Wednesday, December 17, 2008

If you've ever seen a one trick pony, then you've seen me

There has been so much stuff I’ve wanted to put in this blog, but it all ended up being slipped into something over at Rakes, going out in an e-mail or disappearing somewhere on the way to the keyboard. But there’s too much to talk about – half a season of television, the revving up of the Oscar races, the NBA continuing its climb of quality and relevance and so much more - to let this old horse of the internet lie dormant any longer.

For some reason, a lot of critics are claiming that 2008 was a bad year for film and they’re under whelmed by the films floating around Best Picture lists. This confounds me, especially after the last two years provided a host of films which were vastly overrated. I realize I’m in the minority in thinking that a film should have a coherent ending or at least show the climax between the two characters the majority of the movie follows (No Country For Old Men) or perhaps provide some sort of motivation beyond “He’s an incredibly greedy misanthrope!” to a three hour character study (There Will Be Blood), but I guess I'm old school. Any time one of your Best Picture nominees is Atonement, that is not a good year for movies.

After Wall-E and The Dark Knight were both critical and box office home runs this summer, I assumed that despite their quality, they’d be forgotten as the weather turned cold, replaced by the usual Oscar fare the old hats of the Academy deemed more worthy than a trite cartoon or comic book movie. As more and more “Best of” lists roll out from critics across the country, it’s actually starting to seem like two movies that were well-made, worthy of repeat viewings and seen by millions of people might end up actually getting some love come nomination time besides the obvious (Wall-E for Best Animated, Heath Ledger for Supporting Actor). I’d just like to thank Oscar-bait films like Australia for totally and completely falling on their face to allow these sorts of cracks in the gold ceiling to re-open (remember, movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Fugitive, Jaws, Babe and Beauty and the Beast were all Best Picture nominees).

The best of the best will be the race for Best Original Song. The Academy released the shortlist of songs (not that short, really, at 49), and scanning it reveals the potential for an absolutely fantastic Oscar ceremony. With Hugh Jackman hosting (the revenge of Van Helsing, finally), the whole night should hopefully be streamlined down from the bloated four hours it usually approaches. The number of nominees fluctuates between three and five, but I imagine we’ll be seeing a full slate of contenders this year.

It seems like two of the shoe-ins are going to be Bruce Springsteen for “The Wrestler” in The Wrestler and Peter Gabriel for “Down To Earth” in Wall-E. It also seems realistic to think that one of the tunes from Slumdog Millionaire, either “Jai Ho” from the opening or “O Saya” from the Bollywood musical sequence at the end, will slip in. I would also say that since it has eleven – eleven on the shortlist, High School Musical 3 will get a song in. That alone is pretty exciting, when you consider that Peter Gabriel, The Boss, a Bollywood extravaganza and Zac Efron (That’s a thing, right?) would all be involved. But what, friends, could put it over the top?

Vampire puppets, because yes, even though there is no Infant Sorrow or Huey Lewis, Jason Segel’s “Dracula’s Lament” is on the shortlist, competing with Norah Jones, Miley Cyrus and Beyonce for the final nomination. If you give bonus points for the song actually being relevant to the movie – like “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp” was for Hustle & Flow – then Forgetting Sarah Marshall should get some serious love from the Academy. I’m not sure if words could encompass (in fact, I’m sure they could not), just how perfect an Oscar ceremony would be where The Dark Knight and Wall-E jostled for Best Picture while Bruce Springsteen and Jason Segel shared a stage.

So if there is any justice in this depressed, collapsing world of ours, “Dracula’s Lament” will get nominated for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards. Without question, it is the most uplifting song to ever end with the lyrics "Die...die...die...I can't" and deserves the giant stage of Oscar night.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

One Less Show Live From New York

I was going to write about MTV after the VMA’s, which beyond Russell Brand rambling semi-coherently and offending a bunch of people, just made me feel old and weep for the future of the network. I dismissed the idea of doing that, but then Dill sent me an e-mail outlining pretty much the same thoughts I had, which I suppose is a natural transition when your age moves beyond the target audience and some random band from Germany wins Best New Artist.

The MTV of yesteryear took another step towards a Brave New World when the distributors of Moon Men announced they were getting rid of TRL. I don’t think anyone actually watched the daily countdown of the top videos anymore, simply because entertainment is pretty much on demand at this point. Napster took away any reason to gather around the radio to listen to a particular song, with YouTube then eliminating the need to tune in for your favorite video. Not that Carson Daly’s child grew up to actually show more than four seconds of any particular video, but it’s still sad to see it go.

While MTV doesn’t actually show music videos any more, that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have anything to offer. With that blatant segue and mini-eulogy, a look at the Tivo recording schedule as we get halfway into the new season of television premieres and some cuts may have to be made to the season pass manager.

Real World/Road Rules Challenge: The Island: This is a mix of your basic Challenge, Survivor and Paradise Hotel. The worst host in reality show history returns with TJ Lavin captaining the ship, but enough quality regulars are back – plus Dave from Hollywood and most of the crazies from Sydney – to make it worthwhile. There is no Isaac, sadly, which would have put the show over the top, but rejiggering the normal rules of Challenge and changing the locale slightly gives it a breath of fresh air. Congratulations to MTV for just embracing the fact it would be easier to make things entertaining if they just made up the rules as they go along, ala the immortal Paradise Hotel. Chances of it staying on the season pass? As good as the majority of the every contestant either being naked, drunk and/or irrationally angry during the course of the season, so close to 100%.

Gossip Girl: Three episodes in, and while it hasn’t quite hit the high points of last year, the stage is being set for quality Upper East Side hijinx. Our fashionable heroes aren’t even back to school yet and you have Nate whoring himself out to a titled cougar, Chuck using all of his Potential Best Character on TV potential to woo/seduce/etc. Blair away from a British lord and the upcoming Serena/Dan war, where they both realize how awful the other person can be. Toss in Lily’s return and eventual will-they-or-won’t-they with Lincoln Hawk’s lead singer Rufus Humphrey and any senior year drama they might actually delve into, and season two’s ratings will continue to rise. Chances of it staying on the season pass? You would have to pry the Tivo from my cold, dead television stand and toss it off of our never used balcony for me not to record GG every week.

90210: Started out with some potential, but it’s absolutely horrendous at this point. They have no idea who the target audience is, with it oscillating between trying to appeal to those who watched the original show and those who didn’t. There seems to be a disconnect compared to the warmth of other Rob Thomas efforts and the storylines are predictable even for a high school show, and perhaps the most egregious sin of all is not using Jessica Walter. The series peaked immediately on with the implied oral sex that made the PTC mad (points for that), had a slight spike when everyone went bowling and enjoyed it because bowling is awesome, and then crashed and burned in epic fashion. Chances of it staying on the season pass? As slim as the actresses on the show.

Random links:

  • And finally, the best news ever, as David Simon, who created one of my favorite shows, takes on one of my favorite subjects, the Lincoln assassination, using a book I really enjoyed as the template. I’m not sure I can tell you how high my expectations are going to be for this.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Golden Army

I suppose if you're going to stay up until five in the morning watching a basketball game, the least it can do to reward you is be entertaining, and thank the hardwood gods, the United States' 118-107 win over Spain was worth drifting in and out of consciousness until 2:30am.

Just like they dodged Manu Ginobli and a fully healthy Andres Nocioni in the semifinals, Spanish point guard Jose Calderon was unable to go, opening things up for the endlessly entertaining Ricky Rubio, Juan Carlos Navarro and Rudy Fernandez show in the backcourt. I cannot wait for Rubio to come to the NBA, because I want to be able to hate him all year round, just not every Olympiad. Navarro's runner will be burned into the mind of everyone who watched that game, and Fernandez? Let's just say that if Rudy's skillset translates from playing NBA players in FIBA competition to playing NBA players in NBA competition (which doesn't seem particularly difficult, but who knows), the Trailblazers are going to be very, very happy. Few people can drain fallaway threes and dunk on Dwight Howard, but Rudy did both, the cursed referees denying him the maximum amount of minutes on the floor.

