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This is what I thought of this film. Kinda self-explanatory, but there was an empty box to type in, so how could I resist?

The 81st Academy Award Nominations: The Big Show Goes Small

Posted by goldwriting on January 22, 2009

oscarDo you know how long I have been waiting to duel with someone. Seriously! I have the sword and everything.

For movie fanatics all over the world, this is the morning we wipe our crusted eyelids, roll clumsily out of bed and collapse on the couch to see the live announcement of the Academy Award nominations. It is more than a testament to the passion we have for cinema, it is a statement of how much we want to quickly and violently debate the fairness of the Academy’s choices. So, let the debate begin…

Best Motion Picture of the Year

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Frost/Nixon

Milk

The Reader

Slumdog Millionaire (deserves to win, most likely winner)

What can anyone do to stop the steamrolling power of the Slumdog? Pretty much nothing. Sweeping every category it was nominated in at the Golden Globes, Slumdog has all the momentum and all the passion of an Oscar winner. It’s uplifting, full of hope and adversity, and overall everything the Academy voters love to rally around. When it wins for Best Picture it will also help paint the picture of the Academy as a more international accepting body of voters. I give great credit to Benjamin Button and Frost/Nixon for both being incredible films, but I don’t see them climbing over Slumdog for a win. Milk to me is over-nominated and I would have gladly let this one go in favor of The Dark Knight or Revolutionary Road. My disappointment over the snubbing of The Dark Knight isn’t truly due to thinking it would win the category, but because it would have given some validation to the comic book genre and really helped to boost the idea that these are not just costumed vigilantes on a violence bender, they are incredibly complex and moving stories available to be enjoyed by adults as well as kids. As for The Reader, Ricky Gervais must have been right when he told Kate Winslet at the Golden Globes, “See, just do the Holocaust movie and awards just come rolling in.”

Best Achievement in Directing

David Fincher: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Ron Howard: Frost/Nixon

Gus Van Sant: Milk

Stephen Daldry: The Reader

Danny Boyle: Slumdog Millionaire (deserves to win, most likely winner)

This is the first time since 1944 where there is an exact match between the Best Picture category and the Best Director. Commonly the two awards go hand-in-hand, but there is usually one oddball or mismatch between them. Not this year and my feelings remain pretty much the same from the previous category. Danny Boyle will walk away the winner.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Richard Jenkins: The Visitor (deserves to win)

Frank Langella: Frost/Nixon

Sean Penn: Milk

Brad Pitt: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Mickey Rourke: The Wrestler (most likely winner)

Now here is some excitement and tension for the night. The inclusion of dark horse Richard Jenkins throws a distinct wrench in the celebratory plans of Mickey Rourke, who took the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama. Jenkins hands down deserves the nomination and I am pulling for him to win. All these performances were incredibly strong, which could split the voting and leave Jenkins available for the sneak attack. The big money is on Rourke because of his Cinderella-esque return to the limelight, but I’m personally hedging my bets and putting some small change on Jenkins. Sean Penn can proudly stand here as the one thing I agree with in terms of nominations for Milk. He was the lightning rod for this film and it all hinged on his stellar performance. Langella and Pitt both were terrific, but the momentum and buzz are not behind them this year.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Josh Brolin: Milk

Robert Downey Jr.: Tropic Thunder

Philip Seymour Hoffman: Doubt

Heath Ledger: The Dark Knight (deserves to win, most likely winner)

Michael Shannon: Revolutionary Road

I was thinking about just leaving this area with one word, “Duh”, but that would steal my opportunity to praise and shout for the nomination of Michael Shannon. He was the most outstanding and powerful part of Revolutionary Road and I am thrilled he got the nod here. Yet, with that said, let me now return to my previous thought…

“Duh.”

Ledger takes this.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Anne Hathaway: Rachel Getting Married (deserves to win)

Angelina Jolie: Changeling

Melissa Leo: Frozen River

Meryl Streep: Doubt

Kate Winslet: The Reader (most likely winner)

Who is Melissa Leo and what is this film, Frozen River? Pulling a repectful Jenkins-like move, Leo throws this semi-strong category into a whirl. Hathaway and Winslet are the two obvious front runners, with Hathaway almost sure to take the Independent Spirit Award the night before the Oscars and Winslet still fanning herself off after the double grab at the Golden Globes for both her roles this year. Holocaust subject matter aside, I think Hathaway was stronger in her role as an ex-junkie struggling with reintegrating herself into her own family, where as if Winslet had been nominated for Revolutionary Road instead of The Reader I would be more inclined to begrudgingly hand it to her. Streep can’t be totally counted out, especially since all four of the main actors from Doubt got nominations, but I think she will fall by the wayside here. Maybe when she lands there, she can bring Jolie a drink, she’s been down there all year.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Amy Adams: Doubt

Penelope Cruz: Vicky Christina Barcelona

Viola Davis: Doubt

Taraji P. Henson: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Marisa Tomei: The Wrestler (deserves to win, most likely winner)

Even though Vicky Christina Barcelona took home the Golden Globe for Best Comedy, I think Penelope is the only one is this category you can count out of the running. The two Doubt women, Davis and Adams, were both sensational, but they might end up splitting that audience in half. This leaves Henson and Tomei to battle it out, with Tomei a touch ahead since I think she only lost out on the Globe because she was battling Winslet on her night-of-all-nights. If Henson pulls it out here, she will most likely be one of very few of the thirteen nominations for Button that will result in a win.

Best Animated Film of the Year

Bolt

Kung Fu Panda

Wall-E (deserves to win, most likely winner)

I’m still baffled by all the acclaim for Bolt, but it really doesn’t matter this year. Wall-E lost out on a Best Picture nod most likely because everyone just wanted to give it this award and be done with it. Plan on Pixar walking away once again, proud of its tiny trashman.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Eric Roth: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

John Patrick Shanley: Doubt

Peter Morgan: Frost/Nixon

David Hare: The Reader

Simon Beaufoy: Slumdog Millionaire (deserves to win, most likely winner)

There’s a good chance Slumdog will continue its reign here, but it’s a strong category so anything could really happen. The Reader has pulled in lots of support and you can count on a huge studio push for the win, but the rest of the pack are no slouches either. Shanley wrote the play for Doubt as well as the screenplay and he was already heaped with acclaim for the stage version (surprisingly, the same holds true for Morgan with Frost/Nixon). Hare succeeded greatly with taking an incredibly minute starting point, a much loved, but much thinner short story, so his skill and credit comes from the expansion and illumination of tale we are lucky to not have missed. Anyone’s game, but I’ll lean towards the Bollywood train based on sheer momentum.

Best Original Screenplay

Courtney Hunt: Frozen River

Mike Leigh: Happy-Go-Lucky

Martin McDonagh: In Bruges

Dustin Lance Black: Milk

Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon: Wall-E (deserves to win, most likely winner)

Again, this is a category where Milk really doesn’t fit. I don’t see it as an original story since it was a biopic and mostly a dramatization of the documentary, The Life and Times of Harvey Milk. It’s a good film, but not what I consider an original story. Then there’s that mystery movie, Frozen River, once again. I really need to see this. Wall-E deserves writing acclaim without a doubt since the first twenty minutes were done beautifully with virtually no dialogue at all. That’s talent, people. Happy-Go-Lucky and In Bruges are getting more acclaim since both movies had their main actors recognized with Golden Globes this year, but I think this one will still end in the incredibly cute storage bin of our friend, Wall-E.

Best Achievement in Art Direction

Changeling

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (deserves to win, most likely winner)

The Dark Knight

The Duchess

Revolutionary Road

The Duchess is a period drama and those tend to do well in this category. As for the rest, they are all incredibly picturesque and beautifully designed films, ranging from the aging, earthy tones of Button to the stark and stunning colors of Road, any of these films deserves the accolade on this night. Just for the sake of picking a winner, I’ll toss my tiny iota of support behind Button. (Sorry, Dark Knight, I still love you.)

Best Achievement in Cinematography

Changeling

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Dark Knight

The Reader

Slumdog Millionaire (deserves to win, most likely winner)

Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish the difference between Best Art Direction, which is how the film and its universe looks, and Best Cinematography, which is how the film is shot, which in turn show you how the universe looks. It’s a fine line, but this year I think the inventiveness of movement and pacing coupled with the saturated colors of India are going to bring Slumdog yet one more statue for the night.

Best Achievement in Costume Design

Australia

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (deserves to win, most likely to win)

The Duchess

Milk

Revolutionary Road

Except for The Duchess, these are all dramas set in fairly contemporary time periods, so the costume design was more about complementing the world and environment, whereas in Duchess gets to really show off the fashions of its 18th century era; big hair pieces, huge dresses and rib-crushing corsets. I’ll lean towards Button due it sheer volume of nominations and its clarity of vision inside the entire project, but this is truly a toss-up.

