Monday, February 22, 2010

MINI REVIEWS: Bright Star & Coco Before Chanel

Bright Star
Number of Nominations: 1 (Best Costume Design)
Availability in the US: DVD

The tragic love story of poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne comes to life in Bright Star. If this film doesn't win the Best Costume Oscar, they should give it an award in a new category: Most Costumes. Abbie Cornish never wears an outfit for more than 5 minutes of screentime in the film, and each outfit is more beautiful than the last. In any other year, Bright Star might stand a chance in this category, as it is what Academy voters love: a British costume drama. Unfortunately, this year it's up against another costume drama, The Young Victoria, which is an overall better and more widely noticed film.



Coco Before Chanel
Number of Nominations: 1 (Best Costume Design)
Availability in the US: DVD, Blu-ray

Coco Before Chanel is a biopic of the famous Coco Chanel, focusing mainly on her life from around 1895 to 1919, before she became the world-renowned designer and founder of one of the most well-known brands in history. The film itself is rather enjoyable, and Audrey Tautou gives her usual great performance. The nominated costumes are, as one might expect from a movie about the world's best-known fashion designer, excellent. Unfortunately the most inspired costumes don't come until the last five minutes of the film, and before that there are only a handful of interesting garbs to be seen. Also working against this film is that it is up against not one but two British costume dramas. It seems unlikely that Coco Before Chanel will win an Oscar.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

MOVIE REVIEW: Up in the Air

Number of Nominations: 6 (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor - George Clooney, Best Supporting Actress - Vera Farmiga, Best Supporting Actress - Anna Kendrick, Best Adapted Screenplay)
Availability in the US: In Select Theatres (Check Showtimes)

"Anybody who ever built an empire, or changed the world, sat where you are now. And it's because they sat there that they were able to do it."

Have you ever fired someone or, worse yet, have you ever BEEN fired? Neither one is the greatest feeling in the world. Now imagine having to fire someone 20 or 30 times a day, every day. That's the life of Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), professional terminator. Bingham flies all over the country (collecting his precious frequent-flier miles and Hilton points), firing and laying-off workers for companies ill-equipped or ill-prepared to do so themselves. Along the way he meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), a similarly-driven, miles-obsessed, commitment-phobic businesswoman and the attraction is mutual and immediate. Meanwhile, Bingham's boss has hired Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a woman fresh out of college with some new ideas about how to change the firing business in big ways. Bingham doesn't like anyone trying to mess with the no-ties "empty backpack" life he's built for himself, and sets out to show Natalie how things are done, and why his way is the right way.

The humor in Up in the Air is at times riotously, laugh-out-loud funny, and at other times very dark and ironic. In today's economy, a movie about an otherwise-likable guy whose job is to lay off people is a risky concept, but the cast and crew manage to pull it off with flying colors. Everything about this movie is spot-on: the pacing is perfect, the dialogue is funny and clever, and the acting is compelling. As you settle into the plot and you think you know what will happen, Up in the Air manages to pack in a few surprises.

Ryan Bingham is the kind of role George Clooney excels at. He has an ironic sense of humor and is thoroughly likeable despite his chosen profession. Though he's taken great pains to avoid any connections and strings in his life, it comes as no surprise to the audience (and somewhat of a surprise to him) when it turns out there are connections he wants to maintain.

First-time nominee Vera Farmiga's Alex is the perfect love interest for Bingham. She is exactly the kind of woman he thinks he wants: driven, workaholic, jet-setting, and seemingly not a big fan of commitment. Her character's twists are made all the more surprising by how well we think we know her, and that is a testament to Farmiga's talents.

Anna Kendrick is the emotional powerhouse of the film. For much of the film's first act, she is the perky, ambitious, madly-in-love young 20-something. As her fortunes take a turn, though, her mood changes dramatically. Her hotel lobby break-down is the kind that Academy Awards voters love.

Up in the Air is a thoroughly enjoyable, entertaining, and at times unpredictable film; all of its nominations are fully deserved. Though not the favorite, George Clooney could upset and win Best Actor. Up in the Air's best, and perhaps only, chance at winning an Academy Award is in the Best Adapted Screenplay category where it is the slight favorite.

Grade: A+

Saturday, February 20, 2010

MOVIE REVIEW: Julie & Julia

Number of Nominations: 1 (Best Actress - Meryl Streep)
Availability in the US: DVD, Blu-ray

Meryl Streep and Amy Adams, co-nominees last year for Doubt, shine once again in this lighthearted true story. Julie & Julia tells the story of two women in two different times and places: Julia Child (nominee Meryl Streep) in Paris in 1949, and Julie Powell (Amy Adams) in 2002 New York City. Child's life is glamorous―married to a diplomat, taking classes in Paris―while Powell lives the banal life of a civil servant in NYC after 9/11. As the story weaves back and forth between Paris and New York, we see Child writing drafts of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and Powell trying to cook her way through it in a year, while blogging about her efforts. The two women, though very different, share a love for writing and for cooking. They both have wonderfully supportive husbands and friends, and both face major setbacks in their respective journeys.

