From A Dark Theater On A Sunny Spring Day…

This season has been pretty dicey – movies have come and gone week after week with nothing really catching on to reel in the crowds. 2 new films open today at my local downtown theater are hoping to buck the trend. Let’s see if either has a fighting chance:

(Dir. Stefan Ruzowitsky, 2007)

It’s frustrating making Oscar picks every year in the category of Best Foreign Film because of no access to the nominees. The films don’t show in my area until months afterward (if they come to theaters here at all) or their DVD releases are way after the fact. The buzz was strong on this one – it won the Academy Award as predicted and it is thankfully making the rounds arriving here today. It is so welcome because THE COUNTERFEITERS is an excellent stirring World War II era drama about what has been called “the largest counterfeiting operation in history”. It begins in the late 40’s with an infamous forger named Salomon Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics) who while gambling in Monte Carlo with large sums of money flashes back to 1936 Berlin. In that turbalent time his success in the illegal trade is interupted when he is arrested by the police led by Superintendent Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow) and thrown into a concentration camp. He impresses his Nazi captors with his skills in art drawing romantised portraits of his guards which helps him avoid harsher treatment. He is transferred and brought up before the snooty Herzog again who places him in a select group of other talented print-minded prisoners is forced to forge in a special secret unit of Sachsenhausen called Operation Bernhard.

The accomendations, including actual beds and showers, are extremely appealing in this new deal but the concept of helping the Nazis flood the market with fake currency destroying Britain and America’s economy is more than a bit troubling. A fellow forger with a reactionary agenda – Adolf Burger * (August Diehl) constantly sabotages the efforts to counterfeit the U.S. dollar as the Nazis turn the heat up creating a level of gripping tension that never lags. Markovics carries the movie with a stern furrow-browed brood intensely persuading us to Sorowitsch’s cunning sense of survival. While not pretty this Austrian film is filled with what I can only describe as a lush grittiness – Benedict Neuenfels’ cinematography, even with a limited pallette of greys and darkness, is as absorbing as the story. THE COUNTERFEITERS is a near perfect depiction of a true story, albeit with amalgams and slight embellishments, and a film that I really hope folks will seek out.

* The film is based on the book by Adolf Burger who is “the only prisoner character in the film that has an authentic historical name and is not synthesized from several real-life prisoners involved in Operation Bernhard.” Thanks again Wikipedia!

SMART PEOPLE (Dir. Noam Murro, 2008) Dennis Quaid is Lawrence Wetherhold – a haggard looking washed up widower professor at Carnegie Mellon University with a ne’er-do-well adopted brother (Thomas Haden Smith), a wisecracking Republican daughter (Ellen Page), and what he is told is an unpublishable manuscript. It is illustrated right off the bat that Wetherhold is a schlub. He doesn’t take time to get to know his students – let alone learn their names and he double parks his car which gets it towed and him injured, getting knocked out cold jumping the fence trying to recoup his briefcase. Coming to in a hospital room he is greeted by Sarah Jessica Parker as his attending doctor. There is something of a spark between them so Quaid and Parker attempt to have what he calls a face to face meeting despite disaproval from his daughter and his being extremely embarrassingly ‘out of practice’ as he apologizes after their first disastrous dinner date.

The underlining question is – will Whetherhold get his groove back? The jaded faded writer/professor role has shades of Quaid’s role in D.O.A. (he who crucially stated publish or perish) – another character who had to regroup to reclaim his passion and Thomas Haden Church seems to be macking on his former glory in SIDEWAYS – a fact the poster calls attention to with it’s lime green and from the producers of plug. Then there’s Ellen Page whose character is conservative with a 8X10 of Reagan on her bedroom wall and citing career steps from Dick Cheney but this character trait is just a disposable detail – it never comes up in any conflict or specified way. Her lines just come off like recycled JUNO: I Appreciate the tip, Dr. Phil and suddenly I’m in an Afterschool Special. It’s her schtick and Haden Church’s dubious deliveries in the first half that has SMART PEOPLE play like quirk by the numbers. The second half is more of a sober drama with introspection and pondering close-ups but the whole affair never rises above WONDER BOYS-light. Quaid does befuddled wonderfully and it’s nice to see Parker as someone less neurotically obsessed with romance as her Carrie Bradshaw character on Sex And The City but this, as earnest as it is in some scenes, never really amounts to anything special. SMART PEOPLE was no doubt made by smart people but I wish they were smarter about making them interesting people. Then maybe I would give a damn about them.

