Friday, February 29, 2008

Oscar turns 80 and no one notices

The Academy Awards turned 80 last Sunday, not that many took notice. According to the Associated Press the glitz ceremony was the lowest rated since 2003.

It is difficult to say why people didn't tune in, but the writer’s strike seems a likely culprit. The strike ended Feb. 12 and just 11 days later Hollywood threw its biggest gala of the year. Many believe putting on the Oscar ceremony was an impetus to concluding the strike, but perhaps Hollywood was too eager to get on with the show. Less than two weeks was clearly not enough time to get the word out about the 80th Academy Awards or — as host Jon Stewart referred to them — the make-up sex after the strike.

It is also quite probable that many potential viewers were turned off by the idea of a self-congratulatory award show following directly after the three months of stubborn bickering that shutdown the film and television industries. Three-plus hours of Hollywood patting itself on the back may have left a nasty taste in audience’s mouths. Instead of tuning in to watch the glorious return of Hollywood, it would seem instead many decided to give the proverbial finger to the film industry.

It probably didn’t help matters that many of the most nominated films of the year such as “There Will Be Blood,” “Michael Clayton” and Best Picture winner “No Country for Old Men,” were little seen by mainstream audiences. I commend the academy, though, for the films nominated because the Oscars shouldn’t be a popularity contest, but about showcasing the truly best films of the year.

In past years, the academy has had a tendency to lean more toward the mainstream. Take the 2000 Oscars, for example. That year “The Sixth Sense” and “The Green Mile” were both up for Best Picture. Both are fine films, but their spots were hardly earned when more challenging and adventurous films like “Fight Club,” “Three Kings” and “Being John Malkovich” were also viable options.

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with the Academy Awards — I’m still bitter about “Titanic” winning Best Picture in 1998 — but in the last few years the academy has become more daring in what it nominates and who it awards. Given this year’s low ratings, hopefully the academy doesn’t regress back to old habits.

As for the award ceremony itself, it felt slightly rushed and at times forced. You could sense that the producers and writers behind the show only had a short time to put it together.

The producers got the show in at a spry 3 hours and 15 minutes, but, in their rush to keep things moving, were too quick to cut acceptance speeches short by playing the winners off the stage with music. This is hardly a new practice, but this year the music seemed to come in much too soon. In the worst case, Marketa Irglova, one of the winners for Best Song, was played off before she could even get a word out. Jon Stewart proved himself to be a gracious host when he rectified the mistake and brought Irglova back out.

The evening’s acceptance speeches were for the most part unremarkable. There were good moments for sure, but nothing nearly as memorable as Cuba Gooding Jr.’s exuberant antics in 1997 or Adrien Brody French kissing Halle Berry in 2003.
That being said, Best Original Screenplay winner Diablo Cody’s tearful and genuine acceptance speech was moving, and Best Supporting Actress winner Tilda Swinton was thoroughly cheeky in her acceptance speech stating she had an agent who looked exactly like the famous statuette she had just won, even down to the buttocks.

An Oscar ceremony wouldn’t be complete without numerous gratuitous clip shows, a trend that was well mocked with a couple brief parody clip shows, including “A Tribute to Binoculars and Telescopes in Films.” Unfortunately, there were plenty of real clip shows as well, this time chronicling the entire 80-years of the Academy Awards. One nice touch though was footage of previous winners explaining what it felt like winning. The best of these was Steven Spielberg comparing the warm sensation he felt upon winning to male menopause.

Ultimately, it was Stewart who kept things on track. His steady stream of one-liners often had real bite, and even moments that seemed as if he was playing too nice with the celebrities were quickly subverted. “The Daily Show” host couldn’t help himself from sneaking in a few political jabs, the best being: “Oscar is 80 tonight, which automatically makes him the Republican nominee.”

The evening’s single best moment, though, was also perhaps the most absurd. The ceremony came back after a commercial break to show Stewart playing Nintendo Wii tennis. It was a completely random moment and showcased exactly what was lacking from the rest of ceremony: a sense of the unexpected.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

'Jumper' entertains despite itself

“Jumper” is a very silly movie. It is at times downright stupid in its complete abandonment of plausibility and logic. And yet, in spite of all of its problems, I liked it.