Best Documentary Feature

The Betrayal

Encounters at the End of the World

The Garden

Man on Wire (most likely to win)

Trouble the Water

I can’t put “deserves to win” here since I have seen absolutely none of these. I love documentaries, but I happen to miss this grouping completely. I’ve heard amazing things about Man on Wire from both friends and industry readings, so I’ll go with that one.

Best Documentary Short Subject

The Conscience of Nhem En

The Final Inch

Smile Pinki

– The Witness – From the Balcony of Room 306

Umm…[tries to read tea leaves]…uh…The Witness? Yeah, that’ll win.

Best Achievement in Film Editing

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Dark Knight

Frost/Nixon (deserves to win)

Milk

Slumdog Millionaire (most likely winner)

Although the editing in Slumdog was sensational, I am happy to announce I think there is actually a better choice in this category. Frost/Nixon tackled a nearly yawn-inducing subject, one last interview with an old and broken man, and turned into a harrowing, sweat-filled ride towed along by brilliant pacing. Do I think it will actually win, nope, but it most certainly gets my vote for most deserving.

Best Foreign Language Film

The Baader Meinhof Complex

The Class

Departures

Revanche

Waltz with Bashir (most likely winner)

Bashir took home the Globe and you can expect it will do the same here. Nothing but praise has been heaped on this oddly animated drama and I am itching for my chance to witness it myself.

Best Achievement in Makeup

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (most likely to win)

The Dark Knight

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (deserves to win)

The real choice here is what you find more impressive, making something look incredibly realistic with a mixture of CGI and practical makeup or making something fantastical come to life with prosthetics and makeup? The former would give you Button as the winner and the latter would give you Hellboy II, while the only makeup worth celebrating in Dark Knight is the insanely creepy and dripping face of the Joker. I would like to see Hellboy win here for the amazing work not only on the main character, but also the underworld villain Prince Nuada and his sister, Princess Nuala.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Score)

Alexander Desplat: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

James Newton Howard: Defiance

Danny Elfman: Milk

A.H. Rahman: Slumdog Millionaire (deserves to win, most likely winner)

Thomas Newman: Wall-E

While this might be the happiest group of characters Danny Elfman ever scored for, I think he will lose and quickly return to his gothic roots. Slumdog has a good chance due to its unique international flavor and the Golden Globe A.H. Rahman is already carrying, but the other three are very much in the running.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Song)

Peter Gabriel: “Down to Earth” from Wall-E (most likely winner)

Gulzar: “Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire (deserves to win)

– A.R. Rahman, Maya Arulpragasam: “O Saya” from Slumdog Millionaire

There is a distinct lack of the man commonly referred to as “The Boss”! Why Bruce Springsteen didn’t get a nomination for the Golden Globe winning song he wrote and performed for The Wrestler is beyond me. Also surprising is the exclusion of Academy golden oldie, Clint Eastwood, and his warbling diddy for Gran Torino. With those two oddly out of the limelight, Gabriel could indeed walk away with it for his heartwarming tune, but Gulzar’s tune is the ending credits number and backs up a huge Bollywood dance number, which helps lift the audience to their feet after all the yearning and struggling they just witnessed. I’m going to put my mark there, while internally wishing I could actually dance like that.

Best Animated Short Film

La Maison en Petits Cubes

Lavatory – Lovestory

Oktapodi

Presto (most likely winner)

This Way Up

Presto is the only one I have seen since it was shown before Wall-E in the theater, but the whole thing is done with no dialogue and is gut-wrenchingly funny. Plus, it’s a Pixar joint, so just give it the gold and be happy they want to make more.

Best Live Action Short Film

Auf der Strecke (On the Line)

Mannon on the Asphalt (most likely winner)

New Boy

The Pig

Spielzeugland (Toyland)

I’ll go with Mannon on the Asphalt because it makes me think of a montage of skateboarders faceplanting.

Best Achievement in Sound Editing

The Dark Knight (deserves to win, most likely winner)

Iron Man

Slumdog Millionaire

Wall-E

Wanted

The fact Wanted can now call itself an Academy Award nominated film just tickles me. There was some great sound work by all the nominees in this category, but here I will lovingly and joyously put my ballot into the box of Dark Knight. From the sounds of the jet engine of the Batmobile to the bone-crushing thud of Ledger’s head hitting the interrogation room table, this was a symphony of audio accomplishment.

Best Achievement in Sound Mixing

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Dark Knight (deserves to win)

Slumdog Millionaire (most likely winner)

Wall-E

Wanted

Evidently Iron Man didn’t mix as well as they edited. Odd. Anyway, I’d still like to see Dark Knight get this, but I think the voting block might split this one up. There might still be enough uber-love for Slumdog to pull this one through for them as well.

Best Achievement in Visual Effects

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (deserves to win, most likely winner)

The Dark Knight

Iron Man

This is the one category where Button truly deserves to win, hands down. The character of Benjamin was so incredible and adorable, I couldn’t felt any more sympathy and yearning for him if he were sitting right in front of me. The only reason it worked was the sheer realism of this aged and decrepit child, so without any reservations, this one goes to them.

If you made it all the way down here, thanks once again for reading and I would love to hear your thoughts. Tell me I’m right, tell me I’m wrong, make me believe I missed out on something truly great or just let me know what you thought of that box of Raisinets you got at the movies (Were yours stale? Mine were last time, but I can’t stop getting them).
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Doubt: Titans Clash Over Sheer Intensity

Posted by goldwriting on January 16, 2009

doubt I was told by a reliable source that black is the new black this year.

Rating: 7 out of 10

There are numerous ways to tell a story. You can paint a picture which conveys one image, but a library worth of emotion. You can write a piece of music which seeps in behind the eyes and speaks even more directly to the heart. Hell, some people can even tell a story through the presentation of a seven course meal with a well thought out menu. Yet two of the most popular ways to tell a story are on stage and on screen and every now and again one story takes that perilous walk from one to the other. Sometimes the results can be fascinating, like opening up a whole new way to think about the characters and the story as a whole, but on other occasions all you do is sit back and wish you’d seen it in its original form. Sometimes, just sometimes, where you’re born is where you’re meant to stay.

As you might guess, that is how I feel about Doubt.

Doubt is a story about a power struggle between Sister Aloysius Beauvier, an overbearing, discipline-driven nun and Father Brendan Flynn, a younger, more socially-forward pastor that the Sister unwillingly works for. Sister Aloysius is alerted to a possible inappropriate situation going on between Father Flynn and a young boy in the church and she goes on a hell-bent tirade to root him out, no matter what the cost or the complete lack of proof she has. With conviction and passion on her side and logic and the absence of proof on his side, these two deeply entrenched personalities battle over truth, what you are allowed to do to get it and finally, if you really need it at all.

The story originated as a play written by John Patrick Shanley and he went on to write the screenplay and direct the film himself. In most cases you don’t get that lucky, to have the original creator still in such control over the new permutation, but Shanley made sure he kept the tone and power of the story intact during its newest transformation. In a certain respect that might be part of the problem. In the original play only four characters were in it: the nun, the father, the younger nun and the mother of the boy in question. With the film, many more people had to be created to fill out the world they lived in and on occasion it worked perfectly, creating fluid movement between the scenes with the major characters, but every now and again you could feel the presence of a band-aid type of moment, only there to hold things together while we got to something actually important. Also, I haven’t read the play or ever seen it on stage, but the character of the boy’s mother only has one scene in the film, albeit an incredibly powerful one, and it feels like she could have been made much more integral to the film. The dialogue is intense, pointed and incredibly crisp, but that much is to be expected coming from such an accomplished playwright as Shanely. As a play, Doubt had already taken home the 2005 Drama Desk Award, a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Not too shabby.

