Wednesday, January 30, 2008

GREAT FILMS: Boogie Nights (1997)

Written and Directed By Paul Thomas Anderson

Between Paul Thomas Anderson's debut film Hard Eight and his string of three strait masterpieces (Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood) came the film that made Anderson a household name in the movie industry. That film was Boogie Nights, a film that documents the decadent and destructive lives of several people in the 70's porn industry. Told through the eyes of a young man named Eddie Adams (Mark Whalberg), the ensemble piece showcases the highs and lows of stardom and the scummy people that you meet along the way.

Eddie is a seventeen-year-old boy who buses tables at the glamorous Hot Traxx nightclub, which is a frequent destination for all of the biggest porn stars and aficionados. They include film director Jack Horner, sexy superstar Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), newcomer Rollergirl (Heather Graham), wannabe cowboy Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), and the odd goof ball Reed Rothchild (John C. Reily). All and more of these characters are introduced in the opening of the film which constitutes one three and a half minute shot that starts in the city streets and ends with Eddie buses tables in some lowly corner in the club.

As the shot ends on Eddie's face we see a neon star shining brightly behind his head. We cut to Jack Horner, who is gazing over at Eddie almost hypnotized. He sees that same shining star within this young man, and tells him so when he meets him in the back as Eddie's washing dishes. He tells Eddie, "I got a feeling beneath those jeans there's something wonderful just waiting to get out." And he is true, because beneath those jeans is Eddie's most prized possession: a 14-inch penis.

When finally coaxed into meeting Horner and the rest of the group, Horner unveils his dream. Horner doesn't want to make films just for the purpose of somebody else's orgasm, he wants to make a film that really matters. He sees adult films as an art form. He doesn't see his films as anything but thrilling, low-budget films that happen to contain extreme erotica. He knows that with Eddie's help, he can make adult filmmaking a serious art form. And when Eddie decides to come along for the ride (changing his name to Dirk Diggler), they become superstars.

Among the other characters involved in the pornography empire are a chubby, unkempt sound guy named Scotty J (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a nervous assistant director whose wife is extremely open about her adulterous behiavior, Little Bill (William H. Macy), and a Mexican club owner who has dreams to star in one of Horner's films, Maurice (Luis Guzman).

All these characters have importance to the overall tone within Boogie Nights. They are all outsiders to the normal world. Eddie and Rollergirl have both dropped out of high school, and can't go back when they've indulged in these careers. Amber struggles with a drug habit and an ex-husband who won't allow her to even see her young son. Little Bill's wife is interested in having sex with about anybody except him. Everybody in this erotic world has traveled there on a road of pain and isolation. Together though, they are all cult celebrities with hundreds of fans who adore their seeming beauty.

The beauty behind Anderson's work in this film is the ability at which he weaves all these brilliantly skewered characters together. No one characters out stays it's welcome, and despite showcasing them all pretty competently, the story still has the ability to make sure that it never loses it's focus on Eddie--now Dirk Diggler. After his first film, Dirk becomes a huge star, winning numerous Adult Film Awards, and putting Jack Horner right back on the top of elite adult filmmakers.

Of coarse, like any other great epic story, the fortunes of all these characters have their inevitable, tragic reversal. The 70's turns into the 80's, and the lavish partying turns into dangerous drug habits. Dirk, after years of wearing out his goods, begins having issues with impotence. Amber goes to court to get custody of her son, but in the process loses any and all possible visitation rights with him. Horner is forced to give up his dreams of making important adult films, as he adjusts to a dominant new wave in porno, where scripts and film are obsolete, and amateurs and videotape are what everybody buys.

With everything that we've seen, Anderson has the audacity to introduce even more characters in the second half of the film. They work mostly to emphasize everybody's downfall. One character, Floyd Gondolli, played with incredible nuance by Philip Baker Hall, is the one who ushers in the new wave of video tape. Then there is Todd Parker (Thomas Jane) a character who is neither an actor or a filmmaker who is able to penetrate these characters' world and bring in more drugs and more unneeded excess as they all spiral toward destruction.

The film culminates in a very tense, very loud scene in which Reed, Dirk, and Todd decide to sell a kilo of coke in order to get money. When they enter the house where the deal will be done, they are greeted by a strung out, scantily-clad drug dealer named Rahad Jackson. He has an armed bodyguard, a troubled young man who's lighting fireworks inside the house, and decides to play "Sister Christine" by Night Ranger. The scene is the most tense, most electrifying scene in the movie. It is the climax that showcases the absolute bottom these professionals' lives.

The greatest praise that can be given to the film is to it's cast. Every member fills out their characters to the ultimate fruition. Reynolds probably gives the best work of his career in the film as the patriarch and leader, and Moore's work as the irresponsible mother is one of many great performances within her career. Macy, Reily, Cheadle, and Graham among many give wonderfully subtle performances, but the real star that shines throughout is Wahlberg. Mark Wahlberg slowly shows Eddie's descent into Dirk Diggler (and his later infatuation with his screen character, Brock Landers). Dirk's growing ego and later deterioration is what drives the film's tragedy.

Out of all of Paul Thomas Anderson's work, Boogie Nights is probably his most commercially successful film (not that it makes the film a blockbuster). It received great acclaim and introduced most of the country to the next great young filmmaker. Every film that Anderson has made has had one major trait, and that is unrelenting ambition. He would later make his epic mosaic film Magnolia which many would say was a much better ensemble piece. That said, none of his films would have been made (including the recent There Will Be Blood) without the success of Boogie Nights.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Untraceable (**)

Directed by Gregory Holbit


Through the process of looking up Gregory Holbit's resume on IMDb, I felt pretty ignorant in finding that he is the same man who directed Primal Fear and Frequency. I enjoyed both films, thought they were clever, and had sensible endings. I must say, though, that both films left me unsettled in the way that neither seemed much interested in character or story, as much as pure spectacle (though Edward Norton has still never been better than when he was in Primal Fear). Holbit's newest film, Untraceable, left me with the same feeling, only it lacked the charm and thrills the other two had.

