracting complaint. The rest of the cast, which includes Timothy Hutton, Jim Belushi, Tom Wilkinson, and Eli Wallach (94 years old!) do solid work.

Of course, it also helps if an old-school style thriller has an old-school style score, and I'm happy to say The Ghost Writer has a brilliant one. The score (by Alexander Desplat; sample here) perfectly conveys the film's pulpy origins (it's based on a book by Robert Harris who also wrote the screenplay) and off-kilter humor.

The Ghost Writer certainly isn't for everyone, and I imagine most modern audiences will be turned off by its molasses-slow pace and lack of blood, but those willing to invest two hours in one of the finest political-conspiracy thrillers in quite some time will be well rewarded.


Saturday, March 20, 2010


Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

Starring Tom Hardy, Matt King, Kelly Adams

We all have something we're good at. Go ahead, think about it. Think about what you're good at. Even if you don't know it, right now someone is talking about you and what you do best. It may not even be something you want to be known for. It could be someone is saying right now "(your name) is a real good complainer. If there was a World Series of complaining, (your name) would win four straight games in a row." Michael Peterson, as the way the film Bronson presents him, isn't good at anything - except for fighting. It's tough to be noticed and make a name for yourself when your talent is throwing fists at the faces and bodies of people who haven't done anything to provoke you. That is unless you're behind the cold concrete walls of a prison. In regular life people tend to look down on juiced up meat-heads always looking to exert their alpha male status. In prison, though, flexing your muscles right before a melee with six or seven prison guards - well, that's a path to celebrity.

Danish filmmaker Nicholas Winding Refn (the man behind the epic Pusher trilogy and one of the most exciting directors working in the medium today) sets his lens on Peterson who, after a discussion with his underground boxing promoter Paul (Matt King), changes his name to Charles Bronson, a move to attach an already established tough guy persona to himself. Bronson becomes Peterson's alter-ego, and with this alter-ego he starts fights, stages hostage situations, and becomes Britain's most notorious prisoner, spending most his decades behind bars in solitary confinement.

Bronson is based on a true story. There is a man currently still locked away in a prison somewhere in England who changed his name from Michael Peterson to Charles Bronson and is currently still the country's most well-known jailbird. The film glosses over Bronson's life before bars (the girl he meets and marries (Kelly Adams) and the child he has with her disappear after the first fifteen minutes of the movie) and instead focuses on the 30 or so years behind them.

Changing to a more stylized form of direction from the gritty documentary feel of Pusher and its sequels, Refn shoots his film as a hyper, Oliver Stone-esque comedy. Bronson narrates the movie from a stage in front of an audience. Painting a variety of masks over his face, it becomes apparent that Refn sees Bronson as a performer, only instead of expressing himself through a readily accepted artistic measure, such as acting or singing, he uses his fist as a paintbrush; the faces he brutalizes are the canvas; and the cuts, bruises, and scars he leaves behind are his works of art.

One cannot mention this film and not talk about the performance of Tom Hardy as Bronson. Transforming himself from this to this, Hardy amazes as the charismatic, dangerous, yet jovial lead character. Bronson spends most of the film chest thumping and grandstanding, but in the more subdued moments of the film, where we get to see Michael Peterson and not Charles Bronson, Hardy endows the man with more layers than just a brawler with intentions of celebrity. It's truly iconic work, and perhaps the film's greatest achievement.

It's unfortunate, then, that the film itself doesn't quite reach the heights of its lead performer. We never get to really know Michael Peterson's life before he became Bronson. His life outside prison is quickly addressed and then forgotten about. There is a small chunk of the movie which casually addresses the 69 days Bronson spent on parole after his first stint in the slammer (a time in which he was so used to having prison doors open and closed for him that he has trouble opening and closing them himself on the outside), but it feels as if Refn only wants to get us to the next brawl. Not that the excessive scenes of fisticuffs don't work (after all, the man's life was filled with brutality so it's only fitting that the film is as well), but without Hardy's performance I believe the film would have felt thin and light, which is surprising after the rich characterizations Refn strove to achieve in the three Pusher films. There's also never a real sense of the passage of time. Without the narration and title cards indicating 34 years have spanned the film feels like it could have taken place over a few months.

That being said, the film is both darkly hilarious and beautifully violent (and it ends with one of the most horrific and perhaps, ironically, anti-violence images I've ever seen). Where Refn as fallen short in giving us a complete story of a man's life he has succeeded in capturing the essence of the man. As a biopic it doesn't wholly succeed, but as an exaggerated portrait of a man who finds artistic expression through violence it flourishes.