In some of the transfers from stage to screen, the studios and directors will reach out to those actors already familiar with the material and bring in the original cast members (as was done with Frost/Nixon with Langella and Sheen), but Shanely made a specific choice to not invite his stage cast into the film project because he knew with the growth of the world he had to create for the film, those actors would have a harder time adapting to the new version of the story and they would feel out of place with the rest of the cast. So he brought in new blood to the project and I can truly say he chose incredibly well. Philip Seymour Hoffman took on the role of Father Flynn and he attacked it with the passion and sensitivity we have all come to know and expect from him. There is an honesty about him, even when he is playing a villain, that makes the audience side with him on nearly anything. Standing across the religious ring from him was Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius. She channeled every child’s worst nightmare of their Catholic school upbringing into this devout and devious despot. From the moment she lets her brain lock onto the possibility of Father Flynn’s misdeed, she tenaciously grabs hold, sets her head down and barrels over anyone and everything in her path. Like most movies born on the stage, this has some truly amazing scenes and one particular fight between Hoffman and Streep is stunning in the level of intensity, power and outrage they both escalate to. Shyly trying to not impede on the performances of her cast mates is Amy Adams as the young and innocent Sister James. She has the unwanted joy of lighting the match which burns through this entire piece and the second she lights it her face and heart drops knowing it will lead to something awful. Adams is still climbing the ladder of her already illustrious career and few are doing it with such variety and skill as her. It’s understandable that she would feel somewhat intimidated by tangling with Hoffman and Streep, but her talent holds up quite well in such company. Rounding out the original four characters is Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller. Davis only gets one scene in the entire film, so maybe it was the knowledge of that which made her decide to knock it completely out of the park. She shared time in that scene only with Streep, but instead of letting the audience revel in Streep’s already well-known talent, Davis injects herself with bravado, self-righteousness and gives Streep her only ass-whooping of the film. With only words, Streep looks like she has been bowled over by a cement truck by the end of a scene where the two characters simply walk down a small path. Davis went along to be nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama and it was well deserved.

In the end my reason for thinking it most likely works better on stage is due to the rest of the world feeling somewhat forced. The original four are still the only truly interesting characters and when we are away from them, we just end up wondering where they are. Also the tone and pacing is still very much that of a play and the film runs incredibly fast, so the ending feels a touch abrupt in my book. Shanely also mentioned in an interview that he wanted to make sure the audience left with a sense of doubt about whether the alleged event of Father Flynn ever really took place. Unfortunately for me, Hoffman’s performance never gave me too much feeling on his guilt and Streep’s inability to see any logic outside of her own made her seem too oblivious and misguided to be on the right side of the argument. There were some quick shots later referred to in an effort to shed a cracked light on Father Flynn, but it was too little too late for me.

Recommendation: This particular film with lose nothing in the shift from big screen to TV, so feel free to wait on that account. If you are a connoisseur of acting, this is a great example of some true pros at work, but if you’re looking for a more well-rounded plot, this might not fit the bill.

Reviews Coming Soon: Seven Pounds, Yes Man, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and many more…

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Che: Film Misses the Mark on Legendary Figure

Posted by goldwriting on January 4, 2009

che For the last time, I was not Keyser Soze.

Rating: 7 out of 10

To the oppressed and abused, he was a legendary hero, to those in power, he was a dangerous revolutionary, and to the middle class hipsters in non-third world countries, he was a pop icon. It is truly an extraordinary person who can fill all these roles at once. He was a lightning rod, grabbing the electricity from the air, from the ground and from the people and using it to burn out the injustice he saw all around him. Whether you were a supporter, detractor or fair-weather fan, you can’t ignore the impact of the one they called ‘Che’.

Che is a gargantuan effort on the part of Steven Soderbergh to tell the story of one of the world’s most politically dynamic personalities. This film begins with his introduction to Fidel Castro and his unassuming beginnings in the armed resistance in Cuba, but it continues as we watch his rise in the revolution, his success in Cuba and his willingness and desire to keep the momentum going in other Latin American countries. The man detailed here is the strategist, the uncompromising moralist and a devout leader to his followers . The film follows his continuing revolution all the way to its tipping point and Che’s eventual downfall.

For any actor out there, starring in a four-and-a-half hour epic is a massive undertaking both in endurance and determination. It’s been a while since someone attached themselves to such a quest, but Benecio Del Toro bites into this role as if he knew this was what he had been waiting for his whole life. Del Toro never totally disappears into the character, but he does succeed in playing it with fire and passion which helps bring the audience through the slower sections. He attacks the story with an uncompromising passion for the cause and I honestly believe if Del Toro wanted to take a step into international politics, his charisma and intensity would win him plenty of respect. He also made one of Che’s main issues throughout his life, his battle with chronic asthma, so believable that during one of his attacks I could actually feel my own chest constricting. The only real question here is whether the audiences that see this film are going to be able to follow Del Toro seamlessly into his oncoming projects, like The Wolf Man. Parts such as this have a tendency to become nearly iconic and hard for an actor to shake off.

Although the character of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara is the central focus of the film, there is a plethora of other people introduced throughout the hours-long epic. The problem here is most of them have a tendency to drift into the background and become unrecognizable. This same issue came up with Milk and Sean Penn‘s performance and level of detail leaving all the other characters feeling flat and one-dimensional in comparison. Che is told in Spanish with English subtitles, so there were no discernible accents or patterns of speech for the smaller characters and an overwhelming amount of them were all dressed in the same green army clothes. So in a number of scenes it became a struggle to be emotionally connected to who had just been shot or which captain of a wandering faction had just been discovered. On the flip side, there are two cameos in the film of well known actors which become very jarring since no one else in the entirety of the piece is incredibly recognizable to American audiences. Lou Diamond Phillips steps on as the leader of one of the Communist Parties in Bolivia and his presence is not totally off kilter for the film, but it does snap the audience out for a moment and make them realize the movie in front of them is not a documentary, but a fictional retelling of those events. As much as it hurts me to say this, worse still was the cameo of Matt Damon. Personally I love Damon and think he is one of the best actors out there in his age group. His appearance as a missionary was played fine, but it did nothing to strengthen the film. All it did was make a number of the film goers laugh during Damon’s one and only scene. It felt like a behind-the-scenes gift from Soderbergh to Damon, who worked wonderfully together on all the Oceans movies, but it will go down in film history as one of the worst cameo choices in terms of tone and importance.

I give mounds and mounds of credit to Soderbergh for attempting such a mammoth film, but in the creation of something so large he fails to really capture the dynamism and attraction of its central character. All we receive here is the military man, the up-and-coming revolutionary who will follow his moral code to its inevitable end, but there was so much more to the man who became the godfather of guerrilla warfare. The passionate side of Che, the teacher of not only tactics, but ethics and morals to his followers is missing from this film. Also, Soderbergh has continually defended this film by saying it is not a glorification of Che, but simply a statement on his worldwide impact during those years, but he failed to really explore the backlash, even from the Cuban people, to Che and his guerrilla tactics. Also, in the editing and creation of the two chapters (how most of the movie going audience will see it, not as one four-and-a-half hour piece), Soderbergh stumbles into making the first half about Cuba incredibly more interesting than the second half detailing Che’s efforts in Bolivia. The first half shows the making of the man, the spark which set Che in motion, but the following chapter only serves as more jungle warfare and feels slightly redundant. I feel it would have served the piece better to remove some of the military movements through various countries and slip in more scenes about who Che was underneath the tattered and torn uniform.

Recommendation: When the film does return to theaters around the country in two separate parts, go see the first one and feel if your interest will carry you through the next one. On its own the first one will remain a strong piece, but the second will falter in comparison. Also, if the film truly succeeds in anything, it definitely makes people want to know more about the medical student who went on to try and heal entire countries.

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The Wrestler: Love Letter from the Top Rope

Posted by goldwriting on December 31, 2008

wrestler This is definitely going to hurt me more than it does you.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

I still can still see myself, sitting on that brown tattered couch in the living room, wondering how much change has found its way into the holes in those old cushions. I held the remote control in my tiny hand and flipped constantly, trying to battle the onslaught of commercials for break-dancing tutorial videos and Nancy Reagan pleading for me to “Just Say No”. Very few things would make the flipping stop or could make me endure the advertising interruptions, and for many years the chief among those was none other than professional wrestling. What many people refer to as a fake sport is in reality nothing different than live theater specializing in acrobatics, fight choreography and mythological storytelling. These men, and now many women, personify the characteristics of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong and heart vs. strength. It may be dramatically simplified, but what goes on inside the squared circle week after week is at its core morality embodied by living, breathing warriors.

The Wrestler is the story of one such warrior, Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson. He once was at the top of the mountain and idolized by legions of fans around the world, but twenty years have passed since those days in the bright, bright spotlight and now the crowds have thinned and the venues have fallen farther away from the stadiums of his past. The effects of the constant battery to his body, from drinking, drugs and the matches themselves, have left Randy in a fight for his own livelihood. With a broken relationship with his daughter and a spark fluttering between him and a local stripper named Cassidy, he has to make a choice if the “real” world away from the cheers and jeers is worth losing the “fake” world inside the ring.

