Monday, June 15, 2009

EXAMINER #5: 10 summer movies with a shot at awards glory

In my world, it’s never too early to start talking about the Oscars. Awards season has become a yearlong marathon and I’m just feeding the beast. With that in mind, here are 10 summer movies that voters could still be talking about this winter.
Best Picture: Realistically, Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies” is probably the most likely summer Oscar nominee, considering its esteemed pedigree. However, “The Hurt Locker” is the kind of smart thriller that could make a dent during awards season and blow the race wide open. But if I had to pick one summer movie that will earn some kind of Best Picture nomination, it would be Judd Apatow’s “Funny People,” which has a great shot as the Golden Globe for Best Comedy/Musical. Friends who have seen it have come away impressed with one arguing that it’s better than the director’s two other films, “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up.” High praise, indeed.
Best Director: You’d have to go back a few years to find the last female nominee for Best Director but 2009 is shaping up as the year of the female filmmaker, Though questions still linger around Mira Nair’s “Amelia,” even with two-time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank as the famed aviatrix, Jane Campion’s “Bright Star” made quite an impression at Cannes, and Lone Scherfig’s “An Education” was the talk of Sundance. Yet its “The Hurt Locker’s” keymaster Kathryn Bigelow who proves she can blow stuff up with the best of the boys, having delivered a visceral, adrenaline-fueled ride that had me on the edge of my seat. It’s been a LONG time since I’ve seen a movie as well-crafted and executed as The Hurt Locker, and credit Bigelow for making a tough, suspenseful movie with real balls.
Best Actor: Most “experts” would choose Johnny Depp as the leading summer contender in this category, since his turn as John Dillinger in “Public Enemies” will certainly garner at least some attention from awards voters. But it’s confession time, gang; Depp has lost me over the past few years, and I know I’m not alone. Let’s look at the history: He was nominated for seven Golden Globes before finally winning in 2008 for “Sweeney Todd.” And he’s been nominated for three Academy Awards in the last five years, but the movies have been the first “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Finding Neverland” and “Sweeney Todd.” Are those REALLY Depp’s three best performances? No “Edward Scissorhands” or “Ed Wood,” or at least six other performances in six much better movies? So if you’re looking for some Johnny Depp love, you’ll find it in the potholes of my “Scissorhands” DVD. I jumped off his bandwagon the day he sold out to Disney. So who’s left?
Duncan Jones’ “Moon” allows Sam Rockwell the opportunity to shine, and the actor responds with some of the best work of his fine career in the sci-fi drama, working pretty much alone for the entire movie. But while I was impressed overall with Jones’ debut feature (particularly Clint Mansell’s haunting score), I was also never totally comfortable with its screenplay, and personally, I feel critics are overrating the film.
Jeremy Renner is bound to breakout after his fearless, ferocious performance in “The Hurt Locker” and Adam Sandler (so good in 9/11 drama “Reign Over Me”) will get some serious Golden Globes consideration for his Apatow collaboration “Funny People,” but for my money, the honest-to-God most likely nominee (at least for Globes love) is “Brüno” alter-ego Sacha Baron Cohen, who won the Globe for Best Actor in 2007 for “Borat.”
Best Actress: It’s a slow three months for actresses outside of romantic comedies and bloody genre pics, but for those interested, Michelle Pfeiffer is supposedly divine in Stephen Frears’ “Chéri.” The film received mixed reviews overseas but Pfeiffer has always been an American favorite, and her campaign still has heat.
