Thursday, March 25, 2010

Film Review - Shutter Island

Film #36 of 2010 - Shutter Island

I don't think there's a lot of doubt that Martin Scorsese is a masterful filmmaker; even those who may not like his brand of films have to admit the guy has chops. Though I fear that a few of his recent works have been well-crafted, but somewhat vanilla (The Aviator, The Departed) I have always held the hope that he was going to come out with another film that was going to make me take a few deep breaths after seeing it. I think I finally got that with Shutter Island.

Adapted from the novel by Dennis Lehane, Shutter Island stars Scorsese's 21st century go-to guy, Leonardo DiCaprio as Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshall who, with the help of his new partner, U.S. Marshall Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) is sent to Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane on remote, craggy Shutter Island on Boston Harbor in 1954 to investigate the disappearance of one of its prisoners. Hospital director Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) is quick to correct the term "prisoners" with "patients", as he believes that taking the time to cure them is more beneficial than merely housing them, and seems helpful to the investigation of the baffling disappearance. How could a woman disappear when the door is locked, the window is barred and escape from the treacherous terrain of the island is impossible? The more Teddy and Chuck dig into the mystery, the more they suspect the institution and its staff may be hiding insidious secrets and events, and the more Teddy, who has a challenging past himself, becomes unhinged.

When I first walked out of Shutter Island, I wasn't sure what to make of it. I knew that Scorsese had delivered a visually stunning film that really excited me, despite (and possibly because of) the dread and uneasiness I felt from start to finish. From the opening shot of the ferry gliding across the choppy waters in the fog with all of its shackles hanging from the ceiling to the well-lit and serene, yet disturbing closing scene, I know that I had a worried look on my face. Scorsese has never been afraid of violence, and in Shutter Island, he douses the film with disturbing imagery, from murdered children to botched suicide attempts. Like some of his other famously violent work, however, these scenes are not merely violent for violence sake; they are masterfully shot and creepy, but stunning. Check out the scene in Goodfellas when Joe Pesci is stabbing the hell out of the guy in the trunk of his car as Ray Liotta and Robert DeNiro look on, and now notice how the scene is lit. Shutter Island is rife with these sorts of scenes, where you're really disturbed by what you're seeing, but you can't look away because what you are seeing is breathtaking and so well done.

Non-violent scenes were extremely striking as well, of course. One particular moment in Shutter Island that immediately comes to mind is during one of Teddy's dreams; when he turns around talk to the missing Rachel, his body turns toward her in slow motion, but the cloud of smoke from his cigarette is in even slower motion and remains around him. The film geek in me went completely nuts over that shot, despite the fact that I was completely absorbed in the story. Which brings me to the story. I have extremely mixed feelings about it, and in kind, feel that is a positive aspect of the film. Though I guessed "the twist" about 1/4 of the way into the film, the remaining portion of the story was not pedestrian. But wait - did I truly guess correctly? (And no, I'm not putting spoilers in this review, so I'm intentionally being vague.) Though I think that a lot of people feel the ending was cut and dried, I'm not so sure, and I keep working scenes and dialogue through my head to support either theory, but a lot of them can be applied to both, which is actually kind of cool. The down side of it is that either way, there were definitely some elements that were far fetched and convenient. However, I kind of like it when things aren't wrapped up in a neat little package; even with the conveniences and potential eye-rolling once in a while, when you're still analyzing the movie pretty ferociously the next day, that's an accomplishment.

A special mention needs to be made for the music as well. It was deep, and really creepy; it was instrumental in giving the feeling of dread and terror to the movie. Unlike some "legendary" directors, (I'm looking primarily in the direction of George Lucas here) Scorsese not only coaxes great performances out of his actors, but uses top-notch talent as well. DiCaprio, (god love him, he's my age but still looks like a kid in adult clothing sometimes) like him or not, is one hell of a talent. No matter how much disdain I attempted to muster up for him when he was the object of idolatry after Titanic came out, he is one of the best actors working right now, and he does it without fanfare and with incredible ease. There is a scene in this film when he's looking at a man that is lying on the ground, bleeding, and it is as powerful a scene that it is because it's all non-verbal; he plays it with only the hard, cold expression on his face. I can't think of a film where he hasn't given an excellent performance. Mark Ruffalo, who I didn't recognize at first for some reason, but was struck by how much he looked like an actor from the 1950's before I realized it was him, was good, as was Ben Kingsley. The various smaller supporting actors were a character actor dream cast: Jackie Earle Haley, Patricia Clarkson, Emily Mortimer, Ted Levine and the amazing Max Von Sydow, who I wish had been in the film more because he looked so cool and truthfully, his voice is so great that I could listen to him read the phone book.

As I stated earlier, when I walked out of the film, I didn't know what to think of Shutter Island, beyond the outstanding visuals. But as I drove the familiar 20 minutes home, alone in my car, down really dark streets with very few cars, I realized how unsettled I felt. Then I pulled up to my house and watched, with suspicion, someone walking down the street, questioning, "Why would they do that at 10pm without a dog...?" Then I crawled into bed and thought about the movie before I went to sleep, and continued on my drive to work this morning; even my daily Starbucks fix couldn't shake the feeling. The true conclusion of the film isn't what matters, not in the slightest. It's the reality that Shutter Island really, really got to me, and that's a success in my book.

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Pre-Code Cinema

The following is a piece I did for a classic film community about six years ago. I figured I would re post it here and hopefully get the time, motivation and inspiration to write more in the near future.