Directed and produced by Darren Aronofsky, The Wrestler is much more than a raw tale of a broken man. This is a love letter to the stars of today and those of the past inside the wrestling world, known to many as “sports entertainment”. The film describes with painful acuity the reality of life behind the curtain and away from the crowds. The players behind the mythic characters deal with physical pain on an almost constant basis; bones broken, necks sprained, skin shredded. And on rare and terrible occasions, lives are lost in pursuit of giving the fans one more big pop. In crafting the fictional tale of Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, Darren let audiences who might not ever watch a regular professional wrestling match in their life take a peek into how much dedication and passion these people have for the entertainment which so many people choose to write off as silly and childish. The film is shot honestly with a good deal of handheld camerawork, giving it a subliminal sense of documentary feel. It also jumps around somewhat, skipping beats of time, but that only lends more to the impression that the camera has been around this collapsing goliath for hours and hours on end, searching for those windows into his thoughts.

To get into the soul of a person, many say you have to go through the eyes and this pair happens to belong to the enigmatic Mickey Rourke. Like Sly Stallone enveloping the beef pounding fury of Rocky, Rourke silently struggles with the aching for some sort of connection and the stubborn pull of the spotlight, even as dim as it has gotten for him. It truly will go down as one of the most inspired casting decisions of this year. Rourke was a boxer for a number of years and was four fights away from a major title fight when his doctor told him to quit due to major neurological damage he had already sustained. This wasn’t the role he was born to play, it was the role he was beaten into playing beautifully. Who knows how many of the other story points in Randy’s life mirror those in Rourke’s, but very few people can disappear into a character the way Rourke does here. In recent years, I would say Heath Ledger was the only other person I have seen able to accomplish this feat on a regular basis. Holding strong on either side of this tragically pure performance were Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood. Tomei plays the aforementioned stripper, Cassidy, who also has to keep the line straight between a world of fantasy and the real world back home with her nine-year-old boy and a driver’s license under the name Pam. She lets go in a major way and dives deep into the pool of necessity to show where Cassidy comes from and why she does what she does. Wood plays Randy’s daughter Stephanie, who has been estranged from him for an unknown period of time. She only gets a small handful of scenes, but two of those rarities prove to be the best in the entire film. Wood has rarely strayed from the emotionally tortured characters, especially after her intensely powerful turn at sixteen-years-old in the indie drama, Thirteen. She is now the “it” girl for edgy and troubled young female roles, but we’ll have to wait and see if she can parlay that into playing those same women when she gets older.

In the end what Aronofsky made is a dedication to all those people who live behind their masks and the trials and tribulations they suffer through to make someone else’s day just a little bit better. It’s not wholly selfless; they all get paid for the masks they wear, but to many the money becomes secondary to the rush of the outside world stepping into their carefully crafted fantasy.

Recommendation: For the wrestling fans out there, this is a must see. It truly serves as a validation of your viewership to each and every pay-per-view match. For the rest of the audience, the strength of Rourke’s performance might just make you think a little next time you flip by the WWE on Saturday morning (that’s the World Wrestling Entertainment for those even farther outside the know).

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Revolutionary Road: Could Lead to Oscar Blvd.

Posted by goldwriting on December 23, 2008

revolutionaryroad “Let’s take a cruise together.”

“Umm…actually, I have this thing about boats. They’re not really my thing.

Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Throughout movie history there has been a wide variety of classic couples, people you yearned to see on screen together again and again: Bogart and Bergman, Gable and Leigh, and Lancaster and Kerr to name only a few. But in 1997 another young couple cemented their right to being included on that list, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, in James Cameron‘s  record breaking film, Titanic. Even though the pair were one of the very few things in Titanic not awarded with Oscars or Golden Globes that year, they still lived on inside the hearts of the audience members who went back to see the romantic duo lean over that railing and declare their reign over the world. It only took eleven years for them to find a project to work on together again, but DiCaprio and Winslet have proven it was worth the wait.

Revolutionary Road is the story of a young passionate couple who meet, connect and yearn to spend their lives striving for the limits of experience. The story takes a only a brief look into their initial introduction to each other, instead opting to quickly jump years forward into their marriage only to find the passion has dissipated and their struggle now is against their suburban mundane existence. The couple, once wild and free, now find themselves deciding whether to stay in their current situation and try to make the best of it or to risk it all and run away to Paris in hopes of rekindling their love of life and their love for each other. It’s a war of contentment and  security versus passion and fulfillment and both sides fight dirty.

There was always one big threat looming over this film, that we, the audience, would look up at the screen and only see the Leo and Kate we remember from Titanic. The love struck duo fated to be together, but torn apart. All we would see would be longing glances full of love and hope and the rest of this new story would be lost in those memories. So, with that looming in front of director Sam Mendes, Mendes made a brilliant choice to jump very quickly into the deeply troubled marriage, nearly opening the film in a vicious fight on the side of the road. The anger and vitriol spilled on each other in that opening argument is more than enough to wipe away all previous visions of wistful gazes and romantic cuddling. DiCaprio rages against the self-imposed cage he’s stuck in, giving us the intensity and raw aggression we’ve come to expect from him (from performances such as The Basketball Diaries, Gangs of New York, The Departed, etc.). Now tie that aggression with the always impressive strength and surety of Kate Winslet and you’re locked and loaded for a true battle of the wills. Only actors who are completely trusting of each other could reach the fever pitch Leo and Kate achieve, which allows not only for touching moments of love, but also incredibly sharp attacks that cut deeper than any knife ever could.

Behind the dynamic duo there is a bevy of talented actors, including Kathy Bates, Kathryn Hahn and David Harbour, and heading into this film they had to know they were only bringing the trimmings and decorations to a party made for Leo and Kate, but one person decided to crash the party and steal some of the spotlight for himself. Michael Shannon plays John Givings, Kathy Bates’ son who happens to be on a short term visit from the local insane asylum. Now he doesn’t bash into the scenes ranting and raving, but his particular type of craziness allows him to cut through the bull and call people out on what is really going on underneath their shiny plastic veneer. Shannon has only three scenes in the film, but during each one of them you can’t take your eyes away from him. He is not only the spark-plug for those moments, but he becomes the lightning rod for the entire movie during a dinner scene which will go on my list as one of the best scenes on film in the last five years. The only shame in Michael Shannon’s performance is that he didn’t get a nomination for it. Here’s hoping the Academy voters are smarter than the Hollywood Foreign Press.

As much as I can rave about the wonderful acting on display in this film, those jewels are only achievable through the eyes and sensitivity of a talented director like Sam Mendes. Mendes keeps his tradition from American Beauty alive of painting picturesque communities of sterility and perfection, but all the while hinting and flashing light on the cracks growing underneath. There is always a deeper truth underneath the veil his characters show to the world and that’s where his real talent lies, making those people remove the masks in a believable and truthful fashion. I was on the lookout for subtle preferential treatment for Kate since she’s married to Mendes in real life, but both parties refused to pull any punches, once again proving the entire team’s commitment to powerful and honest filmmaking. Also proving that point is the completely anti-Hollywood ending, which I obviously won’t go into, but according to screenwriter Justin Haythe there was some push for it to be softened or changed, but Sam locked arms with him and demanded that it stay true to the original novel it is based on. If more people showed even half as much commitment to all the other film projects out there, the quality level we would reach would be unimaginable.

Recommendation: I’ll put this as plainly as I can: Before seeing this I was a locked in vote for Slumdog Millionaire for Best Picture of the Year, now I’m not so sure. My new fear is The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is going to make this choice even harder, but for the moment I am blissfully unaware of that option.

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Golden Globe Nominees: Here Comes the Award Season

Posted by goldwriting on December 14, 2008

56005361PR001_globeWould it be possible to get mine in something a little more lighthearted? Possibly periwinkle or neon?

Although numerous critics around the country have already had their own awards ceremonies and passed out a handful of gold plated statuettes, there are only two awards which really catch the eye of the mass populace: the Golden Globes and the Oscars. Most people feel a Golden Globe win for a particular movie is a safe bet for the Oscar, but since the categories are surprisingly different between the two shows, there is not always a direct overlap. Some of the nominees listed below are surprising and some are exactly what we expected to see, but let’s scroll through and I’ll let you in on where I think things might go (and also where I think they deserve to go, which can be completely at odds with each other). I won’t go through the TV nominations because I only watch a handful of shows, but I think we will see the usual suspects on stage that night: 30 Rock, The Office, House M.D. and anything HBO decided to make this year.

[The * denotes which movies I have actually seen]

BEST PICTURE: DRAMA

· The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

· Frost/Nixon *

· The Reader *

· Revolutionary Road (Most Likely Winner)

· Slumdog Millionaire * (Deserves to Win) WINNER

So far I have seen three of these movies (Benjamin Button and Revolutionary Road still to come), but Slumdog Millionaire is starting to look like the dark horse rearing up from behind. It has already won a couple of Best Picture Awards, which gives it a nice momentum, but in the Hollywood circles, Benjamin Button and Frost/Nixon seem to be the ones to beat. The surprise here is Milk and The Dark Knight being stepped over. I would credit Slumdog for knocking one of them out, but to see both without a Best Picture nod here doesn’t bode well for Oscar season. Personally, I think The Dark Knight still has a good chance, but Milk I believe will fall by the wayside in lieu of better films this year. Back to the Globes, from the ones I have seen, Slumdog deserves the win.