Best Supporting Actor: As much as I loved Anthony Mackie in “The Hurt Locker,” the loudest awards buzz surrounds German actor Christoph Waltz, who plays Hans “The Jew Hunter” Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds.” Reviews out of Cannes say he’s the one to watch amongst the ensemble. It’ll also be interesting to see whether “Basterds” is eligible for Best Foreign Language film, since apprx. 60% of the dialogue is non-English. Another possible contender is Billy Crudup, who plays J. Edger Hoover in “Public Enemies.”
Best Supporting Actress: I’ve heard Leslie “Apatow’s Wo-“ Mann steals the show in “Funny People,” (her husband always knows how to use her comic skills) and Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard returns to the bigscreen as Depp’s squeeze in “Public Enemies,” but there’s one actress you can never count out of the awards race and that’s Meryl Streep, who is rumored to give a delicious performance as Julia Child in “Julie & Julia.” I also wouldn’t discount the young duo of Abigail Breslin and Sofia Vassilieva who star in the cancer drama “My Sister’s Keeper.”
Best Original Screenplay: There are a lot of options here. Apatow was nominated for a WGA Award for “Knocked Up” and Funny People seems to be more mature than his other work. Woody Allen has a million Oscar noms and a new movie with Larry David called “Whatever Works.” “The Hurt Locker” is a well-structured nail-biter thanks to journalist Mark Boal’s airtight screenplay. And Lynn Shelton’s “Humpday” is the most brilliant film to come out of the thriving mumblecore movement. But a romantic comedy in which the guy doesn’t get the girl? How bold! That’s why I’m giving the nod to Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter’s “500 Days of Summer,” which was a 2006 Black List finalist that could wind up being this year’s “Juno.” That trailer is simply irresistible.
Best Adapted Screenplay: As a filmmaking God, Michael Mann is always a threat in the Best Director category, but in my humble opinion, he stands a better shot of sneaking into this category come January for co-writing “Public Enemies” with Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman. Other than that, there aren’t many real contenders in this category coming out this summer although “Brüno” looms as a real possibility since most of its writing team was Oscar-nominated for “Borat.” Other adaptations include “Chéri,” “I Love You Beth Cooper,” the long-delayed adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” and of course, the latest installment of the “Harry Potter” series, which hasn’t garnered any major screenplay nominations, although scribe Steve Kloves was once nominated for “Wonder Boys.”
Best Documentary: The environmental doc “The Cove” has been making waves since its debut at Sundance. Look for it to be this year’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” According to Variety, “Eco-activist documentaries don’t get much more compelling.”
Best Animated Feature: It looks as though the Academy Awards’ animation category could have five nominees this year as opposed to three, so Hayao Miyazaki figures to be a shoo-in for a slot considering his history. The acclaimed Japanese filmmaker returns to theaters with “Ponyo,” and while he’ll have to contend with Pixar’s “Up,” Henry Selick’s “Coraline,” Wes Anderson’s take on “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” Shane Acker’s “9,” the third “Ice Age” film, Robert Zemeckis’ “A Christmas Carol” and Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog,” Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli have history on their side having won the Oscar for “Spirited Away” in 2003, in addition to a nomination for “Howl’s Moving Castle” in 2006. Early word has been promising, with Variety comparing the film to “The Little Mermaid.”
The 10, again, in order of release date: “Chéri” (June 26); “Public Enemies” (July 1); “Brüno” (July 10); “The Hurt Locker” (July 10); “500 Days of Summer” (July 17); “The Cove” (July 31); “Funny People” (July 31); “Julie & Julia” (Aug. 7); “Ponyo” (Aug. 14); “Inglorious Basterds” (Aug. 21)

