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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Oscar Nominee Predictions

All right, here goes my best shots at the main Oscar categories..... I've divided each list into three categories: "Sure Things," "Looking Good," and "Questionable." Within each group, I've tried to put the movies in order of likelihood.


Sure Things
The Hurt Locker
Up in the Air
Inglorious Basterds
Looking Good
An Education
A Serious Man
District 9

Crazy Heart
Star Trek
The Blind Side
The Messenger
The Hangover
Julie & Julia

This new 10-wide field is killing me. The Top 5 are a cinch this year. After that, things get murky. So many questions. Invictus has been losing steam, but I'm predicting there is just enough Eastwood love for it to get in. District 9 has been gaining strength, but is the Academy ready to nominate 2 (or even 3 with Star Trek) sci-fi films in a year? Also, could Nine still recover from its critical dismissal? Could Sandra Bullock possibly carry her bit hit The Blind Side to a nomination? We shall see on Oscar morning. I definitely think there is a surprise or two lurking in this category.


Sure Things
Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
George Clooney, Up in the Air

Looking Good
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker
Colin Firth, A Single Man
Morgan Freeman, Invictus

Viggo Mortenson, The Road
Tobey Maguire, Brothers
Matt Damon, The Informant

This category seems the easiest to predict. If any of those five are not named, it will be a huge shocker.


Sure Things
Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious

Helen Mirren, The Last Station

Emily Blunt, The Young Victoria

Really there is no one outside of these six I can imagine making it. I almost put Blunt in for the fifth slot, but the Academy does seem to love Helen Mirren.

Supporting Actor

Sure Things
Christoph Waltz, Inglorious Basterds
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger

Stanely Tucci, The Lovely Bones
Matt Damon, Invictus
Anthony Mackie, The Hurt Locker

Christopher Plummer, The Last Station
Alfred Molina, An Education
Christian McKay, Me and Orson Welles
Stanley Tucci, Julie & Julia
Alec Baldwin, It's Complicated

This is definitely the hardest race to predict. Putting Anthony Mackie in the fifth slot could be wishful thinking on my part. Since The Hurt Locker has a ton of momentum, though, I think it's entirely possible he will get in. I would not be surprised to see any of these gentlemen on the list come Tuesday.

Supporting Actress

Sure Things
Mo'Nique, Precious
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air

Julianne Moore, A Single Man
Melanie Laurent, Inglorious Basterds

Penelope Cruz, Nine
Diane Kruger, Inglorious Basterds
Samantha Morton, The Messenger
Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crazy Heart
Marion Cotillard, Nine

Another category where I can't decide. The top 3 are easy. After that is extremely tricky..... Julianne Moore often gets nominations, so I'm guessing she'll get in. My last choice is Melanie Laurent, probably the most risky of my predictions. While she has not had much support from early awards this season, and there is some category confusion on her role (Actress or Supporting Actress?), Inglorious Basterds has been doing well and she is a very memorable part of it. I'm thinking she just might pull it off. But once again, I could see any of these 10 on the list.


Sure Things
Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
James Cameron, Avatar
Quentin Tarantino, Inglorious Basterds

Looking Good
Jason Reitman, Up in the Air
Lee Daniels, Precious

Neil Blomkamp, District 9
Joel & Ethan Coen, A Serious Man
Lone Scherfig, An Education
Michael Haneke, The White Ribbon
Clint Eastwood, Invictus

I'm felling pretty confident about these five. The only one I can really see getting switched out is Lee Daniels.

Original Screenplay

Sure Things
Inglorious Basterds
The Hurt Locker

Looking Good
A Serious Man
(500) Days of Summer

The Hangover
It's Complicated

This category also seems pretty set, but Original Screenplay has a history of putting in unexpected choices.

Adapted Screenplay

Sure Things
Up in the Air
An Education

District 9
Crazy Heart

Fantastic Mr. Fox
Julie & Julia
In the Loop
A Single Man

Beyond the obvious top 3, this is a tough category to call. Will they go quirky indie (District 9, Mr. Fox, In the Loop), more traditional indie (Crazy Heart, A Single Man) or mainstream (Julie & Julia, Invictus)?

