31 January 2009

Best Picture: Ranking the year's crop

. . . or I should say ranking the 4 I've seen since my interest in Frost/Nixon is minimal at best.

4. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: A technically impressive film with one great performance (that'd be Cate Blanchett) that nevertheless left me pretty unaffected. Full of clunky historical allusions to space shutte lanches, hurricanes, and music of The Beatles, this film was doomed from day one with a screenplay that values Q-U-A-N-T-I-T-Y of elements over any particular emotionally affecting quality. The end take on a slightly creepy vibe as well that I don't think was intentional. Had this not been the presumptive Best Picture winner before anyone saw it, I doubt anyone would still be paying attention to it outside of the techinical categories.

3. The Reader: A perfectly adequate movie in every way but not one I'm likely to remember for much longer. Whereas I'll still be impressed with a few of David Fincher's visual tricks for a while, most of this movie has already evaporated from my subconscious. Kate Winslet will probably win Best Actress for this, which is a shame because I can't think of anything particularly special in what she did here. Most of the film's attempts at sensual eroticism came off a little silly, and the plot is a pastiche of been there, done that elements. The best thing it has going for it is David Kross, a young actor who I hope finds better vehicles to display his growing talents in the future.

2. Milk: Well-made and perfectly acted by a group of solid actors, it does a good job of setting itself up as a period piece without resorting to jarring historical introductions. Instead, it integrated vintage television footage and newsreels in seemlesly, blending them into the film's narrative structure. Depicting events that feel as relevant today as they ever have, this film finds itself at the #2 spot simply because, try as Gus Van Sant might, I don't think there's a way to make a biopic that doesn't feel in some small way that it's all been done before, especially in the past decade. The screenplay also suffers from a few over sentimentalized points that just didn't need to be there (the kid in the wheelchair as exhibit A).

1. Slumdog Millionaire: Say what you will, but I think this would be a uniquely strange choice for Best Picture, even if it's path to the top spot of a film coming out of nowhere near the end of the year is all to familiar from the recent past (Million Dollar Baby, etc . . .) Danny Boyle's messy, hyperenergetic visual and storytelling style fit perfectly into the story, compensating for the (at times) visible inexperience of his lead actors. This is not a perfect film, but it's an interesting one, as most Danny Boyle films tend to be, and one that's distinctly different and diverse pedigree of creators would be a welcome choice for the top prize. Call it Crash 2.0 all you like (though, really, I have NO idea where you can make those comparisons from), but I'd be quite happy to see it go home with a golden boy.

Probably the best parody of The Reader out there

25 January 2009

SAG predix

Update: 1 out of 5. Not so good.

Best Ensemble

And the nominees are:
Slumdog Millionaire
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Winner?: A lot of people are saying Slumdog, but I can't really see that happening. It seems to be popular with actors, but it doesn't really have an industry popular cast. The saving grace of Doubt is its cast so that's where my money goes. Milk and Benjamin Button wins wouldn't be huge shockers, though.

Best Actor
And the nominees are:
Richard Jenkins- The Visitor
Brad Pitt- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Frank Langella- Frost / Nixon
Sean Penn- Milk
Mickey Rourke- The Wrestler
Winner?: This is a tough call between Penn and Rourke BUT I would say Rourke has the momentum. Milk was pretty popular with SAG, though, so his win wouldn't be surprising.

Best Actress

And the nominees are:
Anne Hathaway- Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie- Changeling
Melissa Leo- Frozen River
Meryl Streep- Doubt
Kate Winslet- Revolutionary Road
Winner?: Going out on a limb here, but is there anyone Melissa Leo hasn't worked with during her long career as a character actress? She seems like the actress everyone is happy to see succeeding.

Best Supporting Actor

And the nominees are:
Josh Brolin- Milk
Robert Downey Jr.- Tropic Thunder
Dev Patel- Slumdog Millionaire
Phillip Seymour Hoffman- Doubt
Heath Ledger- The Dark Knight
Winner?: Duh.
Best Supporting Actress
And the nominees are:
Amy Adams- Doubt
Penélope Cruz- Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis- Doubt
Taraji P. Henson- The Curious Case of Benjamin Butto
Kate Winslet- The Reader
Winner?: Ruby Dee might have been a legend, but I still think that Viola Davis' performance and industry respect are comparable enough that she could snag the prize in an upset.

24 January 2009

Catch a rising 'Snow Angel'

Remember when I couldn't wait to see Snow Angels, and then it came out and . . . nothing. Probably not but it happened.

Anyway, I FINALLY got around to seeing it, and I'm glad to say it wasn't a disappointment. David Gordon Green is one of my favorite filmmakers, and in Snow Angels he once again crafts an interestingly composed and captivating tale of small town America.

The film also boasts a pretty impressive cast. Sam Rockwell gives one of the best male performances of the year, Kate Beckinsale proves that she has some chops when given the right material and creative team, and Amy Sedaris pops up unexpectedly in a great little turn. However, this post is in tribute to the sweet young romance in the film between Michael Angarano and Olivia Thirlby that gives it a certain amount of affection to off set what is otherwise a pretty downbeat movie.