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Friday, June 5, 2009

EXAMINER #4: 'Land of the Lost' is worth a visit

I never thought I’d type the following sentence but I’m glad I have the chance to now. “Land of the Lost” was good. Believe me, I’d been as skeptical about Universal and Brad Silberling’s bigscreen take on Sid and Marty Krofft’s cult TV series as the rest of the Internet, but “LOTL” is just pure, undeniable summer fun.
The appropriately off-kilter screenplay is surprisingly adult without taking itself too seriously, and stars Will Ferrell, Danny McBride and Anna Friel have a nice, easy chemistry that makes for an appealing trio on which to hang a very simple CGI-fueled adventure story.
I can remember watching “Land of the Lost” on TV when I was a kid but its theme song was the most memorable thing about the show, so I had no particular attachment to or nostalgia for the original series. The film still follows Dr. Rick Marshall (now a quantum paleontologist) but the screenplay turns his kids, Will and Holly, into grown-up characters. Lovable man-child Will Ferrell plays Marshall while Anna Friel co-stars as brainy hottie Holly, a Cambridge student who has closely followed Marshall’s career. The two eventually meet up with desert hick Will (Danny McBride) who’s just happy to be along for the wild ride.
Ferrell has made a career out of playing wacky characters, but while Dr. Marshall is certainly eccentric, he actually seems like one of Ferrell’s more “normal” roles. With a limited supporting cast, Ferrell is forced to do a lot of heavy lifting over the course of the picture, and he really finds the appeal in the character’s kooky panic and bizarre confidence.
McBride can always be counted on to wring the most laughs out of restrained material. Remember, he was one of few bright spots in “Drillbit Taylor.” McBride operates best in R-rated mode but thank God he’s around to keep the PG-13 crowd off-balance on its toes. Watching him and Ferrell duet on Cher’s “Believe” has to be seen to be, uh, believed.
I’m not as familiar with Friel, having never seen her work on “Pushing Daisies,” but she manages to not get in the way of the Ferrell/McBride laugh locomotive, and when she gets opportunities to shine, she takes advantage of them, none more so than during the trio’s introduction to the love-him-or-hate-him Chaka (Jorma Taccone), whose hands have a habit of roaming Holly’s chest throughout the film.
Chaka is used as an effective comic device for most the running time, the highlight of which was his “Chorus Line” bit, but there were several moments where he just felt annoying and superfluous, like a hairy Jar Jar Binks. The film’s T-Rex, on the other hand, strikes just the right tone of menacing silliness as the trio’s antagonist-turned-savior.
I won’t bother making excuses for the film’s lame villain and his army of non-threatening Sleestaks, or its ridiculous plot, which is just plain stupid, but thankfully story and logic are beside the point. It’s fun, weird and well designed by Bo Welch, and it ends just as the characters begin to wear out their welcome. The score was also excellent, so it came as no surprise when Michael Giacchino’s name popped up during the very cool end credit sequence, which I thought belonged at the beginning of the film. Speaking of which, both “LOTL” and last week’s “Drag Me to Hell” featured an old school Universal logo and very similar-looking title cards, with two words bigger than the other, in the same quadrants of the screen. Of course in “LOTL,” the old logo is a clever reminder that the “Lost” of the title refers to nostalgia, hence the Cher and “Chorus Line” bits, among other thinly veiled references to geographic landmarks and pop culture icons.
“Land of the Lost” may seem like the movie to bring your kids to this weekend but I also think its not-so-subliminal stoner humor plays to an older, hipper crowd that will appreciate zany sequences like the one where Rick and Will play Marco Polo after ingesting a hallucinatory substance.
Most critics have been giving “LOTL” a tough time but I think if you go in with modest expectations like I did, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Just don’t expect the same old family-friendly formula because this is one strange movie.

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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

EXAMINER #3: Chris Messina runs away with 'Away We Go'

