Thursday, January 31, 2008

More Oscar Picks

A couple more Oscar predictions:

Directing. The nominees: Julian Schnabel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; Jason Reitman, Juno; Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton; Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, No Country for Old Men; Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood.

There will not be blood, but there will be an Oscar for the Coen brothers. As Walter Monheit used to say in the late, lamented Spy magazine: Oof!

Documentary Feature. The nominees: No End in Sight; Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience; Sicko; Taxi to the Darkside; War/Dance.

The rule is, if I haven’t seen it, it won't win. Just kidding, but gone are the days when documentary nominees were all obscure films that no one except some Academy voters saw. Documentaries are hot now, and the ones that win tend to be those that were commercially successful and/or politically influential, like An Inconvenient Truth (however scientifically suspect its content may have been).

On that basis, the contest is between Michael Moore's Sicko and Charles Ferguson and Audrey Marrs’ well made Bush-botched-the-occupation doc No End in Sight, which didn’t question the rationale for the Iraq invasion but detailed the hubristic blunders of the Administration — which is a little like saying that Hitler had the right idea but his strategy was bad.

I think the award will go to Sicko, which exposed the sickening state of U.S. healthcare, most likely to no avail. But it is a remarkably moving polemic, and the most focused of Moore’s films.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Handicapping Oscar

I’ve never been one to devote a whole lot of emotion to the Academy Awards, but I do enjoy picking the winners. I have a pretty good record of accuracy, too, though I never had the good sense to bet money on the race.

I don’t especially study the industry. I rely mostly on intuition. If you read off the list of nominees in a category, I can usually “feel” which one will get the award. I had all the main winners correct last year prior to my pre-Oscar guest shot on WCPN-FM’s “Around Noon” show, including dark horse Alan Arkin as Best Supporting Actor in Little Miss Sunshine — to me, a no-brainer (funny role, well-liked actor out of the spotlight for years). And yet, most were touting Eddie Murphy’s unremarkable James Brown-y turn in Dreamgirls.

Here are some preliminary predictions:

Best Picture. The nominees: Atonement, Juno, Michael Clayton, No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood.

First, what the heck is Juno doing here? Comedies rarely walk off with Best Picture. This annoying snarkfest seems to have captured the hearts of many people, especially critics, though God knows why. It certainly isn’t as funny as Knocked Up, which also probably isn’t Oscar-caliber, but is vastly more enjoyable. (More on Knocked Up vs. Juno in an upcoming post). Look for stripper-turned-screenwriter Diablo Cody to get the award for Best Original Screenplay for Juno, despite such cringe-inducing neologisms as "Homeskillet."

Intuition tells me the winner will be the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men, the second for them after Fargo. I don’t share critics’ enthusiasm for No Country, a mostly unpleasant exercise in Western nihilism, but it has caused a stir. Closest contender is Atonement, this year’s popular Merchant-Ivory imitation, whose visual loveliness (and that of Keira Knightley and James McAvoy as the star-crossed lovers) set many a movie matron-patron’s heart a-flutter, never mind the flaws in its narrative. I think Michael Clayton was thrown in for good measure, though the brisk legal thriller is a refreshingly cool drink of water.

As for There Will Be Blood, I finally mustered the stamina to endure its two-hour-38-minute length, and couldn't quite understand what all the gushing (so to speak) is about concerning this pseudo-majestic, ultimately unsatisfying film. As ever, the American West is the destination of filmmakers who want to appear profound. I, for one, find Westerns, with their sprawling desert vistas, immensely boring. They do, however, inspire critics to toss around words like "masterpiece." Ho-hum!

Best Actor.
The nominees: George Clooney, Michael Clayton; Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood; Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd; Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah; Viggo Mortensen, Eastern Promises.

I haven't seen all of these yet, but I believe it's a toss-up between Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones. Day-Lewis won the Best Actor award in 1989 for My Left Foot; Jones has won only a Best Supporting Oscar for The Fugitive, so he may be due for a valedictory Oscar. A win for Elah would also stand in for his work in No Country. Day-Lewis' portrayal of a black-hearted oilman certainly was Acting with a capital 'A' — not my style, but superb considering what he had to work with. I believe Day-Lewis will win, but I may change my mind on this one.

Best Actress. The nominees: Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth: The Golden Age; Julie Christie, Away from Her; Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose; Laura Linney, The Savages; Ellen Page, Juno.