Meryl Streep doesn't just play Julia Child, she channels her. Anyone who has ever seen Child (or for that matter Dan Akroyd's classic SNL impression of her) is bound to be struck by how realistic her portrayal is. Steep's Child isn't merely an impression, though; she packs an emotional punch as she faces the challenges of learning to cook and trying to get published.

As always, Meryl Streep turned in an Oscar-worthy performance in Julie & Julia, but she's got some stiff competition to beat if she's going to win the actual award. This is Streep's 15th Oscar nomination―before she came along, the record for acting nominations was 12, held for decades by Katherine Hepburn―and she shows no signs of slowing down. Though Streep has only won two Oscars (to Hepburn's four) she is seen by many as having already been well recognized by the Academy. Though I don't think it is impossible that she will win again at some point, no one can say she's not been given her due.

On the whole, Julie & Julia is a fun and entertaining film, made compelling by the strength of its two lead actresses.

Grade: A

MOVIE REVIEW: The Lovely Bones

Number of Nominations: 1 (Best Supporting Actor - Stanley Tucci)
Availability in the US: In Theatres (Check Showtimes)

The Lovely Bones tells the story of a thirteen-year-old girl, Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan, Oscar nominee two years ago for Atonement), who is brutally murdered by her neighbor in a rural Pennsylvania town.

Based on the popular novel by Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones differs in many ways from the book: The entire sequence of events is changed around, entire character arcs are shortened to almost nothing, and some plot points are just plain left out. Yet most fans of the novel will enjoy the film; it takes the essence of Sebold's work and expands upon it in a visually interesting way. Those who have not read the book won't feel left out, as things are adequately explained throughout (unlike this year's awful adaptation of one of my favorite books, The Time Traveler's Wife, which just plain made no sense if you hadn't read the book).

Rachel Weiss and Mark Wahlberg put in great performances as Susie's grieving parents, and Ronan's portrayal of a young girl struck down just as she meets her first love is both real and heartbreaking. The true gem of The Lovely Bones though is Oscar nominee Stanley Tucci as the neighbor and serial murderer George Harvey. Tucci makes both Harvey's public facade—that of a bumbling, reserved, but harmless old man—and his private serial killer personality believeable. In one scene, as the police question him in his house, completely unaware of his guilt, you can watch his face change from helpful and kind to cold and ruthless as he spots a piece of evidence lying in plain view and hides it from the cops.

The other thing worth noting about The Lovely Bones is the visual effects. From the strange ghost town she finds herself in immediately after the murder, to her time in the In-Between, Susie's world is rich and colorful. The scenes of her Heaven are somewhat reminiscent of the visuals in What Dreams May Come, but somewhat more realistic.

Overall, The Lovely Bones is a well done film, sure to please both fans of the novel and newcomers. Tucci's performance is certainly Oscar-worthy, but seeing the tough competition he's up against in his category, coming from a movie with no other nominations certainly puts him at a disadvantage.

Grade: B+

Friday, February 19, 2010

MOVIE REVIEW: District 9

Number of Nominations: 4 (Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Achievement in Film Editing, Best Visual Effects)
Availability in the US: DVD, Blu-ray

I must admit I began watching District 9 with a bit of a prejudice. I had intentionally not seen the film when it came out, as the plot seemed a bit tired and didn't really interest me. With its surprise inclusion in the Best Picture category, however, seeing this film was unavoidable.

District 9 is an ambitious documentary-style sci-fi drama set in Johannesburg, South Africa. For twenty years, alien beings (known colloquially as Prawns) have been living in a slum known as District 9. Due to the rising crime rate in surrounding areas, the government decides to evict the Prawns and move them to a more secluded location. As one expects, violence ensues, directed especially at the leader of the team designated to deliver the eviction notices.

As I said, I went in expecting to hate the film and was at least a little pleasantly surprised. The film was not a complete waste of time, as some of the action sequences were compelling and many of the visual effects were realistic and exciting. That said, the plot was thin and predictable. From the moment things start to get violent, an astute movie fan can predict exactly how the story will unfold. The acting also left quite a bit to be desired. The main human character, Wikus Van De Merwe (try saying that 5 times fast) goes from being dorky and corny in an Office-style interview, to a slightly over-enthusiastic company man, to a killing machine without managing to show much acting range or give the role the emotional depth it deserves.

The filming style, with its shaky cameras (think Blair Witch Project) and gritty realism (think 28 Days Later), are somewhat unusual for sci-fi, but they work decently for this film. The cinematography is nothing special but the art direction is certainly noteworthy and the film editing more than capable.

Look for District 9 to be a strong competitor in the Best Visual Effects category, and possibly Achievement in Film Editing, but it is unlikely to contend for the screenplay or Best Picture statuettes.