Saturday, March 13, 2010


Directed by Paul Greengrass

Starring Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Amy Ryan, Brendon Gleeson, Jason Isaacs

The Bourne Occupancy. Call of Duty: Modern Bournefare. The Bourne Locker. Call Green Zone what you want, just don't call it slow. It's liable to turn around and drive a jeep through you. Director Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon collaborate for a third time, bringing back the visceral thrills and energy they created onscreen with the last two Jason Bourne films. This time, though, they're working within the confines of real-world events.

Matt Damon is Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, tasked with leading his team in the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003. Dedicated to the mission, Miller and his team keep coming up empty handed at supposed WMD site after WMD site. He begins to question the intelligence coming in regarding the location of the weapons, and soon finds himself forced to choose between two sides, one led by Pentagon Special Forces point-man Clark Poundstone (Greg Kennear), and the other being CIA Baghdad bureau chief Martin Brown. Brown believes the newly liberated Iraq should be eased into a new form of leadership and suggests the appointment of Al Rawi, a Baath party member who, while deadly, could help keep warring factions together while the U.S. helps the country transform into a democracy. Poundstone disagrees and, while planning to dismantle Iraq's military (believing they are all loyal to Saddamn Hussein and will not cooperate with American troops) is charged with making sure new leadership takes swift command in Iraq in the form of Ahmed Zubadi, a politician unfamiliar with the way the country has operated for the past few decades. Miller sides with Brown, and much of the movie is spent following Miller as he tracks Al Rawi and a Special Forces team, led by Briggs (an unrecognizable Jason Issacs), tracks Miller.

Green Zone is, like much of Greengrasses work, relentlessly fast paced and exciting. If nothing else, this film moves. Those wary of Greengrasses shaky-cam would be wise to stay away. While not as prevalent as in the last Bourne film, the Green Zone's camera work is still of the hand-held variety, and very rarely does the camera stay still. That's not to say the action scenes are unintelligible, though. Geography and choreography are still easily viewed, even when the camera whips and bounces around to different characters firing at each other. The extended battle that mark the end of the film is a particularly awesome and exhilarating action sequence. Large chunks of plot are told in scenes that don't take a minute to slow down, keeping the audience involved and on their toes. It's really bravura filmmaking on Greengrasses part that he can make a film so kinetic and fluid, while still finding the time to develop character and plot.

Matt Damon continues his string of strong work, even if the character of Roy Miller is a little on the thin side. Although Miller has come into the war believing he will find WMD, he's already questioning his commanders at the beginning of the film, and we never really see the change from unquestioning "do as I am commanded" soldier to anti-authority renegade. Those expecting an untouchable, invincible Jason Bourne from Miller should be warned. As Green Zone is more grounded in the real world, you will not see Miller taking out enemies with a rolled up magazine. Greg Kinnear also stands out as the slimy, sneering Poundstone.

The performance that caught me most off-guard, though, was from Khalid Abdalla who plays an Iraqi named Freddy who is out to help Miller. Abdalla, who first impressed me as the lead hijacker in Greengrasses United 93, adds layers to what I at first through would be an annoying side-kick role. Abdalla brings much pathos and emotion to Freddy, who gets the film's best character moment (a moment which condenses the films themes down to one line) and reminds us that amid all the squabbling of what should and should not be done with Iraq by other countries (and the squabbling that still continues) there are average, every day people that just want to lead normal lives at the center of the argument.

The film is based on the non-fiction book Imperial Life in the Emerald City - an account of post-Saddam Iraq - but has been adapted in a way that uses the events told in the book as a skeletal structure to make an action movie within. It's a blending of fiction and non-fiction that's really quite interesting. I would have liked to see more time spent in the actual Green Zone - Saddam's former Republican Palace now occupied by various international agencies and bureaucrats. An occupier's paradise within a war-zone, where beer flows freely and beautiful women are aplenty. Sadly, Greengrass and screenwriter Brian Helgeland choose to spend only one scene there, making it just a stop on the way to the next full-throttle action scene.