Pre-Code Hollywood: Film, Interrupted

When one considers the films of the late 1920’s – early 1930’s, it is hard to imagine that they could be anything but chaste. After all, look at most of the films of the fifties and early sixties: husbands and wives slept in separate beds, our favorite actresses were flirty but most of the time didn’t put out and the men were dashing cads who kept their indiscretions to themselves or at most, relegated this topic to their respective men’s clubs. Therefore, it is easy for one to assume that the early days of “talkie” films had the depth and sex appeal of a Styrofoam cup, which makes the discovery that these were some of the richest films of the first six decades of the 20th century a delightful one.

And Hollywood DID forget about it. The next four years proved to be fruitful and provocative. The first film approved by the SRC was its most “subversive” yet. Norma Shearer solidified her stardom by starring in The Divorcee, released in 1930. In this film, Shearer discovers that her husband cheated on her, so she promptly goes out and cheats on her husband; with his best friend. When her husband returns to their Manhattan apartment, she simply tells him, “I’ve balanced our accounts.” Greta Garbo, who became an icon with her pre-Code filmography, was usually cast as The Notorious Woman, who was both dangerously beautiful and vulnerable. She played prostitutes and spies, but always did the right thing by her men, even if they did become quite broken because of it. In Grand Hotel, she plays a washed up ballerina who falls in love with the dashing John Barrymore, a man who rescues her from suicide while breaking into her hotel room to steal her jewels. The two have an obvious, passionate affair during their stay at the hotel and they not only are not approaching the level of marriage, but they just met one another. There were many other actresses who began their careers at the cusp of the Silent/Talkie era, among them Miriam Hopkins, Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow, Claudette Colbert and Constance Bennett. All of these actresses went on to have successful careers in post-Code films, but could have arguably done their best in the unrestricted early 1930’s.

And then came July 1934. The newly formed Production Code Administration created an era of censorship that would continue until the Code’s end in 1968. The most integral figure in this entire enterprise was not Hays himself, it was Joseph Breen, a lay Catholic , public relations man, and blatant anti-Semite. It was clear that his agenda was to save America from the movies and movies from the Jews, as most of the studio heads were Jewish. Breen referred to the moguls as “lice” and “ignorant on all matters having to do with sound morals.” Surprisingly, rather than being concerned about “subversive” matters like nudity, the censors were more concerned about the message the films created. The hardest hit was the roles women played in film. Women got their virginity back, and the price for non-conjugal relations was death, or loneliness. If men stepped out on their wives, they not only had to grin and stoically bear it, but also wait and hope for them to return. One of the greatest (and worst) examples of this phenomenon is Norma Shearer. Nine years after exerting her independence and playing the same games as her husband, she is relegated to becoming a hand wringing, wronged wife who can only hope that her husband comes to his senses and leaves his mistress, played by Joan Crawford. Goodbye strong women, hello doormat.

In pre-Code films, women did not have to answer to men, they had careers (and *gasp* were sometimes the boss) and most importantly, exuded independence and free thought. When Will Hays, the former Postmaster General, realized that there was a need for a commission to oversee the products that Hollywood was churning out, he created the Studio Relations Committee, though they had little power. Then the Code was introduced. The Production Code was actually hammered out in February 1930, unanimously agreed upon by the studio heads, with declarations such as “No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it”. (Exchange “moral” with “intellectual” and we would have some serious problems today.) Take your pick as to what this entailed: Nudity and profanity was prohibited, as were comic representations of “revered” figures (clergymen, etc.) and criminals would be called to justice. Why would the studio heads agree to sign this document? Unfortunately they were under the threat of protest by various religious groups, and there were powerful men such as Orson Welles’ best friend William Randolph Hearst who, when he was not shacking up with his longtime mistress Marion Davies (another pre-Code actress) were threatening to call for government censorship. Therefore, the studio heads basically had no choice, and they knew that it was all for show; smile and nod, sign the paper and forget about it.

Ironically, there actually was a film medium that became prevalent as a result of the Code: Film noir. Film noir films could include as many dastardly deeds as they wanted, as long as the criminals got punished in the end, as evidenced by noir classics such as The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. The 1940’s has also been categorized as one of the greatest decades for women in film, and certainly there were some great films that were made, but one can only imagine what they could have been without the blatant censorship that hovered over them.

On a personal level, I found that I began to really reexamine the films and actresses who I have historically found to be strong, with interesting results. I love the melodramas of the 1940’s starring pre-Code or early post-Code actors, like The Heiress with Olivia de Havilland, Mildred Pierce starring Joan Crawford and pretty much anything starring Katherine Hepburn or my favorite, Bette Davis. Now that I know the history of the Code, I find it intriguing that these actresses can still give off auras of great strength and savvy. I find that I am even more impressed with their performances. Conversely, I also find that I am almost ashamed of my love for certain post-Code films that, after examination, DO objectify women and knock them down several pegs, especially the aforementioned The Women.