The Gasol brothers were also a joy, with Pau's post moves balanced out by Marc's ability to shove you to the ground or do whatever else necessary to clear the lame. Just when Chris Bosh was thinking "Goodness, man, why don't you shave," there were two forearms into the back of his head and an open shot for the Spanish. Granted, Spain got so many easy shots for their bigs because the U.S. insisted on switching every single screen, no matter how far from the basket they happened to be occurring, but they still made the most of it. I'm unsure what percentage of their 107 points came from having poor Deron Williams trying to guard a man a foot taller than him, but it certainly contributed to keeping the Spanish in the game.

In regards to getting Spain out of the game, it was the U.S. getting lucky when Kobe went into Finisher mode. He starts taking dumb shots – or just barely getting passes away on contested shots – and when things go well, he's on SportsCenter and people think it relevant to bring up the Jordan argument again. When they don't – and that happens - I'm not sure there's a more frustrating position to be in as a sports fan. But for the benefit of the Redeem Team, things went well, the early foul trouble was overcome and gold was theirs.

This past fortnight of hoops has been a joy to watch, just to see how these players work outside of their normal system and on a constant, yet competitive, All-Star team. LeBron James is still a monster, although the occasional LBJ Sour Face (which creeped onto his visage a few times late Saturday night) and temptation of the three-point line leave him a few steps from perfection. Dwyane Wade, when healthy, still has the potential to be the best player on the floor, an absolute dynamo. Dwight Howard still doesn't have any post moves beyond "turn around and dunk." Bosh is a polished gem kept hidden by the ESPN and TNT executives north of the border. Carmelo is still awful, capable of hitting jump shots, but just as likely to lose his head and get into a brawl. Chris Paul is capable of getting you a dunk or open three, or himself a lay-up or trip to the line, anytime he wants. Tayshaun Prince will always remain unheralded, a solid shooter, defender and transition player doomed to be surrounded by flashier stars.

As I mentioned in an e-mail to some people, as good as the 2008 team was, the 2012 team could be mind-blowingly good. While it's possible a lot of these guys will decline another three-year commitment, it seemed like they all enjoyed themselves enough to go at it again. Meaning, in London, you could have LeBron, Wade, CP3, Deron Williams, Bosh and Howard all in their prime, plus whoever you want to finish up with between Oden, Durant, Horford, Beasley, Rose, Mayo, etc. Throw in Kobe in the J-Kidd, cagey vet role and voila, perfection to the nth degree.

A few more thoughts as the Olympics are put away in a five-ringed cupboard until those crazy Canucks break them out in the winter of 2010:

* I think Michael Phelps managed to survive a media barrage from all angles and still be liked by most of America. The only things able to dwarf his in-pool accomplishments were the innumerable interviews and montages. It was a mad scramble for the remote anytime another Phelps interview started, which caused for a lot channel-flipping. The highlight of it all was NBC going to a Usain Bolt clip and mentioning something about Phelps, only to have the Jamaican sprinter not mention the swimmer. I think that maybe he'd been asked a question about he and Phelps' performances and the questions about doping, but that was not implied, just that you might see someone else talk about Phelps. Still, the 4x100 freestyle will go down as one of the better sporting events I'll ever see. Three cheers for Jason Lezak, indeed.

* I wish the U.S. media would stop putting the States at the top of the medal count. When one country gets that many more gold medals than the other, it is definitely the winner. The whole gymnastics scandal clouds things a bit, but there was ample opportunity for the United States to pull out victory.

* The IOC is probably the most gutless, corrupt organization on this planet. Going after Bolt's celebration while turning a blind eye to everything China did – heck, giving the Olympics to them anyway – was absolutely laughable.

* Speaking of Bolt, no man should be that fast. His 100-meter celebration was too sweet to get angry at, but it is a shame we didn't get to see how low he could have plunged the record. Also, Mike Leach is always watching.

* How did the United States lose in softball when they're eliminating the sport because they're supposed to be so good at it. If this was some lame attempt at saving the sport, thanks for giving the Chinese some more distance in the gold count.

* I'm not really sure the point of Mary Carillo's pieces were, but I'm glad they were kept relatively short, and the athlete sob stories relatively sob-less. You can do an Olympics without gooey, melodramatic, overly-sentimental coverage, as it turns out.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

In Appreciation Of: Dog Days of Summer Edition

Randy Jackson Presents: America’s Best Dance Crew: After initially dismissing the show for the reason many people were supposed to be interested in it (Randy Jackson’s involvement), I realized that he doesn’t actually do anything but show up at the beginning and end of the seasons and fist pound people. With Jackson and his inane commentary limited to American Idol, AMBC is one of the most well-crafted, enjoyable reality shows on, with its general awesomeness being emphasized because it’s the summer and our television options are severely limited. How is it sweet? Let us count the ways.

1) The production quality. It doesn’t have quite the glossy shine of the Liz Gately’s California show, but there are a ton of cameras, the use of slow motion (as called upon by the judges) and the overly-dramatic-in-a-great-way dropping of the banners.

2) The banners themselves. When can you go wrong with championship banners that look like they came out of your high school gym? Is there a site where you can purchase these?

3) The consistently predictable pre-dance pieces, which include Dancer A unable to do Dance B, then pulling it off expertly. Were I managing a crew, I’d definitely take whoever was best at Dance B and tell them to pretend they were horrible at it at the beginning of practice – maybe even toss in some tears or some frustration from their teammates – just to get some extra props from the judges.

4) Much like Dancing With The Stars and in total opposition to Idol, all three judges are contributing something. Granted, JC Chasez is going to make a mention of cleanliness, Shane Sparks will probably use the term “killed it” and Lil’ Mama will talk about the hardness of hitting and why she respects the crews, but at least they all are capable of being effusive in their praise or harsh in their criticism. Plus, you can giddily ask the people you’re watching the show with to try and guess how old Lil’ Mama is, which never gets old.

5) Mario Lopez. Any show that keeps AC Slater gainfully employed – without asking him to do too much heavy lifting beyond announcing the eliminations, introducing each dance and throwing it to the judges after each performance – is alright in my book. Do you suppose his pay check is tax deductible as a charitable donation?

And that’s not even mentioning the dancing, which is usually super entertaining. The last few weeks have had five “Leave it all on the floor” performances just within the bottom two, with Super Cr3w staving off elimination from both Supreme Soul and Fanny Pak (with a Fanny Pak beatdown of Boogie Bots thrown in between them). If there’s a marathon on some weekend afternoon, sit down and enjoy. The finale is this Thursday night, and while I’m not sure either of these crews is at a JabbaWockeeZ level, Supercrew is pretty damned entertaining and will have at least one jump from/fall from an unbelievable height.

Burn Notice: Maybe because I’m just a sucker for spy stuff, Bruce Campbell and Miami – making this the perfect storm – but you can definitely add this show to the list currently containing Monk and Psych entitled “USA Shows I’ll Gladly Watch Any time They’re On.” Season Two hasn’t been quite as strong as the initial run, but it’s still got a lot of charm to it, and the explanations of how to do secret ops stuff is always enjoyable. I’m hoping and praying for the impossible Dexter/Burn Notice crossover, although it may be more feasible and only slight less appealing for the folks from Monk or Psych to make their way down to South Beach. Best of all? They’re all available on Hulu for your perusal on a rainy day.