Untraceable follows Jennifer Marsh (Diane Lane), a widow with a daughter, who also happens to be the head of the FBI Portland Cyber Crimes unit. A majority of her work depends on tracking down kids who are pirating music and films off the internet, as well as catching the lowly child pornographers. She is helped by her witty partner Griffin (Colin Hanks--Tom's son), who spends time dating many women he meets over the internet (though it doesn't seem very sensible since his job is constantly telling him how dangerous unknown people on the internet can be).

The story begins when Jennifer is introduced to a site entitled "kill with me" which videotapes people dying in a seedy basement while being streamed all over the country. The way that the site works is, the more people who visit the site, the quicker the victim will die. When seeing the havoc that this skilled killer is creating, Jennifer and the rest of the unit try desperately to track him down, but unfortunately he is completely... well, I think you get the idea.

I guess this is where the problems begin, because the entire credibility of this killer's "untraceability" is described in computer jargon that we are inevitably supposed to buy into, because basically we're not supposed to be able to understand what they're saying anyway (which I didn't). Things get worse when the FBI decides to go public and tell the world that they shouldn't visit the site, and that anybody who does is an accomplice in murder. As Jennifer had feared, going public only gave the site more publicity, causing his victims to die at an alarmingly quick rate.

I think the concept is interesting, and I do believe that if a site like this would ever really happen, many a sick individual (even the not-so-sick) would visit the site in droves in order to see someone die. Where I get lost is when the filmmakers decide to make this killer so unbelievably proficient. This isn't the first film that does this, surely, but when did screenwriters decide that all psychopathic killers are also acrobatic, flexible ninjas who have the ability to be invisible when they shouldn't be, and have an almost impossible anticipation for things to come?

What is somewhat entertaining to watch (at times) is the actors. Lane is very capable to play the part of Jennifer Marsh, and her performance is what keeps the film average, quite frankly. I think she competently shows the complex emotions felt by the widowed mother and staunch detective. Like most characters of her sort in these kinds of films, she seems to be the only person with the brains to be able to catch this lunatic, while everyone else worries about how it will look to the public. What coincidence that the killer will then go after her before the movie ends (if you saw any kind of preview for the film, this is not a spoiler).

To be fair, I should say that this film has an ending that is very exciting, even though you know what will happen. It ends on a very good note, and makes you realize that there was at least a few moments in the film that were truly scary. This film is a crime thriller in the tradition of such films as Se7en or Saw where there is just a truly psychopathic killer who uses murder to prove a point. What's his point? Americans are obsessed with violence? People will visit a mysterious site out of pure curiosity even if they know it will kill someone? Well, to be honest, I buy that premise, but I wish more of the film had been spent dealing with that premise, then unsuccessfully trying to create suspense.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Oscar Nominations Review

Check Out The Official 2007 Oscar nominations here

The year of 2007 was a wonderful year for movies, and it seemed almost obvious that with all the great films coming out (particularly the rush of films released in December) that the Academy Awards will go and snub one of them. It was only natural, for it happens every year; years with much less competition than 2007. This was not the case. The awards were pretty well spread, led by two seething dramas which each got eight nominations: No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood. They both were nominated for Best Picture, along with Juno, Atonement, and Michael Clayton.

Except for the enraging snubs that I'm used to seeing ever year, there were actually two pleasant surprises: both in the lead acting categories. Tommy Lee Jones stellar performance in the less-than-stellar In The Valley of Elah labored it's way to a nomination for Best Lead Actor, despite his excellent work beginning to be forgotten (and somewhat overshadowed by his work in the much superior No Country). Jones was nominated with the much-predicted Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood) and George Clooney (Michael Clayton). Rounding out the category were two very strong performances: one by an actor who seems to be ripe for nominations lately (Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd), and one who is finally getting his much-needed attention (Viggo Mortenson, Eastern Promises).

The other surprise came with Best Lead Actress, where Laura Linney came out of left field and snagged a nomination for her funny, but touching portrayal in The Savages. Linney, an actress who has been consistently amazing for the last five years gets her third career nomination in a role she quietly dominates. Two shoe-ins made their inevitable appearance on the Actress shortlist, first the 66-years-old Julie Christie (Away From Her) and the 20-years-young Ellen Page (Juno). The rest of the nominations came from films that weren't particularly favored by critics: Marion Cotillard's portrayal of Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose is one of lots of skill, if not a lot of make-up and mimicry. Most notable was Cate Blanchett's nomination for Elizabeth: The Golden Age despite it being one of the least-favored films of the year.

In the Best Director category, the one surprise was Jason Reitman for Juno. Only Reitman's second film, little attention was paid to his work on the film (at least not as much as there was for Page's performance or Diablo Cody's screenplay). The Coen Brothers get there much deserved nomination for No Country and Paul Thomas Anderson receives his first ever career Best Director nomination for There Will Be Blood (hard to believe that it took this long). Julian Schnabel's visionary work in the French film The Diving Bell and The Butterfly was also nominated (the only foreign film to crack the nominations). Last on the shortlist was Tony Gilroy's exceptional work for the incredibly fluid Michael Clayton.

In easily the most predictable category, Best Supporting Actor was filled with dominant performances. Javier Bardem, the threat to win, was nominated for his soulless killing machine in No Country, and Casey Affleck was nominated for his performance in the dubiously titled The Assassination of Jesse James By Coward Robert Ford. Both performances have been said to actually be lead roles, though both are exquisitely portrayed. Hal Holbrook (Into The Wild) and Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton) were both nominated for their brilliant performances, each leaving the audience wanting more of them. The last nominee was Philip Seymour Hoffman for his bruising performance in the pleasant Charlie Wilson's War, no doubt a nod to the incredible year Hoffman has had (also was in Before The Devil Knows You're Dead and The Savages).

