Friday, February 27, 2009

The Captain expands to DVD reviews!

I'm pleased to announce a new facet to the Captain's offerings: Starting next week, I'll be writing a weekly DVD column for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the largest of my client newspapers.

It will consist of a short review of a new DVD release that week, critiquing the movie itself but also the package of extras that come with it. I'm quite excited about it, and hope to expand the column to other clients down the line.

First up will be "Australia" starring Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman.

While I'm taking care of some bookkeeping business, I should probably say something about why my stuff has never appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal, as I announced it would back in December with a post titled, "Hello, Louie!" Short version: Their freelance money dried up completely, just a few days before my reviews were supposed to start appearing. I contemplated making a new post called, "Goodbye, Louie!" but thought that might be in poor taste. Plus, we hope to renew the arrangement should the financial horizon ever brighten.

That's the life of a freelancer.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Reeling Backward: "They Were Expendable" and "Strategic Air Command"

Recently I watched a couple of old war flicks that I'd heard of but never knew much about. "Strategic Air Command" stars Jimmy Stewart as an Air Force pilot, and "They Were Expendable" has John Wayne as a PT boat captain.

The thing that struck me most about them was their bleak tone and unabashed confrontation with the unpleasant realities of military service. This is surprising, since they're both essentially propaganda films. "Expendable" was made by John Ford while serving as an auxiliary officer during WWII, and "SAC" came out in 1955 at the height of the Cold War, right as America was building up its nuclear arsenal.

In "SAC" Stewart plays a professional baseball player who is, in essence, stop-lossed and forced to return to the Air Force. Even though the country is not at war, the air command general orders all reserve officers back to active duty. This messes up Stewart's baseball career, as well as putting his new marriage on the coals. A surprising amount of the movie deals with the marital tensions between the reluctant officer and his bride.

(I should mention that Stewart was 47 when this movie came out, so he looks a bit long in the tooth to portray a pro athlete, even one who only has "a few good baseball years" left in him, as his character puts it.)

During his stint, Stewart meets other officers who were similarly forced back into service, and aren't too happy about it. Pretty bold stuff for the '50s. Eventually, of course, he sees the value in what he's doing and declines to return to baseball when his tour is up.

It's a gorgeous movie to look at, directed by Anthony Mann in widescreen with vivid Technicolor. Ultimately, it falls a bit flat because there's not much conflict to dramatize. Since there's no combat, Stewart's big dangerous missions consist of flying back and forth to Alaska and hoping the plane doesn't blow up.

I was also fascinated by the aerial footage of aircraft flying, tons and tons of it -- taking off, cruising, mid-air refueling. The movie is almost fetishistic in its portrayal of the machinery. I'm sure my father, who served in the Air Force during this period, and my father-in-law and brother-in-law, who were/are airline pilots, would probably enjoy all these flying scenes.

I knew about "They Were Expendable" but had sort of dismissed it in my mind as a typical wartime propaganda film -- sort of "The Green Berets" a generation earlier. I was surprised at how good the movie was, and gritty.

It's about the early days of the war in the Pacific, when things aren't going so well for the Navy. The film actually came out in December 1945, a few months after the war had wrapped up. I wonder what its reception would have been had such a bleak portrayal of American military failure come out while the fighting was still on.

To add to the misery, John Wayne and Robert Montgomery aren't big-time captains of destroyers or other battleships, but PT boat skippers -- tiny, fast boats that are dismissed by the Navy brass as useless toys. Most of the story has to do with the PT guys trying to prove that their boats have a role to play in the war.

The boats themselves are fascinating. They were about the size of a large speedboat; there was no belowdecks area except for the engine bay, so all the sailors stayed exposed up on the surface. PT stands for patrol torpedo, and in fact each boat carried four torpedoes in tubes attached to the top of the deck. I can only imagine how many PT boat crews got blown up when enemy fire hit their exposed torpedos.

There's a fair amount of combat scenes, and it's pretty gripping stuff, although John Ford had to resort to models and stock footage for the scenes where the big ships get blown up by the PTs.

Though it all, the PT squadron never gets any respect. They have to barter for materials and gasoline, and even blackmail a submarine captain into sharing some torpedoes with them. They get folded into the Army command, and eventually their squadron is disbanded and their boat hauled off on a truck to perform message duty.

The title of the movie itself is telling: "They were expendable." It's about the role of tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers captured or killed at Bataan and Corregidor -- men whose job, in essence, was to sacrifice themselves to buy time for America to gear up for war.

Who knew ostensibly pro-military movies could offer such an honest and biting portrayal of life in a uniform? Not me, and I'm glad I learned this lesson.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Announcing the Indianapolis Film Journalists Association

Today, a group of six Hoosier film critics is announcing the formation of the Indianapolis Film Journalists Association. The IFJA is made up of writers, broadcasters and bloggers whose mission is the promotion of quality film to Indiana film-goers.

For now, it's a boys' club with all male members, but we hope to add some women and other journalists down the line.

Why now? Simply put, the number of screenings available to us has diminished significantly over the last couple of years, and has reached the point where we're struggling to find movies to write about because they aren't being shown to us. For example, we had exactly zero advance screenings in Indianapolis -- the 12th largest city in the U.S. -- over the last couple of weeks.

This is ironic, since it arrives just as the breadth of the discussion we're creating about movies is growing -- Lou Harry with his A&E blog at, myself here at CaptainCritic and Matthew Socey's "Film Soceyology" show at WFYI HD being the three newest additions to the scene.

We figured that using our collective muscle to lobby for more screenings is the way to go. Once we had that thought, the next logical step was to make it official and give ourselves a name.

Starting at the end of 2009, we plan to give out annual awards to the top films, just like other regional film critic groups do.

Here are the founding members of IFJA, listed alphabetically:

Bob Bloom, Lafayette Journal and Courier
Lou Harry, Indianapolis Business Journal
Ed Johnson-Ott, NUVO
Christopher Lloyd, freelance critic/blogger
Joe Shearer,
Matthew Socey, WFYI, Host of “Film Soceyology

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Catching up with "Coraline"

We actually got out to see "Coraline" a while back, but I've been up to my ears in Oscar coverage, so it got pushed back. Here's a review.

I'm a big fan of stop-motion animation whiz Henry Selick. Everyone knows about "The Nightmare Before Christmas," his project with Tim Burton, but if you haven't seen "James and the Giant Peach," got out and rent it right away.

Stop-motion is brutal work, the most time- and detail-intensive type of filmmaking there is. Each figure must be manually altered to create the illusion of motion 24 times. If it's even slightly off, the action will seem jumpy. If they accidentally press too hard, their fingerprints can show up on the clothes or fur of the character. And that's to produce one second of film.

It's for that reason that Hollywood doesn't crank out stop-motion movies every year. It's been eight years since Selick's last feature film, the ill-fated "Monkeybone" that combined live action and stop-motion. My understanding is that "Coraline" does include some computer-generated imagery, but most of the action is stop-motion. The movie is being shown in 3-D in select theaters (alas, we had to suffice with 2-D).

It's a really rather creepy tale, based on the Neil Gaiman book. Coraline (voiced wonderfully by Dakota Fanning) is an independent girl of about 10 who's not at all happy about moving with her parents into the Pink Palace, a degrading house shared by strange tenants. Her parents are both journalists and have no time to spare for her, despite being around the house constantly. Her only potential companionship is Wybie, a talkative neighborhood boy who seems more interested in tormenting Coraline.