I realize I'm pretty late in the game in proclaiming Olivia Thirlby a rising star. Ever since appearing in Paul Greengrass' United 93, Thirlby has been working pretty steadily in independent cinema. Last year she gained a certain amount of recognizability as the 'honest to blog' best friend of Juno, and earlier this year she broke Josh Peck's heart in the early '90s in The Wackness. In Snow Angels , Thirlby is almost 180 degrees removed from the over confident side characters she played in those films. Her Lila IS confident, yes, but she's also a quieter, sweeter girl. Whereas her sexual veracity in The Wackness is a point of humor, the sexual encounters between her and Michael Angarano are those of a less experienced couple: akward, maybe a little bit goofy, and caring.

Michael Angarano is still mostly identified for his role as Jack's son with Rosie O'Donnell on Will & Grace. After also starring as the younger version of the main character in Almost Famous, Angarano landed the job that saw him on one of the top rated sitcoms of its time. Since then, he's been making his mark in supporting turns in more independent films like Dear Wendy and The Lords of Dogtown to varying degrees of success. He's also headlined a few mainstream films (2005's Sky High and last year's Jackie Chan-Jet Li face off The Forbidden Kingdom). In Snow Angels, Angarano probably has his most mature role to date, and he more than holds his own. It takes two to tango and the inherent sweetness of the relationship between his character and Thirlby is delicately handled by all involved, including Angarano himself. His Arthur isn't the most confident kid, but he's happy if a little unsettled by troubles at home. His character is the one who discovers something upon which the rest of the film's plot revolves.

A quick look at their IMDB pages reveals that neither is straying too far from where they've been before-Thirlby has a number of indies in the pipeline including the eternally troubled Margaret, and Angarano is working with Napoleon Dynamite's Jared Hess in what is presumably a more goofy, slapstick comedy-but it's hard to say until these films come out. Nevertheless, one hopes that the promise they showed in Snow Angels is indicative of strong turns in the future.

In praise of the 2008 Sundance First Feature

I was watching the wonderful Frozen River, and I was struck by its similarities with another great little movie released this year: Ballast. Both films opened last year at Sundance to much acclaim-Frozen River took the Grand Jury Prize-and both are surprisingly self-assured and confident debut features from newly-Academy Award nominated Courtney Hunt (for Best Original Screenplay) and Lance Hammer, respectively.

Both Hunt and Hammer are concerned in their films with the problems of lower class Americans-Hunt in the story of a single mother smuggling immigrants across the Canadian border and Hammer in the story of a loose-knit family unit that forms after a tragedy brings them together in the Mississippi Delta. The two families that make up the core of these films don't have extravagant dreams. In Ballast, a woman and her son find some form of economic and personal salvation in the running of a small, roadside gas station and food mart. In Frozen River, the main character gets into human smuggling in the hopes of finally affording a new double wide for her and her two kids.

The films contain what I would consider to be the two best performances by actresses last year. Perennially under appreciated actress Melissa Leo finally gets to show an audience what she can do with a great leading role in Frozen River and takes advantage of it. Her performance of Ray Eddy is distinctly human. Ray is a tired woman. She loves her kids but doesn't always know how to provide the best for them. In one particular sequence, we see her prejudices come to the surface. Leo juggles all of this-the desperation, the simpleness-and still injects a bit of humor into a few of her scenes.

Similarly, new discovery Tarra Riggs is a revelation in Ballast, playing a mother who's lost control of her family and is trying desperately to get it back. At times, this is an angry performance, but it never goes over the line into histrionics. She plays Marlee, a woman who will do anything for her son until circumstances intervene, forcing her to make decisions and grow as a woman in ways that ultimately allow her to do something for herself.

It would be a misnomer to say that Ballast and Frozen River examine the hardships of working class Americans in the exact same way. Frozen River has a more generally traditional narrative structure whereas Ballast's modus operandi is to follow its characters to an end that is not so much a resolution as the promise of better things to come. Nevertheless, both are powerful and distinctly human snapshots into the modern American psyche, executed skillfully by two new directors who I hope have even more exciting projects ahead of them.

'The Wrestler' (2008)

Sometimes the greatest successes can come out of the biggest failures, and The Wrestler is exhilarating, vibrant proof of this fact.

After struggling since 2002 to pull together his last film, 2006's metaphysical fantasy The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky found himself in the unfamiliar position of critical whipping boy. His first two features (1998's Pi and 2000's Requiem for a Dream) were critically praised, and he was hailed as one of the most refreshing new voices in cinema. It must have been pretty tough to see a film that was four years and a new set of lead actors in the making fail to measure up when it finally opened in theaters.

Luckily, Aronofsky used the criticism and went back to the basics, abandoning the metaphysical components and complicated timeline that turned many people off of The Fountain and directed this film, his best to date.

