Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Legend Of Jimmy The Greek

ESPN's 30 For 30 series was made in honor of the network's 30th anniversary and is a collection of 30 documentaries made by 30 different filmmakers chronicling different aspects of sports. While I do not intend to watch all 30, I will review the ones I do watch. The first one I watched (though) not the first produced was entitled The Legend of Jimmy The Greek and it detailed the life of the famous sports oddsmaker. It begins with a ruckus involving him and coworkers from his NFL show and it talks about his rise and ultimate downfall. This proved to be a very interesting and informative piece about a very complicated man.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The White Ribbon

The children are gathered around the dinner table with empty plates in front of them. Together, they nervously sit as their stern father begins to chastise them. He says for staying out late and worrying their mother and himself half to death, they will go to bed hungry and then be beaten the following day. Furthermore they will have white ribbons attached to themselves, to serve as a reminder of innocence and purity.
     This early scene plays out like most scenes in The White Ribbon: intense and haunting, with sinister undertones which may reach the surface at any moment. Michael Haneke's dark film opens up on the eve of WWI in a small town in Germany. The town's school teacher informs us as the narrator of the strange events taking place in town, of which no one has an explanation and everyone believes are purely coincidental. Also the strange occurrences seem to have something to do with the children, the same children among which some may grow up to commit Nazi atrocities (notice the white ribbon on the young boy's arm in the above picture, which may resemble another possible armband in the future). Not all is right among the adult's in the community as well and many of the townspeople carry secret sins of their own. How is their behavior and discipline methods reflected in their children's actions.
     This is one of those films that makes you think and think and think some more. It is a dark and difficult film, filmed in glorious black and white that you will want to read into and learn about. It could also leave you feeling sick to your stomach or angry or upset. There are no easy answers and my take in the second paragraph isn't necessarily the correct one. However it does what great films do in that it makes you think for yourself.

Friday, February 26, 2010


Nine, based on a stage play, is a musical remake of Fellini's masterpiece 8 1/2 (a film which I saw a long time ago, did not understand, and probably need to revisit). The film involves a famous Italian director (Daniel Day-Lewis) who is suffering from writer's block on his latest project and is dealing with many of live's stressors, specifically women: a kind but untrusting wife (Marion Cotillard), a needy mistress (Penelope Cruz), his leading lady (Nicole Kidman), his costume designer (Judi Dench),  a starstruck journalist (Kate Hudson), and last but not least his mother (Sophia Loren). Nine was largely panned by critics upon release, but I found it to be entertaining. I enjoyed the director's struggles and his flashbacks to childhood. However, the musical numbers were uninspired and distracting. Director Rob Marshall's flashy style that worked so well in Chicago does not come off quite as successfully here. Daniel Day-Lewis is solid if not miscast in the lead, and Penelope Cruz offers solid work, though her supporting actress nomination is still baffling. Though I think this film would work better told in a traditional way, that I might enjoy it less had I been more familiar with 8 1/2, and despite its flaws, Nine is a film worth seeking out. How's that for a recommendation? 

Thursday, February 25, 2010


Coraline, the Oscar nominated animated feature, tells the story of a precocious young girl who has moved to the isolated wilderness with her neglectful, writer parents. While missing her friends at home, the curious Coraline finds a door that leads to an alternate universe. In this "other world" things are seemingly perfect, though things are not always as they seem of course. Coraline is a visual delight, with many imaginative creations for the eyes to feast upon. Additionally, it is further evidence of the superior state of animation. However, like Up, a film which I admired but did not love, I wonder if superior animation and creative visuals have consumed the animators, while plot and dialogue have been placed on the backburner. This may be missing the point, but the aforementioned neglected aspects are filmmaking elements that should not be overlooked.