Pineapple Express: Not the masterpiece I thought it had the potential to be, but certainly worthy of a viewing. I think if I hadn’t seen Hot Fuzz, which is near perfect in paying homage to the buddy action comedy, I’d appreciate this more, but as is, certainly not a minus against the House of Apatow. My opinion on this is slightly less than coherent as we went to happy hour(s) before seeing this last Wednesday and were crammed in the very front row, but thumbs up to James Franco, some of the killer one-liners, the ever-awesome delivery of the line “Thug life” accompanied by a shotgun pump and Huey Lewis and the News getting to sing the title crack in the credits. Gets the same negative mark as American Gangster for not making the effort to incorporate the song that made the trailer great (“Ain’t No Love” for Gangster, “Paper Planes” for Express). I have no idea how they would do the vaguely rumored Superbad/Express crossover/sequel, but I’d love to see them try.

And for those of you interested, the last real summer movie of 2008, Tropic Thunder, is rocking out a very respectable 78% on Rotten Tomatoes as of now. Like I said months ago, if you’re going to make a movie with Ben Stiller, make sure he just plays a totally aloof and moronic actor – or model – and everyone will buy in. And should the award actually exist, Robert Downey, Jr., would be leading for “Best Actor of the Year – Cumulative” for his work in both Iron Man and Thunder.

And some random Olympic stuff:

1) I don’t think there’s been as much collective fist-pumping in the country in a long while as there was on Sunday night after the staggeringly unbelievable come-from-behind relay victory. I never knew I hated France that much, but as it turns out I do, with these Games bringing out a nationalistic streak in me that’s just dying to chant “USA!” at every available moment. I also more or less loathe every single country competing against us (with a few minor exceptions when the puff piece/sob story is good enough), and especially China, whose medal count I monitor and disparage the quality of constantly (Judo? Weight lifting?!).

2) I know they want to get that primetime cash, but NBC Sports not airing the events live across the nation is sort of silly. Trying to say it’s “Live” when it totally is not is just being disingenuous, but at least you’re not dismissing pre-teen singers due to their looks. I just love that these games give the younger generations a chance to say “Well, you better win, or you’re probably going to be executed,” like our parents got to laugh about Soviet losers being sent to Siberia. Oh, human rights violations; always good for a sad chuckle.

3) I really wish the basketball was all on at an hour I could see all of it. The highlights of the overtime game between China and Spain truly made it look epic, and Greece’s total domination of a pretty good German team has me thinking that the United States will be lucky to two-step through their preliminaries on Friday and Sunday without a blemish. I think there is some confusion regarding Team USA basketball and its place in the world after the disaster in 2004, so I will attempt to set that sort of straight.

2008 is totally different. The team is loaded, save for perhaps a little thinness up front, and they seem to realize the importance of playing hard, representing the country right and taking care of business. I’m not sure that the starting line-up is the best one, as Wade is playing better than Kobe right now, Chris Bosh is bringing a lot to the table and CP3 is basically unstoppable, but they’re still working the kinks out before things get real on Friday morning. The thing to remember, though, is all of this talent is not guaranteeing a gold. In a one-and-done game, basketball is far too fickle of a sport to assure anything, especially when you have a Spanish team looming that features seven guys who have had or will be playing in the NBA this season, along with really good squads from Greece, Argentina and Lithuania (who I firmly believe was playing a little bit of possum in that pre-Olympic beatdown).

(My crunchtime line-up for the Americans? Probably Paul, Wade, Kobe, LeBron and Bosh. That changes if Kobe goes into Hero Mode or Dwight Howard miraculously starts hitting his free throws, but I’d feel very comfortable with those guys on the floor.)

4) How do you become as good at something as Michael Phelps is at swimming? Sure, hitting the genetic jackpot always helps, but wow. I feel like he can randomly enter other swimming events just to get a few more gold medals at this point, training be damned.

5) Who knew Nancy Grace was a diving expert?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Praise For "The Knight"

I was going to divide this up with non-spoiler stuff to start and then getting into details in the second half, but that just seems like a hassle. Plus, you should have seen The Dark Knight by now, unless you’re waiting for an open IMAX screening. At that point, check back here in mid-September. Official spoiler warning for TDK from this point on.

Let’s just get the childhood hero/fanboy stuff out of the way now: So seriously, how awesome was The Dark Knight?

Pretty freaking awesome. There were definitely flaws, which we’ll address later on, but there was so much goodness that you could overlook any minor discrepancies. It boils down to the fact that I don’t think I’ve been this excited for a movie in a very long time, and it totally lived up to the personal hype (much like Superbad did last summer, but on a totally different scale). The entire film was so dark, gritty and intense for its entirety that you have to give Christopher Nolan all the credit in the world for the consistency in visuals and theme for the entire two and a half hour running time. Sure, he had the budget to do it, but ignoring CGI[i] and focusing on making the film as realistic as possible shows the type of vision Nolan had in his second Caped Crusader feature.

The Dark Knight has repeatedly been called the epitome of superhero movies, and A.O. Scott even had a piece in the Times this week about there being nowhere left to go for the genre after the probing done by Ironman, Dark Knight, and to a lesser extent, Hancock, but I’m hesitant to even qualify what might end up the highest grossing film of all-time as a superhero movie. There’s nothing mutant, paranormal, supernatural or even unbelievably science fiction in the movie. Your hero is just a well-trained athlete with a lot of money to spend on toys and your villain is a make-up-wearing freak with a relatively high tolerance for pain, a disregard for human life and a sweet tooth for explosives. I like the idea that a lot of critics have put forth that TDK is not a superhero flick, but just an epic crime movie, more along the lines of Heat and The Departed.

Christian Bale put in another great performance, but even though he portrayed the title character, you had an ensemble cast delivering top-of-their-game performances. It seems silly to discuss the quality of a Michael Caine or Morgan Freeman performance, or the merits of replacing Katie Holmes with Maggie Gyllenhaal, but they deserve some praise for their work. Gary Oldman, the chameleon, now has the honor of representing two of the more heroic, fist-pump-worthy characters in pop culture, Jim Gordon and Sirius Black. The two really couldn’t be more differerent, but Oldman makes them both fantastic in their own way. Even the bit parts – Bill Fitchner as the heroic but stupid bank manager, Eric Roberts as the top crime boss – and ones I wasn’t even aware of (Anthony Michael Hall, Patrick Leahy) seemed to have a special shine.

Depending on where you read on the internets, there’s either high praise for the screenplay or a condemnation of it as a muddled mess. I find myself in the camp of the former, and think one would appreciate its layered nuances more on subsequent viewings. The over-arching themes of Nolan, Nolan and Goyer’s are touched upon in so many of the subplots that you have to note the craftsmanship. They took Alan Moore’s basic principle from The Killing Joke – that any man, no matter how valiant he seems, will snap if put through right circumstances – and applied it to Harvey Dent instead of Jim Gordon. There are a lot of great stories in the Batman universe to draw from, and TDK drew on a lot of them perfectly.

Was Heath Ledger as good as everyone said he was?

That, and then some. Critics got all hot and bothered for Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men, but Ledger’s Joker is about a hundred times more interesting, terrifying and bad-ass than Anton Chigurh. As cliché as it is to say, you really couldn’t take your eyes off of him when he was on the screen. The ominous bank heist at the beginning, the first meeting with the mob bosses that included the delightfully violent pencil magic trick, the invasion of the black gangster’s game room via body bag, the scenes at Major Crimes – you can just rattle off scenes where the Joker had the audience cringing, laughing or cheering for him in spite of themselves.