So I suppose the question is, despite the obvious setback that films took due to the abject censorship during a 42-year period, how did films continue to thrive and how did we eventually develop a “Golden Age of Hollywood”, if there were so many factors stifling the industry? Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that, when stifled or restricted, screenwriters and producers are forced to come up with something better than they could have if one of their options was to simply shock and titillate the audience. Instead of exciting the audience through physical means, they went for the mind. This could be one of the reasons that anyone who is a devotee to classic film could arguably extol the virtues of classic films with a good story on an exponential level to modern offerings. While censorship on any level is inherently bad, and the Production Code set back films and women in particular, back 40 years, perhaps the one good thing that a Pollyanna could derive from this debacle is the theory that films had to get more meaty because they had the challenge that their pre-Code ancestors did not; rigid parameters and senseless “guidelines” they were forced to adhere to. Misguided, the Code took an idealized vision of present day society and forcibly applied these morays to the big screen, disallowing the viewer the option of casting feelings upon what they are seeing. While some of us wouldn’t act upon our husband’s infidelity in the same way as Shearer did in The Divorcee, if this film had been made four years later, the audience would have been denied the opportunity to pass judgment, if they chose to do so. Prior to the Code, one had to develop their own judgments when viewing film. Between 1934 and 1968, this was included for free in the price of a movie ticket.


  • Night Nurse (1931)

  • The Common Law (1931)

  • The Divorcee (1930)

  • Baby Face (1933)

  • I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1933)

  • Scarface (1932)

Friday, March 19, 2010

Film Review - The Lady From Shanghai

Film #35 of 2010 - The Lady From Shanghai

The Lady From Shanghai, directed by and starring Welles, co-stars his then-wife Rita Hayworth, who plays Elsa Bannister, your classic 1940's noir femme fatale whose vulnerability masks certain danger, though one isn't sure how it will manifest. Welles is Michael O'Hara, an Irish drifter with a checkered past who meets Elsa and is immediately attracted to her, until he finds out she is married to Arthur Bannister (the awesomely snively Everett Sloane), the most successful defense attorney alive. Despite his initial misgivings, he eventually agrees to take a job as the member of the crew on the Bannisters' yacht, which is about to set sail on one of the weirdest cruises known to man. O'Hara's needling feeling that these idle rich people were up to no good comes to fruition when he finds himself falling in love with Elsa and becoming the lead suspect in a murder. The kicker: He has to rely on Arthur to defend him.

It seems nearly impossible that I had never seen this iconic Welles film before now, considering what a Welles devotee I purport to be, but it's just one of the many films I hadn't gotten around to seeing until recently. The imagery in The Lady From Shanghai is well known, and I had seen scenes and movie stills before, but they didn't prepare me for the breathtaking composition and almost avant garde style of film making. I can't decide if I liked the choppy editing, because it toed the line between just plain jarring and odd, to almost guerilla-style film making. In comparison to Citizen Kane, which happens to be my favorite film of all-time, The Lady From Shanghai is risky and abstract. While I watched the film I kept thinking of the tight shot of the very dark skinned band member in the celebratory "Charlie Kane" musical number in Kane, a shot that could be thought of as awkward, but I loved because it was just so different from anything else produced in 1941. There were a lot of "awkward" moments in Shanghai, most of them involving Bannister's law partner George (Glenn Anders) but in retrospect, he was a really creepy and weird guy, so it kind of worked, actually. The shots that were kind of awkward without explanation were the ones of O'Hara in the courtroom where every time the camera was trained on Welles, he was giving the same look in the other direction and it looked like he was in another dimension or something. That was just kind of odd and kind of laughable, actually, and I'm not going to get all cinephile and dissect the scene as him being in solitude or anything, because some things don't warrant qualification.

There were a few moments during the film where I felt like I was watching experimental film, mainly because of the editing, and then other times when I saw a lot of similarities to the work of David Lynch and the European New Wave movement. It wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if this film served as an inspiration to a lot of late filmmakers, in particular, filmmakers whose work I admire. The celebrated ending sequence in the abandoned fun house was, quite literally, breathtaking. I actually plan to take my DVD of this film and watch it frame by frame at some point because it was spectacular, even for the scarily talented and visionary Welles.

When I finished watching The Lady From Shanghai, I knew that there were a couple of absolutes: while Rita Hayworth is beautiful, she's not one of the great actresses, and unfortunately, Shanghai didn't change that fact. For that matter, Welles, though a good actor, was at times completely unintelligible with that Irish brogue, which probably could have been handled differently. The imagery was fabulous and heart-thumpingly good. And the pacing was off, possibly due to the fact that Welles was once again edited by the studio itself, when he was envisioning a film that was nearly an hour longer than the eventual run time. What I was on the fence about was the actual story, because I couldn't decide if the story was actually really good in a subtle way, or not quite there. And after overnight reflection, I definitely think that, despite a couple of cheap conveniences scattered throughout the film, the story is truly a good one and holds up, meriting the film to not just merely be an eye candy piece.

I can understand the somewhat widespread reverence of this film from a historical perspective, but I wonder how it was received back in 1947, because it really is different from so much that was produced at that time, even within its own genre. I actually really like films that seem to grow on me with further reflection, and The Lady From Shanghai is one of those kinds of movies. I think if you would have asked me shortly after the film ended what I thought of it I would have had a lower opinion than the one I do now, but the cerebral film nerd in me that loves to over think movies relishes in absorbing the film, and now that I have finally seen it, I actually really liked this one.

4 out of 5 stars

Lady From Shanghai

Can I just say that I am so grateful for the fact that my brother happens to manage what has been my favorite theater my entire life, the Times Cinema? Not only has it been my neighborhood theater for years, (especially now that I live less than 3 minutes from it) but I am able to have the opportunity to experience personal screenings of any films we want, after hours.

Last night we had the second in a series of films hosted by my parents. The first was White Christmas in December, which, despite a horrible snowstorm, was still attended by at least 75 people. This time it was The Lady From Shanghai, and though it was held late on a Thursday night, in the middle of NCAA play (with Marquette playing even) it brought in an estimated 40-ish people. I'm completely exhausted from being up about three hours past my bedtime, but I had a great time watching a film that I had unbelievably never seen all the way through. I'm hoping to write my review today.

