A Good Yarn

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Oscar Week

This Sunday is the Oscars, so I'm doing my usual quick catch up on some of the nominees so I can see as many as possible before the awards are handed out. First up was Talk Cinema on Saturday, with this foreign film nominee:

Loved it. I don't want to say too much about it, because part of the real pleasure of the film mis watchng everything unfold and seeing how the events in the characters' lives change them. In fact, I'd avoid reading any reviews for this before you see it. After I see a film, I usually go and read the reviews and some of the reviews I read of this were very detailed and would have ruined it for me if I had read them before. So, in general, the film is set in 1984 in East Germany. A Stasi (E German Secret Police) officer is told to monitor a playwright who is in the good graces of the government, but one high ranking officer wants to know if he's really up to something, being an artist and all. The playwright lives with his girlfriend, an actress who plays the leads in his plays. The film works on several levels - it comments about privacy and government intrusion, but it is also more personal and about trying to change the world vs. changing yourself. It also is a damn fine thriller. This year I've seen 4 out of the 5 foreign film nominees and they're all really strong. This one might be my favorite. The talk part of Talk Cinema was a question and answer period with the director of the film. He's a pretty amazing man - only 33 years old and this is his first film. He both wrote and directed it. He's 6'9" and looks every bit the Aryan poster child. He was born in Germany, but lived part of his childhood in New York, so he speaks accentless English. He also studied philosophy in St. Petersburg, Russia. Brilliant man with some great comments about his film and film in general. I can't wait to see what he does next.

Sunday, I had the opportunity to see one of the Documentary nominees at the local documentary film theater:

The title of this film is really descriptive - it really does show small pieces of life in Iraq. The film is broken down into three parts - one follows a Sunni boy in Baghdad who works for a man he says is like a father to him. The man is in turns affectionate and cruel to the boy. The boy spends some days in school, where he doesn't seem to learn much, and some days working for the man, mostly listening to the man and his friends talk about the war and the Americans and their nostalgia for Saddam. The second part is about the Shiite followers of Moktada al Sadr, in southern Iraq. It shows their extremism - their self-flagellation, their rallies and their attacks on men in the market who are allegedly selling alcohol. I am amazed by the kind of access the director had. The final section shows a Kurdish family in northern Iraq. The Kurds are happy that Saddam is gone and are less angry at the Americans than the Sunnis and the Shia, but also seem to be growing weary of the occupation. After seeing the harsh conditions in both Baghdad and Sadr, nothern Iraq looks positively bucolic. For me, the film was interesting and informative and I did marvel at the documentarian's ability to have access to all three areas, but it left me a little cold. It was very impressionistic and was indeed just a fragment of time. I prefer more of a straight-forward narrative and storytelling. I also think my woeful lack of knowledge of the history of Iraq probably hurt me - nothing really is explained in the film, with the expectation that you already know who Moktada al Sadr is (I do generally, but not a lot) or what life was like in Iraq under Saddam for each of these groups or many other things. I can see why this film is admired and nominated, but I saw quite a few other documentaries this year that I liked better.

Just by coincidence, I also saw another documentary that is nominated this year on PBS later Sunday night:

This film is also about life in Iraq. This time, it's more of a straight story, focusing on the first elections after the war (remember with the purple figure showing you had voted?). It follows a physician in Baghdad who is on the city council and is running for election for the local governing body, from what I could tell. I wasn't exactly sure how the political structure is set up, but from what I could gather, he's already on the city council and wanted to be elected to what would be like the state legislature here. He's a Sunni and a member of the major Sunni party in Iraq. The film follows the process of the preparations for the elections by the U.S. military and the U.N. and an Australian contractor hired to provide election security in Northern Iraq. The doctor's daily life is also followed - you see him solving problems for his constituents as a city-council member, talking to U.S. military personnel about concerns with how the Sunnis are being treated, especially in Fallujah, investigating detentions at Abu Graib, etc. But you also see him caring for his patients as a doctor. At one point, his wife tells him he should give up politics - he can do more for his people as a doctor than as a politician. His party is debating whether to participate in the elections and he's a passionate advocate for participating and changing the system from within instead of boycotting the elections and being left out of the decision-making. I liked this one more, just because I did find myself really caring about this doctor and his family. It was interesting to see both films on the same day.

Yesterday I checked out this film, which I still hadn't seen:

I really wanted to see it before the ceremony because I'm pretty sure Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy are going to win. I hadn't seen it yet because I'm not a huge fan of musicals and I had heard mixed things about it. Overall, I'd say it was just ok. It's really gorgeous - fantastic costumes and some great scenes. The singing and dancing was really enjoyable. However, it all felt a bit much to me. It seemed to go on forever and ever. The characters seemed pretty one-dimensional to me. I did really enjoy Eddie Murphy's performance, although I really wanted more of him and his story. The big buzz is around Jennifer Hudson and I just wasn't blown away by her. Like she did on American Idol, I always feel like she's over-singing everything. Just my personal taste, I guess. I actually thought Beyonce's big number toward the end was more impactful than the Hudson centerpiece to the film. I actually really liked Jamie Foxx as the bad guy quite a bit too, as well as Keith Robinson as the songwriter for the group/Hudson's character's brother. Even so, I thought the writing was pretty marginal and I was somewhat embarrassed for Foxx at the very end - it just seemed so hokey, but I won't get into the details for those who haven't seen it yet. The music was ok - there were a few songs that I really liked, but I didn't think they were anywhere near as good as the real Motown sound.