More later…

Oscar Postpartum 2008

So it’s the morning after and I’m looking over my predictions – none of my wild cards paid off and some of my darts didn’t hit the bulls-eye so what do I got? Well, I don’t know whether to feel comforted or disturbed by the fact that I got EXACTLY the same amount right that I did last year – 13 out of 24. So here’s at ‘em:

2. BEST DIRECTOR: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen – Though everybody was saying this was a lock I was still somewhat scared that this was wishful thinking. So glad that it happened – it is definitely the Coen Brothers time. Seeing them on stage – Joel stoic and commanding with Ethan cutely quietly fidgeting made them look like the Penn & Teller of movie directors.

3. BEST ACTOR: Daniel Day Lewis for THERE WILL BE BLOOD.
4. BEST ACTRESS: Julie Christie – WRONG! – Marion Cotillard for LA VIE EN ROSE – As much as I loved Christie in AWAY FROM HER I am not disapointed here. Cotillard’s performance was amazing and the award is well deserved. Besides Christie’s won before.
5. BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Hal Holbrook – WRONG! Javier Bardem for NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN – I knew I’d be wrong about this one but didn’t care. Bardem was excellent and his short acceptance (hard to call it a speech)
6. BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS : Cate Blanchett – WRONG! Tilda Swinton for MICHAEL CLAYTON – This was a real surprise. Still she did a good job in her role and I liked that backstage afterwards she said winning is often “the kiss of death”. Yeah, just ask Cuba Gooding Jr.
8. CINEMATOGRAPHY: Roger Deakins for THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORDWRONG! – Robert Elswit for THERE WILL BE BLOOD – I knew I’d be wrong here but still thought Deakins would win but for NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. I loved TWBB so I’m happy it got 2 major awards.
12. FILM EDITING: THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLYWRONG!THE BOURNE ULTIMATUMBOURNE surprisingly swept the technical award categories. Maybe I should see it.
14. VISUAL EFFECTS: TRANSFORMERSWRONG! THE GOLDEN COMPASS – I called it a “no brainer” but I should’ve remember the Academys track record on this category. I mean E.T. won over BLADE RUNNER for this 25 years ago!
16. ORIGINAL SONG: “Falling Slowly” from ONCE – A nice moment during the broadcast was when Host Jon Stewart quipped “wow, that guy is so arrogant” after Glen Hansard’s humble as Hell acceptance speech. It got a big laugh from the audience and the folks at the Oscar party I was at last night.
21. ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: JUNO by Diablo Cody – This was the real ‘no brainer’.
adapted by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen.23. ANIMATED FEATURE FILM: RATATOUILLE

Okay! So I did no better or no worse than last time out. Sigh. Story of my life.

More later…

It’s That Time Again – Film Babble’s Funtime Oscar Picks 2008!

The Academy Awards is one week away so I am finalizing my predictions. I admit that I’m no expert – I only had 13 out of 24 right last year but it is such a fun process for a film fan so I’m game. In Roger Ebert’s 2008 predictions column he writes “as usual I will allow my heart to outsmart my brain in one or two races, which is my annual downfall”. I hear you Roger! That’s why I decided to say “screw it!” and go with my heart. I went against my heart last year and guessed wrongly that BABEL would win over my true favorite THE DEPARTED so I think I owe it.

1.BEST PICTURE: NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN – My brain agrees with my heart on this one. It seriously feels like The Coen Brothers time as evidenced by my pick for #2 as well but I have to remind myself that 10 years ago I really thought it was their time for FARGO and THE ENGLISH PATIENT won. Heavy sigh. Please JUNO – don’t split the vote and cause an upset! Please – my heart couldn’t take it.
2. BEST DIRECTOR: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen.

3.BEST ACTOR: Daniel Day Lewis – Again heart and brain are on the same page with just about everybody out there on this – he truly did perform the best acting of the year so it’ll be shocking if he’s not rewarded.