Overall Nominations

While I could bore you with Sound Effects Editing or Best Original Score, my expertise wears a little thin on the technical categories. I will make some guesses as to how many nominations I expect some of the top contenders to get:

Avatar: 10 (Picture, Director, Cinematography, Art Direction, Editing, Score, Song, Visual Effects, Sound Effects, Sound Effects Editing)

The Hurt Locker: 9 (Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Sound Editing)

Inglorious Basterds: 9 (Picture, Director, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Editing)

Up in the Air: 7 (Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Editing)

Precious: 6 (Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Editing)

Tune in Tuesday to see how I did!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Top 10 Retrospective: 2002

Top 10 Retrospective: 2002

It's been a while since my decade rewind of Top 10 lists (see the blog sidebar for previous editions), so here is another installment, from a year in cinema I really love.

Runners-Up: Adaptation, Chicago, Lovely and Amazing, Russian Ark

10. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: For my money, the best of the three LOTR movies. It didn't waste any time setting up or finishing up a story. It takes you straight in, introduces Gollum as a major character, and has some of the best battle sequences ever put on film.

9. Rabbit-Proof-Fence: A beautiful, heartbreaking, and life affirming true story about Aboriginal children who were taken away from their parents, and how they find their way home.

8. The Pianist: Roman Polanski's sober, gripping, and unsentimental story of one Jewish man's survival through the horrors of Nazi-occupied Poland. It's all the more powerful because of the simplicity of the story. Adrien Brody unexpectedly won the Oscar for his terrific performance.

7. About a Boy: A straight-up feel-good movie that does everything right. Hugh Grant gives his best performance as a playboy who finds his life tangled with a boy and his hippie single mom (the always wonderful Toni Colette). Also boasts one of the best movie soundtracks ever (by Badly Drawn Boy).

6. 25th Hour: Spike Lee's mournful look at the last free hours of a drug dealer about to go to prison. It's about New York, 9/11, choices, and personal freedom. One of Spike Lee's best.

5. Monsoon Wedding: Another movie that's just a whole lot of fun. This tale of an Indian arranged marriage includes a little something for everyone. Like Rachel Getting Married, I really wished I was at this wedding.

4. About Schmidt: Jack Nicholson tones down his shtick and gives a beautifully understated performance as a widower traveling to his daughter's wedding. This movie says a lot about mortality and regret, and it has equal amounts of humor and heartbreak.

3. Y Tu Mama Tambien: Director Alfonso Cuaron takes the basic outline of an American teen sex comedy, mixes it with French New Wave style, and adds just enough commentary about social class. It's about an older woman who accompanies two teenage boys on a trip to the beach. It's about so much more though.....

2. Talk to Her: When I saw this movie first, I liked it but couldn't quite wrap my head around all the emotional undercurrents. Since then, I watched it many more times and it's grown into one of my favorite movies. Director Pedro Almodovar's best movie. I love it's themes of fate, friendship, and obsession. Bonus points for using modern dance for some of the most memorable opening and closing scenes I've ever seen. The whole thing is absolutely exquisite.

1. Far From Heaven: Like Talk to Her, I've seen this movie many times and love it more each time. Director Todd Haynes has created an homage to 50s-melodrama that is able to weave in a modern take on race and sexuality. What's amazing is how he accomplishes this without ever stopping to the level of parody. He takes these characters, and old movies, completely seriously. Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, Patricia Clarkson, and Dennis Haysbert all fit the period perfectly. I could watch this over and over for the entire artistic perfection of every element of this movie.

Sum-Up: I think 2002 is a great (and underrated) year in the decade for film. So many of my personal favorites are on this list. Ranking them was a tough job, and I heartily recommend every movie on this list.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

2009 Reviews: Broken Embraces, In the Loop, Medicine for Melancholy, & Moon

Broken Embraces, In the Loop, Medicine for Melancholy, & Moon

I've fallen a bit behind on my 2009 views, so here are some quick takes on some recent movies.