Then she discovers a hidden door behind the wallpaper that is a portal to the "Other" world. Here there is a parallel copy of her own world, except everything is better. The nasty bugs in her bedroom become beautiful flying critters that bid her good morning. Her mother and father turn into doting versions who make her wonderful clothes and serve scrumptious meals. Wybie even offers companionship without any of that annoying talking. Even her neighbors transform from elderly has-beens to vibrant showbiz performers who stage nightly entertainment, just for her.

One catch: Her Other Mother and Other Father, along with everyone else in this world, wears black buttons for eyes.

Soon it becomes apparent that there's a more nefarious force at work, and it's up to Coraline with the help of a mysterious cat who can only talk in the Other world to put things to right.

The animation is, of course, absolutely glorious. The scene where the Other Father creates a garden for Coraline right before her eyes is pure magic.

I was surprised by how haunting some of the images are. This movie is rated PG, and I would not recommend it for the smallest children.

Mostly, though, "Coraline" is a stunning thing to look at, and a vibrant and original story brought to life by painstaking animators. With the success of "Coraline," here's hoping the legacy of stop-motion animation will not draw to a close.

Three stars out of four

Monday, February 23, 2009

The final tally from Oscar night

By my watch, the Oscars ended at 11:57 p.m., or just a hair under 3.5 hours. I'm not including the previews of 2009 films they stuck at the end; that was essentially one log commercial.

In my predictions, I got 15 out of 21 right, about an average showing for me. (I don't make predictions in the three short film categories, since basically only Academy members get to see those films.) Among those I got wrong were Cinematography, Editing, Sound Editing, Art Direction and Foreign Language Film. In the 11 "major" awards (all the feature film, acting and screenwriting categories) I got nine right, which I feel pretty good about. I knew I was on shaky ground with Viola Davis over Penelope Cruz in supporting actress, but correctly foresaw the Academy picking one of their own in Sean Penn over Mickey Rourke.

I made a total of 57 posts from the start of the Barbara Walters special and the final fade-out, or about one every 4.7 minutes. I declare myself king of the Oscar bloggers (assuming there were any others).

Altogether, I thought it one of the better Oscar telecasts, no matter what the ratings say. Hugh Jackman was an able and charming host. My main complaint was with a couple of montage sequences I felt were pretty useless.

The two high points for me were Ben Stiller coming out in the sunglasses and fright bears to rip on Joaquin Phoenix -- who, no matter what his intentions are, desperately deserves to be made fun of -- and Philippe Petit balancing the Oscar on his chin.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Oscar LiveBlog!

This is Captain Critic's Oscar LiveBlog! I'll be posting all night until the last award is given out, so keep your browser pointed here and keep hitting refresh for the latest updates.

11:59 p.m. -- Well, it's been a great but exhausting night live-blogging this event. Hope you all enjoyed it as much as I did!

11:54 p.m. -- "Slumdog" wins Best Picture in the least surprising event of the evening. It's a wonderful film, and I'm happy to see it honored.

I still don't know if people will realize until tomorrow or the days after what a huge event this film's win is. A film with an Irish director, English screenwriter, Indian cast, Muslim characters and Bollywood roots is now King of the World. It's astonishing to think about it. Will this mean more international stories and filmmakers will have a chance at mainstream success? Let's hope so.

11:47p.m. -- Sean's speech goes to all the expected places. Those who disagree with me are destined for the ash heap for history. Shout-out to Obama. Now we know why the crack about "You Commie, homo-loving sons of guns" works.

11:44p.m. -- Sean wins, and unlike Kate Winslet he makes a beeline straight for the podium. His wife even has to grab him to get a kiss in.
Great line where he says I know how I hard I make it for you to appreciate me.

11:43 p.m. -- Mickey or Sean? Mickey or Sean? Who will it be?

11:38 p.m. -- They did not make the 11:30 deadline. It was probably unrealistic to begin with. Looks like my 11:50 estimate is going to be pretty spot-on.

11:34 p.m. -- It's Kate Winslet!
Very classy move, giving hugs to all the other nominees and presenters.
"Well it's not a shampoo bottle now!" Some people may be put off by her forthrightness about having wanted to win an Oscar since she was eight years old, but I treasure her honestly. They ALL feel this way; she just has the guts to admit it.
Loved the shout-out to her Dad and the whistle!

11:31 p.m. -- Am I nuts or does Sophia Loren seem a little drunk?

11:28 p.m. -- OK, the people in the audience are going NUTS for the five past Best Actress winners giving tribute to this year's nominees. But I officially hate it. It's all the sappiness and schmaltz of the Oscar rolled into a single cringe-worthy moment. Blech.

11:22 p.m. -- Danny Boyle jumps up and down on stage after winning Best Director. It's a tribute to Tigger from Winnie the Pooh. They showed his face right before they announced the winner, and you could just see that he KNEW he was going to win. That must be a wonderful feeling. You deserve it, Danny.

11:17 p.m. -- Paul Newman, of course, got the most applause during the montage of those who have passed on. What a guy, what a career.
Btw, they didn't show Heath Ledger because he was shown in last year's Oscars. It goes by those who died in between the Academy Award ceremonies, not calendar years. So Ledger was included in the 2008 bunch.
The unfortunate contest for who can get the least applause was some publicist guy. A publicist? Sorry, they shouldn't be included in the roll call. Neither should the film critic they showed. They're involved in the hype surrounding movies, not the making of them.

11:11 p.m. -- As they get ready to do the "everyone who died" montage, here's my shout out to Austin, who correctly answered my trivia question of which two movies besides "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" swept the "Big Five" Oscar awards -- best picture, director, actor, actress and screenplay. The other two were "Silence of the Lambs" in 1991 and "It Happened One Night" in 1934. Good work, Austin!

11:09 p.m. -- Have you noticed that there hasn't been a single occasion this evening of the orchestra cutting off somebody during their acceptance speech? Either they've decided to be looser with the time restrictions, or they seriously cautioned everyone beforehand to keep it short. I have to say, it makes for a much classier show without some dolt standing there trying to thank his mother over the swelling music.

11:08 p.m. -- "Departures" upsets "Waltz with Bashir" for Best Foreign Language Film. I haven't seen the Japanese film that won, so I can't exactly critique the choice. But "Waltz" was wonderful.

11:03 p.m. -- Six wins for "Slumdog" now with "Jai Ho" taking Best Song. If it wins everything else it's up for, "Slumdog" should garner eight total wins -- quite an impressive sum.

10:58 p.m. -- By the way, Peter Gabriel refused to perform his Best Song nominee "Down to Earth" because he felt the 60-second clip they had allotted was insulting. He's probably right -- they usually do the full-length version of all the nominees. The live performance from "Once" was pure magic last year. This is what we had to cut down to make room for "Romance 2008?"
Btw, that was John Legend ably filling in for Gabriel.

10:55 p.m. -- A.R. Rahman wins for Best Musical Score. Don't go anywhere, A.R., since you're about to win in the Best Song category, too. That's five wins for "Slumdog" now.

10:46 p.m. -- Eddie Murphy kisses Jerry Lewis. Now I've seen it all.
Is Jerry OK? He seems to be having trouble walking and speaking.

10:43 p.m. -- They've given out seven awards in the last 45 minutes, with 45 to go and seven awards left. Could they actually make the 11:30 mark?

10:40 p.m. -- In response to a comment in the Comments section, Jean has Googled the green ribbons some people in the Oscar audience wearing. Apparently it has to do with Global Green, a pre-Oscar benefit party given by Leo DiCaprio and Sheryl Crowe to raise money for eco-friendly schools.