The ability to crack the audience up, at least at the midnight screening I attended, was perhaps the most amazing part of the performance. The movie was so intense from the beginning, as taut as any thriller, that the way Ledger could say a word – or even, in one instance, just mouth the number “six” – would shatter the tension in the room and have everyone laughing, if only for a brief, cathartic moment before the white-knuckle plot continued chugging relentlessly along. There are only a few villainous film characters I can think of – perhaps most notably, Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal – that inspired fear, respect and a hint of jealousy, and none of them were nearly as funny as Ledger was.

Livey and I were trying to find a more eloquent way to say this on the drive home from the show, but you do find yourself rooting for The Joker in the movie, and not just in an “it’s fun to root for the entertaining villain” sort of way. In a world where everyone was trying to correct seemingly insurmountable problems or be something they weren’t, the Clown Prince of Crime understood his role in Gotham and how things worked. He believed that in a crazy, screwed-up city one life wasn’t worth a whole lot, and held to that standard whether he was threatening the life of a mobster, a judge or himself. The only man he had no desire to kill – again, just like it should be– was Batman, because I can’t imagine it’s a whole lot of fun for a man like The Joker to just blow stuff up without a respectable opponent to piss off doing it.

So Ledger’s death was even more of a shame than we all initially thought?

For so many reasons. Perhaps most notably was that this performance was so good it was going to be nominated for and probably win an Academy Award whether it was posthumously or not, but now his accomplishment will forever be accompanied by the caveat that “Well, he only won the Oscar because he died.” No, he won the award because he put on one of the most impressive performances you’ll ever see in cinema and happened to die between the filming and release of the movie that contained said performance. Of course, since everyone will probably end up seeing this movie – or at least it seems like everyone will – the entire population will be aware of how great he was and that won’t be a problem.

It also sucks he’s dead because the way the movie ended, Nolan could have just busted out the Joker for a third film – or put him in a Lecter-like role as Batman’s duplicitous advisor in tracking some other demon – and every single person who saw The Dark Knight would gladly line up weeks in advance to see it. There’s no way they can recast – not even if they dusted off Daniel Day-Lewis for his once every three years performance – so the best villain in the best interpretation of Batman has been laid to rest permanently.

There’s also the fact that I have no idea what they can possibly do now to follow up The Dark Knight, so Ledger might have effectively killed Batman movies for the near – and perhaps distant – future simply through the sheer force of his performance. That, and he totally stole the thunder from a great performance by Aaron Eckhart.

Was that a cheap segue to talk about the other great performance in The Dark Knight?

You bet. Eckhart’s performance of Harvey Dent/Two Face would be garnering all the Oscar buzz if not for Ledger totally stealing the show. I’m not that familiar with Eckhart’s work beyond Thank You For Smoking, but many a critic has said this is by far the best of his work, a realization of the talent that always seemed to be behind the good-looking surface. He is comfortably confident as Dent at the beginning and maintains that poise for as long as one can when everything around them is unraveling. The moment where Batman bursts into the room to save him after Joker’s cruelest trick, and Dent realizes that it means that his beloved Rachel is sure to die, is one not many people have mentioned to me but one I think was one of the best in the movie. Just to really drive the stake into his hideously scared heart was his lucky coin lying by his hospital bedside, seemingly safe and sound, until he flips it over.

One of my main complaints with the film is that the Two Face transgression seemed rush. One night Dent is willing to turn himself in as Batman to keep the real one fighting Joker on the street, and the next he’s threatening Gordon’s kid. There are some that think Two Face has to be dead to really drive home the screenplay’s point, but if so, I think it’s a momentously wasted opportunity. Eckhart was just beginning to scratch the surface of the splintered soul, and for him to die because of a particularly high fall is incredibly lame. It’s not a waste to the point that Spiderman 3 wasted Venom, but I want to see more of both Joker and Two Face, and due to that tragic overdose in January, it’s going to have to be the latter.

Other stuff that was perhaps wrong with the movie?

1) Batman’s weird growl whisper. You need to have a different voice for Batman versus

Bruce Wayne, but come on. It just sounds silly.

2) Again, Two Face’s transition, but this stands only if he’s dead. It was just a fall of a few stories, come on.

3) The fact we couldn’t swap the Rachel Dawes performances, meaning Maggie Gyllenhaal would have helped out Batman Begins and we all would have gotten to see Katie Holmes and her weird, crooked smile blown to bits in The Dark Knight.

4) The whole part with tracking the bullet down, finding the room with the timer and the blind rolling up. Probably need to see it again to really get that.

Off the top-of-the-head favorite parts?

1) All of the action scenes were really great, especially the chase scene with the semi, the Batpod and Dent’s paddy wagon. Chicago never looked so good.

2) Joker’s pencil magic trick. Quick, violent and a blink-and-you-miss-it introduction to the skillset the Clown Prince is bringing to the table.

3) Jim Gordon’s return from the dead with a shotgun to the head, just in time to save Batman. There were “Yoda with a lightsaber”-type cheers in the theater at that point.

4) Bruce Wayne tossing the champagne off the penthouse balcony after his toast to Dent. Such a tiny, yet perfect, touch.

5) The used of the word “Absconded” in the newspaper article about the Russian ballet leaving, followed by Michael Caine getting to lather up bikini-glad ballerinas. If you were to trim the running time down, axing the Hong Kong part would be the quickest way, but there was enough good there to justify leaving it in.

6) From one professional to another, a fall from this height won’t kill me.” “I’m counting on it.” (or something to that effect.)

7) And perhaps the most underrated, under-discussed aspect of the whole film: whoever was in wardrobe totally nailing both the Joker suits and Two Face’s split wardrobe. You might not notice or care, but trust me, they were perfect. They deserve an Academy Award for costume design just for that.

Was that another cheap segue to discuss Academy Awards?

Guily. I imagine Ledger will be nominated and win for Best Supporting Actor, although if Forest Whitaker can win Lead for Last King of Scotland, Joker surely had enough screentime to qualify for the big award. Eckhart should be but won’t be nominated for Supporting, and Nolan may or may not get some love for Screenplay or Directing.

The big question is whether Dark Knight can carry on the tradition of enjoyable action movies that get Best Picture nominations like Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Fugitive. It obviously deserves it, but that’s a moot discussion at this point. I have all sorts of Oscar sites bookmarked, and the only one that’s updated in the wake of The Dark Knight hysteria has it in the running against The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Australia, Revolutionary Road and Milk. Button had a solid initial trailer, and has all the credentials (Fincher directing, Academy faves Swinton and Blanchett), but as the above link states, the early hype will do it no good unless it is truly that good. Revolutionary Road, which reunite Leo and Kate under the direction of Sam Mendes, also seems like a relatively safe bet at this juncture and another film whose inclusion I can support at this sight-unseen stage.

Milk stars Sean Penn, so shoot me now, but that’s not even as bad as the trailer/synopsis for Australia, which reads as so: “After a long hiatus, Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge) is back with this epic love story about two people who embark on a journey herding cattle across the outback, and then must survive numerous obstacles including bombing by Japanese forces. Once again, Luhrmann has enlisted the services of his leading lady Nicole Kidman and teamed her with the versatile Hugh Jackman.” No word on whether it follows the same Academy Award checklist that Atonement did.

It’ll be an interesting position to be in until the Oscar deadline reaches to root for every other movie to be a total let down, but I think it would do everyone – Hollywood, the Academy, viewers, people who actually like movies – to have The Dark Knight and Wall-E in the conversation come February.

In the words of Joss Whedon, where do we go from here?