What a wonderful experience, and I am so thankful. From what I could tell, there was a lot of food collected for the Hunger Task Force as well (the suggested cost of admission) so it was a win-win. I can't wait until the next one.

Meanwhile, I'm going to take advantage of what is sure to be a cold and yucky weekend (after a beautiful week) and get caught up on a few Scorsese films. I think Chris is going to be continuing his work in his office so I'm hoping that won't be a problem.

Now to just keep my eyeballs propped open and I'll be all set.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A post about nothing. No really, it is.

Boy, did I completely misjudge this whole iTunes thing I decided to start at 8:30 pm tonight. Chris has been finally cleaning out his office and he's managed to find a few different things of mine in the process. Tonight he presented me with a stack of CDs that had apparently come out of my car at one point, so I started loading them onto my iTunes and snagging certain songs for my playlist (which keeps growing and growing and...) but man, each CD takes about 20 minutes.

For someone who is completely inept at technology, I'm really impatient when I actually deal with it, apparently.

Work was a little better today but I took the cheap way out and mostly worked on superficial tasks that had to get done but were quick n' dirty and made my desk look a whole lot better at 5pm than it did at 8am. However, now I have the meaty and mostly unpleasant stuff to tackle tomorrow, so that should be a challenge.

I'm starting to second guess having merely turtle cheesecake ice cream and a handful of pretzels for dinner tonight. Oh well, too late now.

And finishing up Lauryn Hill, on to Run-DMC.

And thus ends my post about nothing. Seinfeld, I'm not.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The good is that I had a great couple of days off. Chris and I went up north to Turtle Lake Wednesday through Saturday, getting back Saturday late afternoon. It's amazing how far away one can feel when you just head five hours in one direction, but it was enough to feel like we actually went somewhere. We spent some time at the casino there; I won a bunch of money and then lost some of it, but had a fun time doing it, which was all that mattered to me. Chris takes a much more scientific approach to it, calculating what his winning percentage was, etc. while playing a quarter at a time on the video poker machine, but as long as he had a good time doing it, that's all that matters.

The other "good" is that I can look forward to several days off for the Passover holiday at the end of March/beginning of April. If I take two additional days off in between the days the office is closed, I will have something like nine days off in a row. That could be super cool. I haven't decided if I want to do that or not; I think it's going to be a matter of what happens before those days and how much I have planned for myself so that I'm not just "wasting" days off. (If there is such a thing)

The bad is that I came back to work today with just a shit-ton of work to do. There are some positions at my employer where if you're gone, life goes on without you, to paraphrase the great Louis Prima, but unfortunately mine isn't one of them. Just because I wasn't there wasn't going to make articles become written, proofing to be done and everything else to be addressed. If it was just the articles and proofing, life would be great because I actually enjoy that aspect of my job. It's everything else that is wearing me down, the tasks I can't seem to shake no matter how much my position changes. That's what's going to bring me down the rest of the week, because I found it really important to work on the proofing first, and unfortunately, that's pretty much all that got done today. Tomorrow is going to be the official "crap work day" where everything is just completely task-oriented. The rest of the week isn't looking much easier, unfortunately, because even if I do pull myself out of this deep ditch of work, I still have the articles to write, and I've really been trying to get them right somewhat off the bat; not to mention I think I have a couple of interesting subjects for once. Then Thursday night is a late showing of Lady From Shanghai which is another of those private screenings my parents host at the theater. Considering it starts about a half hour before I normally go to bed, this is going to be a challenge.

Which brings me to the ugly. Despite my recent time off, I feel like I have zero time or motivation to explore any of my extracurricular interests. Honestly, they're not that much - movies, reading, culinary stuff, writing - but I'm either busy, not motivated to do it, or, like tonite, just plain too tired. I have a stack of Martin Scorsese films to watch and review for my Great Directors project next to the nice big plasma tv we have, yet I spent the first two hours at home sacked out in my chair falling asleep while watching reruns of "Bones" on TNT with Matisse equally sacked out on my feet. Maybe the change in the weather will help, or maybe I need to just kick myself in the ass to accomplish some of these things, because, let's face it, my interests aren't exactly strenuous. But let me tell you, I am even delighted that my leftovers from the other night are stretching out because I didn't have to cook dinner tonight and I still have enough for dinner tomorrow night.

I think I just need to feel a sense of accomplishment. I had a little of that on Sunday when my OCD kicked in in the middle of watching something on TV and I suddenly had to get up and organize the magazines that I had accumulated over the past several months (not an easy task based on the number of subscriptions I have) in order to catalogue the recipes in the myriad culinary ones I have, and separate out the actual "reading" magazines like The Atlantic that I've fallen behind on. After I organized all of those things I then went around organizing a couple of other things that had been bothering me, then went back to my TV show like nothing had happened. But, I felt accomplishment. I need that again, even if it's just completing a project I start or reading a book I've been meaning to read. (As I look at the "short list" pile sitting next to me that I've siphoned out as must-reads)

Anyway, I'm done whining. I just need to hunker down, stay active, and remember that my hobbies are actually enjoyable and things that I want to participate in.