Broken Embraces

Pedro Almodovar's latest movie is definitely for the cinephiles. It's filled with references to both his own work (especially Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) and the films of Hitchcock (Vertigo, Notorious). The story is his usual mix of humor and melodrama, and it's highly entertaining the whole way through. One of the reasons Almodovar seems to have made this movie is to showcase the beauty and talent of Penelope Cruz, his frequent muse. She is wonderful in the movie, and he films her in an endless montage of arresting images. While the movie is great fun, I didn't feel the same emotional investment I feel with his best work (Talk to Her, All About My Mother).

Grade: B+

In the Loop

This very funny satire imagines the political fallout from an offhand remark by a minor British politician. His comment sets off a cross-Atlantic war over whether to go to war in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. The movie is a spinoff from a British TV series, and it does still have a kind of TV vibe to it. It calls to mind both the British version of The Office and a more profane Christopher Guest movie. My favorites in the terrific cast were Peter Capaldi as the Prime Minister's media director and Mimi Kennedy as a Hillary Clinton-like Assistant Secretary of State. While not many of the characters are not exactly likable, they are all really funny. Watching this movie is definitely the most I've laughed at a movie in a while.

Grade: B+

Medicine for Melancholy

This low-budget independent movie is a sort of African-American, California version of Before Sunrise. It's about two young hipsters who have a one-night stand and spend the next day walking around San Francisco and talking about stuff. Wyatt Cenac (Micah) is very engaging, while I had more mixed feelings on Tracey Heggins, who plays the more bourgeois Jo. I liked the talking in this movie. A lot of this movie is about race and gentrification, and the characters have interesting perspectives. Not as insightful as Before Sunrise/Before Sunset, but interesting. Unfortunately, this movie relies too-heavily on scenes without talking. Walking, biking, riding on carousels, dancing. Since the movie is not very attractive to look at (it's shot in a sort of fusion between black and white and color that draws on the strengths of neither) these scenes grow redundant. An interesting start for director Barry Jenkins, and I hope he makes some
improvements on his next movie.

Grade: C


After District 9, this is example number 2 that the most important element of great science fiction is story and script, not special effects. The less I say about this movie, the better. Much of the pleasure of the movie is figuring out what is going on and letting the mind-twisting elements of the story take you along. It's about Sam, a man who has been living alone harvesting energy from the moon. Sam Rockwell is pretty much the only significant actor in the movie (perhaps excepting the voice of Kevin Spacey as a talking computer), and he has to pull off all kinds of emotions. This movie was shot for only $5 million, and it looks great. It's easily one of the best underseen movies of the year. Please remedy that and see it!

Grade: A-

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Golden Globes Live Blog

Welcome readers. I'll be writing a few comments here and there as I watch the Globes....

Check my post below for my predictions.

8:05: Ricky Gervais! High hopes for this host. Oooh, already some talk about The Office "jumping the shark." Can't say I disagree.....

8:06-Supporting Actress: Mo'nique for Precious! No surprise here. A very moving speech. 1/1 on my predix so far!

8:22-Animated Feature. Up, as expected. 2/2 for predix. What a strong year for "kids" movies- Coraline, Up, Fantastic Mr. Fox (which I still have to see!), Harry Potter, Where the Wild Things Are.

8:35- Actor (TV Drama): Michael C. Hall (Dexter). I think I should watch Dexter. Everyone seems to love it. Didn't realize he had cancer. How sad.

8:42. Why can Harrison Ford hardly breathe or smile? Not looking good.

8:46-Best Song: "The Weary Kind" from Crazy Heart. Don't know these well, but this one sounds pretty good. I neglected to make a prediction in this category.

8:48- Score: Up. 2/3 for predix know, but I'm glad. This score is very charming and much better than Avatar's.

9:02-Actress Comedy/Musical: Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia. Nice speech-what a class act.

9:16- Actress Miniseries/TV Movie: Drew Barrymore in Grey Gardens. Her dress looks like there is a hedgehog on her shoulder.

9:24-Screenplay: Up in the Air. 3/4 for predix. Great screenplay and great choice. What the hell was It's Complicated doing getting nominated in this category?

9:35- Foreign Film. The White Ribbon. 3/5 now. Oh well. I can't WAIT to see this movie when it comes out. If you haven't seen Michael Haneke's Cache, see it now. It's great.