I’m really tore up about where they can go for the third film that everyone is already signed on for. Bale said if they did Robin he was out, and Nolan said he didn’t really want to use Penguin, and I suppose that means even if it was attached to someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman, who would get to expand on the villainy of his Mission: Impossible 3 antagonist that got far too little screen time. Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze could both be done seriously and more straight – just to correct the horrors of Batman and Robin ­– but I think it’ll probably end up being Riddler, Catwoman, or to pick a wild card from the lesser known Rogues Gallery, the Mad Hatter. Johnny Depp as a particularly creepy Riddler would be nice, or Catwoman working both sides of the law along with an underworld-pillaging Two Face and vigilante Batman might work as well. I need to bounce some ideas off of people and see if the rumor mill starts churning anything out, but consider me stymied.

[i] It’s not that CGI is inherently bad. If it’s done well, like Doc Ock’s arms in Spiderman 2, Davey Jones and his crew in Pirates or the suit in Ironman, then you don’t even notice, but too many filmmakers (*cough*George Lucas*cough) can’t help themselves but to load up on as much computer-generated stuff as possible.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Ticket

I was away this week apartment hunting, so I apologize for the lack of Finals talk, but he's one win away. Granted, Ray was really the most valuable last night, but barring some epic collapse, it's all going to end up as it should in the end.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Happy Memorial Day Weekend

I realize there are very few people who would have an interest in Indiana Jones, American Idol and the NBA playoffs, so they're divided up nicely into three posts. Having graduated and with no idea when I'll be starting my job, it's nice to have a whole bunch of time to blog again. Gossip Girl and Real World: Hollywood thoughts coming should the weather turn, but for now, I'm sure you can make do with:

Summer Movie Recap I
NBA Playoffs/Draft Stuff
American Idol Finale

America Voted...And Actually Got It Right.

I feel bad for how negative I’ve been towards David Archuleta. For the entire season, I would laugh as he forgot lyrics, gave his “Aw shucks” look, squinted, licked his lips and talked about the great message every single one of his song selections was supposed to convey. He went weeks after “Imagine” to put up another great song (and that’s debateable), but no matter how uninspiring his effort, Randy Jackson would praise him to high heaven and make the exact same comment about singing from the phonebook. Now that the season has ended with a dominant David Cook victory, with a lot of people around the internet very, very joyous, I can realize why the idea of Archuleta’s victory bothered me so much.

It really boils down to two reasons. The first goes back to the aforementioned Mr. Jackson, whose constant, inane praise of Young David made me naturally react with vitriol towards a completely innocent 17-year old kid with a crazy dad. It’s like when LeBron James was about ready to make the leap to the NBA and Dick Vitale was calling one of his high school game. James delivered a perfectly nice but perfectly normal behind-the-back pass on a fast break and Vitale began extolling the young King’s virtues, screaming “How many people in the country can make that pass, baby?!” when the answer was literally thousands, if not tens of thousands. I was against YDA simply due to the ratio of ridiculous hype bestowed on him versus actual quality of song was so high.

The second is less his fault and more the fact he stumbled into tween-and-grandma-inspiring cuteness and a pretty good voice, meaning that he came across as a focus group-perfected Idol contestant. It’s as if they crafted him in a lab, only they couldn’t find a way to perfect his cold, dead eyes. When you add in some awful song selections and the early awesomeness of David Cook (“Hello,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Billie Jean,” “Always Be My Baby,” “Music of the Night”) and you had a clear-cut hero and clear-cut villain this season.

Courtesy of Vulture.

But now that’s it over, I think YDA made a grateful (and relieved) loser, and reading the interviews about how much he looked up to Cook really reveals the dynamic they had. The only lasting bitter feelings I have coming out of this season are towards the voters for stealing Michael Johns and Chikezie away from us too early and towards Randy Jackson, who needs to go. Even the New York Times is getting in on the bashing, and I very happily quote:

“The “American Idol” producers have also been soliciting opinions online, as they have in past years, about which of the three judges are most integral to the show and which might be expendable. Much public discussion has focused on Paula Abdul, whose verdict last month on a performance that had not yet occurred drew attention and some scorn.

But it is anticipation of those unscripted moments that draws marginal viewers to the show; fewer fans, it would seem, tune in to hear Randy Jackson’s weekly admonitions about whether each performer stayed on pitch.”

I feel like this season will go down as one of missed opportunities. From individual song selections being poor, voters knocking off contestants just as they seemed to be hitting their stride (Carly, Michael, Kristy Lee), other promising contestants unable to handle the pressure (Brooke, Castro to a certain extent) and the songs just being so old in general (see below, courtesy of What Not To Sing), what could have been a great season ended up being an okay season with a great ending.

As far as prediction metrics for next season goes – for those of you that will be joining us in an expanded Idol suicide poll; with congratulations to Dill and Jake for their joint victory this year due to our lack of ability to come up with a tie-breaking system – the Freakonomics blog takes a look at the best options, and my old standby, DialIdol, appears to be the best option. The only time their busy signal analysis was wrong was when KLC went home when they had her very much safe.

A few bullet-points to take us out:

  • I know the folks over at Entertainment Weekly’s Idolatry adore Carly Smithson, but even as she and Michael Johns dueted on one of my favorite songs, “The Letter,” I still didn’t get her. She always seems right on the verge of just screaming at me instead of singing. She’s got the voice for a big-time career, but there’s just something about her I don’t get.
  • Michael Johns, with all of his old man, creaky dinosaur dancing, is still my favorite. The only good thing about his early ouster was his voting bloc was able to make themselves friendly with Cook, which is how I assume his final voting margin was so large. Every other eliminated contestant’s fans galvanized against the screaming teenagers voting for YDA, except for perhaps Clifford the Crunchy Muppet’s supporters, who might have swayed their way, totally off-rhythm, to the Archuleta camp.
  • Oh wow, Amanda Overmyer, how in the world did you make the Top 11? Amazing.
  • Not that Syesha was unattractive at the beginning of the season, but the Idol stylists molded her into a stone-cold fox. I can’t imagine how she doesn’t have a career in Broadway, acting or even modeling if things don’t work out as a recording artist.
  • Kristy Lee Cook must have watched Carrie Underwood perform and just smiled very confidently, counting all the money she’d be making performing the exact same stuff in nine months.
  • Seriously, though, get rid of Randy Jackson. My sister and mother are huge Dancing With The Stars fans, and the biggest difference between that show and Idol is that Tom Bergeron has three capable judges with varied opinions that are all worthwhile, while Ryan Seacrest, the consummate professional, has exactly one, and he’s generally cut off far too early by booing or cheering.
  • Song Girls + “We’re Brothers Forever” = fantastic.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Summer Movie Recap I: How Far Can One Fedora Carry You?

To get the bad out of the way, Avants described Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (from now on known as Indy 4 in this space) as “The worst combination of The Mummy Returns, National Treasure 2 and Alien vs. Predator. Or if you want all Steven Spielberg, The Goonies and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I think this would accurately describe the plot of Indy 4, which is predictable, fuzzy and loses any sense of logic and reason in the final twenty minutes. While I’m a big-time plot guy and generally complain when it’s lacking (see: the most ballyhooed 2008 Best Picture nominees), the plot in Indy 4 is just a vehicle to get us what everyone went to the theater to see in the first place: more Indiana Jones kicking ass while the music plays.

Complain about the idiocy of connecting Roswell to the Amazon all you want – very few people would take up a stance against you – but if you can’t enjoy Shia LeBeouf and Cate Blanchett dueling on the back of two Soviet jeeps hurtling through the jungle at a breakneck pace, you went to the wrong movie. Could it have been better? Absolutely, as I’d only give it maybe 3 or 3.5 if we’re going out of five stars, but Harrison Ford didn’t disappoint in his reprisal nearly two decades later. Neither did John Williams’ score, the bull whip, the motorcycle chase, the fedora, Karen Allen, the cartoonish-but-awesome quality of Blanchett’s psychic KGB villainous or Shia, who will surely take a lot of criticism for even attempting to pick up the weather-beaten, signature hat, but I think he held his own with a character not particularly well-written. (I think it is safe to say that if George Lucas is in anyway involved with something, the dialogue will alternate between clunky and cringe-worthy.)