The film starts out with an entertaining conceit. A 15-year-old boy named David (Max Thieriot) discovers that he has the ability to teleport or “jump.” He uses this power to escape an alcoholic father, rob some banks and live a posh, globetrotting existence. By the time he is in his mid-20s and played by Hayden Christensen, he has mastered his ability and set himself up nicely.

After establishing its playful premise, the film becomes convoluted. David discovers he isn’t the only jumper when he meets Griffin (Jamie Bell, “Billy Elliot,” “The Chumscrubber”). Griffin explains that jumpers have arch-nemeses named Paladins who have vowed to kill all jumpers because “only God should have the power to be everywhere at once.” The Paladins, led by Samuel L. Jackson, use staffs that conduct high voltage electricity that prevent the jumpers from teleporting. Confused yet?

There is also a forced, utterly superfluous love story with Rachel Bilson of “The O.C.” Bilson is pretty, but has no screen presence. To be fair she isn’t given much to work with. Her character is given two things to do: sleep with David and be rescued by David.

The initial fun of the film’s setup is nearly completely undermined when it switches over to its tired good versus evil plot. There’s no depth to the struggle or any examination of why this centuries-old battle is being waged.

A movie like “The Matrix” took a science-fiction premise and explored it seriously and actually had ideas behind it. There’s none of that here. This is a movie that is pure surface. What you see is what you get.

That the film doesn’t implode can be credited to director Doug Liman (“Go,” “The Bourne Identity”). Liman keeps things moving at a quick pace that doesn’t allow the more cumbersome elements of the plot to sink in. When the story fails him, Liman, at the very least, brings some glee to the visuals. The action and effects have a stylish energy.

Christensen, who has been called everything from half man/half tree to a black hole by critics, is actually a decent lead. Yes, Christensen was awful in the “Star Wars” prequels, but let’s not hold that against him forever. He can act — see “Shattered Glass” as proof. As David, he has a mischievous grin in the film’s early scenes and possesses a likeability even when his character starts out slightly amoral.

But it doesn’t matter how well Christensen plays the role because he isn’t the problem. The character is. Although David is the lead character, Bell’s Griffin is a far more engaging, better written character.

Bell gets the film’s best lines and completely upstages Christensen. Whenever Bell is on screen the film comes alive. His energy, charisma and punkish attitude make you wish “Jumper” was about him. He makes the film work when it should be stalled on the side of the road.

“Jumper” is escapist entertainment, nothing more, but, for some, quite possibly less. It is a movie with the potential to be so much more, but that works well enough as is. No one will confuse “Jumper” for a good movie, but if you’re in the right frame of mind, a good time can be had.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Top ten favorite films of 2007

With the Academy Awards approaching now seems as good a time as any to list my favorite movies from last year. I choose the word favorite over best because I haven’t seen every film of 2007 and I am not presumptuous enough to assume I have seen the best. I have seen more than most people though, averaging about a movie a week theatrically. It was a tough call, but here are my ten favorite.

“No Country for Old Men”
The Coen Brothers are among the most, quirky, daring and skillful filmmakers working in America. After a few duds, they are back on form, with their best film since “Fargo.” The plot is simple: a man (Josh Brolin) finds a satchel of money and he’s pursued by a relentless killer (Javier Bardem). Bardem creates one of the best cinematic villains in recent memory and the acting by a cast that includes Tommy Lee Jones and Woody Harrelson is stellar cross the boards. The ending has frustrated some, but in its way it is absolutely perfect.

In this funny, fresh and endearing comedy, a smart, sardonic 16-year-old (Ellen Page) becomes pregnant and decides to give the baby up for a adoption to a seemingly perfect couple (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman). Although highly praised, some have claimed the film’s dialogue is too clever for its own good and that no teen actually talks like Juno, but it is all about the deliver and the fantastic Page, nails the tone. The film inches up on the predictable and formulaic and then takes a sharp left into an ending that feels genuine and completely satisfying.