I think fate is telling me to go to bed because "Be Italian" from Nine has now played twice since I sat down at my laptop, despite the fact that I have 425 songs on this play list and while I like that song I don't need to hear it AGAIN.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Film Review - In the Loop

Film #34 of 2010 - In the Loop

If In the Loop hadn't been nominated for an Oscar for its screenplay, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have heard about it, at least for quite some time, and that would have been a complete shame. Directed by Armando Iannucci and starring a bevy of random British, Scottish and American actors, In the Loop follows the behind-the-scenes frenzy that occurs among lobbyists, spin doctors and politicians when the U.S. President and British Prime Minister decide that they want a war in the Middle East, but the people who work for them and are more in the know are less convinced that this is a good idea and frantically try to convince the right people of this, sometimes with reason, sometimes with bribery and threats.

When I looked up Iannucci's filmography, it didn't surprise me that he is primarily a writer and director of television programs and not feature films. In the Loop has the dryly clever humor of a British sitcom, but is able to sustain the fast pace normally reserved for a 30 or 40 minute episode for the length of the entire film; an admirable feat. The actors are a Who's Who of "Hey, isn't that...?" ranging from a lead character like Tom Hollander (Mr. Collins from Pride & Prejudice) to supporting players like Anna Chlumsky (My Girl, but all grown up) and James Gandolfini. All of them were natural and funny, and there were many times where the film almost felt like a documentary or a behind-the-scenes look at what we normally aren't able to see. And something tells me that it's all probably spot on, which is terrifying and depressing all at once.

There are a lot of really hysterical moments during In the Loop, and the script is extremely edgy and heavily peppered with the F-bomb, so much so that after a while it just seemed natural to me. Again, there is no doubt in my mind that this isn't how people REALLY act in politics. In the Loop is a dry film, but it's funny and really good, and worth seeking out.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Film Review - Il Divo

Film #33 of 2010 - Il Divo

The story of Guilio Andreotti, seven-time prime minister of Italy, Il Divo focuses on a man who, despite his almost Nixonian lack of charisma, or even facial expressions beyond a somber stare, was repeatedly reelected and now holds the title of "Senator for Life". Even more daunting than his mannerisms and appearance is the trail of corruption, mob ties and scandal that follow him throughout his career, denied in a monotone, with aplomb, by Andreotti.

Il Divo is directed by Paolo Sorrentino and stars Toni Servillo as Andreotti. Servillo is apparently a national treasure in Italy, and I think he gave a great performance in the film, because I think that at times, particularly when your supporting characters are manic, it is just as challenging to be subtle and play the straight man as it is to emote. I actually had the opportunity to see this film at the Milwaukee Film Festival, and it was at the top of my list of "must-sees" but both times it conflicted with other films, so I leaped at the chance to see it when it came out on DVD. I found that I had a completely different impression of the film than what was actually represented, as I thought it was more mob-related than political.

Il Divo is an extremely stylish film, with some really great touches that impressed me every time, like the creative use of captions to introduce a player in the drama, and the use of fun, sometimes edgy music, a stark contrast to the stoic main character. The plot was dry, and political, which I liked, but I can't help but feel I would have enjoyed the film further had I known anything about the figures and their history. Instead I found there were times when boredom became a defense mechanism for confusion, particularly when there were so many characters that were introduced for sometimes less than ten seconds, but then were alluded to later on in the film.

On its own merits, Il Divo is indeed a good film, but I didn't catch the "Fellini-esque romp" that I've read about in articles and caption summaries of the film. This isn't to say the film is disappointing, but I think that since I was expecting something different from what I received, that I ended up disappointed in the film overall, but appreciative of many of the elements of the film.

3 out of 5 stars

Oscar wrap-up and other things

So much to do, so little time. I'm going on a mini-vacation tomorrow so I don't have as much disposable time right now as I'd like to have, (pesky work keeps getting in the way) I'd like to get a couple of thoughts down and get caught up on my reviews, if possible.

The Oscars were incredibly predictable, but I was happy with that Bigelow and The Hurt Locker won. I was trying to remember when the Oscars weren't a foregone conclusion, but the last time I can remember there being a surprise for the better was Adrien Brody, and for the worse was Crash. Maybe I was young and naive, but I seem to remember there being a bit more suspense involved in years past. Anyway, I managed to see all but 5 of the films that were remotely available to me, which meant seeing about 30 films, most of them good, a couple of them stinkers.

Realizing that there is a lot of derision toward The Oscars (a lot of it understandable) I still maintain that A) It's fun to judge and guess the winners and B) I end up seeing a lot of films I probably wouldn't have - both good and bad. It's kind of like watching the Independent Spirit Awards on IFC. I'm constantly saying, "I've never even heard of that movie" but I'm also taking notes for my Netflix queue because so many of them look well done and compelling.

I'm going to have my Oscar nominated film reviews up on the front page of my Web site through the end of March so take a look if you're interested in a film that caught your interest during the ceremony or in the pre- and post- ceremony buzz.

In other movie related news, I seem to have chosen to work on the work of the wrong director for my Great Directors Project . March is apparently Akira Kurosawa month on Turner Classic Movies, and they are featuring a fantastic slate of films that are going to burn up my DVR. At least now I don't have to wonder who I'm going to work on next!

Speaking of the Great Directors Project, though I haven't had time to truly begin it yet, please check out my Great Directors Project blog and give me your feedback on what directors I should be looking at.

And finally, I leave you with another reason to love Christoph Waltz.

