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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Avatar & Inglorious Basterds

Avatar (2009)

Avatar is the first movie where I decided to splurge and see it in 3D, and I picked the right one. James Cameron spent somewhere between 200-400 million on this colossal movie (reports are a bit fuzzy) and every penny is certainly up on screen. While my eyes were tired when I was done, I do think the 3D adds to the experience.

First of all, I do believe that Avatar is a groundbreaking movie in the use of new technology to meld special effects and human subjects. Imagine Gollum from Lord of the Rings times 1,000 and you have some sense of this movie. Cameron creates a beautiful world called Pandora, an idyllic planet far away from the Earth that the humans have destroyed. There are 10-foot-tall blue creatures called the Na'vi, original animals, and trees that have magic powers. Everything is depicted in absolutely gorgeous details.

Now on to the story. I think the outlines of the story is good and very interesting. I really liked the way the humans became avatars and how they switched back and forth when they went to sleep or were unplugged. The central love story in Avatar is also good in the sort of broadly romantic way. While I have a few compliments, I can also definitely say that the writing is not the strength of Avatar. The dialogue can be clunky, the themes are a little too on-the-head, and the basic outline of the story is fairly predictable. The movie has a clear anti-imperialist, pro-environment message (no argument here), but it is extremely heavy handed. It's as if every theme has to be underlined 5 times for the audience to get it. I think the best parts of the movie are the battle and action scenes. There is so much to be seen, you can't help but be wowed. I thought the weakest part of the movie was actually the middle, when Sully (our hero) is shown the new world by Neyitri, the babe of the Na'vis. It reminded me a little too much of scenes from Disney's Pocahontas.

As I was thinking about how to grade Avatar, I came back to a few points. If this movie had used traditional animation, what grade would I give it, based on the story? Probably a C+ or a B-. But the effects, the spectacle, and the leap forward in movie technology are definitely something worthy of awe. I settled on giving it a B+. Not the best of the year, but definitely a spectacle worth seeing.

Grade: B

Inglorious Basterds (2009)

Quentin Tarantino came up with a delightfully deranged concept for this movie. Take World War II history, alter the facts, filter it through decades of Hollywood movies, mix it with modern-day violence and humor, and spit it all out. The good news is, he comes up with scenes and images that are among the most memorable and powerful of the year. The bad news is, not all the parts fit quite as well as others.

For being the title of the movie, the sections of the movie featuring the "Basterds" were actually the least interesting moments of the movie. The Basterds are a group of Jewish-American soldiers who are on a mission to kill and scalp Nazi soldiers. While the movie has a loose and pulpy vibe to it, these scenes lean too much on absurdist humor, and I think Brad Pitt overplays his hand. Much more interesting is the story of Shoshanna (the fabulous Melanie Laurent), a young Jewish woman in disguise who runs the French cinema frequented by the Nazi collaborators. Now they want to have the premiere of a new German film, and she has other plans for the night....

Christoph Waltz has been pulling in every Supporting Actor award under the sun and he is terrific as a brilliant,multi-lingual Nazi commander Hans Lander who is called "The Jew Hunter." He is a magnetic force every time he is on screen. There are so many moments when you know he could snap at the drop of a hat.

There are numerous great scenes in this movie. I'll name my favorite 4: The extended opening, where Hans Lander visits a French farmhouse that has been hiding Jews; the meeting between Hans Lander and Shoshanna in a Paris cafe; a gathering in a French restaurant full of mind games and double crossers; and the brilliant closing minutes where Tarantino indulges in some revisionist history. Unfortunately, these scenes are interspersed with others that don't fully live up to the promise of Tarantino's vision. If Tarantino had kept the energy and film references but cut down a bit on the jokiness, I think it would have been a stronger film.

Grade: B

Friday, December 18, 2009

Oscar Precursor Stampede Part 2 (Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, & Director)

Continuing my rundown of prominent recent awards.....