Make no mistake, Green Zone wears its political viewpoint on its sleeve. Greengrass and Helgeland are very critical of the decisions made by the prior administration during the weeks, months, and years after Saddam fell, and for all the action involved their message is never lost amongst the explosions, chases, and gunfights. It's almost too easy to label this film as a lefty anti-Iraq war film, though. There are little moments throughout the movie and a line said at the end that forces arm-chair pundits on both sides to take a step back and re-evaluate the steps we are taking and the frame of mind we so stubbornly choose to cling to when it comes to the war. When all is said and done, the film presents an optimistic outlook on the future of Iraq.

Greengrass and Damon have crafted yet another fine action thriller in Green Zone. Those looking for a two hour adrenaline rush would be wise to make haste to the nearest theater.

Monday, March 8, 2010


Directed by Tim Burton Starring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter

Someone stop Tim Burton and Johnny Depp before they make another movie together. Twenty years after their first collaboration came in the form of the brilliant and moving Edward Scissorhands, the duo seem determined to erase the memory of that film and any other decent work they've produced collectively. Instead it appears that they want to be remembered as modern day interpreters of classic childrens tales, making them boring, unimaginative, and ugly.

Let's be honest: Tim Burton has not made a great film in quite some time. The closest he's come to reaching the heights of greatness he soared to with 1994's Ed Wood (still his best film, still Johnny Depp's best role) was with 2003's Big Fish (and, some would argue, 2007's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street - but not me), and even that film is getting rickety with age. In the past decade he's directed one good film (Big Fish), two forgettable ones (the aforementioned Sweeney Todd and Corpse Bride), and two flat-out disasters: 2001's unnecessary reboot of Planet of the Apes and 2005's light-weight Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The aught's have given us barely anything worthy of repeat viewing from Mr. Burton, and the second decade of the 21st century doesn't see him getting any better.

Case in point: Alice in Wonderland. Full disclosure: I have never read the Lewis Carroll book on which this version is based. Apparently that's ok, because the story in Burton's version is different than the original. In Burton's version, Alice is on the verge of her 20's. She's a young girl with no direction but whatever her stuffy mother and snobby friends point her in. She used to have a vivid imagination, but that was suppressed by her mother after Alice's father passed away (oh Burton, you and your daddy issues!) Alice is proposed to by the son of a local Lord, and at her engagement party she runs away from the proposal distracted by a curiously dressed white rabbit, which she follows down a hole and into Underland, where she gets caught up in a war between the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and her sister the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). Hijinks with talking animals ensue.

The most grating thing about the film is that for being such a wonderland, Underland is almost offensively ugly and drab. The traditional Burton stylings are applied to the set design and art direction of Underland (gnarled, reaching trees, drained color, lots of grays blacks) and I can finally admit that I'm tired of the look of his films. I understand there are certain people that are devoted to the Burton aesthetic - he does, after all, have his own exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City - and a decade and a half ago (heck, even a decade ago) I would have counted myself among those devotees. But the director's style has become so predictable, so banal, so outright boring that I cringe whenever I come across a new piece of art design from his movies. Alice in Wonderland represents the final nail in the coffin of any excitement I had left in me when it comes to Tim Burton's name.

As much as Burton is to blame for the film's utterly unoriginal and depressing look, Johnny Depp doesn't do much to save the film's face. His Mad Hatter has factored heavily into the marketing for Alice in Wonderland and with good reason. Everyone loves Johnny Depp doing his weird, quirky, Johnny Depp thing. He puts on a crazy wig, some white face paint (or orange fake-tan, in the case of Pirates of the Caribbean), talks all funny with a crazy accent, and the people just laugh and suck it up like Daniel Planview gulping down Eli Sunday's mikshake. Everyone except me. Ever since donning a pirate costume and acting like Keith Richards brought Depp his first Oscar nomination he's had a penchant for dressing up and acting bonkers. Johnny Depp is a gifted and immensely talented actor - one of the best we have working right now. But every time he plays dress up and prances around the screen (he's got a particularly embarrassing scene towards the end of Alice in Wonderland that had me shaking my head) a part of me dies.

The rest of the cast doesn't fare much better. Mia Wasikowska has Gwenyth Paltrow's face and Sophia Coppola's acting ability. Helena Bonham Carter screams at the top of her lungs and over-acts throughout the film's running time, and usually solid character actors like Crispin Glover (the Knave of Hearts) and Alan Rickman (Blue Caterpillar) are completely and utterly wasted. It's as if they know the screenplay goes nowhere and the show is really a vehicle for Depp to act like a buffoon and score more points with the Hot Topic crowd, so they phoned it in.