Friday, March 5, 2010

2010 Oscar Picks

Below are my picks for the 2010 Academy Awards. I normally do a separate "should" and "will" win ballot, but I'm just going to lay out the wills and hope to hell that a couple of my "renegade" picks actually make it. My dear friend Jay has somehow been the reigning champ for the last two years for getting the Oscar picks right, so I'm not sure why I keep insisting on making non-mainstream picks but eh, what the hell. It's all in good fun.

Incidentally, I only am doing picks for the categories I can speak for (meaning, I've seen more than half of the nominees) since there were some categories I couldn't participate in because the films weren't available in a podunk town like...Milwaukee. However, at the time of this post, I have seen all but 5 of the films available to me in any category; approximately 30 films. I know. Nerd.


He was devastatingly good in A Single Man and his subtle performance literally made me weep. He deserves it the most, but I'm sure Jeff Bridges will get it instead because he's due. I still feel strongly enough where I'm voting for Firth though.


This is always a strong category, and with the exception of the baffling nomination of Matt Damon, this year is no exception. However, Waltz was the best part of a fantastic movie, and even back when I saw this last fall, we all were in agreement that he better get nominated.


I know that this is Sandra Bullock's year, and yeah, she did a great job in The Blind Side, but Meryl Streep so embodied this role and did it with such ease that I was completely charmed with an otherwise mediocre movie. I think the general consensus of the film was, "It was okay but I wish there was more Julia." But, I imagine we'll see Sandra Bullock win, and that's okay, but damn I want Streep to win! (And if not her, Helen Mirren)

She's going to win this one and she deserves to win. It's not as strong of a category as in years past, (Penelope Cruz was really good in Nine, but really? And Maggie Gyllenhaal, who I actually really like, shouldn't be on this list) but even in a better year, Mo'Nique would be a lock. She was absolutely fantastic.


Though I'm a huge Wes Anderson fan (but admittedly haven't seen The Fantastic Mr. Fox by this writing) I can't imagine Up not winning this category. I am no fan of Pixar, but this film really won me over, and regardless of how many times I see the film, I still can't get through the beautiful and tear-jerking first act without bawling my eyes out. Then I proceed to laugh hysterically for the rest of the film.


If there was anything that stood out in this film, it was the art direction, and it was phenomenal. It gave me hope that Guy Ritchie hasn't completely lost his mind. A close second was definitely Nine, because, like it or hate it, it sure was gorgeous to look at.


The stunning cinematography helped create the air of tension in this film, particularly when we're looking at an expanse of desert and wondering where that lone sniper is.


I'm actually basing this one on the pictures and articles I've seen about the film, and also because the other nominees aren't so hot.


Though all of the nominees with one exception (I'm looking in your direction, Cameron) Bigelow did the most with the least amount of resources and created an absolutely amazing film with The Hurt Locker. Oh, and GIRL POWER!


Not much to say about it. The editing was great? It was.


I haven't seen Il Divo yet, but I will before the telecast, but I can't imagine that Star Trek's nerdy alien makeup isn't going take the prize. Plus, I just thought this was a really funny and super gay picture.


Since I'm more attenuated to noticing the visual aspects of a film rather than the audio ones, a film score has to either be really good or really bad for me to notice it. I noticed the film score for Up immediately and loved it.


I don't think this is a great song, or even a really good song for that matter, but I'm sick of 300 Disney songs being nominated every year, and the song from Nine is probably one of the weakest songs of the film. So, go Crazy Heart. I hope it's the only award you win.


Completely hilarious, irreverent and clever, I really hope this one gets it because it's just really down-to-earth, great animation with an awesome premise.


I honestly don't think this one is going to win, because the other nominees actually had "important" themes. (Okay, other than Instead of Abracadabra which was also brilliant) But I think that this edgy gem should get the prize. I'm going on record in stating that I would be almost as happy if Abracadabra won as well.


I don't know! The sound editing was good, as well as the sound mixing. (shrug)


Don't ask me... I Google Image Searched "Avatar" and this guy came up, and since this picture was a lot more entertaining to me than any of the 7 hours of the actual movie, I'm running with it. Meanwhile, though I think that District 9's visual effects were more impressive based on their limited resources, I can't imagine that Avatar won't get this one. Again, I hope it's the only one they win.


This is a really tough category (it usually is) and though Up in the Air is nominated in several other categories, I really think this is the only one it's going to win. And it really deserves this win; any movie that has me walking out of it saying, "I want to read that book" is a successful adaptation.


All I've been hearing about is that this category is a cage match between two films: The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds. While both are deserving of the nomination (especially Basterds) let's not forget about the brilliant script by Joel and Ethan Coen. It's probably not going to win, but I'm putting my money on the bros.


Every year I'm actually okay with a few of the nominees winning this category, and actively root for the others to not win. This year is no exception, it's only grown to the 40th power because there are 312 movies nominated in this category. Up should win Animated, but doesn't deserve a spot on this list. The Blind Side was a good movie, but doesn't deserve a spot on this list. Avatar, don't even get me started. However, every other movie I'm kind of okay with to varying degrees, BUT, The Hurt Locker absolutely deserves the win and it SHOULD win. This was an absolutely amazing film that blew me away (bad choice of words) and completely surprised me. So I have to root for The Hurt Locker. And proceed to boycott the 83rd Academy Awards if Avatar wins.

Agree? Disagree? Don't care? I'm cool with comments concerning all three.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Film Review - 2010 Oscar Nominated Live Action Short Films

Following are very short capsule reviews of the 2010 Oscar nominated live action shorts. Though not feature length films, I am "counting" the animated and the live action films as one movie each for the purposes of the 100 Movie Challenge.