The Wrestler is a simple film, a look into the life of an aging, Hulk Hogan-like professional wrestler played by Mickey Rourke (Sin City). His name is Robin but is happier being known as Randy the Ram Robinson. His glory days are gone, and the little fame he has left is tied up in grungy weekend matches at convention halls and meet and greets where he takes Polaroids with a few kids more interested in the glory days of his career than anything he might have to say.

There's a potential love interest in his life: a stripper, played fearlessly by Marissa Tomei (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead), but her interest in him might not extend past frequent lap dances, and his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood of thirteen) isn't speaking to him anymore.

As many critics have already noted, this is nothing short of a resurrection for Rourke. It's impossible to talk about this film without noting that the story of a beat up, faded star could describe both the narrative journeys of Randy the Ram and Rourke himself.

After getting attention for work in (at the very least) noteworthy films like Diner, Rumble Fish and 9 ½ Weeks, a combination of hard living and poor career choices relegated him to cheap rip offs and bit parts. But in The Wrestler, Rourke proves that his charisma and appealingly grizzled screen presence are still fully in tact.

In short, this is the perfect synchronization of character and actor.

In today's environment where hope has become a buzzword, there's a tendency by some critics to unearth an optimistic message in the majority of films released, but The Wrestler doesn't make any concessions toward an easy ending affirming the power of the underdog.

What makes The Wrestler an encouraging piece of work, then, is not the underlying narrative of the film. It's the idea that anyone, a fallen golden boy like Aronofsky or a troubled big screen personality like Rourke, can come back from failure in spectacular fashion.

The Wrestler is one of the best films to come out in months and serves an example of the best of what today's generation of young American filmmakers have to offer.

10 January 2009

Yes, I did cry at the end

A LOT. And it felt really good.

Review coming soon.

08 January 2009

Rural's Thoughts While Watching . . .

Sex and the City (2008)

- Okaaaaay, so Fergie . . . This movie and I are NOT of to a good start.


- Patricia Fields needs to get a real job. Stop sticking glitter and crap you find on the street on to dresses and calling yourself a designer. Just stop.

- STEVE'S ASS!!!!!!

- I like you a lot Candy Bergen, but maybe it's time to try something new. There's only so many ways you can play Candice Bergen. I mean, you're great at it, and I'm sure the houses you're buying are gorgeous. But still.

- Look at Steve crying, Miranda! How can you NOT forgive him?


- Oh. Jennifer Hudson. Fuuuun.

- AWWWW. Steve and Miranda together again. Remember when Miranda professed her love for him at Brady's birthday in the laundry
room with the cake and he was all, "I love you, too." I love that episode. I really want to watch that episode again.

- This movie is long. Benjamin Button long.

- So . . . Samantha is 50 and single and jobless(?). And this is empowering?

- Not as bad as I was expecting (thank god). Definitely had its moments. Definitely made me want to watch some old episodes again. Still . . . maybe a little TOO much. I mean, 2 1/2 hours?

- I've missed you Steve.

06 January 2009

Stinky Lulu's 3rd Annual Supporting Actress Blog-a-thon

Sometimes a supporting turn by an actress is limited by the part or by the script handed her. It takes skill to transcend this and make the very most with what she is given. Such is the case with Julia Ormond as Caroline in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a strangely hollow and over ambitious project elevated by the turns of a number of actors carving out humanity from a script that seems more interested in clunky historical allusions than the characters involved.

Ormond spends the entirety of her time on screen sitting at the bedside of her dying mother, Daisy (played by an otherwise wonderful Cate Blanchett covered in prosthetic makeup), in New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina approaches (maybe the film's most grevious example of unnecessary historical allusions). Essentially a plot device as far as the script is involved, Caroline is reading the journal of Brad Pitt's Benjamin Button, providing the film with a window to the flashbacks that makeup the film's long-winded dramatic structure.

On the page, the part of Caroline must have seemed like an unplayable impossibility, a drab character with nothing of interest to say except when accepting leaps in logic in record time (oh . . . so he's aging backward) and giving David Fincher more padding for an overlong screentime. However, Ormond is able to make the audience identify with Caroline. She IS the audience, hearing the story of Benjamin Button for the first time as we watch it all unfold.

I'm not sure even Fincher understood the possibilities contained in this synchronization between character and viewer, but (I think) Ormond does. Caroline is a woman dealing with the inevitable loss of her mother, dealing with the approach of an uncertain future without Daisy and (though she doesn't know it yet) without the city and culture of New Orleans post-Katrina. She's angry at her mother for keeping these secrets for so long, and, in Ormond's eyes and line readings, we see her struggling to hold it all together, struggling to forgive her mother and say goodbye while processing these game changing revelations.

A one-time, failed Hollywood "it girl" in the Gretchen Mol mold and nominee for worst supporting actor in 2006 for The Lindsay Lohan Stripper Movie (an "honor" she earned by trying to add humanity to a character in a movie completely devoid of anything but failed camp value), Ormond's career has been a roller coaster of solid turns and strange casting decisions. But, in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Ormond proves that she has the skill to transcend a script that has almost no interest in her.

This entry is part of Stinky Lulu's 3rd Annual Supporting Actress Blogathon