10:37 p.m. -- And just like that, "Slumdog" is up 4-3 over "Benjamin Button" after winning Best Editing and Sound Mixing. I don't foresee any more wins for Brad Pitt & Co.

10:31 p.m. -- Richard King, the Oscar winner for Sound Editing for "Dark Knight," says he grew up in the Florida suburbs. Where, I wonder? A fellow Sunshine Stater?

10:28 p.m. -- "Benjamin Button" wins Visual Effects. It is now up in the Oscar tally over "Slumdog" by 3-2, but don't expect that to hold.

10:24 p.m. -- HILARIOUS commercial with Tom Cruise and Jimmy Kimmel. Seriously funny stuff where they come busting out of a burning house.

10:17 p.m. -- "Man on Wire" wins Best Documentary, and tightrope artist Philippe Petit bounds to the stage and balances the Oscar on his chin! We've never seen THAT before at the Academy Awards! Amazing movie, btw ... rent it if you haven't seen it.

10:15 p.m. -- Interesting choice to show interviews with the directors and producers of the documentary feature nominees. And now they have Bill Maher as the presenter?

10:09 p.m. -- Look at the faces they're showing as Heath's father accepts the award. People are truly moved. I don't think anybody's this good of an actor. These are real tears. This man was loved. He was respected. His passing is a terrible loss to his loved ones, but also to his craft. What a triumph and a pity.

10:08 p.m. -- So who's accepting the Oscar for Heath Ledger? Oh... it's his entire family.

9:59 p.m. -- In the last 30 minutes, they've given out exactly one award. They still have 14 categories left to go with 90 minutes left to reach their goal. Don't think it's going to happen.

9:54 p.m. -- Surprise appearance by Beyonce in the big musical number with Jackman. Electric!!

9:49 p.m. -- Weird. They said they were going to do a "Comedy 2008" montage, but was Seth Rogen and James Franco riffing on their "Pineapple Express" characters. And they were watching "The Reader" and thought it was a comedy. It was OK, I guess, but again... this is what you needed to spend precious minutes on?

9:39 p.m. -- Seriously, the thing everybody's going to be talking about tomorrow is Ben Stiller in that fright wig. If you think he's over the top, then check out the YouTube video of Joaquin Phoenix on Letterman. Letterman put it best at the end of his appearance: "Joaquin, I'm sorry you couldn't be here tonight!"

9:38 p.m.
-- I think the cinematographer for "Slumdog" stole his haircut from Heath Ledger's Joker in "Dark Knight." It has like ... wings, or something. I think he could get airborne.


9:30 p.m. -- What the hell is "Romance 2008?" Other than an excuse to show clips of Meet Cutes and kissing from last year's movies? I can't believe they waste 5 good minutes with useless montages like this, then complain when the show runs long.

9:24 p.m. -- "Benjamin Button" wins Best Makeup, and it deserves to. Aging makeup is a tough thing; it almost always looks terrible. People forget that not only did they age Brad Pitt (backwards) believably, but that Cate Blanchett also spent about half her screen time as an 80-something woman. Splendid work.

9:22 p.m. -- "Duchess" wins Best Costumes, as I predicted. It's strange to think now how this movie was forgotten by the Academy. People were expecting "The Duchess" to be a major contender in the Best Picture and other top award categories, but it failed to make an impact. I don't know why; I thought it a very good film. Great-looking, of course, but splendidly acted. Ralph Fiennes was great in it in a role that could have been a one-note bastard, but had depth and layers. Pity.

9:17 p.m. -- "Benjamin Button" wins its first of the night, for art direction. It will probably do well in the "technical" categories, but I still doubt it'll score any major wins. Nor does it deserve to.

9:06 p.m. -- I can't believe Jack Black did the line about doing voice work for DreamWorks animated flicks and then using the money to bet on the Pixar movie to win the Oscar. But it's true! "Wall-E" wins of course, and shoulda been nominated for Best Pic.

9:04 p.m. -- Simon Beaufoy wins for Adapted Screenplay for "Slumdog" -- not much of a shocker there.

8:59 p.m. -- Great throwaway joke line from Steve Martin to Tina Fey: "DON'T fall in love with me."

8:57 p.m. -- Original screenplay winner is... Dustin Lance Black for "Milk," no surprise there. Black had endeavored for years to get this movie made. Black is really young! What, did he start working on this screenplay when he was 15?
And yes, he totally milks the Proposition 8 thing. Cheap, Black, cheap.

8:50 p.m. -- It's Cruz. I'm not so sure how I feel about the five previous winners presenting the award. I liked the tradition of last year's Best Supporting Actor giving away the prize to supporting actress, and the same gender reversal in the leading categories. Just a nice gesture.
I really wish Marisa Tomei won. But I think it was between Cruz and Viola Davis. I just wasn't that wild about "Vicky Christina Barcelona," so it's hard for me to pick an MVP from what I consider a mediocre Woody Allen flick.

8:44 p.m. -- Best Supporting Actress up first. I think this is one category I could have gotten wrong in my predictions. Word is Penelope Cruz made a late push. Let's see...


8:40 p.m. -- Jackman's opening musical bit was pretty cool. I loved where he brought Anne Hathaway up onstage in a "surprise" appearance. She can sing pretty good! And of course I loved "I am Wolverine!"

8:35 p.m. -- What are "The Craig's List Dancers?"

8:25 p.m. -- Jack Black just cracked me up. He busted on the guy interviewing him for doing a double-take at somebody else walking by. Black claimed the interviewer was looking to ditch him to go interview somebody more famous.
Jean just commented that Seth Rogen looks much thinner. Do we want him as a non-schlub? I kinda liked him chubby.

8:15 p.m. -- 15 minutes to curtain. The Oscar honchos are swearing they're going to bring the show in under three hours. I'll believe it when I see it. That would be 11:30 p.m., which I seriously doubt. I'm betting on about 11:50 at best. What's your over/under on the runtime?

8:03p.m. -- I did not know that Josh Brolin and Diane Lane were married to each other. For my money, Diane Lane is one of the most beautiful women in the world. She looks great in her dark slim-fitting dress.
Now they have Sarah Jessica Parker on in some white silver poof thingee. People really think she's a beauty icon?

7:56 p.m. -- We're getting ready for 30 minutes of the red carpet stuff, usually the most boring part for me. I know a lot of people go ga-ga over the fashions, but unless someone's wearing a giant goose dress a la Bjork, I really don't care.

7:50 p.m.
-- Hugh Jackman's on now, and he's doing a very slick interview. The guy is very "on" in his interview -- I'm not so sure how much of the real guy we're seeing. I think he's playing the well-adjusted superstar without a care in the world.
I absolutely cannot wait for "Wolverine" this May.

7:42 p.m. -- Mickey reveals that he stopped boxing because he failed a neurological test -- closely paralleling his character in "The Wrestler." The guy looks like hell in his interview ... I don't know what's up with the stringy hair and old lady glasses. And when did he get that silver capped tooth?
He also admits that he desperately wants to win the Oscar.

7:32 p.m. -- Mickey Rourke's up now. They showed clips of some of the stuff he's done since "Wild Orchid." A lot of crap I've never heard of. He was in an action flick with Jean Claude Van Damme? They also showed "Sin City." I thought that movie wildly uneven, but Rourke was great in it. His mini-story was probably the best of the bunch.
His signature line: "I didn't want to be here, but I was too afraid to kill myself."

7:25 p.m. -- Another great Hathaway line, about her being a rare sight in the tabloids: "I do terrible things all the time. I just have very discreet friends."