Star Trek

OK I'm probably not the best person to be reviewing this film. I'm not nor have I ever been a Star Trek fan. I used to watch it for moments at a time on TV and I thought it was something that you had to "get" and I never "got" it. So in fairness, due to its popularity and positive reviews, I decided to give it a neutral review. This installment, I guess, is the origin story with younger actors playing the versions of themselves. The basic premise is that a cocky and headstrong Kirk teams up with the reserved and wise Spock to take on the evil Nero who hopes to destroy the Enterprise.? So the makeup looks great, as do the special effects, and Abrams does nice work helming action films but I guess I still don't "get" it. I was told I did not need to be a Trekkie to enjoy this but I disagree after watching this.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

2010 Oscar Challenge

CONTEST: If you submit a ballot as a comment here or on my Facebook page and have more correct picks than me, then you win $10.00. Only one winner. Tie breaker: which film will win the most awards and how many?  Submit you picks with the tiebreaker before 8:00PM EST on March 7, 2010. Here is a complete list of nominees. Narrow down the nominees to one pick then copy and paste the list as a comment.

Picture: Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, A Serious Man, Up, Up in the Air
Director: James Cameron, Avatar; Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker; Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds; Lee Daniels, Precious; Jason Reitman, Up in the Air
Lead Actor: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart; George Clooney, "Up in the Air"; Colin Firth, "A Single Man"; Morgan Freeman, Invictus; Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker
Lead Actress: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side; Helen Mirren, The Last Station; Carey Mulligan, An Education; Gabourey Sidibe, Precious; Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia
Supporting Actor: Matt Damon, Invictus; Woody Harrelson, The Messenger; Christopher Plummer, The Last Station; Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones; Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz, Nine; Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air; Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crazy Heart; Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air; Mo'Nique, Precious
Animated Feature: Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and the Frog, The Secret of Kells, Up
Art Direction: Avatar, The Imaginarius of Dr. Parnassus, Nine, Sherlock Holmes, The Young Victoria
Cinematography: Avatar, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, The White Ribbon
Costume Design: Bright Star, Coco Before Chanel, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Nine, The Young Victoria
Documentary: Burma VJ, The Cove, Food Inc., The Most Dangerous Man in America, Which Way Home
Documentary Short: China's Unnatural Disaster, The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner, The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, Music by Prudence, Rabbit a la Berlin
Editing: Avatar, District 9, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious
Foreign Language Film: Ajami, The Milk of Sorrow, A Prophet, A Secret in their Eyes, The White Ribbon
Makeup: Il Divo, Star Trek, The Young Victoria
Musical Score: Avatar, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Hurt Locker, Sherlock Holmes, Up
Music (Song)
: "Almost There," The Princess and the Frog; "Down in New Orleans," The Princess and the Frog; "Loin de Paname," Paris 36,; "Take it All," Nine; "The Weary Kind," Crazy Heart
Short (Animated): French Roast, Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty. The Lady and The Reaper, Logorama, A Matter of Loaf and Death
Short (Live Action): The Door, Instead of Abracadabra, Kavi, Miracle Fish, The New Tenants
Sound Editing: Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Star Trek, Up
Sound Mixing: Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Star Trek, Transformers 2
Visual Effects: Avatar, District 9, Star Trek
Writing (Adapted): District 9, An Education, In the Loop, Precious, Up in the Air
Writing (Original): The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, The Messenger, A Serious Man, Up
Tie Breaker: Film with most wins and number won

Here are my picks:
Picture: Avatar
Director: Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Lead Actor: Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
Lead Actress: Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique, Precious
Animated Feature: Up
Art Direction: Avatar
Cinematography: Avatar
Costume Design: Coco Before Chanel
Documentary: The Cove
Documentary Short: The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant
Editing: The Hurt Locker
Foreign Language Film: The White Ribbon
Makeup: Star Trek
Music (Score): Up
Music (Song): "The Weary Kind" Crazy Heart
Short (Animated): A Matter of Loaf and Death
Short (Live Action): Instead of Abracadabra
Sound Editing: Avatar
Sound Mixing: Avatar
Visual Effects: Avatar
Writing (Adapted): Up in the Air
Writing (Original): Inglourious Basterds