4. BEST ACTRESS: Julie Christie – Most are predicting this one for Christie. Her performance was wonderful and like Lewis she’s won before (for DARLING – 1965) and it just seems right. The wild card would be Marion Cotillard in LA VIE EN ROSE but that’s stuck at “very long wait” in my Netflix queue so I can’t appraise yet.

5. BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Hal Holbrook – This is my wild card; my INTO THE WILD card! Sorry, couldn’t resist that. Seriously though he was the best thing in that movie – he’s 82 and he climbed up a mountain! Somebody else who thinks he deserves it is one of his competitors for the title – Javier Bardem. Read Bardem’s touching comments on Holbrook’s performance. My brain is doubting this pick but I’m still letting it stand.

6. BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS : Cate Blanchett – Brain and Heart together again. Blanchett is amazing as ’65-’66 era Bob Dylan – actually Jude Quinn – one of 6 different personifications of the said rock star singer in I’M NOT THERE if you haven’t heard. I predict she will dedicate her Oscar to co-star Heath Ledger. Awarding her will honor him so to speak. Also since she was also nominated for Best Actress for ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE this stone kills that bird too. Hey, I’m just blogging out loud here!

And the rest:

8. CINEMATOGRAPHY: Roger Deakins for THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD. Deakins is also nominated for NO COUNTRY as well so I hope a DREAMGIRLS-like canceling out doesn’t go down. I will be supremely bummed if Deakins’ amazing work doesn’t get the gold for either film.
10. DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: NO END IN SIGHT – Because SiCKO would seem to be a shoe-in my brain is still pondering over whether the Academy will let Michael Moore back on their stage. I mean, remember last time? That’s not the only reason I think Charles Ferguson’s little seen Iraq war breakdown will win but it’s good enough for now.
11. DOCUMENTARY SHORT: SARI’S MOTHER – Haven’t seen but damnit it looks like a winner!
12. FILM EDITING: THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY – Heart again. I mean the editing was really the show on this one so I can’t help but pick it.
13. MAKEUP: LA VIE EN ROSE – Can you believe NORBIT was nominated? Maybe it did have phenomenal makeup but still – NORBIT – an Oscar Nominated Motion Picture?! I may do the biggest spit-take in history if that Eddie Murphy mess upsets this category.
14. VISUAL EFFECTS: TRANSFORMERS – The definition of “no-brainer”.
16. ORIGINAL SONG: “Falling Slowly” from ONCE – This has got to happen. People are crazy about that freakin’ soundtrack and this song seems a sure bet.
17. ANIMATED SHORT: I MET THE WALRUS – Didn’t see it but the trailer (that’s right, a trailer for a short film) is pretty cool.
18. LIVE ACTION SHORT: AT NIGHT – Haven’t seen either so I’m just going throwing a dart in the dark here I admit.
20. SOUND MIXING: THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM – Didn’t see it but it looked like this flick mixed it up soundwise. Yep, another dart.
21. ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: JUNO by Diablo Cody. Consider this category to be re-named “snarkiest script”.
22. ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: ATONEMENT by Christopher Hampton
THE COUNTERFEITERS (German title: Fälscher, Die) – I haven’t seen it yet but I read good things about this Austrian war drama on the internets and the Academy seems to love World War II so it seems pretty sound.

Okay! I bet I do even worse than last year but I don’t care. I’m just glad the writer’s strike is over and the show is going on. It was one of the best years for movies so I bet whatever the flaws and surprises it’ll be a blast.

More later…

Step Aside Juno, Make Room For Marjane

While JUNO is getting all the acclaim – the nominations, the top ten list accolades, and the bank from repeat offender audience members – PERSEPOLIS, despite being nominated for Best Animated Feature and a plethora of good reviews is seemingly lost in the shuffle with few making the effort to go see it. I don’t want that to happen – this film deserves to be seen by as many people as possible in its theatrical run. Let me tell you why in my review:

PERSEPOLIS (Dir. Vincent Paronaud & Marjane Satrapi, 2007)