Film #32 of 2010 - 2010 Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts

19 minutes - India/USA

Kavi, a young boy in India, is forced into slavery due to his father's debts to the owner of a brick kiln, when all he really wants to do is go to school and play cricket with other boys his age.

This was a very good short film, with a lot of depth and feeling, but it was not easy to watch, particularly knowing that adults and many children are truly faced with this reality. Heart breaking but somewhat hopeful, Kavi was an impressive beginning to the live action slate. 3.5 out of 5 stars

20 minutes - Denmark/USA

A gay couple who have recently moved into their new apartment meet a couple of their neighbors and learn the history of the whereabouts of the former tenants.

Intelligent, bizarre and hilarious, this was the only live action short to feature easily recognizable stars, including Vincent D'onofrio, David Rakoff , Jamie Harrold and Kevin Corrigan, and the acting was both subtle and over the top, depending on the actor. I laughed really hard throughout most of the film, even in the face of some pretty shocking violence. I loved everything about this film. 4.5 out of 5 stars

17 minutes - Australia

A young boy who is an outcast at his school celebrates his 8th birthday in an unusual way when he wakes from a nap in the nurse's office to find he is all alone in the school.

This was a really heavy, powerful film, and though I figured out what was going on fairly early on, the tension and dread was omnipresent throughout most of the film, helped along by the muted photography. 3.5 stars out of 5

17 minutes - Ireland

Following the evacuation of their home and all of their belongings, a young family is forced to deal with the further life-affecting aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster.

I wish that I could say that I found this to be a powerful film, but it ended up being really disappointing, considering that this is still an interesting and relevant topic even decades later. The film seemed to last much longer than its 17 minutes and instead of feeling emotional and devastated I just looked forward to it being over. 2 out of 5 stars

22 minutes - Sweden

An awkward man, still living with his parents, aspires to become a professional magician and impress his pretty new neighbor with his "prowess".

This was the only short I was familiar with, having previously seen it during last year's Milwaukee Film Festival. At that screening, I was struck by how much the audience enjoyed it (when it didn't really seem like the correct demographic) and I personally thought it was hilarious. Watching it a second time, I still laughed as hard as I did the first time (I still can't get over his gesticulations and "Chimay") because it is sweet and almost slapstick in its humor. It was somewhat reminiscent of Napoleon Dynamite in terms of aesthetic, but the main difference was that Instead of Abracadabra was actually clever. 4 out of 5 stars

Film Review - 2010 Oscar Nominated Animated Short Films

Following are very short capsule reviews of the 2010 Oscar nominated animated shorts. Though not feature length films, I am "counting" the animated and the live action films as one movie each for the purposes of the 100 Movie Challenge.

For the record - we saw three "Highly Commended" shorts that were also-rans for the Oscar nominations, and Runaway (8 minutes - Canada) was superb and was probably my second favorite out of all that we saw.

Film #31 of 2010 - Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts

8 minutes - France

A businessman realizes he is missing his wallet after he drinks a cup of coffee at a cafe.

With no dialogue, the strong animation helped save this short from being completely boring, as it was really pretty lackluster. I did like some of the character designs, however, especially the waiter. 2.5 out of 5 stars

8 minutes - Spain

An elderly woman longs to join her husband in the afterlife, but when the Grim Reaper finally comes calling, he becomes engaged in a battle of wills with a doctor determined to save her life.

Another short with little or no dialogue, I really enjoyed this one. I thought the animation was interesting and I thought the frenetic pace was a lot of fun. The Grim Reaper, in particular, was absolutely hilarious and I really liked a few of the humanizing touches he was given. 3.5 out of 5 stars

6 minutes - Ireland

Granny O'Grimm tells her granddaughter her version of Sleeping Beauty, and we quickly learn why her granddaughter is reluctant and terrified to hear it.

This short film was by far my favorite of both the nominated and "highly commended" shorts that were shown. It featured both hand drawn (at least it looked it) and traditional computer animation and was absolutely hilarious. The voice of Granny was a riot and the old fairy godmother with the walker almost had me falling out of my seat laughing. I actually found it on YouTube and watched it again this morning. 4.5 out of 5 stars

30 minutes - UK

Another Wallace & Gromit adventure where Wallace's daftness puts him in peril and Gromit has to save the day. This time, the two are bakers, and Wallace is next in line to become a victim of a serial killer who targets bakers.

Though I appreciate the stop motion medium for its challenging process, I honestly can't stand Wallace & Gromit. Part of it is aesthetic - I loathe the character designs with the oval /oblong mouths and full set of teeth showing - but I just don't find the whole Rube Goldberg -type inventions and daftness remotely charming. Gromit is usually somewhat entertaining as the silent straight "man" (I always think of Teller when I see him) but at 30 minutes this was almost unbearable to sit through. 2 out of 5 stars

16 minutes - France

In a reality where everything is made up of corporate logos, the cops (who are Michelin Men) try to stop the mayhem and murder spree of one Ronald McDonald.