The 2010 Oscar Nominated Shorts-Documentary

These were the hardest of the shorts to find as there were no comprehensive screenings in the greater Cleveland area. I saw one On Demand, three at the Cleveland International Film Festival, and one shows no signs of playing around here anytime soon. Even though I don't understand why the Academy nominates films most of us can't see, it was fun seeking these shorts out.
China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears Of The Sichuan Province
Short film documents the aftermath of an Earthquake in a rural province in China that claimed the lives of 70,000 people, 10,000 of which were children. The film focuses on the lost children and the effect on the parents which is given more resonance considering China's one child law and the fact that most people were burying their only child. The film then goes on to explore government corruption. Successful as a short but even begins to drag at 38 minutes. Still it is an important story that I don't recall hearing about in the news. ***
Music By Prudence
This is the one that ended up winning the Oscar and it is truly a wonderful short. It tells the story of Prudence, a young girl with a crippling bone disease who says she will never see her dream of independence come true unless she leaves Zimbabwe. But this isn't a weeper about hardships. Rather it is about overcoming those hardships and the celebration of human life of all kinds. We are shown Prudence's concert and it is truly wonderful music. ***1/2
The Last Campaign Of Governor Booth Gardner
The Last Campaign is a well made short about the former and immensely popular governor of Washington Booth Gardner. He is now suffering from Parkinson's and fears the ugly latter stages of the disease he faces. Gardner attaches himself to an initiative that would allow assisted suicide in Washington. The film also shows some members of the opposition. Though this is a tough issue and I may not agree with the side this film favors, it must be regarded objectively as a short. ***
The Last Truck: Closing Of A GM Plant 
The Last Truck is a beautiful story about the bonds shared among workers at a GM plant in Ohio, and how they were broken when it was shut down. Short actually follows the last weeks of the plant and we meet many of the workers who are out of work and have to "reinvent" themselves in a modern society. Truly touching film makes it hard to hold back the tears when grown women and men are seen crying over their dour prospects. ****
Rabbit A La Berlin
This is the story of the forgotten victims of the Cold War: the bunnies who lived in no man's land between East and West Berlin. The short features superb footage in what is an alternately dull and silly documentation. ***

The 2010 Oscar Nominated Shorts-Animated

The animated shorts segment was a lot of fun. Not only were the Oscar nominated shorts shown, but three other excellent were added as filler. Some of these shorts are actually available on YouTube and I have included links where those are available. Check 'em out there a lot of fun. Here's my reviews of all the shorts shown.
French Roast
The misadventures of a snooty French businessman who loses his wallet in a cafe. Nice computer animation along with a simple story. ***
The Lady And The Reaper
Death and a doctor battle over an elderly, lonely widow's life. Again, very nice computer animation. ***
A Matter Of Loaf And Death
Wallace and Gromit are bakers in the midst of a serial killing spree targeting bakers. Wonderfully animated and witty short. ****
Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty
A demented grandmother tells her granddaughter her own version of Sleeping Beauty. Nice blend of computer and hand-drawn animation, but the story doesn't quite come off. **1/2
Partly Cloudy
Tale shows where storks get babies from and we are introduced to a stork who has to deliver the most dangerous animal babies. Pixar short that played before Up was not nominated for an Oscar, but is very rich and nicely executed. ***1/2
Chaos ensues on a train when a conductor becomes distracted and an underling takes over. This hand-drawn film was not nominated for an Oscar, but is very imaginative. ***
The Kinematograph
An elderly inventor in the late 19th century struggles to invent a color film movie camera to film his sickly wife before she dies. Not nominated for an award, but it should have been. Superb computer animation is well told and moving. ****
In an L.A. where everyone and everything is a corporate logo, two Michelin Men police pursue a fugitive Ronald McDonald. Vulgar short resembles a Grand Theft Auto game and isn't particularly appealing. **