You might recognize Chris Messina. Then again, you might not.
The actor, who may be best known for starring in the little-seen indie comedy “Ira and Abby,” landed a highly coveted role as one of Variety’s 10 Actors to Watch in 2007 before popping up in two of the better films of 2008, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and “Towelhead,” where he worked with Academy Award winners Woody Allen and Alan Ball, respectively He also starred in last year’s charming pot comedy “Humboldt County,” from directors Danny Jacobs and Darren Grodsky, and the goofy romantic comedy “Made of Honor,” although we don’t have to talk about that one for the purposes of this column. Regardless, 2008 was a stellar year for Messina and credit Variety for spotting his unique talent early.
Messina Madness continues later this year in “Julie & Julia,” where he’ll play Amy Adams’ husband before starring in “An Invisible Sign Of My Own,” opposite Jessica Alba (as a math teacher -- Wow!). Of course, it wasn’t always this easy for Messina, whose early career struggles include just missing out on a role in “The Departed” (which won Best Picture and finally earned Martin Scorsese an Oscar) and co-starring in a HBO medical drama from J.J. Abrams that wasn’t picked up.
But every actor knows that if they wait long enough, it’s possible that breakout part will come, and for Messina, that role arrives in “Away We Go,” an indie comedy from yet another Oscar-winning director, Sam Mendes, and the husband-wife writing team of Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida.
“Away We Go” stars John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph as Bert and Verona, a young, unmarried couple who are about to have a baby and don’t know where they should plant roots and start their family. They travel around America visiting various friends and family members, sampling different cities, but the movie soars highest when Bert and Verona cross the border into Montreal, where Messina’s Tom Garnett lives with his wife Munch (Melanie Lynskey, not to be confused with Richard Belzer), who has suffered multiple miscarriages. They’ve adopted several children and they seem to be the happiest family in the film.
There’s a scene featuring the couples out for a night on the town where Munch starts dancing and Tom reveals that she’s just suffered yet another miscarriage. And as Tom describes how this latest setback has made him feel, Munch’s dance takes on a different meaning, almost like a spiritual cleansing. She just lets go and gives herself completely over to the music and the moment, emoting simply with the language of her body as Tom sits there watching with a look on his face that shows how completely in love with her he is and how much they’ve been through together. He seems to marvel at her strength, admiring how she can soldier on after losing five pregnancies. And while the scene may belong to Lynskey, being the active character onscreen, it only fully works because of how well Messina sells the essence of their relationship. In terms of pure storytelling, the scene is supposed hold a mirror up to Bert and Verona’s relationship -- When times get tough, will they endure in the face of uncertainty, as Tom and Munch have? But Messina helps make the scene mean something else, something… more. It’s at once a truly touching (and silent) moment between a husband and wife, and a heartfelt admission by a father to his friend
The other scene that could well be Messina’s Oscar moment, finds Tom constructing a little house out of diner food, arguing that it’s not a real home without the love, which he represents by drenching the house in gooey syrup. It’s a delicious metaphor that really works, because to Tom, that’s what a family is all about -- the syrup on top -- the love. Not biology.
In his all-too-brief-but-still-perfect 15 minutes of screen time, Messina makes a powerful impression, while Mendes says more about marriage and its compromises and complexities than he did in all of “Revolutionary Road.” “Away We Go” throbs with life, from the laughs and the tears to the rollercoaster of emotions in between, including the fear, the anxiety and the cluelessness. Bert and Verona have no idea what to do, but they know they’ll help each other to get it done because they have supreme faith in one another.
As for the leads, I’ll admit that Rudolph and Krasinski might look ridiculous together on paper, but they have fantastic chemistry together onscreen. Rudolph is the backbone of the film, its anchor so to speak, since everything orbits around the little bundle of joy in her belly, and she gives an eye-opening performance that I honestly never knew she was capable of, judging strictly from her quality work on “SNL.” Meanwhile, I’ve been a vocal critic of Krasinski’s film work. “Leatherheads,” “License to Wed” and “Smiley Face” were all miserable movies that did him no favors, nor did his own directorial debut “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men,” although the less said about that one in a column where I’m trying to sing his praises, the better.
Krasinski’s just always seemed better suited to the small screen, in my humble opinion. Of course, it’s hard to redefine yourself as a film actor when everyone who meets you thinks you’re just Jim from “The Office.” It’s why none of the “Seinfeld” or “Frasier” or “Friends” alums have real movie careers with the exception of Jennifer Aniston (whose career is living on borrowed time while she continues to coast on her wholesome Rachel appeal). Thankfully, Mendes finally cracks the cinematic enigma that is Krasinski, using the actor’s skills to maximum effect, employing his gift of comic timing to make his character’s fears and neuroses relatable. I believe that Krasinski is more than just that one dopey look on “The Office,” he just to find his niche (the semi-slacker indie comedy suits him well) and work with a good director who can adapt his gifts for the bigscreen.
Still, as surprising and impressive as the lead performances in “Away We Go” are, it’s Messina who steals the movie. From the moment he stepped onscreen, I couldn’t stop thinking, ‘who is this guy?’ It’s really one of the two best supporting performances that I’ve seen the first six months of the year, along with Anthony Mackie from “The Hurt Locker,” which we’ll be taking a look at soon. Until then…

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