7:21 p.m. -- Magic are pwning the Heat. Good.
Anne Hathaway is on Barbara now. She said something I never heard a thespian say before: "I'm not going to lie. I was really hoping to be nominated." That's a pretty ballsy thing to say.
I was not a big fan of "Rachel Getting Married." Hathaway was a revelation in it, but parts of the movie just dragged in the dirt. She's such a lovely and talented girl; I hope to see great things in her career.

7:05 p.m. -- Ugh, the Jonas Brothers are up first. I think I'll swing over the Magic-Heat game until Mickey Rourke, Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway are up.

7:03 p.m.
-- I don't usually watch the Barbara Walters special before the Oscars where she tries to make big stars cry. But I figure since I'm working, I'll tune in.

I want your comments!

We're getting ready to launch the Oscar LiveBlog in a little bit, and I'd just like to make one thing clear: I want your comments! This is not meant to be just a one-sided screed about the Academy Awards as they unfold. Participation is desired.

So please hop on and give me your take!

It's Oscar day!

The day is finally here. Will "Slumdog Millionaire" really win Hollywood's top prize? I'm not sure if people realize what a bold move this would be by the Academy -- feting a movie made by British filmmakers, set in India, with Muslim characters and a Bollywood feel. Never before has a film with such a distinct international pedigree fought its way to the top.

Just a couple of reminders on how the Captain is working to make your Oscar experience more enjoyable:

If you didn't catch me on WFYI with Matthew Socey and Lou Harry on Friday, you'll get a couple more chances to hear me size up the potential award winners this morning. I'll be visiting with John Strauss on WIBC at around 9:10 a.m., and it will be repeated during the 11 o'clock hour. That's 93.1 on your FM dial.

Then, starting around 8 p.m. tonight, I'll be live-blogging the Oscar ceremony. Tune in here for minute-by-minute observations and snark as the greatest night in movies unfolds!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Oscar countdown: Day 1

Are you excited? Are you stoked? Can you not wait another hour until the Oscars are handed out?

If so, welcome to my world.

The poster for today's numbered countdown is a great movie -- certainly one of the best of the 1970s, and the winner of the 1975 Best Picture Oscar.

Not only that, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" swept all five of the "major" awards -- Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and best screenplay (in this case, the Adapted Screenplay category).

My favorite movie trivia question I like to spring on people is this: Only three movies have swept the big five in Oscar history. "Cuckoo" is one of them. Can you name the other two?

If you think you know the answer -- without resorting to Google or some other way of looking it up -- please post your answer in the comments section. The first person to answer it correctly will receive a shout-out during my live-blogging of the Oscars Sunday night.

See you on the red carpet.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Oscar countdown: Day 2 -- Predictions

Here they are, my predictions and personal favorites in all the major categories, and predictions for most of the minor ones, too.

When the Oscars are passed out Sunday evening, the best bet is that “Slumdog Millionaire,” the unlikely hit about an Indian Muslim competing for the grand prize on a television game show, will win the highest honor.

The fact that “Slumdog” is the clear Best Picture favorite speaks to the weak showing by mainstream Hollywood films in 2008. “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” would seem the top contender, since it led the way with 13 Oscar nominations. But in the run-up to the Academy Awards, it’s been trumped by “Slumdog.”

“Milk” and “Frost/Nixon” are the also-rans here – respectable pictures, but more admired for the powerful leading performances that anchor them rather than the strength of the whole film.
On the surface, this might seem to be a race between “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which received the two highest tallies of nominations.

But the best indicators for who will win the Oscar have always been the guild awards – the Producers Guild of America, Directors Guild of America, and Screen Actors Guild. And in those contests, “Benjamin Button” has won exactly zero awards. Since the same people who vote in these smaller contests generally vote for the Oscars too, it stands to reason that “Slumdog” will prevail.

The dark horse is actually “The Reader,” which won surprise nominations for Best Picture, Actress, Direction and Adapted Screenplay. The movie is backed by Harvey Weinstein, whose ability to successfully lobby Oscar voters is legendary. This is the man who somehow pulled off a Best Picture win for “Shakespeare in Love” over “Saving Private Ryan.”

Still, I think “The Reader” came on too late to make a serious push. And “Slumdog” deserves to win; it’s the freshest, most vibrant movie-going experience of the year.

Prediction: Slumdog Millionaire
Pick: Slumdog Millionaire

This race will come down to two longtime Oscar darlings: Meryl Streep and Kate Winslet.
This is the astonishing 15th time Streep has been nominated. But it’s also been 26 years since she last won (for “Sophie’s Choice”), and she truly was an arresting presence as a fire-breathing nun in “Doubt.”

At the tender age of 33, Winslet has nabbed six nominations but never won (Streep had been nominated three times and won once by the same age). It would seem to be Winslet’s time.
And Streep may be a victim of her own high standards: She’s so good in everything she’s in, that picking her finest performance is like trying to distinguish between Michael Jordan’s best dunks.

But here’s the wrinkle: Winslet was widely expected to receive two acting nominations this year, and “The Reader” was supposed to be in the supporting category. Voters clearly weren’t impressed with “Revolutionary Road,” in which she had a bigger and showier role.

The SAG awards are no help, since Streep won in the leading role category, and Winslet in supporting (nominating rules are different in the guild contests).

I think it’s Winslet’s year to finally grab the gold.

Anne Hathaway (“Rachel Getting Married”) and Angelina Jolie (“Changeling”) gave fine performances in small movies that not enough people saw. Personally, I’ll take Melissa Leo’s understated, gritty turn in “Frozen River.”

Prediction: Kate Winslet
Pick: Melissa Leo

This one’s between Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler” and Sean Penn in “Milk.”
Everyone loves the redemptive story of Rourke’s rise from the ashes of a once-promising career, playing a washed-up wrestler whose story closely parallels his own. It’s the sentimental choice.

But Sean Penn’s been giving great performances year in and year out for more than a decade now, and has a growing reputation as a director, too.

In the end, I think the Academy is going to pick one of their own, rather than rewarding a guy who was run out of town for being such a jerk. Penn’s win at the SAG awards confirms this.

I didn’t really think much of Brad Pitt’s performance in “Benjamin Button,” or much of that movie in general, other than the glory of its technical achievement in aging Pitt backwards, and believably.

Richard Jenkins’ nomination for “The Visitor” is the epitome of the old line that “It’s an honor just to be nominated.” I’ll take Frank Langella in “Frost/Nixon” for the first film portrayal of a U.S. president that didn’t come off as a caricature.

Prediction: Sean Penn
Pick: Frank Langella

The cruel jokes about Marisa Tomei’s name accidentally being read as the winner for Best Supporting Actress by an aged Jack Palance in 1993 never cease. Meanwhile, Tomei has appeared in movies large and small, building up a body of work that even the snidest observers would have to dub respectable.

Her skills are on full display in “The Wrestler” as a stripper who rebuffs the advances of a broken-down palooka, not realizing the physical decay that threatens his identity foreshadows her own. Tomei spends a large portion of the movie unclothed, and yet it’s only in the scenes outside the strip club that she seems truly naked.

Viola Davis seems to be the leading nominee here, despite only appearing in two scenes in “Doubt” for a total screen time of perhaps eight minutes. But it’s a powerhouse turn, akin to a first-round knockout, and Oscar voters respond to that sort of thing.

Amy Adams (“Doubt”), Taraji P. Henson (“Benjamin Button”) and Penélope Cruz (“Vicky Christina Barcelona”) fill out the bill.