I wish I could say Alice in Wonderland was merely disappointing. That the Burton and Depp magic just didn't make it to the screen this time around. Unfortunately, the magic the duo could once conjure up at the drop of a hat (pun most definitely intended) fizzled quite some time ago. I have no desire to see if they can ever spell-bind me again.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


Directed by Michael Haneke

Starring Christian Friedel, Leonie Benesch, Ulrich Tukur

The kids aren't alright. Not the ones in a small German village in the year leading up to the events of World War I, anyway. Fed up with both the authoritarian rule of the baron who owns the land the people work on and the puritanical rules of their parents, strange things begin to happen. A thin wire strung between two trees trips the horse of the town doctor as he rides on it; the son of the baron is found tied up and beaten in a sawmill; a barn on the baron's estate burns to the ground. The villagers are perplexed by these events, and as they go about trying to figure out who committed the crimes one of the townsfolk, a school-teacher, believes the town children are involved.

It is not a spoiler to divulge that no answer to the mysteries plaguing is found in The White Ribbon (which won the 2009 Palm D'or at the Cannes Film Festival). Director Michael Haneke is known for purposefully withholding information and clear-cut solutions from the audience. His last film, Cache, dealt with a French couple whose lives are turned upside-down when a stranger begins leaving bizarre tapes, of the couple and other things, outside their house. Like The White Ribbon, Cache asks that you focus not on who, but why.

While the main character in The White Ribbon is the school-teacher (an older version of which narrates the film), the movie divides its narrative and follows a few of the families in the town. One is led by the domineering town pastor, who ties his eldest son's hands to the bed after finding out the boy has touched himself in impure ways. Another focus is the daughter and son of the wounded doctor who are taken care of by the doctor's assistant. We are also allowed into the lives of the baron and his wife, the family of a woman killed in a sawmill, and the courtship of the school-teacher and his much younger significant other.

The theme of repression is a common one throughout the running time of The White Ribbon. Repression worker rights by the land-owner; repression of sexual urges by religious authority. Even the school-teacher and his would-be fiance, the only pure and innocent characters in the movie (besides a few children too young to be infected by the domineering rule of the adult authority figures) are required to keep their feelings for each other repressed, at the behest of her father. Here Haneke is examining the effect the strict, rigid, puritanical rules have the young. The anger, frustration, and shame felt by the children manifest as the horrific happenings described above, and it's haunting to speculate what these children will grow up to be and the atrocities they will commit. As this film takes place about a year before World War I, many of the children will be grown adults by the time the second war begins, leading some people to speculate that the kids in this film grow to become followers and soldiers of Hitler. I happen to agree with this.

Haneke shoots the film in stark black and white, effectively visualizing the sharp structure of the town hierarchy and cold daily town life. As in his previous films, Haneke uses violence sparingly and rarely shows it onscreen, but when it comes it's usually horrifying (the image of a child with down-syndrome bleeding from the eyes and mouth post-beating is particularly disturbing). Most of the time, though, Haneke lets us glimpse what's just under the surface, aware that our minds can imagine things much more horrific than anything the film can show.

The White Ribbon is a challenging, disturbing, and provocative film, designed to push audience buttons. Not necessarily to shock, but to awaken. There are no characters to sympathize with (except for the school-teacher, and since he is telling the story we essentially are him, spending time with these other ugly, unlikeable, despicable people) and the picture it paints of humanity is bleak and depressing. But it's supremely crafted, well-written, and acted. Like all of Haneke's films it's not fun, but it's certainly worth a few hours of your time and a few days of your thoughts.

Friday, March 5, 2010


It's that time of year again. The time of year where I feel like a complete and utter failure of a film fan. It seems no matter how hard I try I never end up seeing all of the films nominated for an Academy Award each year. I consider myself to be a fairly aggressive film fan, but every year there are always a few films up for the award that I miss because of time constraints or pure laziness. I feel extra ashamed this year - I have not seen any of the films nominated for Best Actress performances.

That being said, I'm still going to give my two cents on every major category, whether you like it or not. I'll be assessing each category like so: I'll list all the films in each and then tell you what will win, give my opinion on what should win, and then I'll throw in what film I think would be a pleasant surprise if it wins.

Here we go.

BEST PICTURE: Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, A Serious Man, Up, Up in the Air.