In the Best Supporting Actress category, the three leaders, or shoe-ins, came out nominees: Amy Ryan's irresponsible mother in Gone Baby Gone; Tilda Swinton's nerve-wrecked corporate executive in Michael Clayton; and Cate Blanchett's surrealistic portrayal of Robert Zimmerman in I'm Not There. Also, Soiarse Ronan was nominated for her portrayal of the young, precocious Briony--of which she is the heart of the film--in Atonement. The last nomination went to veteran actress, and sentimental favorite, Ruby Dee for her performance as the morally misguided mother in American Gangster.

Both screenplay awards were also filled with heavy favorites. Original Screenplay nominating Juno's Diablo Cody and Michael Clayton's Tony Gilroy. Nancy Olivier (Lars and The Real Girl), Tamara Jenkins (The Savages), and Brad Bird (Ratatouille) were also nominated. With Adapted Screenplay award, there were three Best Picture nominees: Christopher Hampton (Atonement), Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood), and Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country For Old Men). The last two nominations went to former Oscar winner Ronald Harwood (The Diving Bell and The Butterfly) and first-timer and former actress Sarah Polley (Away From Her).

Peguin domination continued with a surprising nomination going to Surf's Up for Best Animated Feature, along with the two much more expected Ratatouille and the French Persepolis. Best Foreign Language Feature faced controversy when they redacted 4 Weeks, 3 Months, and 2 Days from the final list, leaving the most intriguing film nominated Israel's Beaufront, a film little saw hope for. Best Documentary was loaded with whistle-blowing films, including three on the War in Iraq: No End In Sight, War Dance, and Operation Homecoming. Also nominated was Michael Moore's fire-sale on American Health Care, Sicko.

Overall, this year's Oscar nominations were not all perfect. I would have liked to see Sean Penn recognized for his writer-director work in Into The Wild, as well as Emile Hirsch's performance in that film. I would have liked to see Leslie Mann nominated for her seething performance in Knocked Up, as well as any recognition for that hilarious film at all. Also, a nomination could have easily gone to any member of Juno's supporting cast (particularly J.K. Simmons and Jennifer Garner). That aside, other than Elizabeth: The Golden Age, there was no film nominated for a major award that I was particularly unenthusiastic about, and in a year filled to the brim with exceptional movies, it's nice to see that the Academy tried to acknowledge as many as they could.

NOTES: It's easy to be frustrated with Cate Blanchett's seemingly "default" nomination for The Golden Age, particularly with Helena Bonham Carter (Sweeney Todd) and Angelina Jolie (A Mighty Heart) having such good efforts as well, but ponder this: Cate Blanchett has competently portrayed Queen Elizabeth I, Bob Dylan, and Katherine Hepburn in a span of four years, as well as portraying numerous fictional characters, such as in Babel and Notes On A Scandal. Even if it seems like a throwaway nomination (and it is), you have to admit, the girl's got talent. Also, it seems like forever ago when the Academy wouldn't touch anything by Johnny Depp with a ten-foot pole. After Captain Jack, it seems like anything he does turns into an Academy Award nomination (which is well deserved).

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The JC Awards

In the spirit of awards season, I've decided to bestow special honors on the films and performances that I think deserve it most. These are based on my own lowly opinion:

No Country For Old Men
-(Runner-Up: The Diving Bell and The Butterfly)

Julian Schnabel, The Diving Bell and The Butterfly
-(Runner-Up: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, No Country For Old Men)

Tommy Lee Jones, In The Valley of Elah
-(Runner-Up (TIE): George Clooney, Michael Clayton &
Gordon Pinsent, Away From Her)

Julie Christie, Away From Her
-(Runner-Up: Ellen Page, Juno)

Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men
-(Runner-Up: Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton)

Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
-(Runner-Up: Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone)

Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton
-(Runner-Up: Diablo Cody, Juno)

Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, No Country For Old Men
-(Runner-Up: Sean Penn, Into The Wild)

Roger Deakins, No Country For Old Men
-(Runner-Up: Robert Elswit, There Will Be Blood)

Dylan Tichenor, There Will Be Blood
-(Runner-Up: John Gilroy, Michael Clayton)

Dario Marianelli, Atonement
-(Runner-Up: Johnny Greenwood, There Will Be Blood)

"Falling Slowly" from Once
-(Runner-Up: "That's How You Know" from Enchanted)

Jacqueline Durran, Atonement
-(Runner-Up: Coleen Atwood, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street)

Jack Fisk, There Will Be Blood
-(Runner-Up: Sarah Greenwood, Atonement)


Saturday, January 12, 2008

My Top 10 of 2007


1. No Country For Old Men
Written for the Screen and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

No Surprise here. The Coens astound here in their best film since 1996's Fargo. Based on Cormac McCarthy's best-selling novel, this story pulsates with suspense, violence, brilliant acting, and the usual humor that we've come to love from the Coens. Simply stated, the film is just about perfect in every way, from Roger Deakins' bleakly brilliant cinematography to the seemingly absent score. Mix in incredible performances from Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Kelly MacDonald, Woody Harrelson, and Tommy Lee Jones, how could you not see this as the best film of the year? I'm just calling as I see it, friendo.

2. The Diving Bell and The Butterfly
Directed by Julian Schnabel

It helps to have a screenplay which is written by a multiple Oscar-winner, Ronald Harwood, but the brilliance of the film comes from the masterwork of director Julian Schnabel. He's shown his skill before in such films as Before Night Falls but never has he made a film this beautiful or imaginative. The story of famed Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby (Matheiu Amalric) after he suffers a paralyzing stroke is one that is heartbreaking, but eventually uplifting as he uses the one functioning part of his body, his left eye, to write his biography. A cameo by acting legend Max von Sydow makes your heart melt, and so does everything else in this astonishing film.

3. Away From Her
Written For The Screen and Directed by Sarah Polley

Sarah Polley, formerly known as an actress who bounced around in such films as eXistenZ and The Sweet Hereafter goes far beyond anyone's expectations with her debut feature as a director, Away From Her. The film chronicles the older couple of Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Jule Christie), and how they must cope with Fiona's mental disintegration at the hands of Alzheimer's Disease. Needless to say, Christie seems bound for an Oscar nomination for playing Fiona, but we should not forget the film experience as a whole. No movie this year is more moving or heartbreaking, nor does any film show bare emotion more accurately.