Grade: C+

MOVIE REVIEW: The Princess and the Frog

Number of Nominations: 3 (Best Animated Feature, Best Original Song - "Almost There," Best Original Song - "Down in New Orleans")
Availability in the US: In Theatres (Check Showtimes)

Disney attempts a return to its 2-D animation heyday with the fun, entertaining The Princess and the Frog. Everyone knows the story of The Frog Prince, or at least they think they do. Disney takes a fractured view of this classic fairy-tale, setting their adaptation of The Brothers Grimm classic in jazz-era New Orleans.

Annika Noni-Rose shines as Tiana, Disney's first black princess. The animation is rich and colorful. The beautiful scenery complements a fairly good plot, though at times the storyline does feel a bit thin. Randy Newman's songs, two of which are nominated, are fun and bouncy—as all his songs for Disney have been—but they don't quite measure up to the Menken/Ashman or John/Rice classics.

Though The Princess and the Frog was thoroughly entertaining, it is at a severe disadvantage at the Oscars. Up is the odds-on favorite to win Best Animated Feature, and having 2 competing nominees to split the film's support for Best Original Song just increases the chance that "The Weary Kind (The Theme From Crazy Heart)" will win in that category.

Still, if you've yet to see this worthy addition to the Disney line, it's worth watching.

Grade: A-

Thursday, February 18, 2010

MOVIE REVIEW: The Young Victoria

Number of Nominations: 3 (Best Costume Design, Achievement in Art Direction, Achievement in Makeup)
Availability in the US: In Select Theatres (Check Showtimes)

19th Century England was a dangerous place for Victoria, the young heir to King George IV's throne. The Young Victoria tells the true story of the early life of England's longest reigning monarch. As a conniving mother attempts to usurp her birthright, multiple men try to manipulate her to their own ends, and her life is threatened by her detractors, the young Queen manages to always keep her wits about her and maintain her values.

A powerhouse performance by Emily Blunt in the title role helps make The Young Victoria into a thoroughly enjoyable film; it's very disappointing that Blunt is not nominated as Best Actress. The film is extremely well done, and the entire cast make the story compelling. Period pieces tend to be rather slow-paced and The Young Victoria is no exception, but the film is well worth it.

Films with Elizabethan and Victorian-era costume dramas have a long history of winning the costume design awards (the last 3 winners were The Duchess, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and Marie Antoinette), and this year is likely to continue that tradition. Its other two categories are more of a toss-up, though. The makeup in The Young Victoria doesn't break any new ground, but King George does look impressive. The art direction is beautiful, and the set decoration (the second aspect of the art direction Oscar) gives a very realistic and enveloping depiction of Victorian-era royal life.

If you liked The Duchess and Elizabeth, this is the movie for you.

Grade: A

MOVIE REVIEW: In The Loop


Number of Nominations: 1 (Best Adapted Screenplay)
Availability in the US: DVD, Blu-ray

Part West Wing, part Arrested Development, In The Loop is the strangest and funniest political movie since Wag the Dog. The plot centers around a British Minister of International Development, Simon Foster, who can't seem to stop shooting off his mouth to the media about whether or not he believes war in the Middle East is "foreseeable." The U.S. Secretary of State and a high-ranking general (James Gandolfini) are doing everything they can to prevent war and attempt to secure Foster as an ally. Meanwhile the Assistant Secretary of State is hellbent on war and even goes ahead and forms a secret war committee. Foster's incompetent staffer accidentally leaks the existence of the committee to CNN and then all hell breaks loose.

While the plot is amusing, what takes front and center in this film is the dialogue. All the characters speak in a fast-paced and witty manner which had me laughing so hard I occasionally had to rewind to hear what I had missed. None of the acting really stands out, but the Best Adapted Screenplay nomination is certainly deserved. Everyone has their favorite lines to quote from the film, but mine occurs after Foster promises his aide something will be "easy peasy lemon squeezy," to which the aide replies, "No it won't. It will be difficult difficult lemon difficult." To prove how fun and witty the screenplay is, IFC Films decided to post it on the internet for all (or presumably at least for Academy voters) to read.

While the screenplay makes for a good read on its own, I recommend seeing the film first. This is a hidden gem you won't want to miss.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

MOVIE REVIEW: Crazy Heart

Number of Nominations: 3 (Best Actor – Jeff Bridges, Best Supporting Actress – Maggie Gyllenhaal, Best Original Song - “The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart)”)
Availability in the US: In Select Theatres (Check Showtimes)

Alternately heart-wrenching, funny, and charming, Crazy Heart is one of the most satisfying films I’ve seen. Jeff Bridges is Bad Blake, a country singer/songwriter past his prime who drinks too much, writes too little, and is resigned to playing bowling alleys and bars with pick-up bands in the back of beyond. As his life spirals out of control, he meets a charming reporter half his age (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who makes him start to enjoy life again.

Bridges has never been better than this, and he deserves this nomination as much as anyone. He manages to make Bad Blake at turns laughable, pitiable, entertaining, and inspiring. Gyllenhaal as the reporter and somewhat overly trusting mother of a four-year-old turns in her best performance since Secretary. She manages to be believable even as she transitions seamlessly from the star-struck reporter to the hysterical mom. While she wouldn’t have been my first choice for the role, she certainly pulls it off admirably.