NY Film Critics: Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds)
LA Film Critics: Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds)
Runner-Up: Peter Capaldi (In the Loop)
National Board of Review: Woody Harrelson (The Messenger)
Broadcast Film Critics Nominees: Matt Damon (Invictus); Woody Harrelson (The Messenger); Christian McKay (Me and Orson Welles); Alfred Molina (An Education); Stanley Tucci (The Lovely Bones); Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds)
Golden Globe Nominees: Matt Damon (Invictus); Woody Harrelson (The Messenger); Christopher Plummer (The Last Station); Stanely Tucci (The Lovely Bones); Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds)
Screen Actors Guild Nominees: Matt Damon (Invictus); Woody Harrelson (The Messenger); Christopher Plummer (The Last Station); Stanely Tucci (The Lovely Bones); Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds)

What does it mean? Well, it looks like Christoph Waltz is locked and loaded for the Supporting Actor Oscar. Also, since the Globes and SAG nominated the same 5, those might be our 5. It looks like Stanley Tucci will be the only one to survive the Lovely Bones critical dismissal. I'm disappointed to see no love for Anthony Mackie in The Hurt Locker. He was terrific in his pivotal role.


NY Film Critics: Mo'Nique (Precious)
LA Film Critics: Mo'Nique (Precious)
Runner-up: Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air)
National Board of Review: Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air)
Broadcast Film Critics Nominees: Marion Cotillard (Nine); Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air); Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air); Mo'Nique (Precious); Julianne Moore (A Single Man); Samantha Morton (The Messenger)
Golden Globe Nominees: Penelope Cruz (Nine); Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air); Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air); Mo'Nique (Precious); Julianne Moore (A Single Man)
Screen Actor Guild Nominees: Penelope Cruz (Nine); Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air); Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air); Diane Kruger (Inglorious Basterds); Mo'Nique (Precious)

What does it mean? It looks like Mo'Nique, Anna Kendrick, and Vera Farmiga are in for sure! All three performances are absolutely terrific, so good for them. The other slots look like a duel between the Nine actresses (Cotillard and Cruz), Julianne Moore, and Samantha Morton. While Kendrick has picked up a few wins, I still feel this is Mo'Nique's Oscar to lose (and I doubt she will).


NY Film Critics: Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker)
LA Film Critics: Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker)
Runner-Up: Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon)
National Board of Review: Clint Eastwood (Invictus)
Broadcast Film Critics Nominees: Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker); James Cameron (Avatar); Lee Daniels (Precious); Clint Eastwood (Invictus); Jason Reitman (Up in the Air); Quentin Tarantino (Inglorious Basterds)
Golden Globe Nominees: Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker); James Cameron (Avatar); Clint Eastwood (Invictus); Jason Reitman (Up in the Air); Quentin Tarantino (Inglorious Basterds)

What does it mean? It means we could be looking at our first ever female director winner! And for a war movie. A great one at that. Otherwise it looks like Tarantino, Reitman, and Cameron are in I think. The last slot will probably go to Eastwood or Lee Daniels. But who knows. The Academy sometimes does interesting things with Best Director.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Oscar Precursor Stampede: Part 1 (Picture, Actor, Actress)

In the past week or so, many many critics groups and awards bodies have released their awards and nominations for 2009. I'll take a look at how each category is panning out and what that means for Oscars. I'll look at the National Board of Review (first major awards) the New York Film Critics and LA Film Critics (the two most influential critics groups), the Broadcast Film Critics (fairly predictive of Oscar), the Screen Actors Guild (ditto), and the Golden Globes (biggest prize after Oscar).