There’s part of me that’s disappointed it wasn’t better, but that’s going into it having not seen the originals in a couple of years, thereby limiting myself to idealistic, halcyon memories of them. I’m sure this one won’t come close to Raiders, but what summer movie could, considering it was an action-adventure movie starring Han Solo that almost, and should have, won Best Picture. But when going into it, take the approach of Mr. Roger Ebert, who is so undeniably giddy when reviewing the film that you can’t help but enjoy it as much as he did. After coming home from the midnight screening late, late Wednesday night, I was only slightly pleased with it. After reading Ebert, I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. Says Mr. Ebert: “Now what else can I tell you, apart from mentioning the blinking red digital countdown, and the moving red line tracing a journey on a map? I can say that if you liked the other Indiana Jones movies, you will like this one, and that if you did not, there is no talking to you.”

A few links I’ve enjoyed in the bevy of Indy stuff that came out this past week. Cinematical’s list of the best Indiana Jones moments, where Number Two is obviously the best, and one of the questions asked by Vulture following a screening of the movie: “How exactly — after watching the Ark of the Covenant melt a squadron of Nazis, and drinking from the Holy Grail — does Indy remain so skeptical about everything? At this point, wouldn't he just shrug and be like, "Sure, aliens, city of gold, why not?"” And perhaps the best of the best, lyrics to the Indiana Jones theme. Loses steam as it goes, but the beginning is brilliant.


I cannot wait for The Love Guru to fail. Everything about it, from the trailers to the awful plug on the Idol finale, has been rancid. When you consider that not only does it feature Jessica Alba, who has literally never held an important role in a good movie, and it’s going up against Steve Carrell, Princess Mia and Dwayne “The Rock/All I Do Is Open Movies At Number One” Johnson, it has to be doomed to a distant second place finish to Get Smart, right? Followed by a tumble further down the charts when Wall*E (guaranteed Pixar awesomeness) and Hancock (which I think is going to make big-time money due to the Independence Day weekend slot and Will Smith’s involvement) opens up?

Overall, I think this is not an overly exciting year for summer movies (unless Wanted, The Incredible Hulk, You Don’t Mess With The Zohan, Hamlet 2, Tropic Thunder and/or Hell Boy 2 really shine), but as long as Pineapple Express and The Dark Knight are awesome while Love Guru and The Happening fail, I’ll be a pretty happy camper going into a very shiny fall (new Bond and Potter).


Harold and Kumar 2 was just okay, but still an enjoyable matinee flick. I think everyone knew it wasn’t going to be as good as White Castle, if only because it would have to try so much harder than the original, but it certainly had its funny parts. Kal Penn and John Cho were still as enjoyable, and it was nice to have some Daily Show alums (Rob Corddry and Ed Helms) onboard along with the essential Neil Patrick Harris. You know everything is going to work out for the guys, so it plays out as a fantasy for both audience and characters, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The best parts were that the screenwriters knew that when things were getting too sappy or brotacular, so they would write in a random stranger to step forward with an insult towards our heroes. One question after Escape from Guantanamo, that when combined with Sarah Marshall, is the MPAA going to continue the trend of allowing full front nudity in R-rated movies? It’s not hurting anybody, and is good for cringing laughter, but the people who rate movies have always seen way too anal to let stuff like this go.


Iron Man was a great movie to get the summer blockbuster season started, although I question Marvel’s decision to announce nearly a half dozen future projects at once in an attempt to fill out the roster of an Avengers film. Robert Downey, Jr., was awesome as Tony Stark, but they’re going to need top-notch efforts from every single one of their efforts leading up to the Avengers movie, including the upcoming Hulk film that’s reportedly had a lot of behind-the-scenes difficulties, to pull it off. Not having Matthew McConaughey involved with Captain America is a good first step, but I think the Thor movie will be the trickiest by far, just considering the source material is relatively unknown and really weird, even for a comic book movie

Iron Man also provides a solution to the annual whining from the studios that nobody is going to movies anymore: If you make a good blockbuster, people are going to go to it. I can’t remember the last time a well-hyped summer blockbuster got good reviews and didn’t make money. Sometimes you can luck out and cash in on a crappy movie, but if just put talented people (Downey, Jr., Bridges, Paltrow, Howard, Favreau) in with great special effects and decent writing (plot had a bunch of holes, but there was enough shiny stuff blowing up to make them forgivable), you’ll probably have a hit.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Forgetting Blair Waldorf

Repeated apologies for the prolonged absence but college basketball and hockey playoff action kept me busy over at Rakes for a while, and when you combine the final semester of college-type stuff with my general laziness, there’s a sort of excuse for a two month break from posting. But on a most wonderful, summer-like Monday night, there’s every reason to curl up in front of the television. After a writer’s strike and a professional sports dark period that ended after Tom Brady went crashing to the ground for the last time, everything seems to be getting back to normal as senior year comes to a close. Some of the many, many reasons to be excited:

* Gossip Girl comes back tonight, along with a massive, beyond sprawling piece in New York Magazine. There’s a certainly pro-GG bias from all New York-based media, since they get to see so many pretty Big Apple sites and stereotypes – plus it’s a little early to call anything the best of anything with only a dozen or so episodes to its credit – but love for this show has been trumpeted on many an occasion back when this blog was actually functioning. I like the part in the profile linked above where it addresses the difficulty The CW network is having not in getting an audience for the show, but in finding it:

New episodes routinely arrived at the No. 1 most-downloaded spot on iTunes, and then there were the hundreds of thousands who were downloading free week-old episodes on the CW’s site. Even executives at Nielsen threw up their hands and admitted that Gossip Girl appeared to be speaking to an audience so young and tech-savvy they hadn’t really figured it out just yet.

Not that the Nielsen executives are particularly useful (look into the Nielsen process and just laugh that companies spend millions of dollars on advertising based on painfully small sample sizes), but it’s nice to see them actually conceding their ignorance when it comes to your average Gossip Girl viewer. If the show can survive the final five episodes with Michelle Trachtenberg in tow then they’ll certainly have earned a second season pick-up.

* You’ve got a hockey game seven (any game seven is awesome, especially when a Montreal loss slots the Penguins into the new number one spot in the East) and a pair of NBA game twos, including one of the most interesting series (Wizards vs. Cavaliers) and the least interesting series (Rockets vs. Jazz). I’m in no position to commentate on hockey in any way, but there’s so much to say about these NBA playoffs.

As far as your MVP candidates go, Andre Miller really should be getting more love for what he did with a seemingly prepubescent 76ers team. With him off the floor at the same time Andre Iguodala was struggling for the first two and a half quarters, the Philly offense was actually painful to watch. He was a calming presence down the stretch, trying to steel a team of playoff rookies against a Pistons team that’s played dozens of postseason games together. My original pick in this series would have been Detroit in five or six, and I don’t think I’d make a drastic change to that, although things will certainly be incredibly interesting back in Philadelphia with the crowd totally jazzed up and the series at least tied.