The 2010 Oscar Nominated Shorts-Live Action

Tonight I caught both the Live Action Shorts and Animated Shorts nominated for Academy Awards this year. I thought it was great fun and there wasn't one short that was disappointing. Here's my reviews of the live action shorts. Keep posted for reviews of the animated shorts with some links to view them yourself.
Tells the story of a young Indian boy trapped in modern day slavery. Hindi film generates a good amount of suspense and contains a nice ending. ***
The New Tenants
Over-the-top black comedy about a gay couple that moves into an apartment and deals with the repercussions of the previous tenants actions. Film generates some good laughs. ***
Miracle Fish
A young misfit is bullied by students on his birthday, visits the nurse's office, falls asleep, and awakens to a vacant school building. Film changes tones and becomes unexpected and eerie. ***1/2
The Door
A young man runs through a barren amusement park into an abandoned apartment to steal a door. He than returns to his family where they face several hardships. Sad and well filmed movie where all comes together in the end. ***1/2
Instead Of Abracadabra
A 25-year-old magician who still lives at home injures his mom during a trick, than tries to use his powers to impress her nurse. Lovable loser comedy made in the same vein as Napoleon Dynamite hits the mark and is very funny. ***1/2

Sunday, February 21, 2010

2010 Oscars: Predictions, Thoughts, and Gripes

Oscar season is here once again in what I have considered to be a weak year. After a 2008 season in which so many films were snubbed, the Academy has resorted to its olden practice of nominating 10 films for Best Picture, yet there seems a dearth of films worth nominating in 2009. Nonetheless, here we are, with 10 nominees and an unpredictable Best Picture race while all the other major categories seem utterly predictable. Well, here are my thoughts on the major categories:
Best Picture
Like I said, this is the only tough category to call. I think it's a race between Avatar and The Hurt Locker and many are predicting the latter low budget sleeper to take down the former gargantuan, but I am not sure. Though Cameron has won big before, I think the smart money's on Avatar. As far as other films nominated in this category, I named Inglourious Basterds as the film of the year but I think Up in the Air is a film of the times and I hope it pulls an upset and wins. District 9 and Blind Side had no business being nominated and I would have liked to see nods for (500) Days of Summer and Crazy Heart.
Prediction: Avatar
Preference: Up in the Air
Best Director
They got this one right. The best directors were nominated and again I think that again it will come down to Avatar vs. Hurt Locker. This time Kathryn Bigelow should win for several reasons-Cameron's won before, the Academy would like to honor a woman for the first time, and most importantly, The Hurt Locker was the year's best and most meticulously directed film. I just hope the Academy doesn't continue to pass over QT in this category.
Prediction: Kathryn Bigelow
Preference: Kathryn Bigelow
Best Actor
Jeff Bridges is the front runner and I'm in the minority when I say that he shouldn't be. Crazy Heart's Bad Blake was not a challenge for The Dude and though he should eventually be rewarded as he is a major talent, it should not be for this role. Clooney was delightful in Up in the Air and is the deserving nominee. I would have liked to see nods for Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man) and Sam Rockwell (Moon) though I'm not sure who should have stayed home.
Prediction: Jeff Bridges
Preference: George Clooney
Best Actress
For whatever Godforsaken reason this is Sandra Bullock's year. She's the least deserving in the category and should not be rewarded for a comeback role. Streep and Mirren were great in their roles, but have won before. Sidibe was great as well, but we have nothing to compare her work. My vote goes with Carey Mulligan as a smart young woman who takes up with an older man in An Education.
Prediction: Sandra Bullock
Preference: Carey Mulligan
Best Supporting Actor
Christoph Waltz all the way. It was not only the best supporting performance, it was the performance of the year. I love how this category has gone to villains and he will continue the trend. The rest of the category is screwed up. Damon was unjustly nominated. Tucci did better supporting work in Julie & Julia. I did like Plummer's nomination at 80-years-old. But the biggest crime comes with overlooking Christian McKay's performance in Me & Orson Welles as the great and egotistical director.
Prediction: Christoph Waltz
Preference: Christoph Waltz
Best Supporting Actress
Mo'Nique will win, I won't have a problem if she does, but the race should be closer. Vera Farmiga did wonderful work in Up in the Air and she's my pick. Nine is the only film I have yet to see in the major categories, but I'm still going to question Penelope Cruz's nomination. She won last year and did great supporting work this year in Broken Embraces. Samantha Morton (The Messenger), Paula Patton (Precious), and even Mariah Carey (Precious) were overlooked. Why don't they expand these categories?
Prediction: Mo'Nique
Preference: Vera Farmiga
Original Screenplay
Prediction: Inglourious Basterds
Preference: Inglourious Basterds
Adapted Screenplay
Prediction: Up in the Air
Preference: Up in the Air
Prediction: Avatar
Prediction: The Hurt Locker
Foreign Language Film
Prediction: The White Ribbon
Prediction: The Cove
Animated Film
Up should not be nominated in Best Picture and Best Animated Film
Prediction: Up