NY Film Critics: The Hurt Locker
LA Film Critics: The Hurt Locker
National Board of Review: Up in the Air
National Board of Review Top 10: An Education, (500) Days of Summer, The Hurt Locker, Inglorious Basterds, Invictus, The Messenger, A Serious Man, Star Trek, Up, Where the Wild Things Are
Broadcast Film Critics: Avatar, An Education, The Hurt Locker, Inglorious Basterds, Invictus, Nine, Precious, A Serious Man, Up, Up in the Air
Golden Globe Nominees (Drama): Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglorious Basterds, Precious, Up in the Air
Golden Globe Nominees (Comedy/Musical): (500) Days of Summer, The Hangover, It's Complicated, Julie & Julia, Nine
Screen Actors Guild (Best Ensemble): An Education, The Hurt Locker, Inglorious Basterds, Nine, Precious

What does it mean? A few movies are obviously doing extremely well in these precursors: The Hurt Locker, Up in the Air, and Inglorious Basterds. The Hurt Locker seems to be winning the most awards, but I still tend to think Up in the Air is our current frontrunner for the win. The Hurt Locker is probably a little small and a little unconventional for a Best Picture win. Precious missed the National Board of Review, but otherwise looks strong. Nine, Invictus, and An Education are a little spotty in their awards attention. Also, it looks like Avatar will be good rather than a bomb..... can't wait to see it!


NY Film Critics: George Clooney (Up in the Air & The Fantastic Mr. Fox)
LA Film Critics: Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart)
Runner-Up: Colin Firth (A Single Man)
National Board of Review: Morgan Freeman (Invictus) & George Clooney (Up in the Air)
Broadcast Film Critics Nominees: Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart); George Clooney (Up in the Air); Colin Firth (A Single Man); Morgan Freeman (Invictus); Viggo Mortenson (The Road); Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker)
Golden Globe Nominees (Drama): Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart); George Clooney (Up in the Air); Colin Firth (A Single Man); Morgan Freeman (Invictus); Tobey Maguire (Brothers)
Golden Globe Nomineees (Comedy/Musical): Matt Damon (The Informant!); Daniel Day-Lewis (Nine); Robert Downey Jr. (Sherlock Holmes); Joseph Gordon-Levitt ( (500) Days of Summer); Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man)
Screen Actors Guild Nominees: Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart); George Clooney (Up in the Air); Colin Firth (A Single Man); Morgan Freeman (Invictus); Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker)

What Does it Mean? If I had to make a bet, I'd bet our five nominees are going to match the Screen Actors Guild (Bridges, Clooney, Firth, Freeman, Renner). It looks like a Jeff Bridges vs. Clooney fight for the win. I'm super excited to see relative unknown Jeremy Renner get so much attention for The Hurt Locker. Here's hoping he goes all the way to Oscar nomination morning.


NY Film Critics:
Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia)
LA Film Critics: Yolande Moreau (Seraphine) - HUH? had not even heard of this.
Runner-Up: Carey Mulligan (An Education)
National Board of Review: Carey Mulligan (An Education)
Broadcast Film Critics Nominees: Emily Blunt (The Young Victoria); Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side); Carey Mulligan (An Education); Saorsie Ronan (The Lovely Bones); Gabourey Sidibe (Precious); Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia)
Golden Globe Nominees (Drama): Emily Blunt (The Young Victoria); Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side); Helen Mirren (The Last Station); Carey Mulligan (An Education); Gabourey Sidibe (Precious)
Golden Globe Nominees (Comedy/Musical): Sandra Bullock (The Proposal); Marion Cotillard (Nine); Julia Roberts (Duplicity); Meryl Streep (It's Complicated); Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia)
Screen Actors Guild Nominees: Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side); Helen Mirren (The Last Station); Carey Mulligan (An Education); Gabourey Sidibe (Precious); Meryl Streep (Julie & Julia)

What does it mean? As someone who is particularly annoyed by Sandra Bullock in most roles, it pains me to admit that it looks like she has a likely claim on one of the five nomination slots this year. As with the actors, the Screen Actors Guild may have given us the same list that is likely to be Oscar nominated: Bullock, Mirren, Mulligan, Sidibe, Streep. I think it's definitely between Mulligan and Streep for the win, with my money on Streep. I loved both performances, so I haven't fully committed to a camp yet.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Up in the Air, Star Trek, and Julie & Julia

As Oscar season heats up, I'm doing my best to fit in all the 2009 contenders I can Hooray for my upcoming holiday break! Here are my latest viewings.....