Chris Paul certainly looks like he’s on his way to validating the MVP award that gets stolen from him and given to Kobe, as he had more field goals in the second half of Saturday night’s game than the Mavericks did. Jason Kidd cannot guard him, which, as it turns out, is sort of a problem. After successful double teams on Wednesday night in the regular season finale, Dallas found themselves flailing trying to stop CP3. It seems like the idea of the lack of New Orleans playoff experience will be the cliché critique thrown out by every pundit in every round until the Hornets finally lose. I think the series with Dallas is going to be a long one that there’s no guarantee on the favorite prevailing in, but if the Hornets lose, it won’t because of a lack of experience, but instead because there’s a lot of talent on Dallas.

Kobe and Carmelo put up two of the least inspiring thirty-point games in NBA history, as Kobe just had a rough night shooting (kudos to Kenyon Martin for some solid defense, but one would assume Mamba could have taken him to the hole at will) and Carmelo made me as angry with a player as I’ve ever been for a singular performance. He just killed the offense every time he was in the game, acting as black hole that took away any ball movement against the Laker defense and forcing up poor shots. When the Nuggets rolled with a line-up without their “star” forward, they were considerably more effective and better on defense, as ‘Melo was lost (drunk? Sorry, had to) any time Los Angeles was swinging the ball around and finding wide open shots for whoever wanted it. Going into this series I would have said Lakers in five or six, but I think I was giving Denver way too much credit; revise that to four or five.

I won’t linger on the NBA too long right now, but expect a separate all-playoffs post within the next week. King James vs. Agent Zero and Tough Juice, Round Two. Tonight.

* After one of the most miserable box office periods I can remember, Forgetting Sarah Marshall unofficially started the summer movie season. I realize that the period between the Christmas holiday and the first few big movies of the year (that aren’t mostly depressing Oscar nominees) always seems this torturous, but 2008 felt like one of the worst. I guess last year gave us Norbit, Wild Hogs and Ghost Rider, but even those seem palatable compared to Prom Night, 10,000 B.C., Jumper and 21. The full summer movie mega preview is coming soon – here’s a list of the biggies by weekend, and it’s not overly inspiring at first glance – but I’m glad Hollywood is easing us into the explosions and epilepsy-unfriendly content of Iron Man and Speed Racer with Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Harold and Kumar 2.

As far as Forgetting Sarah Marshall goes, I was not disappointed, although I was surprised to see the box office tally clock in below twenty million. That apparently was right at if not above industry expectations, and I suppose that makes sense when I realize that not everyone (see: most of America) watches Veronica Mars or How I Met Your Mother. Jason Segel really did a nice job with both the screenplay and his acting, totally managing to carry a movie just like anybody who has watched him over his career figured he could.

He had the benefit of a fantastic supporting cast, with Kristen Bell (wasn’t bad, but not totally awesome; I had rather high expectations for her to become America’s Sweetheart after this movie, but that inevitability will have to wait a few more projects), the re-emergence of Mila Kunis, my favorite SNL cast member since Will Ferrell (Bill Hader was his usual awesome self), the always awesome Paul Rudd and Kenneth the Page (I think he’s earned the right to be called by his real name, Jack McBrayer, but no one would know who I was talking about). I also thought the guy who played Aldous Snow was just great, and I think a lot of his quiet, undersold lines will be even funnier on repeat viewings. The other members of the hotel staff had great lines as well (“He’s like Gandhi, but better; he likes puppets.”), and all-in-all, it’s a very enjoyable, very funny, full-frontal male nudity-filled night at the movies with some top-notch eye candy in Bell and Kunis.

If Escape From Guantanamo is even half as funny as the original Harold and Kumar, we’ll have a very quality start to this summer movie season. We get the bonus this weekend of seeing whether or not a comedy with two talented female leads can do as well as an equally hyped, male-led comedy as Tina Fey’s Baby Mama goes one-on-one with the Cho/Penn ticket.

* Even though the Pirates have already reached their place in the cellar of the National League (how do you go 0-6 against the freaking Cubs?), it’s good to remember that for some fans – and especially kids - baseball really is fun. Here’s my nominee for favorite link of the month.

* In honor of yesterday being 4/20, an old Freakonomics post on the pros and cons of legalizing marijuana. Really interesting as you scroll through the comments, because on a blog that often has a substantial amount of dissenting opinions in the comments, there is really only one in this post.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Drinking Your Milkshake To Wash Down My Delicious Burger Phone: 2008 Oscar Predictions

Hi, remember me? I used to write on here from time to time. Blame the Fighting Irish basketball team, who are making it worthwhile to spend some time on Rakes, and the general mix of busy and laziness that comes with second semester of senior year. As I say in the following, I reserve my right to change this order upon seeing the movies for a second time, but going into the ceremony tonight, I'm pretty pleased with the order.

I’m finding it rather difficult to overly excited for the Academy Awards, knowing that there will be a limited amount of surprises, a bunch of performances for Best Song I’m not attached to and a movie I probably didn’t like that much winning Best Picture to cap everything off. The last few years have had at least one redeemable quality to them (Scorsese winning with Spielberg, Lucas and Capra; Three 6 Mafia being so ridiculously happy they won, as opposed to the usual controlled restraint from those in the winner’s circle), and I don’t see one this year.

As per the misogynistic usual, I’ve seen the Best Picture nominees and a lot of the Best Actor flicks, and absolutely none of the Best Actress offers except for Juno. I’ve seen them all within the last few months, from No Country For Old Men right before Christmas break to Michael Clayton last night, and seen each only once, although I really wanted to see No Country and Juno again to see how a second viewing influenced the strong aftertaste of varying anger and joy they both left in their wake.

We’ll hit the Best Pictures in order of who I’d like to win, have a brief discussion of some of the acting roles and then final predictions I hope all come incredibly, disastrously wrong for the sake of entertainment and critics going batshit crazy in the aftermath like they did when Crash upset Brokeback Mountain.

5. Atonement

The first half of this movie is a beautifully constructed, intriguing romance in the English countryside between the wars, with Keira Knightley fulfilling her destiny of only appearing in period pieces and James McAvoy being quite good. I found the little girl, Best Supporting Actress nominee Saoirse Ramon, incredibly annoying and infuriating, but I suppose that’s a credit to her character construction more than anything. The hot summer’s night is shattered by a crime no one can piece together correctly, and we sadly move onto the second half of the movie.

The second half reads like the checklist some researchers put together after looking at what makes a movie successful come Oscar season, with the folks behind Atonement more than giddy to put a mark by everyone one. Non-linear plot (this is also used in the first half, but to a much more enjoyable degree)? Check. War scenes? Check. Romantic, heart-wrenching scene in city street with bus pulling away and someone running after it? Check. Extended shot of a beach following the Battle of Dunkirk, which was nothing more than an exercise in masturbative cinematography that added nothing to the plot of the movie? Check. Old lady popping up at the end like in Titanic to deliver some sort of lesson? You betcha.

I’m not sure how Atonement got a Best Picture nomination. I went in expecting to hate it and certainly did not, but if the Academy didn’t find McAvoy or Knightley worthy of a nomination, how does this work out? I don’t have anything I particularly loved I’d replace it with (I suppose the Academy would frown on Live Free or Die Hard), but it seems like this movie belongs next to The English Patient in the 1990’s.

4. There Will Be Blood

If you’ll let me channel my inner Simon Cowell, I didn’t get it. I didn’t get what the plot was, what the point was or why it had to be three hours long. I appreciate the craftsmanship, in a Citizen Kane sort of way, and Paul Dano and Daniel-Day Lewis were both good, but it bordered on the ridiculous during some points. Loved the Johnny Greenwood score that annoyed some of the audience, and loved some of the individual scenes, but all strung together, I just didn’t get it. I don’t know why I have this at four when this might be more an an attempt at being an Oscar nominee first and an entertaining movie second.