BEST PICTURE: COMEDY OR MUSICAL

· Burn After Reading *

· Happy-go-lucky

· In Bruges * (Deserves to Win)

· Mamma Mia * (Most Likely Winner)

· Vicky Cristina Barcelona * WINNER

Now this has always been a little bit of a sticking point for the Golden Globes. Do we really need the separation of Drama and Comedy/Musical? Couldn’t they follow along with the Oscars and just crown one movie Best Picture of the Year? I know the argument against is the Oscars don’t reward comedies nearly enough, and that part is true. The Academy should learn to step down from their weepy, heartwrecnhing high horse and celebrate films that make us laugh, even if it’s from a well-timed fart joke. But in the end, I think it is still worthwhile to be able to group and contrast all movies together and crown one a victor for the year. Anyway, onto the category at hand, the happy surprise here is In Bruges, which didn’t pull in major box office, but was widely lauded by the critics. I saw a screening of it early on and was blown away by how funny, irreverent and tight the script was, along with being impressed with the performances across the board from Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes. So, kudos to them and the team from In Bruges for a well-deserved nomination. Now cut that celebratory emotion out when we come to Burn After Reading, which is far from being the best we’ve seen from the Coen brothers. This was a quirky character piece, enjoyable in particular sections, but nowhere near awards potential. This nomination alone helps to prove the case for not separating the genres, because films like this slip onto the ballot. Woody Allen can be happy to get a nod once again, but I foresee him going home empty-handed that night. I haven’t seen Happy-Go-Lucky, but never take your eyes off the British when it comes to heartwarming comedies, they’ll sneak up on you. The real front runner here is Mamma Mia, which sparked a worldwide phenomenon and single-handedly helped Universal Pictures weather the current economic strain. At last count, it brought in an incredible $570 million dollars worldwide. People love their Abba evidently. I would love to see In Bruges take the crown, but I think Mamma Mia will be the one dancing on stage that night.

BEST DIRECTOR

· Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire * (Deserves to Win) WINNER

· Stephen Daldry, The Reader *

· David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

· Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon *

· Sam Mendes, Revolutionary Road (Most Likely Winner)

I always find it hard to differentiate between Best Picture and Best Director. If you have the Best Picture of the Year, most of the time that should indicate you’ve done the best job in Directing. It’s no surprise that we see the exact same movies here as we do in the Best Picture – Drama category. So for the moment, until I see the last two of these movies, I’m sticking with Danny Boyle and Slumdog for most deserving. As for who will actually take it, Mendes could split up the pack, but Howard and Fincher are the front runners.

BEST ACTOR: DRAMA

· Leonardo DiCaprio, Revolutionary Road

· Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon *

· Sean Penn, Milk *

· Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

· Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler (Most Likely Winner, possibly most deserving as well) WINNER

Sean Penn was the best thing going in Milk, so this is well deserved for him, but the critical buzz and momentum behind Mickey Rourke could make this the year of the grizzled warrior. I’ve yet to see The Wrestler, but his performance is said to be a career topper. Brad Pitt hasn’t been able to clinch a victory since his Best Supporting Golden Globe for 12 Monkeys. That’s not saying he hasn’t done good work since then, since he’s almost always in the race, but someone always sneaks by and pulls the golden statues from his grasp. Frank Langella won heaps of praise for his role in Frost/Nixon on stage as well as on screen, but it won’t be enough to overcome the rawness and sheer intensity of Penn or Rourke. That leaves DiCaprio, who may very well be amazing in the role, but I have caught it yet and I can’t tell whether this will be a disappointing or deserved loss for him.

BEST ACTRESS: DRAMA

· Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married * (Deserves to Win)

· Angelina Jolie, Changeling * (Most Likely Winner)

· Meryl Streep, Doubt

· Kristin Scott Thomas, I’ve Loved You So Long

· Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road WINNER

Anyone who knows me is well aware of my affinity for Anne Hathaway, but that aside, she does deserve all the accolades being heaped on her for her turn in Rachel Getting Married. It was a serious departure for her from her normal fare and served to prove once again the range and power she can handle. The closest behind her is Kate Winslet, who supposedly got this role pushed up for Best Actress instead of her performance in The Reader because the studio believes she has a better chance with this film. As you’ll read further down, this might work against her. Now Angelina found time in her efforts to become a living saint to churn out another nominated performance, but honestly this feels a little like “starf*#king”. She is an incredibly talented actress, but Changeling was really only one emotion for her the whole way through and felt a little draining by the time it was done. As for Meryl, Doubt is still to come on my list of things to see, but hopefully I’ll be able to separate my appreciation for her acting away from my deep-seeded loathing of religious zealotry. She’s going to have to fight hard to make that happen. Lastly, Kristen is a strong actress, so she could slip in with this small indie film, but it’s slipped past me as well, so they’ll have to make a strong push to the voters to make sure they’ve caught it and remembered it in the big ole’ mix.

BEST ACTRESS: COMEDY OR MUSICAL

· Rebecca Hall, Vicky Cristina Barcelona * (Deserves to Win)

· Sally Hawkins, Happy-go-lucky WINNER

· Frances McDormand, Burn After Reading *

· Meryl Streep, Mamma Mia *

· Emma Thompson, Last Chance Harvey

It’s hard to say who will win this. It’s a category filled with highly talented people, but out of the three performances I have witnessed, I’m putting my vote towards Rebecca Hall. She was able to overcome the sheer fact of being the main character in a Woody Allen film that barely got any billing on the posters because she was surrounded by A-List names, two of which were also nominated, and still managed to steal almost every scene she was in. There was an honesty in her which eclipsed the supporting players and truly made her stand out. Meryl deserves her share of credit for lending her voice and her talent to such an unlikely phenomenon, but it looked like it was more sheer fun than talent which brought this movie to the list. As for Frances McDormand, once again I can only say I don’t feel Burn After Reading deserves to be on the list at all. She was funny at moments, but this was not an award-winning role for her and barely seems to qualify as a lead actress piece. To Emma and Sally, I have heard good things on both fronts, but they are tougher movies to track down showtimes for.

BEST ACTOR: COMEDY OR MUSICAL

· Javier Bardem, Vicky Cristina Barcelona * (Most Likely Winner)

· Colin Farrell, In Bruges * (Deserves to Win) WINNER

· James Franco, Pineapple Express *

· Brendan Gleeseon, In Bruges *

· Dustin Hoffman, Last Chance Harvey

Javier is still riding the wave of love from the Academy last year and the praise for No Country for Old Men, so some of that will surely bleed over into this year. I’m not saying he wasn’t good in this film, but I think this will give him the little edge he needs to separate himself from the pack. Colin, on the other hand, has not had the best relationship with the award audiences or the Hollywood scene in total, but he really let himself dive into In Bruges and it really showed. Whether you like him or not as a person, you just can’t help laugh with/at him in this hilarious movie. Appearing all over the place in the last few years, James Franco scored a nomination for playing an incredibly realistic pot dealer and stoner extraordinaire, but once again I am surprised that the committees felt this was a truly worthy performance, especially with his role in Milk being overshadowed. Brendon Gleesn is equally good in In Bruges, but Colin just happens to be playing the more important and charged role, so he steals a touch more of the focus from the audience. If you follow Hollywood at all, you can never count out Dustin Hoffman in a race like this. He could do a five minute cameo as a salesman for Japanese tea and you could guarantee a Independent Spirit Award would be engraved and waiting for him.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

· Amy Adams, Doubt

· Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barecelona *

· Viola Davis, Doubt

· Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler

· Kate Winslet, The Reader * (Deseves to Win, also Most Likely Winner) WINNER

This is a sparse category for me right now, with only two movies actually seen, but I think Kate will take this one home. Splitting the voters can sometimes work against you if you are going for both Best Actress and Best Supporting in the same year. Unless the Best Actress category is weak, the voters will most of the time give the conciliation gift of Best Supporting and pass the Best Actress onto someone else, which will benefit Anne and Angelina. I’ve heard good things about Marisa and her role in The Wrestler, but that could also be her getting swept up in the hype over Mickey Rourke. Doubt truly looks to be a heavy movie in terms of performances, so I’m sure both Viola and Amy are worthy nominations, but I’ll know more once I get a chance to view them.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

· Tom Cruise, Tropic Thunder *

· Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder *

· Ralph Fiennes, The Duchess

· Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt

· Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight * (Deserves to Win and Most Likely Winner) WINNER

This should be a fairly obvious category. Heath was entrancing as The Joker in The Dark Knight and his tragic demise only makes the story more poetic. Right now the only real question is who the studio will send up on stage to accept the award on his behalf (I think it should be Bale or Nolan). Even though the hype machine has built this up to epic proportions, Heath really does deserve the accolades. Robert Downey Jr. bit off more than anyone else could chew by doing modern day blackface in Tropic Thunder, but he pulled it off brilliantly and I’m thrilled he got the nomination. The same goes for Tom Cruise, who basically relaunched his career in the public’s heart with a hilarious turn as a meglomaniacal studio exec. As for Hoffman and Fiennes, both are extremely talented actors and I’m sure they do great jobs in their respective films, but this year belongs to Heath. No joke.