Much has been made of the Academy's decision to expand the Best Picture category to ten nominees instead of the usual five. This is not new - for the first ten years of the awards existence there were ten nominees. The last year to feature that many films up for the award was 1943. Some folks believe it cheapens the award - after all, now there's a chance that a pure genre flick like District 9 can be nominated alongside hefty dramatic fare like Precious. Believe it or not, I think these folks are right: ten nominees cheapens the category. That's because we live in a world where people consider genre pictures (horror, science fiction, parody) to be of a lesser pedigree than straight drama. Expanding the nominees to ten gives pictures like that more of a chance to win. Granted, the chance may be insanely slim that District 9 will take home the golden statue on March 7th, but there's the possibility that, from now on, straight genre films will become as respected as the typical "Oscar" film. As much hard work goes into making these films (perhaps even more so) as it does going into your typical Oscar-bait film. Plus, people go and see films nominated for awards. The more films that are nominated, the more people go to the movies. Anything that gets people into the theater to see a film they wouldn't normally go see is ok with me.

Will win: the past few years have been kind to smaller, more independent films (The Departed being an exception). I believe the trend will continue this year, with the Academy awarding the gold to The Hurt Locker which, if it wins, will be the lowest grossing movie to ever get the award. I can see Avatar possibly going home with the statue, if only because what I call "The Dark Knight Effect." A lot of people felt that movie was snubbed last year (and they're right - The Reader nominated instead? Really?), and it's possible that the Academy will award Avatar simply to restore the public's faith in the show.

Should win: Inglourious Basterds. The Hurt Locker is amazing, but Basterds is a masterpiece. It's Quentin Tarantino's best film yet, and the best film of the year. It's also a love letter to the power of cinema. If the Academy truly loves film, they'll give it to this one.

Pleasant surprise: As much as I want IB to take it, I wouldn't mind a District 9 upset. I believe it would be the first Best Picture winner to have no less than 10 exploding bodies and at least one exploding head.

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE: Jeff Bridges, George Clooney, Colin Firth, Morgan Freeman, Jeremy Renner.

Will win: Jeff Bridges, and deservedly so. He's been gobbling up awards for the past six months, and I don't doubt he'll swoop this up with no problem. It's a perfect scenario of great performance, well-liked actor, and due time.

Should win: Jeff Bridges. I think the reason Bridges is such an underrated (or barely discussed) actor is quite simple: he's a natural. He's not over-the-top and flashy like a Pacino, and he's not quirky like a Depp. He doesn't perform, he doesn't act, he becomes.
Pleasant surprise: Jeremy Renner. In 2007 I saw Renner in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and I knew the guy would be nominated sometime in the future. Little did I know it would be not even 3 years later.

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: Matt Damon, Woody Harrelson, Chrisopher Plummer, Stanley Tucci, Christoph Waltz

Will win: Christoph Waltz. Another award-hog, Waltz's work as Colonel Hans Landa in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is a site to behold. Simultaneously charming and disarming, Landa is a villain like no other, and Waltz gives the most memorable performance in a film full of great ones.

Should win: Christoph Waltz. For every reason listed above.

Pleasant surprise: Christopher Plummer. Although I have not seen The Last Station, this is the first time the Academy has bestowed a nomination on the actor. He worked wonders in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and although I'm not sure he deserves it for The Last Station, I wouldn't complain if he won.

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE: Sandra Bullock, Helen Mirren, Carey Mulligan, Gabourey Sidibe, Meryl Streep.

Will win: Here we go, the category that makes me feel like a complete and utter failure as a movie fan. Shameful admission: I have not seen any of these films. Going by what I've heard and read, though, this is Sandra Bullock's year. Apparently she's great in The Blind Side. And again, she's won most every other award as well.

Should win: Helen Mirren. Because she still looks great after all these years.
Pleasant surprise: Helen Mirren. See "should win."

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: Penelope Cruz, Vera Farmiga, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Anna Kendrick, Mo'Nique

Will win: Mo'Nique. The last three acting categories seem to be a lock, and this one is no exception. Mo'Nique is a sure bet. I know this even though I have not seen Precious.

Should win: Anna Kendrick. To be honest, I don't really think she should win. She's solid in Up in the Air and it's certainly work worthy enough to be nominated, but not enough to win. I just think she's cuter than a puppy-dog wrestling a kitten on a cloud made of marshmallows, and anything that gets her up onstage and in front of the camera is fine with me.

Pleasant surprise: Anna Kendrick. You know why.