4. Juno
Directed by Jason Reitman
Written By Diablo Cody

The stripper-turned-cult blogger-turned-screenwriter, Diablo Cody came right out of left field with this incredibly wonderful film about a young girl named Juno (the effervescently funny and sweet Ellen Page) who is forced to learn about life rather quickly when she becomes pregnant. In a year filled with a bundle of feel-bad pictures, something about Juno felt extra refreshing. Page along with J.K. Simmons, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, and Allison Janney complete what is easily the best ensemble acting performance of the year. Filled with hilarious, pithy dialogue and a great soundtrack, no other movie will leave you with a better feeling.

5. There Will Be Blood
Written For The Screen and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

No other movie this year overcomes it flaws the way Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood does. Despite the few chinks within it's story (it's relentlessness; it's complete abandonment of reality), it well makes up for it by being absolutely unforgettable. Daniel Day-Lewis' portrayal of Daniel Plainview, the manic oilman who despises humanity, is another achievement of acting that Day-Lewis can add to his already vastly impressive resume. Anderson, always a true visionary, channels the character perfectly with help from cinematographer Robert Elswit, and a score from Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood.

6. Michael Clayton
Written and Directed by Tony Gilroy

I think many were surprised that Michael Clayton was an original screenplay by Gilroy, and not some reworking of a John Grisham novel. Instead, Gilroy created a film that goes back to the classic law dramas of the 70's with true suspense and an infallible cast of actors. George Clooney, as the title character, gives his best performance to date as a man who is paid under the table by a major law firm to fix the messes that created by the clients and lawyers alike. When his next project becomes his crazed friend Arthur (the wonderful Tom Wilkinson), he has to rethink what he is doing. Add great performances by Tilda Swinton and Sidney Pollock, and you have one of the best law dramas in years.

7. Into The Wild
Written for the Screen and Directed by Sean Penn

The story of Christopher McCandless is one that is whimsically captivating despite it's tragic ending. Based on Jack Krakauer's book, Sean Penn recreates the story of McCandless, a young man who abandons his privileged life to travel to Alaska and live amongst nature. Emile Hirsch, a twenty-two year old, gives one of the best performances of the year as McCandless, and is boosted by a supporting cast which includes Catherine Keener, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, and the always wonderful Hal Holbrook. Penn's meditation on McCandless is one of wonder and adventure, and using a soundtrack filled with songs penned by Eddie Vedder, he is able to perfectly capture the world of transcendentalism that McCandless admires.

8. Atonement
Directed by Joe Wright

With the top billing going to rising stars James McAvoy and Keira Knightley, few knew that the film Atonement would be dominated by another trio of actresses: two unknowns and one legend. The story of Briony Tallis (played by Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, and Vanessa Redgrave, respectively) and her successful attempt to destroy young love is heartbreaking and enthralling. Wright, hot off his beautiful version of Pride & Prejudice, constructs a film so well put-together, seeing it is like watching a masterful piece of art. All of the performances are first-rate, and the addition of Dario Marianelli's pulsating score and Seamus McGarvey's incandescent photography make this film simply beautiful.

9. Ratatouille
Written and Directed by Brad Bird

With The Incredibles, Brad Bird made a masterpiece that brilliantly addressed the themes of responsibility, marriage, and family. With Ratatouille, the message is not as profound, but the story and characters are so much more lovable and cuddly. Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt), is a cultured rat, obsessed with the idea of becoming a famous chef in Paris, France. When he finds his opportunity by helping a hopeless chef named Linguini (voiced by Lou Romano), he's finally able to make his delectable masterpieces. The story is touching, as all Pixar stories tend to be, and has probably the most lovable rat ever to grace the silver screen.

10. Knocked Up
Written and Directed by Judd Apatow

Another film in the Judd Apatow repertoire, Knocked Up is probably the funniest film of 2007. Filled with dirty jokes and the usual gang of Apatow actors (Jonah Hill, Paul Rudd, Jason Segel), it's brash humor and wicked description of pregnancy is hilarious. Seth Rogan (another member of the Apatow crew) and Grey Anatomy's Katherine Heigl make up the "beauty and the slacker" couple who come together for one night, only to become pregnant. Add a strikingly venomous performance by Apatow's real-life wife Leslie Mann as Heigl's disapproving sister, and you have a perfect companion piece to Apatow's earlier classic dirty comedy, The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

(cause there were much more than ten good films this year)

Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited was as beautiful as it was puzzling; the denouement to the Bourne series The Bourne Ultimatum was the best and most exciting of the three; James Mangold's 3:10 To Yuma was one of the best westerns to be made in many years; Julie Taymor's meditation on the Beatles and life in the Turbulent 60's, Across The Universe, was exquisite; Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was as bloody as it was mesmerizing; David Cronenberg's second combination with actor Viggo Mortenson in Eastern Promises paid off as they make one of the most thrilling films of the year--with one killer nude/killing scene; John Carney's "modern-day musical", Once, is filled with incredible music and heart-tugging characters; and Tamara Jenkins' return to the silver screen with The Savages was one of tenderness and wonderful humor.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Kite Runner (***)

Directed by Marc Forster


Within the story of The Kite Runner you have something that is incredibly touching, painfully sad, profoundly heroic, and simply wonderful. Based on the best-selling novel by Khaled Hosseini, the film translates comfortably to the screen within the hands of director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland).

The novel was well-loved by it's audience, but it seemed unlikely that it would transfer to the silver screen without some shade of prepackaged Hollywood filmmaking. Well, the movie does not walk away unscathed, but Forster does a good job of keeping the integrity of the story, and more importantly, keeping the heart. Dealing with such issues as child abuse and the tyrannical violence within Afghanistan, it seems strange that this film comes off feeling rather uplifting, but the story finds the satisfaction in the character's redemption.