9:39- Drama Series. Mad Men! I love this show.

9:48- Supporting Actress-TV. Chloe Sevigny (Big Love). The most fascinating of the three wives on the show. Good pic.

9:50- Supporting Actor. Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds). Like Mo'nique, he is on the road to a well-deserved Oscar. 4/6.

10:04- Martin Scorsese. Damn that man has made some great movies. My favorite? Taxi Driver, with Goodfellas a close second.

10:14- Ricky Gervais making fun of Mel Gibson's alcoholism..... what a great moment.

10:16- James Cameron (Avatar). Damn. I really wanted this to be Kathryn Bigelow (Cameron's ex-wife!). I fully applaud James for so much of Avatar and it was an enjoyable movie. But really, isn't part of being a director tweaking the script?? It could have been so much better. 4/7

10:19- Best TV Comedy. Glee dethrones 30 Rock. I have yet to see Glee, so I'll withhold comment.

10:27- Best Comedy/Musical. The Hangover! A bit of a surprise. Didn't see this yet, but am excited to. This brings me to 4/8 for my predix.

10:36- Actress/Drama. Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side). Ugh. Over Carey and Gabourey? Although it does bring my record up to 5/9.

10:40- Actor-Musical/Comedy. Robert Downey Jr. (Sherlock Holmes). Was not expecting that one.... The Hangover, Sherlock Holmes, Avatar, and The Blind Side as big winners. It looks like the Globes are going for the big box office winners. 5/10. My record is pretty pathetic.

10:47- Actor/Drama. Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart). He's definitely the frontrunner for Oscar.

10:56- Picture/Drama. Avatar. As predicted. My final tally for my predictions is 6/11. Some surprises were interesting (Hangover, score for Up) while others I wish had gone another way (James Cameron).

Overall, not one of the best Globes ceremonies I've seen. From an Oscar perspective, the big winners tonight were Avatar, Jeff Bridges, and Sandra Bullock. And possibly The Hangover. Could it possibly make it in the Top 10?

Golden Globe Predictions

Tonight are the Golden Globes, the most-watched awards ceremony after the Oscars. The ceremony tends to have a much more loose vibe than the Oscars, and I think a good speech at these awards can really help some winners in their search for Oscar.

I'll be live-blogging during the ceremony, but here are my predictions and preferences for the film awards (I'll leave the TV awards to someone else- I'm basically pulling for Mad Men and 30 Rock in every possible category).

Best Motion Picture – Drama
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Precious: Based On The Novel Push By Sapphire
Up in the Air

Will Win: Avatar

Should Win: The Hurt Locker

Best Director – Motion Picture
Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
James Cameron, Avatar
Clint Eastwood, Invictus
Jason Reitman, Up In The Air
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds

Will Win: Bigelow

Should Win: Bigelow

Best Screenplay – Motion Picture
Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell – District 9
Mark Boal – The Hurt Locker
Quentin Tarantino – Inglourious Basterds
Nancy Meyers – It’s Complicated
Jason Reitman, Sheldon Turner, Up In The Air

Will Win: Up in the Air

Should Win: Up in the Air

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama
Emily Blunt, The Young Victoria
Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Helen Mirren, The Last Station
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious

Will Win: Sandra Bullock (pains me to say it, but there is my prediction)

Should Win: Carey Mulligan

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama
Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
George Clooney, Up In The Air
Colin Firth, A Single Man
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Tobey Maguire, Brothers

Will Win: Bridges

Should Win: Clooney (although I've only seen Clooney and Freeman's performances)

Best Motion Picture – Comedy Or Musical
(500) Days Of Summer

The Hangover

It’s Complicated

Julie & Julia

Will Win: Toughest call, but I'm gonna say Nine. Even with its bad reviews, the Globes love their musicals. In 1996, Evita beat Fargo for this award.... I can actually see this going to any of these except It's Complicated though.

