And the nominees are…

“Brokeback Mountain” leads. “Cinderella Man” predictably forgotten. “Chocolat II: Pride & Prejudice.” Actor-centric filmmaking dominates the major categories. “Sin City” completely shut-out. More, you want? Let’s get to it…

Brokeback Mountain
Goodnight & Good Luck

Hey, look! “Munich” actually made it in! Cool, a couple people owe me some money now. That, “Crash” and especially “Goodnight & Good Luck,” would be worthy, honorable wins. “Capote” is kind of iffy… it’s less a movie and more transportation for Hoffman’s grand lead performance. Further analysis is pretty futile, of course, because “Brokeback” is winning. Never underestimate The Academy’s fondness for a weepy, melodramatic cheeseball dipped in a yummy coating of Social Importance.
Winner: “Brokeback Mountain.”
Should win: “Goodnight & Good Luck” or “Munich.”
Missing: “Sin City.”

Philip Seymour Hoffman
Heath Ledger
Terrance Howard
Joaquin Pheonix
David Strathairn

Overall good category, but one dripping with Oscar politics: Hoffman and Strathairn are “due.” They really want to hear Ledger’s teary-eyed speech about leading in such an “important” film. Howard is the “shiny new guy” on the brink of stardom. Pheonix is the immediate audience fave. I’m betting safe on Hoffman, but if Ledger wins you can write off all chances of a Best Picture upset.
Winner: Hoffman.
Should win: David Strathairn.
Missing: Robert Downey Jr. (“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”)

Judi Dench
Reese Witherspoon
Felicity Huffman
Keira Knightley
Charlize Theron

Every year the Oscar handicappers seem to forget The Academy’s raging fetish for all things Judi Dench, and every year they act shocked that she’s up for another innocuous lil’ English comedy. It’ll be fun to watch Knightley’s inexplicably-virulent detractors here on the interweb have a cow over this. Theron has no reason to be here for the awful “North Country.” Witherspoon will win, giving “Walk the Line” it’s Oscar.
Winner: Reese Witherspoon
Should Win: Reese Witherspoon
Missing: Naomi Watts (“King Kong.”)

George Clooney
Matt Dillon
Paul Giamatti
Jake Gyllenhaal
William Hurt

Hurt for “History of Violence!?” KICK ASS! Giamatti is the favorite and safe-bet. Gyllenhaal was better than Ledger in their film, but gimme a break. Clooney is the dark horse.
Winner: Giamatti
Should Win: Hurt
Missing: Mickey Rourke (“Sin City”)

Amy Adams
Catherine Keener
Frances McDormand
Rachel Weisz
Michelle Williams

Hey, super. Now we get to see the “You don’t up there to FISH!!!!!!!!!” clip ad-naseum on all the news shows for the next month and a half. And watch all the critics bust a nut over Adams actually getting “Junebug” into the running. Put the cash on Rachel Weisz… but not too much of it.
Winner: Rachel Weisz
Missing: Georgie Henley (“Narnia“), Tilda Swinton (“Narnia.”)

George Clooney (“Goodnight & Good Luck”)
Paul Haggis (“Crash”)
Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain”)
Bennett Miller (“Capote”)
Steven Spielberg (“Munich”)

I’m going to break stride and take a risk here: I’m gonna say this is a “split” year and Ang Lee will lose director to Steven Spielberg or Clooney. Preferably Spielberg. Don’t be too mad at me if you lose the bet, just a hunch.
Winner: Spielberg
Missing: Robert Rodriguez (“Sin City,”) Andrew Adamson (“Narnia,”) Christopher Nolan (“Batman Begins.”)

Goodnight & Good Luck
Match Point
Squid & The Whale

“Crash” has the most heat. “Goodnight” is #2. “Match Point” is Woody’s welcome-back nod. “Syriana” is the political pick. Bet accordingly.
Winner: “Crash”

Brokeback Mountain
History of Violence
Constant Gardner

Guess who’s probably gonna take it?
Winner: “Brokeback Mountain”
Should Win: “History of Violence”
Missing: “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”

Brokeback Mountain
Batman Begins
Goodnight & Good Luck
Memoirs of a Geisha
New World

“Brokeback” will rob another one, it’s very postcard-pretty but totally generic. Nice surprise to see “Batman” get a nod.
Winner: “Brokeback Mountain”
Should Win: “Batman Begins”
Missing: “King Kong,” “Narnia,” “Sin City.”