The story deals with the boyhood friendship between Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) and Hassan (Amad Khan Mahmidzada). Amir's father Baba (Homayoun Ershadi) is a powerfully rich man who has Hassan and his father work as servants in their home. Living almost like brothers, the two boys become incredibly close friends, and spend all their time flying kites and going to the movies to watch The Magnificent Seven. Amir loves to write stories and reads them to Hassan, but Baba does not see his writings as anything special. Baba knows of Amir's cowardliness toward bullies, and is ashamed that Hassan must stand up for him because he cannot stand up for himself.

Hassan is a skilled kite runner, which is a term to describe someone who knows how to run down a wild kite that has just been cut from it's string in the middle of the air. When Hassan goes to run down a kite for Amir he is cornered by the usual bullies who hate him because of his Haraza heritage. Amir sees the confrontation, where Hassan is beaten and raped, but runs away in fear instead of helping his friend. Hassan limps away quietly, but Amir's guilt plagues him. He begins insulting Hassan and even frames him to look like he is stealing from Baba. Hassan takes it in stride, which drives Amir even more crazy with culpability.

When Communist Russia bursts into Afghanistan, Baba and Amir escape Afghanistan and move to Los Angeles. Twenty years later, Amir (Khalid Abdalla) is married, a college graduate, and a published novelist. He gets a call from one of his father's associates giving him a cryptic message: Hassan has been killed and his son is in an orphanage deep within the Taliban in Afghanistan. For his friend Hassan, and other revealed personal reasons, Amir must return to a land he no longer knows to save Hassan's son.

More than anything, the film deals with Amir's redemption. Despite the success of graduating from college and getting married to a beautiful wife, Amir has never been able to forgive himself for his cowardice so many years ago. His fight with his conscience and his growing bravery is what makes the film so interesting.

The film is subdued by some rather muted performances in the film, but that seems forgivable seeing as the entire Middle Eastern cast was being directed by the European Forster. That said, one of the wonders of the film is the performance by Homayoun Ershadi as Baba. Ershadi, an actor who has seldom made appearances in American films, is the heart of most of the movie. He starts the film as a powerful man with money growing from his fingerprints, and ends as an ill man whose skills never got him any more than a job at a gas station in America. His integral role is the most warm-hearting of the film.

With this film, Marc Forster continues his trend of interesting filmmaking. His films have varied greatly from the indie melodrama Monster's Ball and last year's particularly under appreciated comedy Stranger Then Fiction. This film is not perfect, nor does it evoke feelings of a film that will be remembered for years to come, but it is something that is truly sincere and touchingly sweet.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

There Will Be Blood (****)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson


No filmmaker in the last ten years has been more enigmatic than Paul Thomas Anderson. His films range from the extremely quirky romantic comedy Punch-Drunk Love, the meditation on the decadence of the 70's porn industry, Boogie Nights, and the unrelenting group melodrama Magnolia. It is hard to believe, with those wide range of credits, that he can then continue to make his most ambitious film to date, stylistically and thematically.

The film begins with Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) chugging eagerly away with a pick at the bottom of an oil well. He is alone, and when he slips down his ladder, he severely breaks his leg. What is foremost on his mind, though, is the situation in his well. Plainview labors to climb up his well with his leg, holding a giant grin on his face: he knows that he's struck gold. The rest of the film is essentially numerous versions of this opening sequence, as Plainview grows with more and more hunger to gain riches from the oil he discovers.

There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson's fifth film, is primarily the story of Plainview after his first discovery. When we finally hear him speak, he is now a self-made oil man who travels from town to town with his adopted son H.W. (Dillon Freasier) trying to find and buy oil-drilling prospects. When he is lead to the Sunday Ranch by a mysterious Paul Sunday, he heads over to see the land himself. He gets there and greets the owner Abel, whose son Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) is a mystical preacher in a slowly growing church.

Plainview sees that the ranch has oil practically bursting out of the ground, and quickly begins attempts to lease the land so he can begin to drill. Everything is agreed upon: he will drill in the ground, and in exchange he will pay five thousand dollars to the Sunday family for using their land. There is one issue, though: Eli does not totally trust Plainview's motives or the morality of his workers, and Plainview does not totally buy into Eli's piety, as Eli asks all of the money be used to promote his church. The battle of wits between these two men is what makes the overall conflict in the story, but we are never sure which side represents good or evil.

The film is loosely based on Upton Sinclair's Oil, a muckraking novel written decades after Sinclair's iconic 1920's book The Jungle. This is the first time that Anderson has ever adapted a screenplay from a book, and it stands to say that Anderson supposedly strays from the source material quite a bit. The entire story rests on the unrelenting personality of Daniel Plainview. Plainview is a man of strict morals, in which he feels he is the only that can break his code. His relationships with people are strained and cold. Even in his most close relationship with his son H.W., he uses the young man as more of a tool or a prop than a son.

In a very interesting subplot, Plainview meets a man named Henry (Kevin J. O'Connor) who claims to be his half-brother. Despite flimsy evidence, Plainview believes him, and Henry becomes the only person in the film that he truly confides in. He tells Henry about his hatred for the human race and his disdain in almost all his relationships with people. It is the most telling scene in the movie, at least of Plainview, and the only time Plainview takes the time to explain his unflinching personality.

Plainview's cold, distant personality is captured in an absolutely ferocious performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. Day-Lewis, one of the most supreme and dedicated actors of his generation, does another tremendous job of transformation here. His Daniel Plainview is one so collective yet conniving that he becomes the unquestioned dominating force throughout the picture. He sports a John Huston-like drawl throughout the film which makes his voice crackle and pop. There are less than a handful of scenes that don't have Plainview as the focus, and needless to say, those scenes don't last very long.