Should Win: Of the two I've seen (Julie & Julia, (500) Days), I'll say Julie & Julia.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy Or Musical
Sandra Bullock – The Proposal
Marion Cotillard – Nine
Julia Roberts – Duplicity
Meryl Streep – It’s Complicated
Meryl Streep – Julie & Julia

Will Win: Streep (J&J)

Should Win: Streep (J&J)

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Comedy Or 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

Will Win: Damon

Should Win: Stuhlbarg (although I've only seen Stuhlbarg and Gordon-Levitt)

Best Performance by an Actress In A Supporting Role in a Motion Picture
Pen̩lope Cruz РNine
Vera Farmiga – Up In The Air
Anna Kendrick – Up In The Air
Mo’nique – Precious: Based On The Novel Push By Sapphire
Julianne Moore – A Single Man

Will Win: Mo'nique

Should Win: As much as I love me some Vera Farmiga, I've gotta give it to Mo'nique.

Best Performance by an Actor In A Supporting Role in a Motion Picture
Matt Damon – Invictus
Woody Harrelson – The Messenger
Christopher Plummer – The Last Station
Stanley Tucci – The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz – Inglourious Basterds

Will Win: Waltz

Should Win: Waltz (I've only seen Waltz and Damon)

Best Animated Feature Film
Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs
Fantastic Mr. Fox

The Princess And The Frog

Will Win: Up

Should Win: Coraline

Best Foreign Language Film
Baaria (Italy)
Broken Embraces (Spain)
The Maid (La Nana) (Chile)
A Prophet (Un Prophete) (France)

The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band – Eine Deutsche Kindergeschichte) (Germany)

Will Win: A Prophet

Should Win: I've only seen Broken Embraces, and I liked it.

Best Original Score – Motion Picture
Michael Giacchino – Up
Marvin Hamlisch – The Informant!
James Horner – Avatar
Abel Korzeniowski – A Single Man
Karen O and Carter Burwell – Where The Wild Things Are

Will Win: Avatar
Should Win: Where the Wild Things Are

Class of 2009 Supporting Actress Blogathon: Vera Farmiga

2009 Supporting Actress Blogathon: Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air

SPOILER WARNING: Please don't read if you haven't seen Up in the Air.

Once again, I'm pleased to be a part of StinkyLulu's Supporting Actress love. Today is the Class of 2009 Supporting Actress Blogathon, where bloggers across the web ruminate on "actressing at the edges" that moved them this year. Please head over to StinkyLulu's site later today and see what other bloggers have to say. I toyed with a few different actresses to write about (Melanie Laurent in Inglorious Basterds, Rosamund Pike in An Education), but in the end by heart belonged to Vera Farmiga. I absolutely loved her in 2006's The Departed, and she truly takes another leap forward this year in Up in the Air.

One of the main things that make Up in the Air a great movie is the way it treats its female characters. While the movie is clearly "about" Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), both love interest Alex (Vera Farmiga) and protege Natalie (Anna Kendrick) exist as fully formed characters with their own lives and motivations.

We first meet Alex (as Ryan does) in a hotel bar, and their first scene is a hilarious sequence of comparing corporate perks filled with sexual innuendo. Farmiga matches Clooney line for line, scene for scene, and even tops him. As they embark on their affair, Alex assures Ryan that their affair is casual and no-strings attached ("Just think of me as you with a vagina.") Farmiga fills these initial scenes with delightful banter and a grown-up sexuality.

For my money, Farmiga's best scene comes when the three main characters (Ryan, Alex, and Natalie) meet up and the two women talk about what they are looking for in a man. Young Natalie has a plethora of demands she puts out. "Older" Alex has resigned herself and is basically looking for someone who is good enough. This scene only grows in power with later information.

Then comes the second half of the movie (Once again: SPOILER ALERT). Ryan takes Alex to his sister's wedding, and Farmiga brings new notes to the performance. These two are sweet and soulful and seem to actually be falling in love. Farmiga plays the role just right, showing her initial hesistation and then enjoyment of the weekend.

Then comes the killer. Ryan decides he needs to find Alex, goes to her house in Chicago, and hears her husband and children in the background. She closes the door and this is (presumably) the last time they see one another, although there is another phone call. The look on her face is absolutely heartbreaking. In the end, Alex is the one who has won Ryan over, but she's also the one who has decided to play by the rules.