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

· The Baader Meinhof Complex (Germany)

· Everlasting Moments (Sweden/Denmark)

· Gomorrah (Italy)

· I’ve Loved You So Long (France)

· Waltz With Bashir (Israel) (Total guess, just so I have a choice noted) WINNER

Unfortunately I haven’t seen any of these, but the ones getting the most buzz are I’ve Loved You So Long and Waltz With Bashir. Bashir is also a crazy animated film, which could work against it in terms of voters thinking it is represented in the wrong category, or it could help differentiate itself from the pack and grab some swing votes. For me, this is totally up in the air.

BEST ANIMATED FILM

· Bolt *

· Kung Fu Panda *

· Wall-E * (Deserves to Win and Most Likely Winner) WINNER

Wall-E is a lock here and if something else goes down the Hollywood Foreign Press will never mean a damn thing to me again. The little story of “the robot who could” has already been winning awards, but not for Best Animated Feature, it’s been taking the top prize as Best Picture of the Year in a handful of critics associations. Kung-Fu Panda was very well done and worthy of nomination, but I can’t say I felt the same about Bolt. Bolt was cute, but didn’t give me the impression of a stand-out animated film. I still don’t understand why there are only three chosen for this category, since The Tale of Despereaux (still to be released) and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa both garnered some critical acclaim. Nevertheless, Pixar has dominated once again and Wall-E will safely be able to store this award away with all his other trinkets.

BEST SCREENPLAY

· Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire * (Deserves to Win) WINNER

· David Hare, The Reader *

· Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon *

· Eric Roth, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Most Likely Winner)

· John Patrick Shanley, Doubt

This could actually go to anyone. Out of the three I have seen, I might lean towards Simon Beaufoy for Slumdog Millionaire, but the momentum of the movie could work against him if the voters decide they don’t want to create a “sweep” type of situation. Peter Morgan and David Hare both did excellent jobs bringing history to the masses and making it intriguing. Critics are already saying great things on both fronts for Doubt and Benjamin Button, so they certainly cannot be counted out. I’d truly be happy anywhere the ball drops in this one.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

· Alexandre Desplat, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

· Clint Eastwood, Changeling *

· James Newton Howard, Defiance

· A.R. Rahman, Slumdog Millionaire * WINNER

· Hans Zimmer, Frost/Nixon * (Deserves to Win and Most Likely Winner)

Here you have three of the most cherished in the musical score business: Zimmer, Howard and Eastwood (who just has to prove he can do everything better than the rest of us 😉 ). I’m leaning towards Zimmer because his score did such a beautiful job of intensifying a story of two men in chairs sitting across from each other, but once again, I think this category is a toss up. In reality, they are all just lucky John Williams only worked on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, since no one really liked a damn thing about that travesty.

Best Original Song

– “Down To Earth” – Wall-E (Music By: Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman, Lyrics By: Peter Gabriel)

– “Gran Torino” – Gran Torino (Music By: Clint Eastwood, Jamie Cullum, Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens, Lyrics By: Jamie Cullum)

– “I Thought I Lost You” – Bolt (Music & Lyrics By: Miley Cyrus and Jeffrey Steele)

– “Once In A Lifetime” – Cadillac Records (Music & Lyrics By: Beyoncé Knowles, Amanda Ghost, Scott McFarmon, Ian Dench, James Dring and Jody Street)

– “The Wrestler” – The Wrestler (Music & Lyrics By: Bruce Springsteen) (Total Guess, but I’ll say Most Likely to Win) WINNER

It was pointed out to me while finishing up this post that I had left out the Best Original Song category. Since it still falls under the film umbrella, I’ll take a stab at an opinion. Clint Eastwood shows off again by gaining a nomination in yet another category not familiar to most actors, but in here he’s going toe-to-toe with the pros of the trade. Wall-E brings Peter Gabriel to the table, while Bolt totes along tween megastar, Miley Cyrus. Both are big hitters, but Cadillac Records sticks out with Beyonce, who just got awarded with “#1 Single of the Year” by Rolling Stone Magazine for her insanely catchy track, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)”. Yet, when it comes to truly moving an audience, few people can do it better than all-American music legend Bruce Springsteen. I’m feeling he could pull this out the same way he did with “Streets of Philadelphia” from the movie Philadelphia. It goes to show, don’t mess with The Boss.

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Frost/Nixon: Bringing the Fight to the People

Posted by goldwriting on December 7, 2008

frostnixonmovie Did I have your phone tapped? Your voice sounds so familiar…

Rating: 9 out of 10

There are few things in life as exciting or exhilarating as watching a good fight. Maybe it’s the primate in us, a deep evolutionary need to see two people beat the piss out of each other in order to prove dominance. Maybe it’s the need to see a champion, someone we can look up to and model our own lives after. Or, on a slight chance, it’s the glimmer of hope we huddle around to keep us warm and keep our dreams from fading away, the dream that one day someone will topple the champ and change the world forever. Now you might think those emotions only get woken up during a purely physical battle, but if so, you are truly missing out on some of the best battles in human history. Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated seven times in 1858 for control of the Illinois legislature and those verbal fencing matches were a preview of the power and eloquence with which Lincoln would bring to bear in his time as President. Almost exactly one hundred years later, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon took to the airwaves for the first ever televised debate between Presidential candidates. Those four on-air matches drew numerous comparisons to their predecessors of nearly a century before. Even in our latest election a highlight truly arrived during our one and only debate between Vice-Presidential candidates, Sarah Palin and Joe Biden. While it might not have been the intelligence and skill in the fight we were all watching for, it still made for captivating television.

Yet one thing all those previous moments lacked was the dark cloud of obvious guilt and shame hanging over the head of Richard Nixon after he resigned the Presidency in disgrace over the Watergate scandal. A man who achieved amazing and brilliant things during his time in office was forced to step down and hang his head for something he was arguably not the first to do, just the first to get caught red-handed. I’m not defending Nixon, but in the context of political history, including any number of the documented and undocumented crimes committed by our still reigning President, Nixon was a lightweight. But for the American people of the 1960’s, his betrayal of the public office was the lowest they had seen a President stoop to and they demanded action. After newly sworn-in President Ford issued a complete and unequivocal pardon of Nixon, it seemed as though the American people were going to have to drink and eat whatever they could get their hands on to cover up the bad taste. But then one man stepped up to the plate, determined to give the people exactly what they wanted.

This is not just a history lesson; this is the premise and plot of Ron Howard‘s new film, Frost/Nixon. David Frost was a British talk show host who came up with the idea of interviewing Nixon after his resignation, but his original motives were not entirely altruistic. Mainly, he was a master of television audiences and he could feel the ratings he would get for such an interview would be outrageous. Once he locked the interview in place however, it became a monster he almost couldn’t control. The film is incredibly small in scale, beginning the year where Frost came up with the idea and ending within days after the interview was concluded. We get to see the build up to the big interview, but the actual recorded and tastefully lit chat between the two characters is really the lynch-pin on which the whole film rests. Thinking about the premise beforehand, it’s hard to imagine there being an incredible amount of tension in the movie-going audience, especially since we know what happens, but quality filmmaking and intelligent storytelling can make any old story seem new once again. By the time Frost and Nixon sit across from each other, microphones pinned to their lapels, handkerchiefs folded and makeup invisibly applied, the intensity is palpable. It was akin to watching a heavyweight boxing match, except one contender had never really felt the blow of a well-landed punch before. Once he does, the fear in his eyes truly brings the audience into his mindset. Luckily for us, both in the theater and in history, fear that might make some men run will make others fight all that much harder.