Prediction: Viola Davis
Pick: Marisa Tomei

This is one the certain lock of the evening. This would be the case even if Ledger, who started in teenybopper roles and grew immeasurably as an actor, hadn’t died tragically a year ago.
Josh Brolin (“Milk”), Robert Downey Jr. (“Tropic Thunder”), Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Doubt”) and Michael Shannon (“Revolutionary Road”) all gave fine performances, and all don’t stand a chance of winning.

Ledger took a well-known commodity of comic book villain The Joker and turned him inside out, flipped him upside down, smashed the reflection and reassembled the shards. If possible, it was an even more stunning performance than “Brokeback Mountain.”

Prediction: Heath Ledger
Pick: Heath Ledger

The other sure thing of the night is Danny Boyle taking home the golden statue for directing “Slumdog Millionaire,” as he did for the directors guild award. And he deserves it, for boldly mixing English filmmakers telling a story about Indian characters with a decidedly Hollywood rags-to-riches vibe.

Interestingly, this is one of the few years in which all five Best Picture nominees also earned nominations for their directors. Usually there’s at least one Best Picture nominee whose director doesn’t get a nod, which leads to quips about the movie “directing itself.”

The other nominees are David Fincher (“Benjamin Button”), Ron Howard (“Frost/Nixon”), Stephen Daldry (“The Reader”) and Gus Van Sant (“Milk”).

Prediction: Danny Boyle
Pick: Danny Boyle

The favorite seems to be “Milk,” which Dustin Lance Black spent years trying to get made. Personally, I found his script a bit rote and hagiographic. I thought “Wall·E” the finest movie of the year, so I would give the Oscar to its trio of storytellers.

I was pleased to see a nomination for Courtney Hunt, who wrote and directed “Frozen River” in an audacious debut. I felt both “Happy-Go-Lucky” (Mike Leigh) and “In Bruges” (Martin McDonagh) were quirky for the sake of quirkiness, and didn’t deserve to be nominated.

Prediction: Dustin Lance Black, Milk
Pick: Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon and Pete Docter; Wall·E.

This category tends to follow the Best Picture winner, and I think that’ll be the case again this year.

The other nominees are “Benjamin Button” (Eric Roth and Robin Swicord), “Doubt” (John Patrick Shanley), “Frost/Nixon” (Peter Morgan) and “The Reader” (David Hare).

Prediction: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
Pick: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire

“Wall·E” will win, “Wall·E” deserves to win. “Kung Fu Panda” and “Bolt” are entertaining children’s movies that don’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as “Wall·E.”
The only disappointing thing about this win is that having an animated category effectively shut “Wall·E” out of the race for Best Picture, where it surely deserved to be.

Sure, anybody can offer a pick for Best Picture, but who has the stones to make a prediction in the category of Best Costumed Visual Effects Editing Documentary?

I do.

Here are predictions for the winners in most of the remaining categories. The three exceptions are the short film categories (Live Action, Animated and Documentary), since these movies do not see more than a very limited release.

Prediction: The Dark Knight

Prediction: The Dark Knight

Prediction: Man on Wire

Prediction: Waltz With Bashir

Prediction: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Prediction: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Prediction: Slumdog Millionaire

Prediction: “Jai Ho” by A.R. Rahman and Gulzar from Slumdog Millionaire

Prediction: Slumdog Millionaire

Prediction: Slumdog Millionaire

Prediction: The Dark Knight

Prediction: The Duchess

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Oscar countdown: Day 3

In case Sunday's radio spot wasn't going to be enough for you, I'll also be appearing on Matthew Socey's new film show, "Film Soceyology," on the local NPR affiliate. (As Matt put it to me, "What good's a name like this if you can't put it to use?") That will be this Friday at 5 p.m. on WFYI HD-2. If you don't have an HD radio receiver, you can listen to it live on

Our old friend Lou Harry, the A&E editor of Indianapolis Business Journal, will be joining us. We'll talk about the Oscars, the ups and downs, and which starlet will have the most killer dress. OK, I was kidding about that last part.

By the way, "Three Amigos" was nominated for exactly zero Oscars, and most critics gave it a pasting. But I always found it to be very funny.That take where they're in the desert and Steve Martin and Martin Short's canteens are bone dry, and they turn to Chevy Chase and he's just gulping down water, sloshing it over his face, cracks me up every time.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Oscar countdown: Day 4

If you haven't dialed in to Turner Classic Movies lately, you really should. Every year they spend the weeks leading up to the Oscars showing Academy Award-nominated movies virtually around the clock. You'll get to see some stuff you never heard of that's really good.

Yesterday I watched "Sahara," a WWII tank picture starring Humphrey Bogart. Really ripping stuff. It was nominated for, among other things, the wonderful cinematography of the blazing desert.

One of the things that's always fascinated me about movies is how their fortunes rise and fall over time. Some great movies, like "Sahara," end up receding into our collective memories, while others that no one thought too much of at the time are remembered forever. As the TCM Oscar series shows, even films nominated for the industry's top award can get lost in the shuffle of the ages.

For example, I've always thought that "Broadcast News" was one of the finest movies of the 1980s. James L. Brooks' masterpiece has three really indelible characters, led by Holly Hunter in one of the best female roles ever written. And despite it being a very entertaining film, with plenty of acidly funny moments and romantic longings, it's an Important Film that tackles issues that matter. For my money, it's one of the best all-time movies about journalism, right up there with "All the President's Men" and "His Girl Friday."

And yet, more than 20 years down the line, "Broadcast News" doesn't get a lot of attention when people name the best movies of that era. And this is a movie that was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture.

Aside from individual movies, actors sometimes find themselves sinking into obscurity despite winning an Oscar. The supporting acting categories are notorious for being the kiss of death to a thespian's career. F. Murray Abraham, who won for "Amadeus," is a prime example. Ditto for Mira Sorvino. Or dozens of others.

The lesson is that being nominated for an Oscar, and even winning one, is no guarantee that your movie or your career will have legs.

Go see "Alien Raiders"

My friend Ben Rock moved out to Los Angeles a decade ago, on the strength of his involvement in "The Blair Witch Project." As production designer, he created all those creepy totems and other disturbing objects seen in the movie. He's worked steadily since, directing stuff for television mostly. But, as the saying goes in Hollywood, his real goal was to direct feature films.

He finally got his chance, as "Alien Raiders" was released on DVD yesterday. It's a straight-to-video flick, as it was always meant to be, although Ben saw to it that it got seen in a few horror film festivals. It was made for Warners, the largest studio in Hollywood with a lot of influence -- it was their decision to stop releasing their films on HD DVD that essentially sealed the victory for Blu-ray in the hi-def format wars.

Hopefully, "Alien Raiders" will do well and Ben will be asked to do another movie. Head to your local video store to rent it, or buy it here, among other places:

I've seen the movie, and it's really very good. Yes, the title is silly, as Ben himself will tell you. It was changed several times during production. The basic set-up is that a crew of soldiers invade a late-night grocery stores while searching for some boogums from outer space. It's less a gory shoot-em-up -- although there is plenty of that -- than a tense thriller. The acting is a real step above what you normally see in this sort of thing, and of course, Ben is a skilled director.

Check it out.

Has Friendster become the hook-up social networking site?

Before Facebook, before MySpace, there was Friendster.

I joined Friendster years ago, before those other two sites were even a glimmer in their investors' eyes. I made a profile, connected with two or three friends, and more or less forgot about. MySpace quickly usurped Friendster's place as the Web's premier social networking hub, and then Facebook nudged MySpace aside.