The most memorable aspect of Crazy Heart is the music. Unlike other recent movies about the troubled lives of musicians (Ray, Walk the Line, Beyond the Sea) this story is a work of fiction, so it contains an original soundtrack. Oftentimes in films (or plays for that matter: think RENT) when an artist is trying to write that one perfect song and eventually succeeds, the results are somewhat unsatisfying. Conversely, the Crazy Heart soundtrack—and especially the nominated song “The Weary Kind”—does not disappoint. I can’t get the movie’s theme out of my head, and the other music is quite memorable as well.

Though it has its sad points, overall Crazy Heart is a heart-warming and, ultimately, inspiring tale which is likely to score at least an Oscar for its leading actor if not necessarily one for its theme.

Grade: A

News and Links 02/17/2010

The Oscars are only two and a half weeks away now, and a lot is happening! Here are a few of the recent news items on the Academy Awards!


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Ballots were mailed out last week to all 5,777 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The ballots allow all members to vote in 19 categories including Best Picture, Best Director, Acting, Writing, and Music categories, to name a few. Several other categories (Documentary Feature, Documentary Short Subject, Foreign Language Film, Animated Short Film and Live Action Short Film) require members to attend special screenings; ballots for those categories will be separately distributed to members who can prove they have seen all nominated films.

All ballots are due back to PriceWaterhouseCoopers by 5 PM (PST) on Tuesday, March 2nd. Once the results are tabulated, they will be placed in sealed envelopes which will be opened on the air during the ceremonies on March 7. The results are only known by two PriceWaterhouseCoopers representatives until the envelopes are opened on stage during the live telecast.


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For the first time in recent memory, the Academy is saying the nominees for Best Original Song will NOT be performed during the Awards telecast. Traditionally each nominated song is performed either by the songwriter or by the artist who performed it in the film. Often there are large-scale production numbers to go along with the performances.

This year, however, New York Magazine is reporting, "to streamline the show, the songs will be played in short clips set to footage from their movies."

Although the songs have traditionally been spread out throughout the telecast, during last year's telecast, the songs were all performed in one medley.


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The Academy has confirmed that last year's Best Supporting Actress winner, Penelope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), will be presenting the Best Supporting Actor award at this year's telecast. They have also confirmed that Kate Winslet, who won Best Actress in 2009 for The Reader, will present the Best Actor statuette. Sean Penn will be on hand to present at this year's ceremonies, as he is the incumbent Best Actor (for portraying the title character in Milk). No word yet on who will present this year's Best Supporting Actress trophy since the 2009 Best Supporting Actor was the late Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight.

So far, no other presenters for the telecast have been announced.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

MOVIE REVIEW: The Last Station

Number of Nominations: 2 (Best Actress - Helen Mirren, Best Supporting Actor - Christopher Plummer)
Availability in the US: In Select Theatres (Check Showtimes)

The Last Station is a slow, dull, and pointless film which follows the last few months in the life of Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer). The film also deals with the marital and emotional instability between him and his wife Countess Sofya Tolstoy (Helen Mirren).

Mirren and Plummer put in characteristically excellent performances; the emotional depth Mirren portrays is nothing short of extraordinary. The Countess throws fits and tantrums (not entirely unprovoked, I might add) and Tolstoy remains cold and distant from her for almost the entire film. Encouraged by the conniving Vladimir Chertkov—portrayed with a casually evil air by Paul Giamatti in perhaps his best performance since American Splendor—Tolstoy drafts a new will which practically disinherits Sofya, causing her to go even further off the deep end.

Excellent performances from Plummer, Mirren, and Giamatti are unfortunately not enough to save this torpid film. The plot is so dull and thin it could put you to sleep, and the dialogue is extremely predictable. There is nothing interesting here visually, directionally, or storywise to keep the audience’s attention through the nearly two-hour snoozefest. Even the side plot of a love story between Tolstoy’s assistant Valentin (James McAvoy) and one of the other Tolstoyists isn’t enough to keep the audience engaged.

While the performances are certainly deserving of the nominations, it seems unlikely that the Academy would choose to honor such a dull film with any actual awards.

Grade: C

Monday, February 15, 2010

MINI REVIEWS: Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes, and Star Trek

Of the thirty-four films nominated, 10 of them are nominated in technical categories only. (“Technical categories” is here meant to include Best Cinematography, Best Makeup, Achievement in Sound Mixing, Achievement in Sound Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, Best Original Song, Achievement in Art Direction, and Best Visual Effects.) Because the entirety of the production is not being judged I will, in some of these cases, be writing shorter “capsule reviews” dealing directly with the judged category or categories rather than the film as a whole. We will call these “Mini Reviews.”


Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Number of Nominations: 1 (Best Cinematography)
Availability in the US: DVD, Blu-Ray

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, sixth in the book-to-screen fantasy series, is the most visually dazzling Harry Potter film yet. The film follows Harry through his sixth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and is thematically a very dark film. The movie is photographed in a style befitting the gravitas of the subject matter, with a lot of dark lighting and long, slow camera motions. Every moment of this movie is beautifully filmed, from the almost black and white of the cave, to the long tracking shot panning across the grounds, up the castle, and landing on Malfoy leaning over the balcony. The much-anticipated return of Quidditch also provides some exciting action shots to an otherwise slow and deliberately paced film. Despite its visual appeal, Potter is unlikely to make Oscar magic on March 7, since it is up against some more serious contenders. While fantasy films score well on Visual Effects and sound categories, Cinematography is considered more sophisticated and tends to go to more serious films (the recent exceptions being critical darling Pan's Labyrinth and two Lord of the Rings films, but those films had the support of nominations in multiple categories, while Potter does not).



Sherlock Holmes
Number of Nominations: 2 (Achievement in Art Direction, Best Original Score)
Availability in the US: In Theatres (Check Showtimes)

Sherlock Holmes follows the world's most famous detective as he investigates a very dangerous man who claims to be able to defy the rules of life and death. While Holmes is one of the more exciting and action-packed adaptations of Arthur Conan-Doyle's famed tales, aside from Robert Downey Jr's surprise Golden Globe win it did not receive much overall critical acclaim. The art direction is definitely one of the best aspects of this film; the detailed sets are beautifully designed and decorated and do a great job of evoking the late 19th-century time-period where the story is set. Hans Zimmer's score complements the film nicely. The odd sounds he creates from a banjo, a broken piano, and a handful of other eclectic instruments really sets the tone of the more lighthearted scenes. Sherlock Holmes should certainly be considered a contender, though not the frontrunner, in both categories.


Star Trek
Number of Nominations: 4 (Achievement in Makeup, Achievement in Sound Editing, Achievement in Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects)
Availability in the US: DVD, Blu-Ray

J.J. Abrahms's reboot of the familiar Sci-fi franchise boldly goes where no Star Trek film has dared to go before: Starfleet Academy. Star Trek follows new recruits James Kirk, Spock, Uhura, and a plethora of other familiar faces as they embark on their first mission aboard the brand new Starship Enterprise. The visual effects in this film were on par with the best Sci-Fi films; the creatures and worlds created in CGI are breathtaking. I have to admit, I've still never been able to figure out the difference between Sound Mixing and Sound Editing, but I CAN tell you this: Star Trek has excellent and realistic sound effects, which keep the film believable and exciting. The makeup in Star Trek is really nothing special beyond what we've seen in the past for this franchise; Spock's prosthetic ears look the same on Zachary Quinto as they did on Leonard Nimoy. The Romulans and Klingons are impressively made-up but not really anything revolutionary. That said, movies with strange creatures or lots of latex applications tend to win in this category, and the other films nominated don’t really fit the bill there.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

MOVIE REVIEW: Inglourious Basterds

Number of Nominations: 8 (Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Supporting Actor - Christoph Waltz, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Achievement in Sound Editing, Achievement in Sound Mixing, Best Original Screenplay)
Availability in the US: DVD, Blu-Ray

If she were still alive, my Grandma Zelda would say, “That Quentin Tarantino seems like such a mensch on TV, what’s with all the violent movies? Why can’t he make a nice romantic comedy one of these days?” Well, today is not that day. Inglourious Basterds is full of the typical blood and gore we have come to expect in Tarantino’s films, but it also has two other elements that are typical to his flicks: a stellar cast and an engaging script.

In the past few years we’ve seen several films about plots to kill Hitler and end WWII, but this one may actually surprise you. Inglourious Basterds is a fictional account of a group of American-born Jewish soldiers in Nazi-occupied France who spread fear throughout the Third Reich by killing and scalping Nazis. That’s about as much as I can say without giving away too much and ruining your enjoyment of the film.

Brad Pitt turns in a good performance as Aldo Raine, leader of The Basterds. Raine provides a lot of comic relief throughout the film, as an over-the-top, not quite adept, somewhat overenthusiastic Nazi-killer. Although Pitt is the lead, however, the standout performance comes from first-time Oscar nominee Christoph Waltz as “The Jew Hunter” Colonel Hans Landa. Waltz sets up Landa from his very first scene as a force to be reckoned with. Every time he appears on-screen thereafter, the audience holds its collective breath, not knowing what will happen next. His character’s final twist is both shocking and satisfying.

Everything about this film is engaging and entertaining. My only criticism, as I alluded to earlier, is an expected one in a Tarantino film: the film is a bit too gory. One expects a WWII film to have some blood and guts, but the repeated shots of The Basterds cutting the scalps off their Nazi victims were unnecessarily graphic, and the film’s final shot made even me a little queasy. Most of the shooting and war-related violence is actually fairly tame compared to most WWII films.

All this is forgivable for the exciting and entertaining film that results. Inglourious Basterds has everything you could want in a popcorn flick: spaghetti-western-style violence, interesting characters, an excellent script, and wonderful direction and photography. I highly recommend seeing this film.