Ron Howard has been making movies for a number of years now and won a number of accolades and critical acclaim, but Frost/Nixon might end up topping them all. With a very simple story he found a way to display two very non-simple people. There is tension, anticipation and weight all brought to bear on a simple interview which ended up changing the lives of not only the people in the chairs, but the worldwide audience as well. Howard also got his two lead actors gift-wrapped, Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost. Both actors originally played their roles on stage to massive acclaim, so heading into the movie, they had these characters down cold. There is definitely a difference between playing a role on stage and playing it on film, but the internal work and preparation by these actors is a virtual treasure chest in comparison to what you get on most film sets. The moment they appear on screen, you can feel the depth and skill both actors gained from all their time put in. Frank Langella disappears into Nixon, truly embodying Nixon’s confident walk and sweeping movements of his arms, his imposing intrusion into people’s personal space, and finally the stoop — which on anyone else would have made them look old, but with Nixon is just made him look dangerous and determined. On the other side of the ring, we have Michael Sheen, who shined as David Frost, the plucky and charming television talk show host. There are some moments where Sheen is just listening to Langella rant on and on and Sheen displays an amazing level of intensity, fear and nearly overwhelming nervousness just by using his eyes. He doesn’t even have to move to show the wave after wave of emotional turmoil this man goes through while trying to go toe-to-toe with “Tricky Dick”. Both actors are strong contenders for nominations in the award season.

Beyond the powerhouse duo in front, there is a wealth of strong supporting cast. Sam Rockwell, one of Hollywood’s best go-to character actors, delivers an impassioned performance as James Reston Jr., one of the researchers on Frost’s team. He is the emotional anchor for the team, representing the anger, fury and bitter disappointment of the American people, and if there is one thing Rockwell does better than anything else, it’s playing disappointment and disdain (try poking your head into almost any scene in Choke). Right alongside Rockwell is another amazing talent, Oliver Platt, who plays Bob Zelnick, the more political structure based portion of Frost’s team. Platt continues to do his thing with great talent and shine without ever stealing scenes or trying to make the moment about him. He can be the star of the show if cast that way, but his true talent is blending into an ensemble and making everyone around him better for it. If you’ve never really experienced Platt, I would happily and heartily suggest Casanova and The Three Musketeers, both brilliant comedic performances. A little on the lesser-known side is Matthew Macfadyen, who plays John Birt, Frost’s manager, who continually rallies the troops and sticks by his side even when things are at their most bleak. Macfadyen brought a great sense of strength and loyalty that kept the audience in check and never giving up on Frost and his ultimate goal. As if we needed another name to add to the list, this will benefit all those addicts of the “Six Degrees” game, Kevin Bacon plays Jack Brennan, Nixon’s Chief of Staff and most devoted servant. Bacon lays it on thick, the dogged determination and defense of Nixon, even in the final moments when it all is slipping away. A solid job from an incredibly consistent actor.

Recommendation: If you like movies about important moments in American History, you should like this. If you like Ron Howard films, you should like this. If you like purely character pieces, you should like this. If you are looking for sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, you might wanna move on by. Lastly, if you are like me and try to watch everything on the Oscar nominated list, I’m putting good money this film will end up on there somewhere, whether for acting, directing or writing. Save yourself the rush of trying to track it down during awards season and catch it now.
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Slumdog Millionaire: Rising From the Ashes

Posted by goldwriting on November 27, 2008

slumdog-millionaire You gotta get on that train, kid. Trust me. It was in a movie much older than this one.

Rating: 9 out of 10

The last two months of the year always bring out the heavy hitters from both the studio pipeline and the independent circuit. It can almost become a test in itself to keep perspective about what constitutes a good or possibly great film. The bar of quality can get subconsciously raised so high that everything starts to either blend together or pale in comparison to one overwhelmingly powerful piece of cinema. Yet no matter how hard the struggle may get, everyone wins in the end because the audience is presented with a plethora of great films to enjoy.

I’m sure you see where this is going in terms of how I feel about this next movie. If not, please go back and read the first part again. Slowly this time.

Slumdog Millionaire is the story of Jamal, a young boy growing up in the poverty stricken parts of the big cities in India. Through a twisting and winding series of events he finds himself as a contestant on their country’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. His fame and wonder grows as he answers question after question correctly until he is on the brink of completing game and winning the grand prize. As most good stories do, this film begins with a question; how does he know all the answers? Is he cheating? Or is it written?

Simon Beaufoy, the writer of the screenplay, got the story from a novel called Q&A by Vikas Swarup. It’s true I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how close the movie follows along or how much was creative license, but either way, the structure of the film is a beautiful example of intelligent and well-planned storytelling. Each question in the movie leads to another flashback, a new vignette into the history of where Jamal came from and the struggles he went through to get where he is. It allows the audience to get pieces of information that are only pertinent to the scene in front of it without having to wallow through sixteen years of a childhood. It also breaks the film up nicely and serves as a nice reminder when the footage you are watching is particularly harsh that he does make it through somehow, since we see him on the game show. The true power of the story is the celebration of love, destiny and the belief it is still possible, no matter what the costs. As mentioned previously, some of the footage, mostly in the first thirty minutes, can be very hard to sit through due to a few scenes of child abuse, alluded to and shown. The tolerance level gets pushed nearly too far, but at the last possible second the film turns the corner and those previous scenes now become the anchor to where it goes from there.

Danny Boyle, who directed this fine feature, is no stranger to telling love stories in the most chilling or tragic of circumstances (take a glance back at The Beach) or pushing cinema to new levels of uncomfortable (try some of the key scenes from Trainspotting or 28 Days Later). No matter if it’s love or death, Danny Boyle always comes to the plate with something visually interesting and compelling, never failing to leave a lingering impression which sparks conversation even weeks afterward. Beyond those intense scenes in the beginning, there are numerous moments throughout the film which stand out. I won’t go into them all here for the sake of saving surprises for the theater, but believe me, they are there. Another talent Boyle has is working with the actors, which should always be the main role of the director. The performances here from Dev Patel, who plays our lead Jamal; Freida Pinto, who plays the romantic interest Latika; and Irfan Khan, who plays the police inspector, are all incredible and worthy of mention. Dev is definitely the heart and soul and drives the film, but his skills are only exemplified by the support he receives in each and every scene by the other cast members. Dev has only one credit outside of this film, but I have no doubt it will be filling up nicely after this film makes the rounds. The same holds for Frida, who actually only has this single credit to her name, but with her presence, talent and striking beauty, she will be gracing the silver screen for years to come, if we’re lucky. Irfan was quite busy before this movie came along and that doesn’t look to be slowing down for him any time soon.

Now although everything up to this point has been glowing and full of praise, this film not perfect. I had one main issue coming out of the theater and it has to do with the character of Salim, Jamal’s older brother, played by Madhur Mittal. There is an obvious triangle in the film between Jamal, Salim and Latika, but even before that appears, Salim constantly jumps back and forth between an undying loyalty and love to his younger brother and in the next scene betraying him in the worst ways imaginable. Some might argue it is an issue of control and Salim’s constant battle to keep it over Jamal, but I’m not sure it is supported by the story. Whatever the case may be, the audience is never granted with any explanation of Salim’s motives and I feel it harms our ability to emotionally connect with his character. It is not a deal breaker by far in this film, but since everything else in the movie was done so well, this little fact stuck out for me.

Recommendation: This is a true must-see film. If you miss it in the theater or it doesn’t play anywhere near you, rent it the first chance you get. Strap yourself in and ride out the tougher stuff in the beginning of the film, you will not be sorry. Also, not to plug another film, but if you like great films with themes of undeterred love, check out Brick; it’s in my Top Ten Movies of All Time. Lastly, if you’re a fan at all of Danny Boyle, I would be remiss in forgetting to mention the under-appreciated and terribly under-marketed Sunshine, which was without a doubt one of the best Sci-Fi films of last year, if not the last five years.

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Twilight: Tween Daydream Turns Into Nightmare

Posted by goldwriting on November 24, 2008

twilight

My eyes are shut. Please, please tell me when the crazed fans are gone.

Rating: 2 out of 10

There is not a person in the world who hasn’t heard the rags to riches story of J.K. Rowling and the legendary Harry Potter series of books. Those books, of course, led us to the movie franchise, which has generated so far over a billion dollars with three more movies to go (one for book six, while book seven will be split into two pieces). Yet as quickly as one legend is chiseled into stone, another one comes along, shaking the pedestal to knock down the reigning champion. Stephanie Meyer wrote the first book in her Twilight saga only 3 years ago and she is already hot on the trail of Harry Potter’s coffers. With the release of the fourth book, Breaking Dawn, the series as a whole has sold over 17 million copies and been translated into 20 different languages. So, with the literary world groveling at the feet of the Twilight series, begging for more, it was inevitable the movie world would come knocking. Does such a massive fan base guarantee success for the feature film adaptation?

Financially it always helps, but critically it doesn’t mean a thing. With an opening weekend of over $70 million dollars, Twilight is already a blockbuster and I’m guessing will finish up somewhere in the $400 million dollar range. This will mainly be due to the hordes of tween girls who will go see this repeatedly, like they did with Titanic, driving the box office receipts way past any critical value. Once you look beyond the dollar signs and the pre-pubescent obsession, the reality is this movie is barely watchable.