Anyway, starting a couple of weeks ago I began getting barraged with friend requests on Friendster. I didn't even bother to log in to the site to reject them; I just deleted the e-mails informing me of the friend request.

But they kept coming. And I started to notice that these requests had something in common. They were all from young women, who declined to provide much information about themselves (for "home" they always listed "United States"), and were cute.

Hey, no biggie I thought, people use social networking to find dates, no problem with that. I met my wife through eHarmony, after all. But then the tenor of the requests began to change. The photographs grew more provocative. Finally, yesterday I got a request accompanied by the photo above.

Now, tell me, exactly what sort of friend do you think this woman is looking for?

I realize Friendster lost out in the crap shoot that is Internet supremacy. And it must sting to lose out the revenue to Johnny-come-latelys. (Although, as I like to point out to people, Facebook has yet to see its first dollar of profit.) But letting this sort of junk float around your site is evidence of either shocking indifference, or a desire to cash in on a piece of the sex trade. For shame, Friendster.

I finally logged on to take down my profile, but can't find any way to do so.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Reeling backward: "The Black Hole"

I saw "The Black Hole" once, when I was nine or 10 years old. I only remembered a handful of things about it. I remembered the big, silent menacing robot, Maximilian. I remembered that Ernest Borgnine turned out to be a turncoat. And I remembered that the black-cloaked robots roaming wordlessly around the huge spaceship were actually the ship's former crew, turned into mechanized zombie cyborgs by the mad scientist Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell).

I had absolutely recollection whatsoever of V.I.N.CENT, the feisty little robot who is the real star of the movie. After seeing "The Black Hole" again recently, I know why I had blocked him from memory.

V.I.N.CENT is an absolutely cringe-worthy creation. Coming out in 1979, two years after "Star Wars," "Black Hole" was obviously a rip-off, and V.I.N.CENT is simply an amalgam of C3-PO and R2D2. With his small, squat body with all sorts of hidden gizmos for fixing stuff, V.I.N.CENT has essentially the same function as R2D2. The pleasant, high-pitched voice (by Roddy McDowell) is a mirror of C3-PO's. Although V.I.N.CENT certainly has more of R2D2's feistiness. As for his two big, square eyes that look like they were made out of Legos, I have no explanation.

V.I.N.CENT floats around with a chip on his non-existent shoulder. He seems determined to prove that his model of robot is the best around. As soon as the crew from the USS Palomino docks aboard the long-lost mammoth ship Cygnus, he sets about trying to upstage the other robots. Of course, there's the big showdown with the red Maximilian, but he also takes time to blast a hole in a black gungslinger robot during a shooting contest.

There's even an older, dented and junked-up version of V.I.N.CENT on the ship, named Old Bob, who he immediately partners up with. "Remember, we're the best," he encourages Bob. Bob is voiced by Slim Pickens with the quaking timbre of an old-timer. Now, think about that. Why would a robot's voice sound older as he gets older? It's not like his parts that produce speech would deteriorate in exactly the sort of way that a human's vocal chords stretch out with age. Weird.

Anyway, the plot is one of those things that a simpleton can figure out in a nanosecond. Reinhardt turned the crew into zombies when they defied him, and he wants to take the Cygnus through the huge black hole it's been sitting next to for the last 20 years. The Palomino crew shows up, spoils his plans, and the mad scientist is done in by his own creations. Blah, blah, blah.

The funny thing is that, despite being made to siphon off some of those "Star Wars" bucks, "The Black Hole" looks at least a decade more primitive in terms of the special effects. The laser blasts are just streams of energy, with none of that great sound or impact of the Star Wars blasters. The spaceships are big, slow-moving models lacking the pizazz and maneuverability of an X-wing.

And I nearly fell over laughing when the commander (Robert Forster) turns to the ship's doctor and tells her to contact V.I.N.CENT "with your ESP." Yes, that's right, the good doctor is psychic. I love how the filmmakers plucked that little bit of pop culture pseudo-science, which was a hot item during the 1970s, and stuck it in there. Although, I guess in that sense Star Wars beat it to the punch, but called it The Force. One question though: If he doctor has ESP, why is it she can only communicate telepathically with V.I.N.CENT and not any of the human crew?

I don't have a clear idea of whether I liked "The Black Hole" or not as a kid, but the fact that so little of it lingered in my mind should have been a good indication of how bad it really is. Not kitschy bad like "Forbidden Planet" -- just bad.

Oscar countdown: Day 5

In case reading these countdown posts still isn't filling your Oscar jones, I'll be on the radio again this Sunday talking about my Oscar picks and predictions.

Once again, I'll be joining WIBC host and former Indy Star colleague John Strauss on the city's talk top radio station, 93.1 on your FM dial.

We'll be live at 9:10 a.m. or so, and then the sequence will be repeated during the 11 o'clock hour.

I enjoy appearing on the radio, and hope to do more of it. I've actually got quite a bit of radio experience. I made weekly appearances on the highest-rated radio station in Ocala, Fla., for four years, and then did the same here in Indy for two years on WFMS with J.D. Cannon.

I've also done a little bit of TV work, but as the old saying goes, I've got a face made for radio.

Plus, when you're doing radio, it's very easy to convince yourself that it's just you and the host chatting. After all, you're sitting in a little room with maybe just a producer on hand, and there's nothing to remind you that thousands of people are listening.

Please tune in!

Monday, February 16, 2009

No new reviews this week -- blame Tyler Perry

There won't be any reviews of new movies this week.

For whatever reason, the week the Oscars are given out is usually a slow one for new movies. Maybe people don't want their crappy flicks to be compared to the ones being feted the same weekend. I dunno.

Anyway, the only new wide releases this Friday are "Fired Up," a T&A comedy about some football jocks crashing cheerleader camp, and "Madea Goes to Jail." Sex comedies (along with horror films) rarely get screened at all. And "Madea" writer/director/star/mogul Tyler Perry hasn't allowed critics to see advance screenings of any of his films since his first one, "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," which got a critical drubbing. It went on to become a hit anyway.

The previews for "Madea Goes to Jail" looked very interesting, and I put in a request for a screening, but no dice.

You can stay tuned on Friday for my predictions and Oscar picks. And of course, the Oscar countdown will continue through Sunday, when I'll be live-blogging the ceremony.

Oscar countdown: Day 6

So about day 9...

Hopefully by now everyone's caught on to my little gimmick of using a movie poster with the number of that day's Oscar countdown in the title. For instance, today is day 6, so I dug up a poster image for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

Anyway, it was fairly easy going for most of the numbers, since I already had a movie in mind: "Seven" for 7, Dudley Moore's "10" for 10, and so on. I kind of had to cheat with 8, using Fellini's 8-1/2, but so it goes.

Nine kind of had me stumped, though. In doing a Google search, I came up with that rather amazing poster from "9". I'd never heard of such a movie, but something about it was familiar.

I put the pieces together at a Sunday showing of "Coraline." There was a preview for "9," which is being released on, you guessed it, 9-9-09. It's a visually stunning film, with a dystopian and marvelously creepy vision, about beings made out of bits of cloth fighting some kind of apocalyptic war.

What's the connection to the Oscars? I'm getting to that.

Anyone who knows me knows I have a terrible memory for names. Large parties are torture for me, because I forget new names 30 seconds after I've learned them. I take copious notes at review screenings so I can remember the names of characters, places, etc.

But my visual memory is quite good. While we were watching the preview for "9," I turned to Jean and said, "I think this is based on a short movie that won an Oscar a few years ago."