If it’s supposed to be a character piece on Daniel Plainview, that’s great, but it starts you off too late in his life. He’s already a man, mining the earth for silver, and then oil, with some great shots sans dialogue that establish his intensity. But we never see why Plainview is misanthropic, doesn’t trust anyone or is so incredibly driven by greed. Day-Lewis does a knock up job, and until I saw Michael Clayton I was all for him winning Best Actor just for keeping the movie together. For having no consistent plot, it stays interesting far longer than it should simply because of Day-Lewis’ portrayal.

It also loses some points for the ending, which is one of the most absurd things I’ve ever seen, and SNL parodied it perfectly last night with “I Drink Your Milkshake.” I appreciate what Paul Thomas Anderson was trying to do, and I can understand why film buffs might love it, but everyone I went with – and most people I’ve talked to that saw it – just didn’t get it. You could flip-flop this and Atonement, really, and I wouldn’t be overly upset.

3. No Country For Old Men

I’m not sure where I want to put the latest Coens film, because in the aftermath of seeing it, I was a mixture of confused, angry and disgusted with how they ended it. When you go into a movie knowing the ending, without any specifics, is going to be something that’s caused a lot of people confusion, and you’re so focused on not missing anything and you still walk out of the theater going “What the f*ck?”, that’s a problem. What made me even angrier was the claims when I was skimming reviews and the IMDB boards that if you didn’t get it, you were some sort of idiot. Enlighten me, Peter Travers!

Those people, of course, are deaf, dumb and blind to anything that isn't spelled out between commercials on dying TV networks. Joel and Ethan Coen's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel is an indisputably great movie, at this point the year's very best. Set in 1980 in West Texas, where the chase is on for stolen drug money, the film — a new career peak for the Coen brothers, who share writing and directing credits — is a literate meditation (scary words for the Transformers crowd) on America's bloodlust for the easy fix.

So there you go: if you don’t get it, you’ve been too dumbed down by television. Never mind the fact that the main plot of the movie revolves around a man hunt that you don’t even see the climax of, but you’re supposed to be okay with that. I understand the difficulty in translating the novel, which focuses on the inner workings of Tommy Lee Jones’ character, to the screen, but if you’re going to do it, you can’t make Jones an outlier to the story most of the movie and then somehow use him to drive to your conclusion.

There is a lot of good to this movie, though. The lack of any non-diegetic music should be nominated for Best Score, because it really added to the suspense of the man hunt between Javier Bardem and James Brolin, who were both great. This was a taut tight thriller with a Woody Harrelson cameo (really, what purpose does he serve in the movie other than getting to be Woody Harrelson?) until it all unraveled at the end. The more time that passes, the more I think I’ll enjoy and appreciate it a lot more on a second viewing, but there’s also the chance I would just absolutely loathe it. This is third with an asterisk, as I think it could ascend another spot or two – or drop below Keira Knightley’s green dress- after an encore viewing.

2. Michael Clayton

I really think you could flip-flop the next two, as I know Michael Clayton would be more enjoyable on a second viewing. The first time through, you’re trying to make sure you’re not missing anything important to the legal thriller plot, which is actually quite easy to follow. While you pay attention to the plot, you miss killer performances from everyone involved, with Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson and George Clooney all at the absolute tops of their game. Swinton might have been my favorite, with the flashes of her nervously preparing for everything spliced in with the super smooth delivery in crunch time, you saw how precarious her position and persona were.

I should of course point out that I’m terribly biased in this because I love George Clooney, but I don’t care, he’s fantastic. The list of movies Clooney has made that I’ve really enjoyed-to-love since the turn of the millennium is getting quite lengthy, with Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Thirteen, Good Night, and Good Luck, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and now Michael Clayton. Heck, Intolerable Cruelty wasn’t bad and I’m yet to see Syriana, which gets a lot of love from people. When movie pundits projecting the Oscar field mention “…and Clooney will get nominated because the Academy just loves him,” I want to scream “Why shouldn’t they?!”. He mixes blockbusters with smaller, art house fare, seems to treat everyone well behind the scenes and gives great interviews like this one. I’m sorry that a discussion of a film turned into a man crush rant on Clooney, but I just want to disclose that.

I can understand Michael Clayton might not get a lot of credit because you could interpret it as a straight legal thriller with some impeccable acting. I’d like to think this movie is a better character profile 0far better, actually – than Blood is of Plainview. Plainview (like Chigurh in No Country) is almost a cartoon, where Clayton seems a lot more like a real guy with dreams, debts and depression. I still wonder why he got out of the car to go up on the hill with the horses at a very convenient time, but it’s a minor quibble in a rather tight narrative.

(Sidebar: I realize I focus a lot on narrative, and that makes me short-sighted, populist and just plain dumb in my movie viewing, but that’s what is important to me. I think you can make a great movie with all kinds of beautiful cinematography and well-planned shots and still have it be entertaining. I don’t enjoy movies that are simply vehicles for a director to try and get a few thousand film elitists all hot and heavy with their flick. Something can be entertaining, well put together and carry a message – the former is not exclusive from the latter two.)

1. Juno

There’s the great potential that upon seeing Juno for a second time – something I’ve almost done a few times in the last couple weeks, just to check myself – I won’t enjoy it nearly as much, but I don’t think so. It really was a perfect storm for me, with a ton of supporting actors I loved with a pretty entertaining script and a director whose last work I really enjoyed. The fact there’s been a massive backlash against it also leads me to believe it was as good as I initially thought, if only because any time Roger Ebert picks a comedy as his best film of the year, it’s a box office success and gets a bunch of Academy Award nominations, people are going to hate.

When I first saw this with Livey over Christmas break, one of the hundreds of movies we’ve seen together, I really enjoyed it. I didn’t want to break out in praise and seem silly – as I will when Ellen Page falls off the face of the earth, the movie doesn’t hold up at all and someone digs this up in three years – but nearly at the same time, we both started pouring out nearly unanimous praise for it. I had loved the soundtrack some people hate and found, despite the ludicrous early scene with Rainn Wilson, that Juno’s smart alecky-ness was really grounded in her breakdowns later in the movie. She was just a really smart girl putting up a good front when she was scared, but deep down, she was absolutely terrified.

Much like if you put George Clooney in a movie I’m probably going to like it, putting Jason Bateman, Michael Cera, JK Simmons and Allison Janney into one gives it a big heads up. One complaint I’ve heard is that it wasn’t that funny, but I think that’s got more to do with expectations than anything else, as it certainly had comedic elements, but more of a milder Appatow humor instead of Frat Pack. The idea that it’s not big enough – or however detractors are putting it – to win Best Picture is also silly. I’m sick of the Oscars shunning really well made, entertaining, poignant movies because they don’t fit the right genre (action and comedy, please keep on moving) or don’t span enough decades or nations in their epic-ness.

It might not hold up on a second viewing, and I reserve my right to change my opinion later, but of the five films nominated, I say Juno most deserves the little golden man.

Other Awards

Best Actor/Best Supporting Actor: Day-Lewis and Bardem have these locked up, which is a shame, because Clooney and Wilkinson were also very good. Philip Seymour Hoffman was his usual amazing self in Charlie Wilson’s War, but that film just never got legs during the award season, and PSH pays the price.

Best Actress: Thought Ellen Page was great, obviously, but apparently Julie Christie and Marion Cotillard were far too good for her to be really considered. It would be nice to see Laura Linney to get a little credit for just continually churning out good stuff. (Amy Adams should have a nomination here, by the way.)

Best Supporting Actress: Probably the most wide open field, and despite not seeing Gone Baby Gone, I’m going with Amy Ryan due to her wonderful arc on The Wire. If the Emmys don’t want to pay tribute to the show, then it can just start winning Oscars instead.