ANIMATED FEATURE FILM: Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and the Frog, The Secret of Kells, Up.

Will win: Up. Quite simply, it's the best animated film of the year. Heck, it's one of the best films of the year period. The first ten minutes is more skillfully told than the whole of most movies. It's a triumph for Pixar, and talking about it makes me realize I don't own it on Blu-ray yet. And now I'm kicking myself.

Should win: Up.

Pleasant surprise: Fantastic Mr. Fox. As much as I love Up, I love this film too. Wes Anderson's take on Roald Dahl's childrens book is funny, odd, touching, and well-crafted. It's a shame more people didn't see it.

DIRECTING: James Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow, Quentin Tarantino, Lee Daniels, Jason Reitman

Will win: Kathryn Bigelow. Not because she's a woman. Because she directed the heck out of The Hurt Locker. The action sequences are visceral and heart-pounding (ugh-cliche!), and she coaxed great performances from her actors. This is the year of K-Bigs.

Should win: Quentin Tarantino. Inglourious Basterds is a film that could only be directed by one man, and that man is QT. The film is made up of five chapters comprised of seemingly unrelated characters. The fifth chapter brings everyone together in one of the most satisfying and exhilarating endings I've ever seen.

Pleasant surprise: Quentin Tarantino. I don't believe he's going to win, but if he does I'll be ecstatic.

WRITING (ADAPTED SCREENPLAY): District 9, An Education, In the Loop, Precious, Up in the Air

Will win: Up in the Air. Unfortunately. This will be Jason Reitman's consolation prize for not winning Best Director or Best Picture, and I know I'll groan when his name is announced. Look, UITA is a fine film. It's a very good one. But it's safe, light-weight, and more self-important than it has any right to be.

Should win: In the Loop. One of the best satires ever made deserves to take home this award. I was surprised to find out that the dialogue is mostly from the page - watching the film I assumed it was largely improvised. The screenwriters deserve to be recognized with more than just a nomination for this one. It's brilliant stuff.

Pleasant surprise: District 9. I love the fact that this film is getting honored by the Academy. I had assumed it would be nominated for the technical awards (the effects are literally flawless), but it warms my heart to see it doing so well in the major categories. It has a hair's chance of taking this award, but if it does I'll be doing backflips.

WRITING (ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY): The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, The Messenger, A Serious Man, Up

Will win: out of all the categories to figure out, this one is the hardest. I think Tarantino is going to take home the statue if only, like Jason Reitman's statue for Up in the Air, as a consolation prize.

Should win: Inglourious Basterds.

Pleasant surprise: A Serious Man. As the Coen brothers are my favorite filmmakers working right now, I would be giddy if they captured this win.

And there you have it, folks. My Oscar picks for 2010. Just a note: I'm not responsible for any money you may win or lose based on what you've just read. I mean, if you win I'll surely take a cut. If you lose, tough luck.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Sari Lennick, Richard Kind, Fred Malamed

There are no two filmmakers working today who are better than the Coen brothers. Their resumes over the past quarter of a decade (which you can check out here and here) remain relatively unparalleled in terms of quality and influence. While some considered them to have lost their collective mojo with Intolerable Cruelty and The Lady Killers, there's no doubt they regained whatever credibility they lost with 2007's Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men, a film I consider to be the best of the decade. They then made that film's polar opposite; the absurd and crowd-pleasing Burn After Reading, featuring Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and John Malkovich in three different but hilarious roles. Two years after taking home the gold statue for No Country, Joel and Ethan returned with A Serious Man, a film the eschews the all star cast and zany antics of their previous comedy and instead takes a smaller, more personal, and even philosophical approach to comedy. It's a film that asks some deep questions (or does it?) about life, but is no less hilarious than their previous comedies.

Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a college physics professor who's on the verge of receiving tenure when his life suddenly falls apart in front of his very eyes. His wife confronts him with news that she's having an affair and wants a divorce, his brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is in trouble with the law, a Korean student is blackmailing him in order to receive a passing grade, and an anonymous person is writing letters to the tenure board questioning Larry's "moral turpitude." As the bad news piles up, Larry is increasingly burdened by one question: why?