Up in the Air

Up in the Air is probably the front-runner for Best Picture, and I can see why. It's a movie so carefully written, directed, and acted that all the pieces seemed to fit into place. This is no small feat since there are several narratives within the movie. George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a man who goes to other companies to tell their employees they are laid off. So part of the movie is about that and is a commentary on our economy. Another part is about his casual (or not?) relationship with another business traveler Alex (Vera Farmiga). There is also his young protege (or nemesis?) Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick). And by the end, you also learn a lot about Bingham's relationship with his family.

The fact that all these threads are woven together with laugh-out-loud and lump in your throat moments are testament to the great screenplay and the lead and supporting actors who pull it off. I'm going to go out on a limb and say this is George Clooney's best performance. He does always kind of play a similar suave character, but he plays it well, and in this movie he adds depth and complexity to the character. The two supporting actresses are absolutely outstanding. Vera Farmiga, best known from her great role in the male-centric The Departed, is great as a counterpart to Clooney's businessman. The two definitely set off sparks in their moments together. Anna Kendrick is also excellent as a young go-getter who finds her views widened in her time with Clooney. The female roles here always feel like fully formed characters, and not tools for Clooney's character development.

This is the kind of movie I don't want to tell too much about, because much of the pleasure to be found is in the directions it takes. Do I have quibbles? Sure, but they are few and minor. There's a little too much indie-rock towards the end of the film when it really doesn't need the extra emotion, and I would have appreciated a touch more closure on a plot point or two. But all in all, this is easily one of the best movies of the year. See it.

Grade: A

Star Trek

When I was a young preteen, I loved the old Star Trek. I remember watching them with my brother on summer evenings and enjoying the kitschy trips to other planets and the sense of opportunity aboard the Starship Enterprise. I also remember being put off by Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was too modern-looking, too serious, and just not as fun.

The good news about Star Trek is that it definitely has the spirit of the old show and not The Next Generation. It's bright, fun, fast-paced, and shot through with a dose of good feeling. It basically sets up the backstory of how Kirk, Spock, Scotty, and the rest of the gang came to be aboard the Starship Enterprise. I really enjoyed seeing the origin and seeing Kirk and Spock's relationship develop. The time-travel plotline with Leonard Nimoy is also a lot of fun. The cast is young, attractive, and easy to watch.

All in all, it's definitely a fun popcorn movie. My biggest complaint is that is has a bit too much action near the end and not enough character development. The other quibble is that it sometimes seems more like a setup for future sequels (which I'm sure there will be) and less like a movie aware of its own strengths.

Grade: B

Julie & Julia

Meryl Streep hits it out of the park as Julia Child. You could call what she does overacting, with her whoops and mutterings and physicality, but when you watch videos of the actual Julia Child it actually feels like Meryl is dead on. The scenes detailing Julia's life in France with her diplomat husband (the wonderful Stanly Tucci) are also charming and delightful. You see Julia fall in love with food and find her passion, and Meryl takes you along for the ride.

Unfortunately, this charming story is paired with a pedestrian story of Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a Queens blogger who attempted to cook all the recipes in Child's cookbook in one year. The concept is interesting, but the character of Julie is rather bland. Whenever the movie switches back to her story, you know it is going to move in predictable directions. It's not exactly "bad," and Amy Adams does her best in the role of Julie, but the story only holds so much dramatic material. The ending of the movie is also a let-down. You're waiting for some kind of climax where everything comes together, and it never really comes.

Still, this movie is definitely worth seeing for the Julia Child half of the movie, and especially Meryl Streep's performance, which may finally win Streep her third Oscar. If I ever watch it again, I certainly know which parts will get the fast forward button.

Grade: B-