Cinderella Man
Constant Gardner
Walk the Line

Finally, a category without the obligatory “Brokeback” nod, (it’s dead weight 2nd act would disqualify it here, anyway.) “Crash” probably has this one for the paralell-story difficulty, and on that line where is “Sin City.”
Winner: “Crash”
Should Win: “Crash” or “Munich”
Missing: “Sin City,” “Narnia”

Goodnight & Good Luck
Harry Potter
King Kong
Memoirs of a Geisha
Pride & Prejudice

Hm. Okay, “Pride” looks like every other Victorian movie, no big thing. No “Narnia,” really?
Winner: Too close right now.
Should Win: “King Kong”
Missing: *sigh* “Sin City,” “Narnia,” “Batman Begins”

Charlie and The Chocolate Factory
Memoirs of a Geisha
Ms. Henderson Presents
Pride & Prejudice
Walk the Line

The costume biz here declares a symbolic putting-in-their-place of the scifi/fantasy genres that the traditionalists are so sick of winning all the time. They’ve even hopped “King Kong,” at least as good at it’s period costumes as the other three historical pics here.
Winner: “Geisha” (yuck)
Missing: Echo? What echo? “Kong,” “Sin City,” “Narnia,” “Batman”

Brokeback Mountain
Constant Gardner
Memoirs of a Geisha
Pride and Prejudice

Y’know what? Not even going to pretend this is a good list this year. “Brokeback” wins.
Winner: “Brokeback Mountain”
Missing: “Kong,” “Narnia,” “Batman”

Hustle & Flow

Oooooh! Look how with it we are! We nominated a rap about pimping!

Chronicles of Narnia
Cinderella Man
Star Wars Episode III

“Narnia” wins.

Chronicles of Narnia
King Kong
War of The Worlds

“Kong” wins based on the monkey alone.

So thats my list this year, let’s just get on with it…

P.S. Memo to Hollywood: We get it. Robert Rodriguez does most of his own work and that hacks off the Unions. Y’know what? This isn’t a struggling Midwestern factory, and none of you are Norma Rae. Get over it and stop stiffing this guy. The total passing over of “Sin City” is UNFORGIVABLE.

REVIEW: Annapolis (2006)

The trailers for “Annapolis” are promoting a straight-up “boot camp” military picture, with the hook of being set at the famous Maryland naval academy of the title. This is only partly true, as the film is actually a combination boot camp movie and boxing movie; (“An Officer & a Cinderella Man?;) which makes the promoting fairly puzzling: The trailers showing make the film out to be utterly generic, with no hint of the “twist” that it turns into a boxing flick at midpoint and thus becomes sort-of unique.

Unfortunately, sort-of unique doesn’t make it sort-of good.

James Franco leads as the angry, authority-phobic blue-collar kid who wills his way into a plebe year at Annapolis. Yup, he’s got daddy issues: His dissaproving-papa is a hard-bitten shipyard worker toiling at the very dock across the bay from the academy. Really. Along with his standard-issue uniform, the Academy helpfully provides standard-issue army movie buddies: Philosophizing Black Guy, Slick Hispanic Guy and, my favorite, Straight Arrow Asian Guy. What’s more, the new gender-neutral Navy affords the opportunity to drag Jordana Brewster in as a drill sergeant spin on the “hot teacher” cliche’. Tyrese Gibson rounds out the gang, flexing and glowering in the R. Lee Ermey “uber-mean drill instructor” part.

So here we go: Franco’s Cadet Huard is an “I don’t need no help from nobody!” sulking-Brando type who’s mainly at Annapolis to fulfill a promise to his dead mom that he go there. He predictably butts heads with Gibson’s hard-ass instructor, here presented (in the film’s only real inspiration) not as the typical snarling, crusty sadist but as a 30-ish Marine Corps. vet who aims to be EXTRA hard on his Annapolis cadets because “he’s seen what good and bad officers can do.” Not much, but it’s a start.