Being the practicing (practicing, but not orthodox) Jew he is, Larry visits (or attempts to visit) three rabbis. He receives different advice from each, and after the visits he's left only with more questions. As one of the Rabbis says, paraphrasing Jefferson Airplane (whose music bookends the film), "when the truth is found to be lies, and all the hope within you dies...then what?" Larry continues to seek salvation from his existential funk, all while his son gets high before studying for his Bar Mitzvah, his daughter complains about getting a nose job, his beautiful and sultry neighbor tans naked in her backyard, and his friend Sy Abelman (the man his wife is having an affair with) haunts Larry's dreams.

My favorite films are the ones that work on philosophical, moral, or social levels or perhaps attempt to comment on life/society/justice/etc. while also maintaining a high entertainment value. The Coen brothers have mastered that type of film. If you don't want to think too deeply about what you're watching, you don't have to. Make no mistake: this is a layered film, filled with religious metaphors and Jewish iconography, but A Serious Man will make you laugh. It will also make you think - if you let it. And not just about life in general - certainly we've all been in the head-space Larry occupies for most of the film - but about filmmaking as well. How do the Coen brothers balance comedy and philosophy so well? Do they actually believe in these things they propose or is it all a sham? Who are these magnificent actors I'm watching? Why are the Coen brothers always lucky enough to score such a great cast?

One of the bigger snubs from the Academy Awards this year is the absence of Michael Stuhlbarg on the list of Best Actor nominees. Larry Gopnick could easily have been an unsympathetic schlub, deserving of these trials Hashem seems want to put him through. Instead, Larry's an unfortunate every-man, identifiable in his feeling of hopelessness. We never feel sorry for Larry (and it's clear that the Coens don't want us to), but we do understand him. Kudos should also go to Sari Lennick (shockingly, this is her first feature film role) who plays Larry's wife. Again, in a lesser actress's hands Judith could be seen as a conniving, evil witch. But Lennick never lets Judith's betrayal of Larry get to that point.

The performance to really savor, though, comes from Fred Malamed as the aforementioned Sy Abelman. With the visage of Francis Ford Coppola and the body of someone named Sy Ableman, Malamed plays the "anti" other-man. Overly sympathetic (and most likely faking it) towards Larry, Ableman speaks as if always consoling a child, and Malamed's soothing fatherly voice lends itself to one of the funniest performances in the film.

The Coen brothers score another knockout on a technical level as well. Roger Deakins, a constant Coen collaborator, is back (after the brothers went with Emmanuel Lubezki for Burn After Reading) as cinematographer for A Serious Man, and Carter Burwell scores the film. Deakins saturates the film in a warm golden glow, and gives late 60's rural America a nostalgic look and feel. Burwell's score is sparse, but memorable, bringing a certain poignancy to the film even when the screenplay is putting Larry through the comedic ringer.

A screenplay, it should be noted, that is rightfully Academy Award nominated. For all the slack the Coen brothers get about supposedly taking joy in destroying their characters, it's clear that they really love Larry Gopnick. It's also clear that they love to write great dialogue. A Serious Man is completely and utterly quotable. It's also completely and utterly tight in terms writing. While A Serious Man lacks a central story (it's more a series of events that happen), every scene has a direct effect on the next. There's not one ounce of wasted screen time. Also - for bearing such heavy philosophical and religious undertones (I imagine if I was more versed in the Jewish faith I would find even more to love about the film - although those that don't even know what the Torah is can enjoy the film) the movie is fun. It's fun in a way that watching a film crafted by such great filmmakers is fun.

I've included the trailer for A Serious Man after this review. Rarely do trailers capture the feel, tone, and look, and rhythm of the finished product as much as this one does.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

TEFS Guest: Leah Meyerhoff!

This Thursday March 4th The Everything Film Show is proud to highlight the work of award-winning filmmaker Leah Meyerhoff in kick-off to a month-long Female Filmmaker Showcase. Leah's first film, Twitch, has screened in over 200 film festivals worldwide and won over a dozen international awards, eventually being picked up for distribution by IFC, Reelport and Skandinavia TV.

Another of Leah's projects, Unicorns, recently won a Panasonic Filmmaker Grant at IFP's Emerging Narrative Labs. Unicorns is produced by Allison Anders (GAS FOOD LODGING) and produced by Heather Rae (FROZEN RIVER) and is scheduled to go into production this spring.

Hear Leah talk about these and other projects, and share your own picks for Oscar gold. This is sure to be a show you won't want to miss! Going live at 11pm EST (8pm PST). Don't forget to RSVP!

You can read more about Leah here, and don't forget to tune into The Everything Film Show every Thursday evening at 11pm EST on BlogTalkRadio!