Grade: A-

News and Links

I highly recommend reading this post on the FilmSchoolRejects blog about whether/why people don't see the Best Picture nominees: http://www.filmschoolrejects.com/opinions/academy-awards-do-we-still-watch-the-best-pictures-achar.php

The author makes a good case about why the Oscars seem to be out of touch with the general movie-going public and what can be done.


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In other news, the poster for the 82nd Academy Awards has just been released. It features Oscar telecast hosts Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin sitting on the shoulders of a giant Oscar statuette with the tagline "You've Never Seen Oscar Like This." It's true it has been a long time since we've seen Oscar with more than one host; hopefully the extra host will add up to extra humor and not extra runtime.

According to the Academy's website, the posters are the only promotional item available for sale to the general public and can be purchased online at http://www.oscars.org/academy/posters-books/posters/ or by calling 1-877-335-8936. Posters are $25 + S&H, and they make a great decoration for your Oscar party (I should know, I have a few old ones around that go up each year).


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Earlier this week it was revealed that Oscar Nominee Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side), believed by many to be the front-runner in the Best Actress category since her win at the Golden Globes, doesn't expect to win an Oscar. “I’m so not winning an Oscar,” she told People Magazine earlier this week. She claims to correctly predict these things 90% of the time and that she already knows who will win. (Maybe I can get her to blog about her predictions?) Now we come to find out she hasn't even picked out a dress for the ceremony, which is less than a month away. In the article, Bullock jokes that she may just wear something from WalMart to the black-tie event.


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That's all for now, more reviews later!

Sunday, February 07, 2010

MOVIE REVIEW: Avatar

Number of Nominations: 9 (Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Director – James Cameron, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Picture, Achievement in Sound Editing, Achievement in Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects)
Availability in the US: In Theatres (Check Showtimes)

How can I write what I really feel about Avatar without getting death threats from its supporters? Avatar seems to be a “love it or hate it” type movie; I’ve met very few people who did not have strong feelings one way or the other about it. That said, I didn’t love it, and I didn’t hate it.

Avatar certainly has its strong qualities. I’ve never seen such an amazingly rich, believable CGI world as the planet of Pandora. James Cameron has certainly lived up to his reputation for an attention to detail in this gritty, realistic science fiction drama. From the beautiful flora all over the planet’s surface, to the breathtaking Tree of Souls, to the scary creatures inhabiting Pandora, to the expressive and sleek Na’vi, not a single frame of the film looks or feels fake or fails to disappoint visually. In 3-D the characters and sets really jump out at you, and the audience feels like it is a part of the action.

The visual beauty of Avatar is unfortunately overshadowed by the trite, predictable plot. Avatar tells the story of the planet Pandora in the year 2154, inhabited by the tribal Na’vi people. A private corporation has set up bases on Pandora and is attempting to win over the “hearts and minds of the natives” in order to gain access to rich deposits of unobtainium, a very rare, very valuable mineral. The natives are unconvinced and have begun fighting back against the occupation. Avatars look just like the native Na’vi people but are inhabited and controlled remotely by scientists at the base camp. Jake Sully, a former U.S. Marine who’s lost the ability to walk, travels to Pandora to replace his deceased scientist brother in the Avatar Program. He manages to get in good with the daughter of the chief of the Omaticaya tribe and starts to learn their ways and become one of them. For obvious reasons, the Na’vi don’t trust the humans—who they call the Sky People—and their suspicions turn out to be well-founded.

If any of this sounds familiar then perhaps you’ve seen something similar on the evening news lately. The plot of Avatar is little more than a thinly veiled allegory for the Iraq war. The parallels are numerous (too numerous to bother listing here) and fairly obvious. While I have no problem with a commentary on the war, the whole concept is trite and predictable. The film even includes the standard James Cameron Two-People-From-Different-Worlds love story (Jack and Rose anyone?) as Sully and the chief’s daughter fall hopelessly in love despite the obstacles and her people’s disapproval.

If you absolutely must see Avatar, definitely spend the extra few dollars to see it in 3-D. The plot and acting are barely enough to keep you awake through the two-and-a-half hour snooze-fest in 2-D. The 3-D makes it barely worth your while though, especially in the epic battle scene at the climax of the film which, admittedly, had me on the edge of my seat. Personal opinions aside, Avatar is likely to do pretty well on Oscar night. The Academy smiled on James Cameron’s last film Titanic with 11 Oscars, and Avatar has won many of the awards that tend to be early indicators for the Oscars. It is certainly deserving in the technical/effects categories, but it would make a very disappointing Best Picture when there are so many deserving candidates.

Grade: B-

MOVIE REVIEW: An Education

Number of Nominations: 3 (Best Picture, Best Actress - Carey Mulligan, Best Adapted Screenplay)
Availability in the US: In Select Theatres (Check Showtimes)

An Education is a disturbing film about Jenny, a 16-year old girl played almost perfectly by Carey Mulligan, and her romantic relationship with David (Peter Sarsgaard), a man twice her age, in 1960s suburban London. David charms Jenny’s parents into letting him take her to museums, shows, and even a weekend in Paris for her birthday, all the while seducing her and bringing her into his life of crime. The film is, as you may guess from the somewhat uncomfortable subject matter, likely to make you squirm a bit, but it is certainly worth the discomfort. David charms the audience too, so that the twist at the end of the second act will actually catch most off guard.