An Irish busker (Glen Hansard) meets a Czech immigrant (Markéta Irglová) on the streets of Dublin and they connect through music. Over a week they play, write and eventually record music together. At times romantic, this is more than just a romance. It is one of those rare films to capture the allusive feeling of sharing a deep, if only brief, bond with someone. Hansard and Irglová are musicians in real life and wrote the songs featured in the film. The dialogue is sparse, but feels real and the music is beautiful and emotional. This is a movie to treasure.

“Sweeney Todd”
Tim Burton’s brooding, bloody adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s darkest musical is a wholly original blend of horror, tragedy, satire and the blackest comedy around. A barber (Johnny Depp) whose life was destroyed by a corrupt judge (Alan Rickman) decides to take his vengeance on all of humanity. That the whole film is set to song makes the proceeding all the more unsettling. Depp, who has a surprisingly good singing voice, is brilliant as the title character and Burton’s visuals are extraordinary. An acquired taste for sure, but this is a film to savor for those who take their film’s black.

Coming out of the Pixar studio, this is a great movie. Not a great kids’ movie, not a great animated movie, simple a great movie. Too often animated features go for bright colors and slapstick humor and nothing more. Pixar’s films are colorful and have their share of slapstick, but their films are filled with a lot of heart and know that you don’t need to condescend to children. The story of a rat with natural cooking abilities that guides a hapless kitchen hand to culinary greatness is basic enough, but the film is full of wit, intellect and surprising emotion.

“Hot Fuzz”
Writer/director Edgar Wright, co-writer/star Simon Pegg and co-lead Nick Frost followed up their hilarious zombie comedy “Shaun of the Dead” with this equally assured parody of the buddy cop genre and British paranoia horror movies like “The Wicker Man.” Although not as slickly paced as its predecessor, the film pays off in a big way with a spectacularly over-the-top gun fight that perfectly satirizes overblown action films. The jokes are layered thick from subtle to outrageous, so it is a comedy that gets better with repeat viewings. Thoroughly English, but for those who like Brit comedy, it is hard to beat.

“Across the Universe”
A musical comprised entirely of Beatles songs is a dangerous endeavor to undertake, but luckily this isn’t a re-tread of 1978’s atrocious “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Cynics have dismissed Julie Taymor’s film as pretentious, and although it is flawed, it is a movie with ambitions, stunning visuals and moments of brilliance. The plot weaves the songs into a Vietnam era drama that, while not entirely original, features characters we care about. Well sung by a largely unknown cast with a few surprise cameos, the film is a joy for Beatles fan, with re-interpretations of classic songs that are at times thrilling.

Critically acclaimed upon its release, this film has been ignored during the award season, which is a shame. Based on the true story of the Zodiac killer this is more than just another gory serial killer movie. This is less about the killer and more about the obsession to know his identity that grips a journalist (Robert Downey, Jr.), a cartoonist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and a detective (Mark Ruffalo). Director David Fincher adopts the tone of gritty 1970s films like “All the President’s Men” and “Serpico” and the film plays as well as the best films from that era.

“Gone Baby Gone”
This is the surprisingly effective directorial debut of Ben Affleck. Working from a novel by Dennis Lehane, the author of 2003’s “Mystic River,” Affleck creates a crime drama about the search for a missing girl in Boston that sounds and looks authentic. In a case of nepotism gone right, Affleck’s brother Casey gives his best performance to date as a private detective working with the police and the rest of the cast, which includes Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris, is uniformly good. The film takes the time to ask complex moral and ethical questions and doesn’t cheat the audience by giving easy answers.

On the eve of World War II, two lovers (Kiera Knightley and James McAvoy) from different social classes are torn apart by a girl’s lie, but this is neither a love story or war movie, although it is effective as both. This is really about the lifetime of guilt the girl lives with. The girl is played brilliantly, and seamlessly, by Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai and Vanessa Redgrave. Everything from the acting to the score to the cinematography is exquisite. There’s also a stunning unbroken shot at the solider filled beach at Dunkirk that is a masterpiece in itself.