From the very beginning of the film it is terribly paced, trying to drain each and every sigh and wistful gaze from the moments on screen, which causes it to take over an hour to get to anywhere the least bit interesting. Finally, when that moment comes, it is over incredibly fast and done with such broad, clumsy strokes that banging your head against the chair in front of you begins to seem like a viable option to make yourself feel better. The whole thing drips with teenage melodrama, admittedly perfect for their direct audience, but to make a truly successful film it has to play to more than just a fraction of the populace. I’ve never had a problem appreciating a good movie, whether I was the correct demographic or not (look back on my review of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 if you need proof). The fact remains Twilight drags itself from scene to scene, on top of being badly performed. This is a shame to be added to the resume of normally skilled director Catherine Hardwicke, who I have personally raved to many people about her previous films, Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown.

Rob Pattinson, who plays Edward Cullen, the lovelorn vampire, has already ascended to fill the void left by Orlando Bloom from his Lord of the Rings days, but he has far from grasped what it takes to be an on-screen heartthrob. There is an art to the longing gaze, an inherent skill to the penetrating looks across the room, neither of which he possesses. He ends up coming off more like a borderline sociopath who might be suffering from any number of vitamin deficiencies. He also proves numerous times that opening your eyes incredibly wide doesn’t always emote intensity, some times it just comes off looking like you’re in pain. There are rare occasions when the lead actor can be propped up by the performance of his co-star, but this is not one of those times. Kristen Stewart, taking on the role of the lovestruck Bella, who although powerfully cute and physically perfect for the role, plays way too much with the awkwardness of meeting a boy you like before taking an enormous leap into the deepest love in the world. There is virtually no arc for her romanticism, it just appears instantaneously and is never doubted by either side. Also, without giving away any spoilers, there is something special about her character which draws her to her new vampire boyfriend, but yet again it is never explained or even explored. For the next film, which has already been signed and contracted, it would behoove whichever director it might be to watch Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist to see the correct way how to show two incredibly awkward teenagers fall in love without making the audience want to gouge out their own eyes. The painful and repetitive scenes between Rob and Kristen completely washed away James Van Der Beek and Katie Holmes from Dawson’s Creek, America’s previous winners for “Most Time Taken by a Fictional Couple to Just Get the Hell on with It!”

Not having read the book, and I pray it is better than the adaptation, there are also a number of things changed or altered from the vampire mythos. I’m all for new storytellers taking creative license and trying to make something traditional into their own, but the changes made here just ripped out the heart and soul of these maligned and tragic characters. From their over-romanticized reaction to direct sunlight to the absence of a single pairs of fangs in the film, all the creative team of Twilight succeeded in doing is making these characters the weakest and most pathetic vampires in movie history. I would make a comment about Buffy being able to take care of these poor specimens, but I honestly don’t think she would bother. She’d probably send Xander.

It was glaringly obvious that the movie was made with only one group in mind, the 12-14 year old girls, and if you were not a member of this group, you honestly didn’t matter. This tactic might make for a financially successful film, but the franchise will begin to suffer once its audience grows up between films and they start to be able to do more than just gape at a mysteriously gaunt boy on the big screen. My only hope is the studio learns from the Harry Potter series, which has gotten better and better as the films have gone on and they continue to satisfy the young fans of the books along with their parents and older siblings.

Recommendation: If your hair isn’t currently in pigtails, move along.

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Quantum of Solace: Big Bang, Little Else

Posted by goldwriting on November 17, 2008

QUANTUM OF SOLACE

Why did I park so far away on opening night. I’m gonna miss the previews!

Rating: 5 out of 10

There are characters out there so iconic, so ingrained into the hearts and minds of the viewing public, that when a new chapter in the series emerges we rush out opening weekend, our hands clutching popcorn and our eyes pasted wide. Only a chosen few have made it into this cherished realm of public trust, but none as long and as stylishly as James Bond. This weekend brought his newest episode, Quantum of Solace, and it marked the second in the reign of current Bond persona, Daniel Craig. He broke out the gates with extreme critical and public appeal in the remake of Casino Royale, but now it was time to see if he could keep up the excitement and appeal.

Excitement, yes. Appeal, less so.

Besides being incredibly well dressed at almost all times, Bond is known for action and this chapter goes for the gusto from the moment the cameras roll. The movie opens with an impressive car chase, which inevitably leads our hero from overcrowded roadways into a wonderfully photographed rock quarry. It was a bold choice to jump right into the action without any set up whatsoever, but for those out there who somehow avoided seeing Casino Royale, it definitely helps to understand where this scene fits in (approximately twenty minutes from the ending of the last film). Lots of gunplay, screeching tires and near misses bring the curtain up nicely, but having a strong opening does not guarantee audience support for the rest of the film. We need to be taken on a journey, not just shown an amazingly expensive episode of Fear Factor. There needs to be plot and story behind the action to raise it up, but Quantum had very little in the area of foundation.

The story jumps around incredibly fast, not enough to lose sense of what is going on, but just enough to not give us time to invest. The Bond movies seem almost addicted to making every scene take place in a different foreign country, which makes for some great camera shots, but terrible continuity of scenes. Also, much of this movie was sub-textually about James Bond mourning the loss of his love from the last film and barely controlling his rage while seeking revenge. We fully got the revenge motif, but the mourning was shown only in the thinnest of manners. A nicked photograph and an old necklace were the only links to his emotional center, but they were rarely used in the brief moments between gunfire and roof jumping.

On the adrenalin front, Bond delivers as usual. One of the nice changes I feel to the modern day Bond is the older films used to show him skillfully sliding from one place to another, jumping and landing perfectly on any surface and so forth, but Craig makes every leap seem based solely on guts and gusto, not tact and talent. Throughout the movie, he lands on balconies and terraces by crashing into some random piece of furniture. The only reason the bad guys don’t get away from him is the dogged determination which forms the core of who the Bond character is. I think the rougher, tougher Bond is an obvious reflection on society today and what we want to see in a hero. Not so much a person who can dodge a bullet, but one who can take two shots to the leg, one to the arm and an uppercut, yet still win the fight.

Surrounding Bond as always are a bevy of beautiful women and a cabal of agents, both on his side and against. Gemma Arterton was mentioned a while back, by myself and others, as a “Bond Girl”, yet in this episode she is actually not the top of that food chain. Olga Kurylenko is the alpha female here and is a much more complex character. In the beginning her and Bond are on completely different tracks, but over the course of ninety minutes of insanity their paths intertwine, both strategically and emotionally. While not being a complete knock out performance, she is steadily improving over her turns in the unfortunate back-to-back duo of Hitman and Max Payne. Gemma, definitely worth mentioning, does finally bring a little taste of the classic Bond, just enough for an homage to the old days of Connery and Moore. Her sultry style hearkens back to the female characters of the early films and makes us remember why we love to visit the world of Bond so much. Also, without revealing a blatant spoiler, her role brings up the most direct recall from one of the most well known Bond moments. Feel free to let me know if you see it (it’s hard to miss). Now Bond would be nothing without a dastardly villain to track down and capture and this time it’s provided to us by Mathieu Amalric. A very popular and well rewarded star in the French cinema, this marked the American debut of Mathieu, who played the corrupt CEO with the world’s creepiest stare, Dominic Greene. While I do understand not every Bond villain has to be one who can last a round with him in a fist fight, in fact many of them don’t fit that category, but something about the final confrontation between these two didn’t sit right. So much had to be stacked against Bond to make this even halfway feasible and even then I found myself wondering why it was lasting so long. In cases like this, I find it’s better to give the villain a skilled right hand man, who endures the final fight, and let the boss deliver a final speech before giving up or blowing up.

Orbiting around Bond are some other side characters, but the only ones worth mentioning are Judi Dench who returns to continue her role as M, Jeffery Wright as the CIA agent with a working conscience and Giancarlo Giannini as Mathis, the convict turned trusted friend of Bond. All of these actors did a fine job in their limited screen time, but even they couldn’t hold up the lack of plot or story connectivity.

Recommendation: Quantum of Solace is good for some action, but a lackluster follow-up to Casino Royale, the relaunch of the Bond franchise. The execs are going to have to wipe the drawing board clean once again and see if they can’t relight the spark they just had, because one more like this and the fickle crowd will start murmuring to fix the problem with yet another new actor as Bond, which is not the answer. Plus, in my humble opinion, Daniel Craig was born to play this part. So, catch the afternoon matinee if you are drawn to the tradition, but if not, try re-watching Casino Royale. Homemade popcorn is better anyway.

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