It's a testament to Farmiga's performance that the viewer ends the movie having sympathy for Alex and, at least for me, holding no grudges. If her performance wasn't pitch-perfect, she could have come across as a heartless. Instead, the viewer inevitably remembers the earlier scene, where Farmiga talks about what she wants in a man. Clearly, she has made compromises in her life. They're sad, but there they are and she is honest about them. She doesn't exist as a device to solely fill the need for Clooney's romantic redemption.

So the character of Alex needs to be incredibly sexy, extremely witty, mysterious, and able to show vulnerability at a few key moments. Farmiga was the absolute perfect choice for this role. As a thought experiment, try imagining Up in the Air with Jennifer Aniston or Sandra Bullock in the role of Alex. It's easy (but oh so awful) to imagine, and the relationship would have had so many fewer layers. Be thankful we had a master in the role, and a performance for the ages.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Looking Back at the Aughts..... Lost in Translation and Happy-Go-Lucky

As the decade comes to a close, there have been a plethora of critics coming up with "Best of the Decade" list. While I'm tempted to do the same, I also came to a realization. There are many films I remember fondly that I'd love to see again and see how they hold up. There are other films that I liked but did not love and deserve another chance. And (believe it or not) there are still a few prominent films from the decade that I missed. I hoped to spend much of the beginning of this year watching/rewatching movies from the past decade. Sometime this summer, check back for my totally arbitrary (but deeply felt) best of the decade list. I'm also accepting any and all suggestions for movies that I should consider!

Here are thoughts on a couple movies I recently rewatched and brought me great enjoyment:

Lost in Translation (2003)

I've probably seen this movie and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind more than any other films of the decade. There is so much I love about this film, I hardly know where to begin. I love the performances. Bill Murray gives one of the performances of the decade as a washed-up film star sick of life and now doing crappy Japanese commercials to make some quick cash. Only a great comedic actor could simultaneously bring such humor and heartbreak to the surface. While 18-year-old Scarlett Johannson never reached the heights of this performance as Charlotte again, she was a perfect fit for this role. World-weary before her time, she is just as lost as Bob.

What I may love most is the mood of this film. It perfectly encapsulates the ennui felt by the character. It's also an interesting meditation on the inherent pleasures and loneliness of being a stranger in a foreign country. Japan is really the third major character in this film, and director Sofia Coppola shows us many sides of the country.

When I think of this movie I think of my favorite scenes: Charlotte and Bob's night out singing karaoke, Charlotte's visit to the countryside, and, of course, the sublime ending. A truly great film of the decade.

Grade: A

Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)

I saw director Mike Leigh's movie last year, and I admired it a lot for its message and its performances, particularly the lead one by Sally Hawkins in (to my mind) one of the most egregious Oscar snubs in years. She won just about every critics award and then was passed over by Oscar. Still, I wasn't in love with the movie as a whole. It was pleasant and fun, but it didn't fully hit me.

Watching it again, I kind of fell in love with the movies, and I'm now embarrassed it was only a runner-up on my2008 top 10 list. If I redid it, it would easily make it to number 6. Happy-Go-Lucky tells the story of Poppy, an inescapably cheerful British schoolteacher who lives a full life and attempts to bring joy to all around her. She also is taking driving lessons from Scott, a racist and bitter man whose worldview is utterly opposed to Poppy's. And there is pretty much the entire plot of the movie.

What gives me so much joy about the movie is the individual scenes and moments. Sally Hawkins is unafraid to make her character pass the line of annoying, yet you still can't help but love her. She brings her incredibly specific personality to every scene. Every other actor also feels completely organic in their role. I especially liked Alexis Zegerman in her role as Poppy's longtime roommate.

Could it have been a bit better? Perhaps. I would have liked a little more encounter with the darker side of life, if only because Poppy's final scene with Scott is so incredibly powerful. For a movie that is so light in its plot and light on its plot, though, it actually gives you a lot to think about. Just thinking about Poppy now, I'm smiling.

Grade: A-

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Great Link

So this site just wasted 30 minutes of my Saturday.....and I really enjoyed it.