Long shot, right? And yet I was right.

Writer/director Shane Acker won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film in 2005 for an 11-minute version based on the same characters and storyline. It also was titled "9." I only know it from the 20-second clip they show when they show you a bit of all the nominees at the Oscars. But I remember how arresting the images were, and hoped I'd get to see it someday. I haven't -- Academy Award-nominated short films are hard to get ahold of.

Filmmaker Tim Burton, who's worked on several stop-motion animation movies, obviously liked what he saw and got behind Acker to make a full-length version of his film. The results look very promising.

Swing your browser here to watch a hi-def version of the "9" trailer.

This sort of thing is not without precedent in Hollywood. For example, Billy Bob Thornton won an Adapted Screenplay Oscar for his screenplay for "Sling Blade," which was based on a short film with the same character and story called "Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade." There was some controversy at the time about it. Thornton directed the feature length version, but not the short one, so it may have been about a screenwriting credit, and thus shared glory for the Oscar. I can't remember, and my Web searches have come up for naught.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Oscar countdown: Day 7

The speeches that Oscar winners give are occasionally memorable, more often not, sometimes cringe-worthy.

The biggest factor is time. They want to keep the ceremony moving, so the guy conducting the orchestra will start up the music to cut off people who ramble too long. A fairly common occurrence is when the Oscar winner consists of a team of two or more people, and only the first person gets to talk. I don't know how many times I've seen that second (or third, or fourth) person nose their way to the microphone, to find their words drowned out. Here is their moment in the sun, probably the greatest day of their professional lives, and they get cut off.

Last year host Jon Stewart was so moved by the young woman who co-wrote the best song winner from "Once" (lovely film if you haven't seen it) that he brought her back on after the next commercial break to say her piece. It had never been done before, and she was wonderful.

I remember when Julia Roberts finally won for "Erin Brokovich" and went on and on, and outright dared the conductor to cut her off. He made a little show of setting his conducting wand down as if to say, "It's all yours." Of course, that was when she was Queen of the Box-office. I wonder if Roberts won now, when her status as the world's top female star has been usurped, would she get the same deferential treatment? I doubt it.

Of all the lines delivered by a winner, one of my favorites was the gal who won for best documentary short or some such category a few years ago, and quipped that the dress she was wearing that evening cost more than her movie did.

Who will deliver the memorable speech at this year's Oscars? Tune in her next Sunday to read my take.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Oscar countdown: Day 8

The biggest Oscar outrage -- OK, not the most important, but the one that still enrages me -- is Best Cinematography for 1989.

(I told you I was obsessive about the Academy Awards.)

The winner that year was "Glory," which is a very fine movie and an excellent-looking one to boot. But it uses conventional crane shots, dollies, etc. in covering the Civil War action.

Whereas "The Abyss" literally created entirely new technologies for shooting underwater. It was an amazing movie -- tragically ignored in its time, but since become regarded as a cult classic -- and cinematographer Mikael Salomon and his crew invented new cameras and lenses to record it.

I remember this as being the first time I watched the Oscars and was genuinely bewildered that the Academy didn't agree with me. Couldn't they see? Are they blind?

But that's the Oscars. Often, the most worthy nominee doesn't win. Sometimes they're not even recognized with a nomination. But who said life, or the movies, was fair?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Oscar countdown: Day 9

In my first Oscar countdown post, I alluded to past injustices that still get my teeth to gnashing when I think about them.

Let's start with one that turns 10 this year: the Best Picture Oscar race for 1998.

"Saving Private Ryan" was the best movie of the year, hands down. I don't think there's very many people today who would argue with that. And yet "Shakespeare in Love" took the trophy in a huge surprise to everyone except studio chief Harvey Weinstein, who lobbied ferociously for his film.

Now, "Shakespeare" is a very fine movie, and I enjoy it every time I see it. But it's a trifle -- a piffle, an incandescent thing of wondrous beauty and little substance. Whereas "Ryan" is, I dunno, the best war movie of the last 30 years.

"Brokeback Mountain" also lost in an upset to "Crash" a few years ago, and I think people are already regretting that one. In that case, I make no illusion toward begrudging respect: I found "Crash" wildly uneven and contrived. Parts of it sang, and parts of it stunk.

But "Ryan" is the one that always gets me going. Well, there is another one...

Review: "Waltz with Bashir"

For 20 years now, we've enjoyed a second Golden Age of Animation, starting with "The Little Mermaid" and right up through "Wall-E," which was my favorite film from 2008. What I liked most about "Wall-E" was that it wore the clothes of a kiddie film -- cute robot, lots of whiz-bang action -- but it had a lot of sobering things to say about mankind. It employed cutting-edge technology to subtly demonstrate how dependent on gadgets we as a society have become.

I think we're starting to see the beginnings of a new shift in animation, toward movies that are thoroughly adult in subject matter, with no pretense at being appropriate for little kids. Oh, there was stuff like this in the past -- "Fritz the Cat" and "Heavy Metal" -- but they had juvenile sensibilities, replete with sex and violence. They were still cartoonish, in other words.

A couple years ago "Persepolis" made a big splash for its first-person depiction of the life of Marjane Satrapi, who grew up in Iran around the time of the revolution, went to study in France, and returned home again. I liked it but was not blown away by it. The full potential of adult animation had yet to be tapped, I thought.

I believe "Waltz with Bashir" has reached that new threshold. This Israeli movie, written and directed by Ari Folman, is also a first-person account of traumatic events that took place in the Middle East. In this case, Folman attempts to reconstruct his missing memories of the Lebanon War more than 25 years ago by interviewing some of his old comrades.

Right from the start, the animation style grabs you by the throat. A pack of slavering dogs bursts out of an alley and hurtles down the street. The animation looks intentionally unsophisticated, like cut-out drawings that are being slowly moved around. Folman and his chief animator, Yoni Goodman, shot interviews with real people on video, then animated them using traditional animation, Flash animation and 3-D techniques.

In news stories written about this movie, it's been referred to as "an animated documentary," but I'm not sure that description really fits. If it was just straight reporting of the events surrounding the massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila, I might buy that. But the whole premise of the movie is about how memory is unreliable, and is blotted out or reconstructed in different ways by our brain's attempts at rationalization. "Waltz" is essentially an exploration of the consciousness.

The dogs from the opening sequence are a dream of one of Folman's ex-comrades. When he talks with Folman about how the Israeli war in Lebanon changed him, Folman professes not to remember much of anything about his time as a 19-year-old soldier.

Troubled by this, he sets about interviewing more than a dozen people, who describe their own memories of that time. Sometimes they contradict each other -- Folman's only really clear memory is of swimming in the sea with a friend named Carmi, but Carmi insists he was never there. The interviews include grunts, officers and even a television journalist who stumbled across the carnage.

Folman resists turning the war sequences into an indictment of Israeli militarism, or Muslim and Christian extremists. Although the war action is what's on the surface, the undercurrents of this movie are all about the tricky workings of the mind. You get the sense Folman would have undertaken this journey to reclaim his memories even if the gap included events that took place outside of war. It's the loss that haunts him, not just the terrible experiences themselves.

"Waltz with Bashir" is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Academy Awards, but not, interestingly, in the Best Animated Film category. I'm guessing the filmmakers decided on that strategy. Theoretically, it could also have been nominated for Best Documentary.

Ultimately, "Waltz" defies categorization, as it represents a watershed in the artistry of animated film. Let's hope some enterprising American filmmakers, having seen what this movie and "Persepolis" have done, will also decide to leave cartoons behind and make animated movies for adults.