Oddly missing from the film is Gibson’s line from the trailer about being so hard on Franco’s character “because he believes in him,” odd because it leaves no real rationale for their conflict until the story is more than half-over, when they clash over a fellow cadet’s suicide attempt that Huard blames on his instructor. And at that point, their macho antler-locking has driven Huard to throw himself into The Brigades, an Academy-wide boxing tournament where (of course) Gibson’s character awaits as the Final Combatant.

The film isn’t so much bad as it is uninspired. Nothing happens that most won’t see coming, and the meshing of two well-worn genres doesn’t yield much new energy. Think of a scene you’ve seen too often in too many boxing films or too many boot camp films, and it’s gotta be in here. Director Justin Lin, late of “Better Luck Tommorrow,” knows his way around scene construction but can’t really invigorate stale material.

Most dissapointingly, given the title and promotion, the film doesn’t really give any sense of the actual Annapolis, it’s culture or even it’s atmosphere. The Navy apparently did not grant much access to the site, and has not endorsed the film based on misleading details it contains about the actual training regimen at the school. Frankly, I’m with the Navy on this one: This may not be a bad or offensive film, but it’s a boring one and Annapolis deserves better.


REVIEW: Underworld Evolution

The original “Underworld” looked like a loser almost right from the get-go when it was released back in 2003. A goth/metal-infused action/horror hybrid popping up out of nowhere special in the post-“Blade” period when goth/metal-infused action/horror hybrids were getting nearly as numerous as romantic comedies. It looked to have bitten off even more of “The Matrix’s” style than every other action film had, and the notion of itty-bitty British cutie Kate Beckinsale as an S&M-costumed, badass vampire-gunslinger sounded eye-rollingly silly (her similar turn in “Van Helsing” hadn’t yet occured, either.)

Genre fans dutifully lined up and braced for the predictable dissapointment, only to find that “Underworld” was an out-of-left-field surprise; a solid, inventive and (most importantly) intelligent and serious offering that quickly jumped to the head of the action/horror pack. It had it’s problems, including a sketchy first act and some truly guffaw-worthy bad supporting performances, but these were outweighed by it’s greater goods: A smart, detail-rich script that took the genre seriously, an action-star-making turn by Beckinsale in the lead and (crucially) a self-created universe with a backstory that just begged for further exploration.

Y’see, while the studio and most critics can be forgiven for being unaware of it, any quick browse through a Role Playing convention can tell one there was a HUGE audience waiting in the wings for a serious, hard-edged action/romance/mystery/thriller about a covert world-war between Vampires and Werewolves. And when “Underworld” turned out to be that film and then some, a continuation was innevitable.

Whereas the first film was mildly hard to follow unless one had at least a sophmore-level familiarity with vampire, werewolf and fantasy/scifi lore, this direct-sequel will be nearly impossible to follow unless one is familiar with film #1. So, then, here’s where we are so far: Sometime around the 11th Century, alchemist(?) Corvinus cured himself of the plague and became immortal, a genetic abnormality which he passed to his twin sons Markus and William, who were then further mutated after being bitten by a wolf (William) and a bat (Markus), and thus “fathered” the henceforth-warring races of Vampires and Werewolves (also called “Lycans,” because it sounds niftier.) In the modern era, Lycan-exterminating vampiress Selene (Beckinsale) learned that the blood-feud had been predicated on lies, turned on her traitorous vampire clansmen and fell in love with Michael (Scott Speedman) a human descendant of Corvinus who wound up transformed into a super-strong half-vampire/half-werewolf hybrid.

Film #2 picks up literally right where that leaves off: Selene and Michael are on the run from both sides, seeking out anymore mistruths or surprise revelations about their respective pasts (hint: there’s a lot of `em.) Things get immediately worse when some leftover messiness from movie #1 serves to wake up the hibernating Markus, who embarks on a mass-mudering quest to locate and free his imprisoned brother William. Which would be bad.