Well that's that, you are on your own for the rest of the categories. Be sure to tune into the awards on Sunday, March 7th @ 8pm on ABC, and check back here for thoughts on the show.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Last Station

The young man (James McAvoy) has been hired to be an assistant to Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer). Rather, he has been placed there as a spy by Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), one of Tolstoy's top loyalists, in order to spy on the Countess (Helen Mirren), whom herself opposes her husband's ideals. From here we get a portrait of the last year in the life of Russia's greatest author. The Last Station is a nice little film that provides an acting showcase for Mirren and Plummer, both Academy Award nominees this year. Mirren goes over-the-top in portraying the manic depressive countess who desires only love and her family's financial well-being. The 80-year-old Plummer is in fine form, donning the scruffy beard and playing Tolstoy as a grandfatherly idealist. It is only when these two are offscreen that the film begins to wane. It is then that an unnecessary romantic subplot involving the McAvoy character is introduced, and it does hurt the film, but only marginally. This is a loving if not simple portrait of an important man and his loving, outlandish wife.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Shutter Island

Is it me, or is a Scorsese release an event? The preeminent director working never fails to dazzle, but going into Shutter Island I was a little nervous. I had not read into at all, but it seemed like the film had been delayed forever, and when it was given a February release I thought the studios were setting it up to fail with an early year, post Oscar season release. However, my doubts would soon be quelled. Here, the master returns with another masterwork, a nightmarish mystery with several nods to film noir. The film is dark, moody, atmospheric and wonderfully shot, containing many beautifully conceived scenes containing ominous, brooding background music. Leonardo DiCaprio, re-teaming for the fourth time with Scorsese, reminds us once again what a talent he is in his performance as a Federal Marshal investigating a woman's disappearance from a mental asylum. Added to this are wonderful supporting performances, in no particular order: Mark Ruffalo as Leo's untried partner, Michelle Williams as his wife, the great Ben Kingsley as his seemingly genuine psychiatrist, Max von Sydow as Kingsley's more devious colleague, Jakie Earle Hayley as a disturbed patient. (very minor spoiler) The end does contain a twist which may annoy some but which I found witty and well-handled. This is a great film, and after viewing it I got the feeling it was pushed back because the studio felt it couldn't compete with Avatar at the box office. However, this is as good as anything up for an Oscar now.

Here We Go

Hey everyone. This is my first time blogging and I don't really know what I'm doing, who this is going out to, how it works, etc. so I am just learning as I go as far as this blog is concerned. Anyways, I intend to use this primarily for film reviews, but will occasionally be throwing in my own two cents in other arenas as well. The films I review will tend to be new releases. So I saw Shutter Island at an advanced screening tonight so I guess I'll use that as my inaugural review. Let's get to it.