The only other actor who challenges Day-Lewis for supremacy in this film is Dano. Eli Sunday is a puzzling character--he is mild-mannered but bursts into loud, outlandish sermons when placed in his church. Plainview never believes in Eli's flailing and emotional outbursts, and Sunday becomes a representation of everything he wants to destroy. Sunday says believes in the power of God, but it is curious how often he asks for money, and how often his sermons turn into spectacles. Dano's performance as the naive yet intelligent Eli is one that is incredibly nuanced and complex, yet he is never able to out stage the presence of Plainview.

Many comparisons have been made by movie experts comparing the character of Daniel Plainview to the iconic character of Charles Foster Kane. I find this hard to fathom as Plainview never spends time in the film to lament over anything like Kane does with "rosebud", but the stories of the two are similar. Both men work as hard as they can do get riches they will never truly appreciate, but Kane does it to buy the love of the people around him, which he tragically finds is not something that can be bought. Plainview's fate seems much more fair, though, because he collects money to buy his own isolation from the rest of the world, and he earns it. The two films are much more dissimilar than most seem to realize but both are interesting stories of the power of greed and the disintegration of the soul.

The film, I must say, is no Citizen Kane. There Will Be Blood struggles at moments with it's story: like I said, there is never a satisfactory reason given for Plainview's hatred, women seem to have no purpose in the world of this film and many have been debating the appropriateness of the ending. Though I think it's silly to expect a conventional ending from the same guy who made it rain frogs at the conclusion of Magnolia, I believe the film's ending devolves into unneeded eccentricity. Yet, I get the feeling that this film couldn't have ended any other way, and that there was never any kind of room for anything appropriate to happen in the end.

That said, no other film released this year has more of a feeling of profundity. The film tackles so many themes at the same time, it's an accomplishment that this film was able to be made without being a complete mess. It addresses greed, the downside of capitalism, the inevitability of tragedy, and the role manipulation and materialism plays in today's churches and religions. Nobody comes away unscathed in this film, and that seems to be the point. The film is so brooding and so relentless in its mischievous actions you walk away pondering deep, dark thoughts.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Final Oscar Predictions

Updated January Oscar Predictions

Best Picture
Michael Clayton
*No Country For Old Men
There Will Be BloodBest Director
Paul Thomas Anderson, THERE WILL BE BLOOD
*Joel & Ethan Coen, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
Best Actor
*Daniel Day-Lewis, THERE WILL BE BLOOD
Emile Hirsch, INTO THE WILD

Best Actress
*Julie Christie, AWAY FROM HER
Marion Cottilard, LA VIE EN ROSE
Angelina Jolie, A MIGHTY HEART
Ellen Page, JUNO
Best Supporting Actor
Philip Seymour Hoffman, CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR
Hal Holbrook, INTO THE WILD

Best Supporting Actress
*Cate Blanchett, I'M NOT THERE
Catherine Keener, INTO THE WILD
Saoirse Ronan, ATONEMENT
Tilda Swinton, MICHAEL CLAYTONBest Original Screenplay
*Diablo Cody, JUNO
Tamara Jenkins, THE SAVAGES

Best Adapted Screenplay
Paul Thomas Anderson, THERE WILL BE BLOOD
*Joel & Ethan Coen, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
Christopher Hampton, ATONEMENT
Sean Penn, INTO THE WILDBest Cinematography
Seamus McGarvey, ATONEMENT
Rodrigo Prieto, LUST, CAUTION

Best Art Direction
*Sarah Greenwood, ATONEMENT
Best Editing
Jay Lash Cassidy, INTO THE WILD
*Tatiana Riegel & Dylan Tichenor, THERE WILL BE BLOOD
Paul Tothill, ATONEMENT

Best Costume Design
*Jacqueline Durran, ATONEMENT
Rita Ryack, HAIRSPRAYBest Make-Up
Colin Penman, HAIRSPRAY

Best Visual Effects
Pirates of the Carribean: At World's End
*Spider-Man 3
TransformersBest Animated Feature

Best Foreign-Language Feature
*4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, dir. Christian Mingiu (Romania)
The Counterfeiters, dir. Stefan Ruzowitzki (Austria)
Gone With The Woman, dir. Peter Naess (Norway)
Persepolis, dir. Mrjane Strapi & Vincent Parronaud (France)
The Silly Age, dir. Pavel Giroud (Cuba)

Best Documentary Feature
Body of War
Lake of Fire
*No End In Sight
The Rape of Europa

Best Original Score
Johnny Greenwood, THERE WILL BE BLOOD
Albert Iglesias, THE KITE RUNNER
*Dario Marianelli, ATONEMENT
Alan Silvestri, BEOWULF

Best Original Song
"That's How You Know" from ENCHANTED
"Grace Is Gone" from GRACE IS GONE
"Come So Far (Got So Far To Go)" from HAIRSPRAY
*"Guaranteed" from INTO THE WILD

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War (***)

Directed by Mike Nichols


Mike Nichol's new film tells a very interesting, but very true story. For close to fifty years, America laid in fear of the Communist empire in the Soviet Union, and the constant stand-off of nuclear weapons between the US and the USSR has been documented famously as the Cold War. In the late 80s, Afghanistan became the first nation ever to take down the Soviet Army, and the domino effect led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the crumble of the Communist regime. How exactly was Afghanistan able to destroy the firepower of Russia? With a little help from Texas congressman Charlie Wilson.

Charlie Wilson's War tells the story of how he was able to pull it off, despite most of the American government not wanting to "draw attention". The film is so whimsical and funny, it is made even more impressive by the fact that it follows very the actual story very closely. With an adapted screenplay by Emmy-award winning writer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing), the film pulsates with humor and authenticity. Sure, the film settles for sentimentality when we want to see more sarcasm, but we can forgive it easily.

Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), a democratic Congressman, was in charge of a district in Texas that asked for little more than "guns and low taxes". With a bunch of free time on his hands, Charlie indulged in scantily-clad secretaries, gallons upon gallons of whiskey, and created quite a reputation of poor character. That is, until he receives a call from Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts), a platinum blonde Southern belle who happens to be the sixth richest woman in the state of Texas. Herring, using her strong bravado, convinces Charlie to give more thought to the Freedom Fighters in Afghanistan, fighting against a Soviet Army that ruthlessly kills innocent people in their country. A pious woman, Herring knows if the Afghans can defeat them, Communism may fall as well.