Honorable mentions: “There Will Be Blood” for Daniel Day Lewis’ screen commanding performance, “Michael Clayton” for its intricately told and acted plot, “The Bourne Ultimatium” for being the best and most satisfying sequel in a year flooded with them, “Reign Over Me” for showcasing a fine dramatic performance by Adam Sandler, “1408” for being a horror movie with a heart, “Grindhouse” for being a gloriously over-the-top, intentionally trashy filmgoing experience, and “Disturbia” and “Transformers” for making Shia LaBeouf a star.

'Cloverfield' is all gimmick, no substance

Indifference is the word that comes to mind in describing my reaction to the creature feature “Cloverfield.” I laughed a few times, received a couple decent scares, but for the most part just sat in the audience unmoved.

“Cloverfield” had a big opening weekend thanks to an ad campaign that kept the film’s content a mystery. All we knew was that something knocked the head off the Statue of Liberty. It is a great scene, but if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve already seen the film’s best moment.

As the movie opens, a group of uninteresting 20-somethings are having a going-away party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who is going to Japan for a new job. The festivities are cut short when a monster attacks New York.

We are excused exposition of the origin of the giant reptilian creature, but instead get stuck for 20 minutes at the party that opens the film. Our point of reference is Hud (T.J. Miller), who is given the duty of getting testimonials from the party guests. When the mayhem ensues Hud keeps shooting, even when common sense would say it was time to put the camera down.

Critics and audiences alike seem to be fond of the film that is basically “The Blair Witch Project” meets “Godzilla,” but I found that the shaky hand-held camerawork distracting. I am aware the film’s gimmick is supposed to make the proceedings feel more realistic, immediate and frightening, but all I can say is that it didn’t work for me.

The film at times evokes 9/11-like imagery, but it doesn’t seem worthy of evoking them. Some are claiming that the monster is meant to be a metaphor for the 9/11 attacks. If this truly is the case, it doesn’t make the film any weightier, and if it is meant to be catharsis then it is in poor taste.

This isn’t to say the film isn’t well made. The special effects are extremely well executed. The illusion that everything is being captured on a hand-held camera is never broken. When you finally get to see glimpses of the creature and the giant killer lice that fall off it, they are impressive.

I just didn’t care. With the exception of Lizzy Caplin’s Marlena, all the actors aren’t particularly memorable. Caplin (“Mean Girls”) has spunk, attitude and genuine presence, but her talent is wasted as she becomes nothing more than a tag-along during a mission to rescue Rob’s injured ex-girlfriend (Odette Yustman).

“Cloverfield” was written by Drew Goddard and directed by Matt Reeves, who both come to this from careers in TV. The dialogue is flat and rarely interesting and the characters mostly vapid. The film’s approach is to go for realism, but who wants that in a monster movie? Monster movies are meant to be fun and campy.

The film is actually structured more like the cheesy disaster films of the 1970s than a monster film. “Cloverfield,” like such films as “Earthquake” and “The Towering Inferno,” has cookie-cutter characters who are trying to get from point A to point B while trying to survive all sorts of peril. This simplistic plot can work if you have characters you care about. “The Poseidon Adventure” is a good example of how to do this right.

There is one sequence with our group of survivors walking through the New York subway system that does utilize the hand-held camera approach well and generates tension. The only light that they have is that of the camera, and, of course, that handy night vision feature. But even this bit was already done in “28 Weeks Later,” which wasn’t a very good film itself.

It is worth noting that George Romero, the director of the classic “Night of the Living Dead,” is taking the same hand-held approach in his latest zombie film “Diary of the Dead.” Due out in limited release on Feb. 15, “Diary” and “Cloverfield” will probably inevitably be compared to each other. Based on the trailer, Romero’s film seems to be a better executed endeavor than “Cloverfield,” but trailers can be deceptive.