Whats impressive and admirable about both films is how well they actually manage to work given such complex goings-on amid material which, less face it, is just this side of silly to begin with. Writer/Director Len Wiseman (aka Mr. Kate Beckinsale) has a clear, complete vision for his creation in tone and visual execution, and his wrangling of a cast of character-acting stalwarts into serious, straight-faced embodiments of teched-up Universal Monsters is a feat of some accomplishment. Laced among all the backstory, revelation and deepening mystery are a collection of creative, first-rate action beats; including some gorgeous gunfights, a great use of Lycan “guard dogs” and a moment of pure “comic-book” perfection where a super-strong baddie pulls a helicopter out of the sky by a rope!

The cast performs great (better than in the first) and looks even better, with Beckinsale once again the last word in bloodsucker fetishism. The monsters, too, are really just spectacular looking: Markus flies and fights by way of huge leathery bat wings, and William is probably the best-looking Werewolf to appear on film in over a decade.

Here’s the rub: The “Underworld” flicks are gory, blood-drenched showcases for a gorgeous actress in (and now occasionally out of) form-fitting leather unloading magazine after magazine of heavy ammo into scores of henchmen and big, scary monsters all well five TSR manuals-worth of backstory and exposition unfold for your absorbing pleasure. Your inner twelve year-old boy really wants to see this movie, I reccomend you let him.


Here we Globe again…


The Golden Globes are just about the most useless of all Award shows. The organization that gives them out, the Hollywood Foreign Press, are a loosely organized group that seemingly exists only to put on this show. There’s really no reason to take this prize seriously at all, save that it’s frequently watched and thus stars feel obliged to show up to look grateful to their TV viewing fans. For awhile it was seen as an Oscar handicapper tool, but that has severely faded as of recent.

But it’s that time of year, the prizes have been handed out, and here we go again…

BEST ACTOR DRAMA: Russell Crowe, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Terrence Howard, Heath Ledger, David Straitharn.

Hoffman wins. Not too big a shock, he’s due. I’d lean more toward Straitharn, but as you’ll see this is a notable deviation in that the fantastically overrated “Brokeback Mountain” actually LOST something…

BEST ACTRESS DRAMA: Felicity Huffman, Maria Bello, Gwyneth Paltrow, Charlize Theron, Zhang Ziyi.

Huffman wins for playing the transexual in “Transamerica.” Haven’t seen yet, but I really doubt she was better than Maria Bello in “History of Violence.” Still, gender-bender roles are the kind of showy material the Globes voters get into, and at least it’s not a “given.”

“Walk the Line” dominated the Best Musical/Comedy category, winning the picture prize plus Pheonix and Witherspoon both getting respective actor wins. The film is NOT a musical OR a comedy… but whatever, a good win is a good win.

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: Kung Fu Hustle, Master of the Crimson Armor (The Promise,) Merry Christmas, Paradise Now, Tsotsi.

“Paradise Now” wins. The foriegn category is always tough because 90% of the time it’s entrants will not be screened in any meaningful way stateside until AFTER the awards are given. That being said, sources I trust tell me the Palestinian-made “Paradise Now” is an average appologia for suicide bombers and overall inferior to “Munich.” I can’t say, but what I can say is I doubt it has a chance in HELL of being better than “Kung Fu Hustle,” one of the best films in any language this year.

BEST DIRECTOR: Ang Lee, Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, George Clooney, Fernando Meirelles.

Ang Lee wins for “Brokeback Mountain.” Whoop-a-dee-do. How many more ways can I say this, folks? I know we’re glad that a gay-themed movie is getting a big notice because it helps out a good cause and whatnot, but enough is enough. Taken on it’s own merits, the film isn’t all that good. Of the nominated parties, Spielberg deserved the win.

BEST SCREENPLAY: Crash, Goodnight & Good Luck, Brokeback Mountain, Munich, Match Point.

“Brokeback” again, which is just silly. No movie with a 2nd act that meandering, repetetive and slow should even be nominated for screenplay. The other four are all worthy nods, with “Crash” being a more respectable choice of winner in a better world.