An Education passes with flying colors because of an amazing cast; besides Sarsgaard and Mulligan, keep an eye on Alfred Molina as Jenny’s abashedly anti-Semitic, but well meaning, father. Mulligan, 25, manages to effortlessly channel a 16-year old virgin, looking for a little excitement and adventure beyond her suburban life. She easily gets taken in by David’s gentle charm. Only later do David’s lies and deceptions begin to take the stars from her eyes.

The script and direction are excellent; every bit of dialogue is engaging, well written, and advances the story. At just over 90 minutes, not a minute of screen-time goes to waste, with the story unfolding at an even and satisfying pace.

An Education will surprise, entertain, and move you. Though it is unlikely to win in the Best Picture or Best Actress categories, watch out for a possible upset for Best Adapted Screenplay. It is certainly deserving of the recognition.

Grade: A-

Friday, February 05, 2010

MOVIE REVIEW: Up

Number of Nominations: 5 (Best Picture, Best Animated Feature, Best Original Score, Achievement in Sound Editing, Best Original Screenplay)
Availability in the US: DVD, Blu-Ray

Up is, at its base, the story of the friendship between an elderly man and a young boy. There's much more to it than that, of course. There's a house that flies because it's attached to balloons, there are exotic locales and species, there is intrigue, there is comedy and tragedy, but to me, the unlikely kinship is the most important part of the tale. Once again, Pixar has taken a far-fetched tale and made us not only believe, but relate.

Up tells the story of Carl Fredricksen, an elderly widower in danger of losing his house, and Russell, a well-meaning, if occasionally annoying, boy scout desperate to earn a few merit badges. Carl attempts to escape being sent to the old-folks' home by attaching a bushell of balloons (20,622 balloons actually, according to the feature commentary) to his house and flying away. Unbeknownst to him, however, Carl has an unwitting stowaway in Russell, who was standing on his porch during liftoff. Though Carl initially fantasizes about throwing Russell out the window, he eventually takes on a protective role and the two have a great camaradarie throughout most of the film.

Up may be the best Pixar film yet. While WALL·E made us empathize with a robot who spoke only 2 words and Finding Nemo made us feel for a fish, Up packs the greatest emotional punch of any of Pixar's increasingly impressive lineup of features. If the first 10 minutes of this film DOESN'T make you cry, or at least get a little teary-eyed, you may want to check your pulse to make sure you're still alive.

I'm not going to lie to you; the other films nominated for Best Animated Feature are going to have to get up pretty early in the morning if they think they can have a chance at beating Up. Already the odds-on favorite to win in this category, Up made many critics' top ten lists as the best of 2009, and the fact that it's nominated outside the animated category as well makes it all but certain to win.

The screenplay is also nominated, and I think watching the film will make it clear why. The story is so inventive and engaging that you occasionally forget that the characters are not real. As for the nominated score, Pixar veteran Michael Giacchino has done a beautiful job making the music seamlessly complement the story without distracting from it at all.

Though unlikely to score a win in the Best Picture category, just being nominated with the big boys is, in this case, a huge honor. Up is only the second animated film ever to be nominated for Best Picture. The first, Beauty and the Beast, lost in 1991 to The Silence of the Lambs.

In conclusion, anyone who hasn't seen this film yet (are there still people who haven't seen it?) should drop what they are doing and go rent a copy. Better yet, buy one, as this film only gets better with repeat viewings.

Grade: A+

MOVIE REVIEW: The Secret of Kells

Number of Nominations: 1 (Best Animated Feature)
Availability in the US: None (Late March theatrical release planned)

The Secret of Kells is one of the most unique, beautiful, and eye-popping animated films I have ever seen. Before watching this film, I was convinced that nothing could give Up a run for its money and that it was a shoo-in to win in this category, but I found in Kells a serious contender.

The Secret of Kells tell the story of a young orphan named Brendan, who lives with his uncle, the Abbot of Kell. The Abbot is a loving guardian, but perhaps a bit too strict and much more concerned with fortifying the wall around the town from a coming attack by vikings than he is at nurturing the boy's imagination. When the legendary Brother Aidan (who looks surprisingly like Willie Nelson) shows up and takes the boy under his wing, Brendan goes on a journey into the woods and meets a lovely forest nymph named Aisling who takes a liking to him (and saves his life more than once). With Aisling's help, he attempts to save the town and help Brother Aidan complete the mystical book which—legend has it—can turn dark into light.

Kells is full of rich color and visual splendor. The animation style is mostly a stylistic 2-D, but with some of the fantasy elements taking on other visual styles. Throughout the film, I was reminded of the fanciful stylism of the excellent The Triplets of Belleville. The viking Norsemen and the aged Abbot reminded me of that film's box-like mafiosos and round aunts. The first fantasy sequence, in which shadowy figures close in on a village, reminded me most of the flashback sequences in Waltz With Bashir, while Aisling's movements and appearance reminded me of an anime-type style.