When Charlie decides to indulge in Joanne's wishes, he meets Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a disgruntled CIA agent, recently fired for breaking his bosses windows. Gust is a large, brooding man, with just as much an affinity for alcohol as Charlie does. Together, followed by Charlie's personal assistant Bonnie (Amy Adams), they manage to conduct a covert war, supplying Afghanistan with the weapons needed to take down the Soviet tanks and helicopters. Without anybody watching, Charlie was able to get money for his operation, leading to the end of the Cold War.

How does Charlie do it? And why is it that Wilson is never mentioned in the history books? Well, truth is, Charlie Wilson is a perfect example of someone the USA would like to forget about when the history books are typed. His constant boozing and womanizing make him the perfect anti-role model, but the truth is, Charlie was the one who got the money to supply Afghanistan, and the whole story creates one incredibly intriguing movie. In Mike Nichol's first film since the seething sex drama Closer, Nichols continues to show his intuitive talent for hilarious dialogue, mixed with characters that we know would actually say the words.

The film features a first-rate cast, headlined by Tom Hanks. Hanks is in the kind of role that is perfect for him: a sincere, flawed, but overall hilarious character. People forget, when they saw him in Cast Away and Philadelphia, that Hanks is an actor best fit for comedy. And now, with his eyes puffy, and his face beginning to hang, his look is even more pitch-perfect, at least for a role like Charlie Wilson. Hanks accomplishes something incredible, creating an incredibly likable character, but never goes too far, so we still believe he is a real person.

Of coarse, Hanks is boosted by a great supporting cast. Hoffman is dependable as Gust, a big chunk of sweaty, chain-smoking aggression--a perfect denouement to Hoffman's incredible year with The Savages and Before The Devil Knows You're Dead. Julia Roberts, in her first major role since 2004's Ocean's Twelve, is ravishing as Joanne Herring, even if the role is very limited. Amy Adams, once again, is lovable as Wilson's sensible personal assistant Bonnie, who seems to be the only woman working for Charlie who isn't required to boost eye-popping cleavage. Ned Beatty has a very good cameo as Doc Long, the politician who is the biggest financial contributor to Charlie's mission.

The film does not boast incredible filmmaking, nor does it totally deliver the effect I feel this material really deserves, but what it is, is entertaining. You can tell that the talent that has come together here is really doing it's best. Mike Nichols, a master filmmaker of his time, shows that he isn't done yet. Like Sidney Lumet with Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, Nichols seems to be showing that he is still able to deliver powerful, effective films, and with Charlie Wilson's War, he makes a film that is very funny, very charming, and absolutely wonderful.

(Note: As shone thoroughly in the film, despite helping Afghanistan defeat the Soviets, Charlie was not able to help the Afghans recover from all the damage, nor was he able to find money to build schools in the country. The very people that we gave weapons and training to would become the Taliban, a terrorist group known for much violence, including September 11th.)

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Diving Bell and The Butterfly (****)

Directed by Julian Schnabel


"Besides my left eye, there are only two things that aren't paralyzed: my imagination and my memory."- Jean-Dominique Bauby

And so goes one of the more memorable lines from Julian Schnabel's revolutionary new film The Diving Bell and The Butterfly. Based on the true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the film tells the story of one man's tragic fall and his courageous fight to live, even through the damnedest conditions.

Editor for Elle fashion magazine, Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) was a man of great excess and minor celebrity, but his flight to the top of the fashion world is devastatingly stilted by a massive stroke which causes his entire body to be paralyzed--a condition his doctor refers to as "locked-in syndrome". The only functioning part of his body is his left eye. He sees his doctors, his therapists, and his visitors, but his ability to communicate with them has gone. He has dreams that he is locked inside of a diving bell, drifting at the bottom of the ocean, and when he wakes, his fate is not much different.

After wakes of bitterness and self-pity, Bauby decides to work with his speech therapist Henriette (Marie-Josee Croze) in devising a form of communication. He is able to learn a way of dictating letters by blinking his one functional eye, and through that slow process, Bauby is able to create phrases and connect with the outside world. He even decides to dictate his own autobiography based mostly on his experiences in "locked-in syndrome".

A majority of the film is seen through the point-of-view of Bauby himself (a scene showing his infected right eye getting stitched is particularly difficult to watch), and his isolation is very well documented. The character of Bauby, though, is not a depressing one, but is in fact very life-affirming. He refuses to be locked in, and consistently takes journeys far all over the world, to the best restaurants in France, and frequently to moments in his past. He recalls visits to his aging, senile father (the legendary Max von Sydow) and a vacation he took with his mistress. He chooses life as apposed to prison.

Neither is Bauby shown in a complimentary light, but shown as a regular man. He cracks sarcastic jokes in his mind at the helplessness at which doctors debate his conditions, and frequently takes the opportunity to notice a woman's cleavage. Celine (Emmanuelle Seigner), an ex-girlfriend and mother to three of his children, visits him frequently, despite the fact that he is no longer in love with her.

Everything in this film is excellent for many reasons. This film captures a lot of things that make movies magical: imagination, beauty, humor, poignancy, sadness, and all the while telling a powerful story of a man who overcomes his own capture. It's hard for anybody to contemplate what it would be like to be locked in their own bodies, but this film displays with such detail and skill, it is probably as close we will come with knowing. Julian Schnabel's work in this film is truly something to cherish. Known for his 2000 film Before Night Falls, Schnabel has the ability to create moments of true sincerity and heartbreak, and still has the focus to expand the minds of his viewers with his technique.

Filled to the brim with breathtaking music and sweeping camera work, this is probably the overall best-made film that has come out in 2007. Working closely with the autobiography by Bauby itself, the film is able to recreate the exact mental state of a man. This is a very hard feat to accomplish, particularly when you factor in the complexities of Bauby's personality. No other time in recent memory have I felt so close to a character in a film than I did while watching this film.