This is easy: Julie Christie in Away from Her. This nomination has all the right elements: comeback role of sentimental favorite from the swinging ’60s, plus the real clincher, portraying someone suffering from a bad disease (in this case Alzheimer’s). Never mind that what Ms. Christie did was largely act with her hair, and that the movie was a laughable Canadian-made low-budgeter that turned a wry Alice Munro short story into an unrealistic disease-of-the-week tearjerker. Honestly, the movie’s production values reminded me of the deliberately bad Canadian TV movies they used to make for the SCTV comedy show, with cheap music and boring shots of snowy landscapes and cars driving along the highway.

I personally like Laura Linney in The Savages, but that means little enough. Marion Cotillard? Too French. Ellen Page? Um, no. Cate Blanchett? Maybe supporting actress for her bizarrely convincing Bob Dylan drag act in I’m Not There. There seems to be nothing this actress cannot do.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A List Before Dying

Nicholson and Freeman are grumpy old chemo patients in The Bucket List

Over many years of critiquing movies, sometimes for pay and sometimes for sport, I’ve noticed that certain things make audiences laugh reflexively. Let’s call them the “three F’s”: falling, flatulence and feisty old folks. Pratfalls always make ’em roar, the more painful the landing the better. Flatulence, well, speaks for itself. And the sight of an elderly person doing something age-inappropriate, like swearing, fistfighting or riding a motorcycle — the height of hilarity. Aspiring screenwriters: find a way to work all three of these into your script! Guaranteed boffo box office.

At least two of these are featured in The Bucket List, the story of two senior citizens who bond in the hospital while being treated for cancer. I thought the trailer for this movie, directed by Rob Reiner and starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, looked promising, until it showed the men coping with terminal illness by skydiving and racing cars. Sigh — only in Hollywood.

Nicholson plays Edward Cole, the millionaire CEO of a company that runs hospitals. At board meetings, he drops references to lunching with Michelle Pfeiffer, exults in his special variety of gourmet coffee, and is fond of saying, when someone suggests the hospitals offer private rooms, “I run hospitals, not health spas.”

When he starts coughing up blood, Edward finds himself, irony of ironies, in one of his non-private rooms, alongside Carter Chambers (Freeman), an auto mechanic and trivia expert who has the tiresome habit of calling out the correct answers to Jeopardy! questions. Both men have been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Carter, a humble, hard-working grandfather, is mildly annoyed by the spoiled millionaire in the next bed, who has his assistant (Sean Hayes from Will & Grace, regrettably underused here) fetch him rich meals he won’t be able to keep down. Carter is doted on by his worried wife Virginia (Beverly Todd), and while her ministrations irritate him, he realizes that Edward, for all his success, has no visitors at all. Eventually the men bond over shared suffering and gin rummy.

Early on, Justin Zackham’s script provides flashes of grim humor, as when Edward, following a vomiting episode, looks in the mirror and muses, “Somewhere, some lucky bastard is having a heart attack.” But what follows is a descent into geriatric buddy-movie formula: grumpy old men’s road trip. Edward notices that Carter has written a “Bucket List,” containing all the things he wants to accomplish before “kicking the bucket.” Edward suggests more exciting items like “Go skydiving” and “kiss the most beautiful girl in the world,” makes his own list, and persuades Carter to join him on a journey to do all the things on their lists.

Things like this can happen only in the Bizarro World of movies. Cost is no object — “I got nothing but money,” says Edward — and Carter is willing to leave his wife alone for his remaining months on earth. It’s an unlikely thing for this character to do, but the script contrives an explanation: Carter complains that he isn’t all that happily married.

Remarkably symptom-free, the pair travel around the globe — visiting the Pyramids, dining in Paris — while the understandably frantic Virginia telephones, begging her husband to come home. The movie’s view of the issues surrounding terminal illness is, shall we say, a tad unrealistic.

So are the men’s fantasy activities. One of Carter’s lifelong dreams is to drive a Mustang Shelby, so Edward buys him one, and the two race cars while the soundtrack blares ZZ Top’s “Tush,” no doubt a big favorite of these seventy-something gents. But would Carter really crash his coveted Shelby into Edward’s car just for kicks? Probably not, but it makes noise and gets the audience laughing. Woo-hoo!

Reiner’s best days as a director, alas, seem to be behind him. What small pleasures there are here come from watching two reliable veteran actors at work, but they are not helped by a wobbly script that contains, along with a heavy dose of sentiment, such bits of wisdom as Edward’s advice on getting older: “Never waste a hard-on, and never trust a fart.”

That makes two “F’s” — I think we may have a hit!

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times,

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Real Thing

Seldom do all the elements in a film come together as beautifully as they do in Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages, starring Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as a brother and sister who have to put their estranged, increasingly demented father in a nursing home. Everything in this movie works: impeccable acting, cinematography, music, and screenwriting so real and affecting that during certain scenes I was literally on the edge of my seat — not in suspense but sheer awe. This one is the real thing — don’t miss it.