Overall, I'd say the film was visually stunning, and the plot was interesting and fairly engaging. The hauntingly beautiful song at the end makes me wonder why we didn't see this film in the Best Song category as well. I highly recommend this film (when it's finally available in the US) and am not yet willing to count it out as a dark-horse candidate for Best Animated Feature.

Grade: A

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Some Surprises in This Year's Oscar Noms

The announcement of the Oscar nominations each year is a dramatic and sometimes surprising event. Without fail there is someone who everyone was sure would score a nod but who, for whatever reason, was left out in the cold. Every year also contains the opposite sort of surprise. Some star of a minor indie flick is sleeping in their warm, cozy bed (the nominations are announces at the ungodly hour of 5:30 AM on the west coast) and is surprised to be awoken by a flood of calls congratulating him on his surprise Oscar nomination. This year was no exception; the crop of nominees for the Oscars contains its fair share of surprises and interesting tidbits.

At some point, we'll talk about who and what got snubbed, but today, I'd like to focus on the surprising nominations.

Raise your hand if you've seen (or even heard of) The Messenger. Anyone? Yeah, me neither. I keep pretty up to date with movies even if I'm not going to see them, and this one was completely out of left field as far as I was concerned: Woody Harrelson picks up his first nomination in 13 years for this film that I'm going to have to drive like 150 miles to find playing somewhere.

There are several other Where-the-Hell-Did-They-Come-Up-With-That-One nominees this year. The Secret of Kells, which is nominated for Best Animated Feature Film, is a little-known film out of the UK. The only US release it had was the requisite week in LA to qualify for the Academy Awards (which obviously paid off), so the chances most people have ever heard of it are pretty slim. The film has a very 2-D animation style, with bright contrasting colors that remind me of the art style in The Triplets of Belleville (another out-of-nowhere Academy favorite). The surprise here is mostly in the fact that a relative unknown beat out the more popular Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (which was nominated for the Golden Globe in this category) and the art-house favorite Ponyo (directed by past winner for Spirited Away and past nominee for Howl's Moving Castle, Hayao Miyazaki) in what is becoming an increasingly contentious category. Speaking of animated films, Up is now only the second animated feature film ever to be nominated for Best Picture (the first was Beauty and the Beast in 1991). This is actually not really a surprise, as Up has been hailed by many critics as the best film of the year.

The Best Picture category this year is an interesting new experiment the Academy is trying in making the Oscars more accessible to the average movie-goer. Over the past decade or so, the Academy has faced criticism for continually nominating indie films no one had seen or heard of. Last year's awards were a perfect example: the highest grossing film of the year, and one of the most highly-regarded, The Dark Knight, was shut out of the Best Picture/Director categories, despite a fan campaign to earn it a nod. The Academy attempted to remedy the situation this year by doubling the number of Best Picture nominees to 10. This, they reasoned, would allow more popular fare a chance to directly compete with the Academy-darling indie flicks which have done so well in the past. Their gamble seems to have paid off, at least on the surface. This year's crop of Best Pictures includes the popular (Inglorious Basterds, Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Up), the indie flicks (The Blind Side, Precious, A Serious Man, An Education) and the just plain surprising (District 9). District 9 is not what one necessarily thinks of when they think of excellent filmmaking. A science fiction film has NEVER won Best Picture, and the last one nominated was E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial in 1982.

While this year's nominations didn't hold as many surprises as last years' (Richard Jenkins in The Visitor? Melissa Leo in Frozen River? Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder? Really?) the winners are still anybody's guess.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

First Post

Hi, my name is Andrew, and I'm a Movie-holic. I've been a big fan of movies for as long as I can remember, and ever since I was 8 years old, my favorite annual event hasn't been the Super Bowl or the World Series, but the Academy Awards; at my house, Oscar Sunday is the biggest day of the year. For about 6 years, I ran The Oscar Trivia Page, a site that has since been lost to the annals of internet history when Geocities ceased operations last year. For the past 5 years, I've challenged myself to see every film nominated by the time of the awards ceremony (with the exception of the "specialty" films, i.e. short films, foreign language films, and documentaries). This year, I decided to document my progress as I go and review the movies I've seen. I'll be devoting this blog to reviews of the nominated films, occasional news updates on the ceremony itself, predictions, and perhaps a bit of Oscar trivia (for which I may shamelessly plagiarize my defunct trivia site).

It may be worth starting off by mentioning that, excluding the above-mentioned special categories (except when films are nominated in non-special categories as well) there are 34 films nominated for Oscars in 2010. As of yesterday when the nominations were announced, I have seen 11 of the nominated films, so I certainly have my work cut out for me. If you have any suggestions for future posts or different ideas for what you’d like to see on here, please feel free to comment.

Thanks for reading, and happy movie-going.