Though the film has many great supporting performances (particularly by von Sydow and Seigner), the film is dominated by the performance by Mathieu Amalric. Quite a prolific worker in French films, Amalric deserves just as much credit with creating the world of Bauby as Schnabel. His wonderful spirit in the scenes of his own memory, compared to watching him confined in paralysis is a piece of chameleon acting that is beyond difficult, yet Amalric does it with seeming ease.

In the end, Bauby certainly does not seem like the perfect man, but we hope that any one of us could have the same spirit as he did in that terrible shape. The movies are filled with films that insult our intelligence by showing us the stories of people that they feel like we should respect, whether or not they deserve it (American Gangster comes to mind). Few times does a story come around that is truly inspirational and exemplifies what bravery really is. Bravery is not authoritative and gun-toting. Bravery is the power to overcome any terrible circumstance, whether it's something you brought on yourself or not. The Diving Bell and The Butterfly tells the story of that kind of bravery.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Atonement (****)

Directed by Joe Wright


There are only two ways that the events in Atonement are presented. They are presented as they happen, but they are also presented through the conspicuous eyes and imagination of Briony Tallis. The two points of view present one of the main themes of the movie, which is that everything can look rather different if seen from another perspective--and mistakes can be made if you judge only on one perspective.

The film begins with Briony (Saoirse Ronan) at the precocious age of thirteen. She is pounding away furiously on her typewriter, spewing out a play about the futility of falling in love too quickly. The summarization of her play alone shows that she is probably far too brilliant for her age. She scampers around her large estate glancing things with her small, blue, beady eyes, when she sees her sister Cecilia (Keira Knightly) and the housekeeper's son Robbie (James McAvoy) talking by the pool, and taking part in other mischievous activities.

We see the same encounter between Cecilia and Robbie later in the film, but from their perspective, and we see it as a much more innocent moment. Robbie has spent the last few years in school, which was paid for by Cecilia's father. Cecilia uses this information to act like she dislikes Robbie, but truthfully they both lust deeply after each other. It is not long after that moment that the two become honest with each other and their feelings, and fall for each other rather passionately. Perhaps too passionately, as young Briony catches their consummation of love on the library bookcase.

Of coarse, Briony does not understand what she has seen, and goes to the police with a rather vicious lie. Influenced not only by misunderstanding, but also by her own jealous, romantic feelings for Robbie, Briony says something that she fully believes is true, but is fully a figment of her own exasperatingly large imagination. This has disastrous consequences as the young, fleeting love between Cecilia and Robbie is destroyed as Robbie is arrested for a crime he did not commit.

The film is set against the backdrop of World War II, and much of the second half of the film deals with it firsthand. Robbie is given the option of joining the Army, as apposed to continuing out his sentence in prison. Cecilia and Briony both have become nurses at different hospitals, where they often see the harsh reality of war battle. Briony, now 18, has grown to realize the immense power of the fib that she told, and is trying constantly, but unsuccessfully, to forgive herself for it.

Adapted from Ian McEwen's novel, which was thought to be 'un-adaptable', the film constructs the material successfully in order for the audience to comprehend it. There are many moments that are shown twice to detail how clearly the mind of a child can misconstrue the situation, but the film also balances the change of time. The film spans over an entire decade (and sometimes longer), and the subtlety at which the stories at home and the stories at battle are connected do not baffle.

The war is shown in brutal, grizzly actuality. Robbie's journey through the evacuation at the beach in Dunkirk is shot in one beautiful, languid tracking shot. A scene depicting Briony in the middle of a hospital being quickly filled with wounded soldiers is both breathtaking and unvarnished. This film probably has the most unrelenting depiction of war violence of any film since Saving Private Ryan. That being said, the film uses the wretchedness of the war to show the separation of the two lovers. They keep writing each other letters, and are sometimes able to see each other briefly, but their relationship can never flourish because of Briony's mistake.

In the nature of many of the Merchant-Ivory films, the real beauty of Atonement is the astonishing skill in which the film was made. Their are several stages to the story, each filled with it's own color and tone. War scenes are desaturated, scenes in the estate are filled with an almost dreamlike brightness, and the hospitals are shown in such sharp, conflicting colors such as red, blue, and white. Joe Wright, making his first film since his wistfully beautiful version of Pride & Prejudice, makes here a film that is so sharp and polished, that it is a marvel. Everything from Dario Marianelli's blisteringly powerful score down to the exquisite choice of costumes is note perfect.

McAvoy, a young Scottish actor, fresh off of his success in The Last King of Scotland, gives his most eye-catching performance in this film. Robbie is an honest, good-hearted man plagued by a sexual infatuation that gets him in the biggest trouble of his life. Equally, Keira Knightley is ravishing as Cecilia. This is not a role of much variety, nor does it spark much complexity in the story itself, but Knightley treats the character justly, and allows it to come into it's fruition. They both depict the most tragically doomed couple since Jack and Rose in Titanic.

In a piece of wondrous casting, the character of Briony is played by three different actresses, each representing a different part of Briony's life. Saoirse Ronan's mouse-like portrayal of the young, suspicious Briony is probably the most captivating. Ronan's performance consists of jealousy, anger, heartbreak, and intelligence, but the young 13-year-old is able to pull it off. Depicting Briony as the 18-year-old nurse, wishing to atone for what she's done is Romola Garai. She does a wonderful job of showing a woman seeking forgiveness, surrounded by death. Then lastly, the legendary Vanessa Redgrave portrays Briony decades later, as a much respected novelist who unleashes some very serious irony to the story.

The film is epic and sweeping, and is beautiful to watch based on it's aesthetic value alone. The only thing that isn't beautiful in this movie is some of the actions some of the characters partake in, sometimes unwillingly. Atonement is a great achievement in filmmaking and is one of the very best films of this year. Few films are able to take all the small aspects of a movie, and perfect them the way this film does, and still have time to tell a heartbreaking story that is beautifully acted.