I can't begin to fathom that the filmmakers obtained the rights to most (if any) of the seemingly hundreds of logos that were used in this short. I thought that the usage of most of them were clever, but I also think that the filmmaker(s) knew how clever they were. I totally get that this was a Pulp Fiction-esque scenario, and I thought it was entertaining, but a bunch of swearing logos, regardless of how beloved they are don't really equal edgy to me. Having said that, I liked the satire and the message that (I think) was trying to come through. 3 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Banner Day on TCM

I just received TCM's monthly schedule for March and before I realized that today was indeed March 2nd and I would be missing most of these movies, today is a really great day for programming. (The following is pasted from the e-mail)

7:00 AM Champ, The (1979)

A washed-up prizefighter fights to keep his son. Cast: Jon Voight, Faye Dunaway, Ricky Schroder. Dir: Franco Zeffirelli. C-123 mins, TV-14, CC, Letterbox Format
9:09 AM Short Film: Forbidden Passage (1941)

BW-21 mins,
9:30 AM Maltese Falcon, The (1941)

Hard-boiled detective Sam Spade gets caught up in the murderous search for a priceless statue. Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet. Dir: John Huston. BW-101 mins, TV-PG, CC, DVS
11:30 AM Spanish Main, The (1945)

Dutch rebels in the Caribbean turn pirate and kidnap the corrupt Spanish governor's bride-to-be. Cast: Paul Henreid, Maureen O'Hara, Walter Slezak. Dir: Frank Borzage. C-101 mins, TV-PG, CC
1:19 PM Short Film: Goodbye, Miss Turlock (1947)

BW-11 mins,
1:30 PM Three Musketeers, The (1948)

Athletic adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' classic adventure about the king's musketeers and their mission to protect France. Cast: Lana Turner, Gene Kelly, June Allyson. Dir: George Sidney. C-126 mins, TV-G, CC, DVS
3:37 PM Short Film: Movie Pests (1944)

BW-11 mins,
4:00 PM Royal Wedding (1951)

A brother-and-sister musical team find romance when they tour to London for Elizabeth II's wedding. Cast: Fred Astaire, Jane Powell, Peter Lawford. Dir: Stanley Donen. C-93 mins, TV-G, CC, DVS
5:34 PM Short Film: Battle Of Gettysburg, The (1956)

C-30 mins, , Letterbox Format
6:00 PM Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954)

When their older brother marries, six lumberjacks decide it's time to go courting for themselves. Cast: Howard Keel, Jane Powell, Russ Tamblyn. Dir: Stanley Donen. C-102 mins, TV-G, CC, Letterbox Format, DVS
8:00 PM West Side Story (1961)

A young couple from dueling street gangs falls in love. Cast: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno. Dir: Robert Wise. C-152 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format
11:00 PM Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

An alienated teenager tries to handle life's troubles and an apron-wearing dad. Cast: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo. Dir: Nicholas Ray. C-111 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format
1:00 AM Giant (1956)

A Texas ranching family fights to survive changing times. Cast: James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson. Dir: George Stevens. C-201 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format
4:30 AM Cimarron (1960)

A pioneer couple plays a major role in the settling of Oklahoma. Cast: Glenn Ford, Maria Schell, Anne Baxter. Dir: Anthony Mann. C-148 mins, TV-PG, CC, Letterbox Format

Monday, March 1, 2010

Film Review - The Last Station

Film #30 of 2010 - The Last Station

Directed by Michael Hoffman, The Last Station focuses on the later life of legendary author Leo Tolstoy (played by Christopher Plummer) and the relationships he has with those closest to him; his wife, the Countess Sofya (Helen Mirren), his dear friend and leader of the Tolstoyan movement, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti) and the newest addition to his flock, Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), his new personal secretary. Though his health is failing, Tolstoy continues to work on both his Tolstoyan movement and his current work, while becoming entrenched in the middle of a battle of wills between Sofya and Chertkov over the disposition of his eventual estate, with Chertkov wanting all of Tolstoy's assets and future earnings to go to "the people" and Sofya desperately trying to hold on some assets for herself and their large family.

Going into The Last Station
, I knew that I could expect some stellar performances at the very least. Plummer and Mirren are both amazing actors whose talents have only strengthened over the years. What I didn't expect was for the film to be so good. With a richly layered screenplay that gives the viewer things to think about long after the film is over, The Last Station is extremely intelligent and deep without becoming dry, boring or overstuffed. Even McAvoy, who, on his best days can usually eke out no more than a just decent performance, I have to admit that he had much more to offer in this film than simply being eye candy. Though the conflict between Sofya and Chertkov was the crux of the problem and the undoing of many things, I really liked that I had to really think about who was right or wrong in the situation, even after I had left the theater.

Certainly, The Last Station contains an excellent and compelling story, with great performances and beautiful scenery, costumes and camera work (who would have thought the director of Soapdish, one of my guilty pleasure movies could turn out such a respectable film?) but the real standout of the film is the beautiful love story between Tolstoy and Sofya. Their relationship is indeed volatile, and they seem to have more "downs" than "ups", but their love is truly passionate and romantic and true. Plummer and Mirren are astonishingly believable in their roles, and in expressing their love for one another. These are two actors who are legendary at this point, and deservedly so. Mirren is especially captivating, and was so amazing in her role that I'm starting to believe, after being on "Team Streep" for months in the Oscar race, it would be tragic if she didn't win the statue for this role. (She won't.)

I mentioned on my Twitter feed that if you want to see a real romance, forget the current films, Dear John and Valentine's Day. There is nothing real about films like that - it's beautiful movies like The Last Station that make my heart hurt and shows what true love really is.

4 stars out of 5

The Great Directors Project

I am thrilled to be starting a new project called The Great Directors Project, and have decided to set up a blog for it. I hope to get interactive with this because part of my mission is to learn more about directors that I may only have peripheral knowledge of, or about some directors who are long-forgotten geniuses, and to do that I need the help of readers.

I would love to hear from anyone with suggestions! Visit The Great Directors Project soon!