The New York Times has taken Netflix queues from several metro areas around the country and done highly interactive maps of which movies are popular in which zip codes. It's a fascinating look at how much similar tastes seem to huddle together (even more than voting patterns, it appears). While some movies are popular everywhere (Benjamin Button), others are wildly different (Mad Men; Paul Blart: Mall Cop). Check it out!

A Peek Into Netflix Queues

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Views from South Africa: Invictus & District 9

In the past week I've seen two movies about South Africa, Clint Eastwood's political biopic Invictus and first-time filmmaker Neil Blomkamp's sci-fi action movie District 9. One is extremely insightful and thought-provoking while the other is a standard genre movie with some fun moments. Which one is which? Read on to find out.....


Invictus tells the story of the newly elected Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) attempting to unite his country behind the white-dominated rugby team The Springboks, led by their captain Francois Piennar (Matt Damon). The movie begins by showing Mandela's transition to power, and this part of the movie moved a little slow. It takes quite a bit of exposition until we get to the main part of the movie. Once the movie moves into the political machinations of Mandela's decision and its complications, the story is much more engaging. Mandela's message of reconciliation to those who had been bitter enemies is inspiring, and there were several moments in the film where I got a lump in my throat. As inspirational sports movies go, the sports sequences are clear and easy to follow, even though many will be unfamiliar with rugby.

Now on to my qualms about the movie. For all the wonderful messages in the movies it also feels a little dull. Eastwood is a director who is capable of greatness (Unforgiven, Mystic River) and of bland filmmaking (Gran Torino). I think much of his craft depends on his script, and here the script is structured in the most exciting or revelatory way. The story is a good one, but it misses out on more nuanced or deep views of the characters and goes more for standard uplift. At other times, it teeters dangerously close to saying that cheering for the same rugby team truly solved many of the problems of modern South Africa. Morgan Freeman was clearly the right choice to play Mandela. He has his voice nailed down, and he lends him a mischievous spark that marks him as a real person. Still, I think Freeman could have done more with the role. He lacks the depth and perception that Helen Mirren brought to Queen Elizabeth in The Queen, where you truly feel you know something more about the character. Matt Damon is as good as he can be in the thinly-drawn character of Francois.

So there is it. An entertaining movie that hits two well-worn genres (biopic; inspirational sports) with moments the viewer will no doubt enjoy.

Grade: B-

District 9

Now on to the other movie set in South Africa. Director Neil Blomkamp directs the most exciting sci-fi movie of the year. I've seen Star Trek and Avatar, and for my money this is the most cohesive and insightful picture of the bunch. For a sci-fi movie that's mostly action and filled with gross-out moments, it also effortlessly lends itself to political allegory without feeling heavy-handed.

The movie imagines a world where an alien spaceship has been stranded in Johannesburg. Not knowing how to react to the aliens, they are kept in an internment camp called District 9. They have been there 20 years, it's turned into a violent slum, so the humans have decided to relocate them. Leading this effort is mild-mannered and slightly goofy operative Wikus van de Mere (a very good performance by Sharlto Copely). While attempting relocation, Wikus finds himself in a situation where he is wanted by the humans and more connected to the aliens and their fight for liberation.

There are so many things that work about this movie. They give a vision of alien life that feels completely non-cliched. These creatures are not peace-loving utopians (a la Avatar or Close Encounters) or rampaging monsters (War of the Worlds or Independence Day). They are a separate society who feel entrapped when they are entrapped and sometimes turn to violence. I also love the way that Blomkamp shoots action sequences. My problem with many action movies is that they devolve into shoot-outs where you never know who is shooting at who. In this movie, it is always crystal clear what is happening in each sequence, and the action makes sense.

The political allegory is also very insightful. During apartheid, the South African government had forcible evictions of its black residents. This movie imagines all residents, black and white alike, doing the same to the alien visitors. The way the humans devolve in their treatment of the aliens is typical of the selfishness and fear that dominates so many atrocities around the world.

So in the end, District 9 actually made me think more and felt much more insightful about racial politics than an inspirational movie about Nelson Mandela. Its filmmaking was also much more alive and inspired.

Grade: A-