BEST PICTURE: The Constant Gardner, Brokeback Mountain, Goodnight & Good Luck, History of Violence, Match Point.

“Brokeback Mountain” wins, not a surprise at this point but still a dissapointment. I’m sorry, I know I’m supposed to pretend I think it’s great because of all the good it portends, but no. Good intentions, having your heart in the right place, etc., do NOT make a mostly-average movie worthy of major awards, dammit.

As for the rest of the list, “Goodnight” is still probably the best film of the year imo, the 2nd best being “Munich” which the HFPA has all but ignored. “History of Violence” would be a worthy winner as well. “Constant Gardner,” though? Give me a break, it’s a well-acted and filmed but horribly preachy and transparent lecture; inferior in every respect to the similarly-themed but infinitely smarter “Lord of War.”

It’s shaping up to be another “English Patient”/”Shakespeare in Love” year for the awards shows, and well… whatever. Now lets see where the Oscar nominations go when they come out.

REVIEW: Hostel

Mild spoilers, be mildly careful.

Eli Roth, late of “Cabin Fever,” still wants to be the next big thing in American horror. Here’s his latest stab, better than the first but still a bit short of the Tarrantino-esque film geek godhood Roth continues to aspire toward. (Tarrantino, appropriately, “presents” this offering.)

“Cabin Fever” was a re-staging of American horror’s most enduring setup: College-aged city kids trapped in a paranoid nightmare vision of rural Hell-on-Earth. “Hostel” works the same mojo, substituting Old Europe for the Deep South. Thus does the standard thematically-troubling morality play of dopey, sex-crazed urbanites versus de-evolved backwoodsers morph into a NEW thematically-troubling angle of naive, innocent Americans versus slick, life-devaluing Europeans. Oh well, unique is unique.

Our heroes are a polite, slightly-nerdy American, his sex-crazed “dude, have some FUN!” pal and a French drifter along for the ride. Their on an anonymous-nookie tour of Europe, stopping only to rest in the various hostels (cheap, communal lodgings) on the way. One such hostel in Slovakia is promised to them as a veritable bacchanalia of sexual availability which, of course, the audience will realize is never a good sign in such films. After some nice (if unsubtle) building of suspense and “strangers in a strange land” atompshere, we get down to business: the Slovakian hostel is a booby-trap to ensnare new victims for an underground operation selling the joy of free-form torture to wealthy patrons.

Yes, it’s “The Most Dangerous Game” once again, here tricked-out for the age of convenience, but oh well. The premise gives Roth freedom to do exactly what he wants to: stage sequences of elaborate, makeup FX-driven, I-dare-you-to-look, I-can’t-believe-they-didn’t-cut-away-from-that carnage and depravity, preceded by a first act that provides the gratuitous nudity Roth so vocally believes has been missing from the genre. He’s certainly improved since “Cabin Fever,” as his tone is now much more consistent and his overall sense of style and composition is solid. He’s good at this.

The trouble is, while “Hostel” is a solid gorehound offering in it’s own right, it falls short of it’s own occasionally-visible betterness. “The Most Dangerous Game” routine carries with it a certain level of artistic commentary just via the human-as-deathsport-target premise, but Roth doesn’t appear interested in pushing it any deeper or developing it any further. It’s content to sit comfortably on the nastier side of escapist entertainment, so the audience is never made to endure too much without a breather or a touch of gallows humor.

And he can’t quite resist the eventual complete transformation of the film into a big crowd-pleaser with a (overlong) “shoot the bad guy, save the girl” final sequence where a survivor turns the tables on the baddies; a shrewd but bluntly-executed move to allow the audience the fun of now cheering on the bloodshed entirely guilt-free. Thing is, slight thematic cop-out though it may be, it WORKS, and I was right there with the rest of the audience cheering the film on as each successive bad guy got their overdue payback.

“Hostel” has the makings of a masterpiece, but settles on just being enjoyable. In an era in horror that has forced fans to endure “White Noise,” “Ring 2” and the remake of “The Fog,” that’s not really such a bad thing.