3.5 stars out of four

Review: "Confessions of a Shopaholic"

I’m an aging, unhip guy who spent, literally, $57 on clothing last year, so clearly I am not the target audience for “Confessions of a Shopaholic.” But then, I fear to think who that target audience would be.

If they’re like Rebecca Bloomwood (Isla Fisher), every month they spend thousands of dollars they don’t have on extravagant clothing. When they walk by a New York fashion store, their legs go gooey and the window mannequins come alive, beckoning like bejeweled harlots.

If Rebecca represents more than, say, 1 percent of actual womanhood, then President Obama’s stimulus bill won’t matter a whit, because our economy is doomed.

Rebecca is able (barely) to keep feeding the monkey on her back – represented by bill collectors for her dozen maxed-out credit cards – via her meager income writing for a gardening magazine. But then the mag goes belly up, and the bill collectors start getting really antsy.

Our heroine has always dreamed of writing for Alette, the hoity-toity fashion magazine named after its boss (Kristin Scott Thomas). Alas, on the day she shows up for her interview, she finds out the leggy and vampy insider Alicia (Leslie Bibb) has already snagged the job. But tipped off that the stuffy Successful Savings, which is published by the same media conglomerate, is currently hiring, she crashes the interviews and lands the job, despite having a mind more for Prada than percentages. Her plan is to get her foot in the door and eventually slide up to Alette.

This is, of course, Hollywood hogwash. It assumes that the editor, an ambitious Brit named Luke Brandon (Hugh Dancy), would hire someone without ever looking at Rebecca’s resume or clips. But he’s also the designated beau-to-be, so logic gets shoved aside.

Rebecca makes a big splash with her first (and apparently only) article, comparing companies that obscure their strategies with “cashmere” clothing that’s only 1/20th cashmere. Soon she’s being wined and dined at important magazine hobnobs, which conveniently occur a few days after her article debuts. She and Luke spend a few days at a conference in the Miami sun getting predictably moony toward each other.

Maybe it’s my $57 fashion sensibility talking, but I have to say that for a movie centered on clothing, the outfits in “Shopaholic” look pretty tacky. For her big television appearance, Rebecca rejects an understated outfit selected by Alette herself in favor of a number that looks like a purple waterfall. But I suspect more avid consumers will find all the clothing references très chic.

This movie is the first leading role for Isla Fisher, who’s been a busy comedic supporting player in movies like “Wedding Crashers.” She’s a charming screen presence, with a sweet but neurotic vibe that makes her seem more even-keeled than her spendthrift actions would suggest.

“Confessions of a Shopaholic” is based on the books by Sophie Kinsella, and was directed by Aussie filmmaker P.J. Hogan (“Muriel’s Wedding”). It’s got a few original bits, like when Rebecca goes to shopaholic sessions, and sends the group leader spinning off the wagon herself. But mostly this is one romantic comedy that plays it by the numbers.

Two stars out of four

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Countdown to Oscars: 10 days

Some people couldn't care less about the Academy Awards. "It's just a bunch of Hollywood phonies patting themselves on the back." Then there are folks who take the Oscars waaay too seriously, obsess over their favorites' chances, and bemoan past "injustices" with juvenile obstinacy.

I fall in to the second category.

To hype this year's Oscars, I'm starting a countdown to the big event.

Will "Slumdog Millionaire" win? Can Harvey Weinstein pull a "Shakespeare in Love" with "The Reader"?

Tune in here for the latest buzz every day.

And keep your browser dialed to on Oscar night, as I'll be live-blogging the event!

Reeling Backward: "Forbidden Planet"

I'm pretty amazed at how well the special effects hold up in "Forbidden Planet," 53 years after it was made. Most early sci-fi films were fast-and-dirty cheapies, but the production values of this classic are impressive even today.

Yes, by modern CGI standards, where Brad Pitt can age from 90 to nine days in a couple of hours, "Forbidden Planet" is rather primitive. But the spaceship and laser blaster effects undoubtedly blew people away back in 1956.

Ditto for Robby the Robot, although with his clacking gizmos that sound like a 1950s punchcard computer, he was very much a product of his time. I find it interesting that the filmmakers made no attempt to give Robby discernible eyes. He's got arms and legs and a head and even a mouth that lights up when he talks, but no eyes. Nearly all movies since have tried to anthropomorphize robots as much as possible. Even R2-D2 had a single humanizing eye. Robby was the robot without a face.

"Forbidden Planet" takes place in the 23rd century, but the movie is so 1950s it's sometimes cringe-inducing to watch. The rampant sexism with regard to Alta (Anne Francis), the daughter of mad scientist Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), is hard to swallow, even taking into account the high cheese factor for which this movie is associated. The all-male crew of astronauts lands on the planet, which had been colonized by scientists 20 years earlier, and immediately start falling over themselves to get into Alta's pants.

Francis' outfits were pretty risque by the standards of the day -- publicity photos even show Robby helping Alta get dressed in her barely-there numbers. And for some reason she walks around the rocky planet barefoot most of the time.

Leslie Nielsen plays the commander, and the fact that I grew up only knowing Nielsen from the "Airplane" and "Naked Gun" spoofs made it hard for me to take him seriously in a straight role. I kept expecting him to say, "Don't call me surely."

Another observation: The neutral gray uniforms the newcomers wear, which are virtually indistinguishable from each other, resemble the drab proletariat worker outfits worn by Soviet bloc nations of the time. Given the anti-Communism hysteria of the '50s, isn't it odd that these very American-sounding boys look like they should be calling each other "comrade"?

I enjoyed "Forbidden Planet," but more in a "Rocky Horror" type of way, where you ridicule the flick while reveling in its twisted charm. I would love to see this movie on the big screen with a hooting audience.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Vote now for the IMA Summer Nights program

If you've never experienced the Summer Nights film program at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, you're truly missing out on a great movie experience.

It's movies outdoors in the IMA's Greek-style atrium theater, often preceded by an interesting guest or program of sorts. I remember going there a couple of years ago to see "Breaking Away," and they had the real-life guy the main character was based on there.

Once again, the IMA is offering you a chance to pick some of the lineup this year. Starting today (Feb. 11) you can go to their web site and cast your vote in several categories. I'm hooked up with the inside dope, so I've got a sneak peek at the choices to share:

Rain, Rain, Go Away

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. That’s our philosophy, so choose your favorite from this list of recent Summer Nights rain-outs--we’ll give it a second chance on the big screen.

A Hard Days’ Night (1964)

Barbershop (2002)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Field of Dreams (1989)

Hey, Mr. DJ

Check out this set list. Any of these riff heavy films hit the right chord? Pick your favorite.

Empire Records (1995)

Grease (1978)

High Fidelity (2000)

Once (2006)

Classically Cult

Let’s admit, these films are bad. Bad as in GREAT! Tell us which film you love to hate.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)

Dazed & Confused (1993)

Flash Gordon (1980)

Footloose (1984)

Lights, Camera, ACTION!

Love a man in uniform? Have a thing for hitmen? Pull the trigger on your favorite sweet action flick.

Desperado (1995)

Fight Club (1999)

French Connection (1971)

The Professional (1994)

Here are my picks, and reasons why:

A Hard Day's Night -- Never seen it, and I need to.

Once -- Wonderful little love/music story that most people missed.

Flash Gordon -- "No! Not the bore worms!!" 'Nuff said.

Fight Club -- Haven't seen it since it came out, didn't like it that much then, want to see if my sensibility has changed.

Polls close Feb. 27, so vote now!