Retaining the look of the autobio-graphic novels on which it’s based PERSEPOLIS is unique as both an animated film and as a coming of age period piece. The story is told by way of a muted colored (yeah, the whole thing isn’t in gritty black and white) modern day flashback in which we meet Marjane (voiced by Gabrielle Lopes) – a bright outspoken preteen in Tehran in 1978. She is told by her loving father (Simon Abkarian) the history of her country in a swift but accurate storybook manner and she dreams of being a saving prophet of the Islamic revolution. Marjane’s uncle (François Jerosme), a victim of the new regime, chooses her for his last single jail visit before his execution. This affects her deeply as she grows into a rebellious punk-loving teenager (from then on voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) who buys and lives by pirated tapes of American and British rock ‘n roll. All along the way there is stern advice from her sternly cautious but wisely kind grandmother (Danielle Darreux) and the dangerous daily life of a city constantly in turmoil. Marjane becomes a young woman literally before our eyes in an amusing scene that I won’t give away. We follow her to Vienna where as a student at the French Lycée she makes friends with cynical punky outsiders (complete with mohawks and leather jackets). We also witness a love affair relationship arc that takes a little wind out of our protagonist’s sails (and sadly the movie’s a bit) but Marjane gets her groove back with a little help from Survivor’s “Eye Of The Tiger” from ROCKY III.

This film is only being distributed in America in its French language version with subtitles. While this may be considered the purist way to go – it is unfortunate because there is a English language version featuring the voices of Iggy Pop, Gena Rowlands, and Sean Penn. I would like both versions to get distribution, especially since it may affect attendance. I saw this with only six other people in the audience and that is really depressing when the inferior overrated JUNO packed houses and is still in the top five at the box office. Marjane, even as a simplistic cartoon model, is a much more affecting character than Ellen Page’s unrealistic glib one-liner machine. If only mass America would realize that and go see it. With its pointed humour yet sober sense of history PERSEPOLIS is pretty damn near perfect.

More later…

JUNO what I’m talking about?

Since it opened on Christmas Day JUNO, Jason Reitman’s comedic drama about a teenage girl who gets pregnant, has been trouncing WALK HARD at my hometown theatre (where I work part-time) with at most showtimes 3 times the audience in attendance. The critical response has been overwhelming – it has 94% rating on the Rotten Tomatometer and the most beloved and respected critic ever – Roger Ebert wrote that it’s “just about the best movie of the year” and that he thought that star Ellen Page (who plays the title role) “will be one of the great actors of her time.” Whoa! I thought it was a likable though derivatively quirky little film with good acting and some sharp lines but Ebert’s swooning seems a bit much.

Of the minority that didn’t care for what looks from a distance to be this year’s LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, one of the most interesting reviews came from Triangle critic Craig D. Lindsay. His review was entitled “Danger: Snarky Pregnant Teen Ahead” and he writes that JUNO “could very well be the most dangerous movie to come out this holiday season”. Dangerous not for its possible pro-life agenda but for “its kooky, deceptive, ultimately mediocre charms”. He goes on to say that if successful “it will inspire and influence a legion of teenage girls to start acting snotty and snarky, just like Juno, more than they already do.”

So since Ebert adores Page, thinks Diablo Cody’s first time screenplay is Oscar worthy, and ended up making JUNO his #1 film of the year while Lindsay considers the whole thing “snarky” I find myself toeing the middle ground. It is not in my eyes anywhere near the best movie of the year or is it a dangerous socially influential manifesto.

Greatly in its favor is that JUNO is very well cast – apart from Page we have J. K. Simmons and Allison Janey (The West Wing) as her parents, from the beloved yet short-lived Arrested Development – Michael Cera (also of SUPERBAD) as Juno’s boyfriend and his fellow former cast member Jason Bateman. Bateman and Jennifer Garner play a suburban couple who sign on to be the baby’s adoptive parents. How it all pans out was a little different than I expected and some of the exchanges are nicely witty:

Juno (Ellen Page): “Can’t we kick it old school? Like Moses and the reeds?”

Mark (Jason Bateman): “Actually that would be kicking it old Testament.”

None of JUNO will be surprising visually to moviegoers – it resembles most indie fare from THUMBSUCKER to ROCKET SCIENCE and its soundtrack won’t shock either. Reitman should know that you don’t use The Kinks (their song “A Well Respected Man” plays at one point) if you don’t want to invite Wes Anderson comparisons but don’t worry I won’t make them. I feel after one viewing in the middle of the busy bustling season I may be blowing the film off so I may see it again and get back to you but for now –

Film Babble Verdict: JUNO is just alright.

More Later…