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Monday, February 23, 2009

Oscar Hangover

Well, the 2008 movie season is now officially over and I managed to correctly predict 16 of the 24 winners - not great, but not that bad either. All in all, I thought the Oscars offered up a well-paced and enteraining show this year. My favourite and least favourite things about it under the cut:

What I Didn’t Like (A Surprisingly Short List):

In Memoriam: It annoys me every year but since it continues to happen every year it obviously still needs to be said that there should be no clapping during the In Memoriam section. How is it that a room full of adults doesn’t know that it is exceedingly tacky to turn the memorial segment into a popularity contest? Of course this year my irritation at the clapping has to compete with the way the memoriam segment was produced, making it the background to a stage performance so that the parade of the dead isn’t even the focus. Next year the AMPAS should look into getting the team that does the year end tribute for TCM, who manage to create beautiful and classy montages each and every year.

Musical Clusterfuck: So, let me get this straight. There’s not enough time to show performances of the 3 nominated songs, but there is enough time for the seemingly endless tribute to songs from past musicals featuring Beyonce and the kids from High School Musical? I’ll just repeat what I said while I was watching it: Why is this happening? I think I may have disliked this even more than that year when Beyonce was brought in to perform all of the nominated songs (because why let the artists who actually worked on them have their moment on stage?).

What I Didn’t Like But Then Totally Liked:

Making Fun of Joaquin Phoenix Will Apparently Never Not Be Funny: My first thought when I saw Ben Stiller as Phoenix was, “This would be funnier if I hadn’t seen the exact same thing yesterday courtesy of The Independent Spirit Awards.” But, to my surprise, it actually turned out to be pretty funny anyway, particularly when he started wandering towards the screen, cracking up co-presenter Natalie Portman.

What I Liked:

Hugh Jackman: I had my doubts but I thought he made a pretty good host. Sure, the jokes were lacking in bite (which leads me to believe that despite rumors to the contrary, Ricky Gervais did not provide Jackman with any material), but I was still generally entertained.

Steve Martin and Tina Fey: Makes me sad that there were only two screenplay Oscars to give out. Although, as I realized later in the show, having one or two presenters give out more than two awards can get tiresome, as in: Will Smith, I like you but why are you still there?

Philippe Petit: You are delightful.

Five Winners Presenting to Five Nominees: I really liked this and I hope they do it again next year. Having five past winners come out to say something about the achievement of each of the nominees really highlights the fact that it is an honor to be nominated and provides a solid moment of recognition to those four that will walk away empty-handed. It also eliminates the need for clips from films, which I find to be generally useless because if a nominee did any yelling in their film, that’s what will be shown in the clip to demonstrate “emotion.” Taken out of the context, yelling is just yelling and not representative of a performance as a whole.

Restraint: I know it must have been hard, but thank you for only cutting to Brad & Angelina once while Jennifer Aniston was onstage. I know that you were probably dying inside but on behalf of those of us who are tired of hearing about this manufactured “feud,” I salute you. I would also like to thank whoever it is that’s in charge of deciding when winners will be played off for not cuing up the music half a second after the winners got on-stage. I hate it when people get played off so I was happy that the winners got to have their say without having to shout it over the orchestra.

Winners For Milk: I was pulling for Courtney Hunt, but I was happy for Dustin Lance Black’s Original Screenplay win, especially in light of his beautiful and emotional acceptance speech. When it came to Best Actor, I was hoping for Sean Penn but half-expecting it to be Mickey Rourke. Even so, when Penn’s name was called I experienced a slight pang of disappointment that we wouldn’t get to hear another of Rourke’s speeches, which have certainly been memorable, only to be glad again when Penn opened with “You commie, homo loving sons of guns.” Well played, sir.

Winners’ Relatives: I think even the most hardened amongst us got a little emotional when Heath Ledger’s family accepted the Supporting Actor Oscar on his behalf. His winning seemed inevitable but the reaction of the audience to the win and in particular to the Ledger family’s tribute to him, was the night’s most authentic moment. I also loved Kate Winslet’s dad whistling to let her know where he was sitting. I realize that putting the celebrities in one part of the auditorium and “the others” in another part makes it easier to do cut-aways to the audience, but it must suck to have to sit a mile away from your kid when they receive the biggest award of their career.

Finally, Just An Observation:

I thought Harvey Weinstein campaigned hard for The Reader, but apparently that’s going to be child’s play compared to how he’ll push Nine. Three of the Best Actress presenters (Sophia Loren, Nicole Kidman, Marion Cotillard) are also co-stars in Nine, which I can’t help but think isn’t a coincidence. Supporting Actress winner Penelope Cruz is also one of the stars of the film and I suppose that her winning this year will make it easier to decide which actress (actresses?) from the film will be pushed in the supporting category next year.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Oscar Winners

Best Picture: Slumdog Millionaire

Best Director: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire

Best Actor: Sean Penn, Milk

Best Actress: Kate Winslet, The Reader

Best Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

Best Original Screenplay: Dustin Lance Black, Milk

Best Adapted Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire

Best Film Editing: Slumdog Millionaire

Best Cinematography: Slumdog Millionaire

Best Art Direction: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Best Costume Design: The Duchess

Best Makeup: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Best Visual Effects: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Best Sound Editing: The Dark Knight

Best Sound Mixing: Slumdog Millionaire

Best Original Score: Slumdog Millionaire

Best Original Song: "Jai Ho," Slumdog Millionaire

Best Foreign Language Film: Departures (Japan)

Best Documentary Feature: Man On Wire

Best Animated Feautre: Wall-E

Best Documentary Short: Smile Pinky

Best Live Action Short: Spielzeugland

Best Animated Short: La Maison En Petites Cubes

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Countdown To Oscar: Final Predictions

Just one more day! Just one more day! My predictions, for what they're worth:

Picture: Slumdog Millionaire

Director: Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire

Actor: Sean Penn, Milk

Actress: Kate Winslet, The Reader

Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

Original Screenplay: Courtney Hunt, Frozen River

Adapted Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire

Editing: Chris Dickens, Slumdog Millionaire

Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle, Slumdog Millionaire

Art Direction: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Costume Design: The Duchess

Best Makeup: The Dark Knight

Best Visual Effects: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Sound Mixing: Slumdog Millionaire

Sound Editing: The Dark Knight

Original Score: Thomas Newman, Wall-E

Original Song: "Down To Earth," Wall-E

Foreign Language Film: The Class

Documentary Feature: Trouble The Water

Animated Feature: Wall-E

Live Action Short: Spielzeugland

Animated Short: Presto

Documentary Short: The Conscience of Nhem En

3 No Guts, No Glory Picks:
Frost/Nixon for Picture
Josh Brolin for Supporting Actor
Kung Fu Panda for Animated Feature

Friday, February 20, 2009

Countdown To Oscar: Best Picture

It's the biggie, the film award to end all film awards. There's no formula for determining what film will ultimately walk away with the prize, but when you look through the past winners, a few things do become apparent:

- The winner is usually the film with the most nominations

- More often than not, the winner is a drama and one with a romantic storyline*

- The winner tends to be a populist favourite (in the past 30 years only 3 winners have grossed less than $100 million domestically)

- The category that tells you the most about the chances of the five contenders is Editing. A film can win without Acting nominations (Return of the King, Braveheart, The Last Emperor), without a Screenplay nomination (Titanic), and even without a Director nomination (Driving Miss Daisy), but you've got to go back to Ordinary People to find a winner that wasn't nominated for Editing

So keeping all of that in mind, and remembering that buzz is always the defining factor, the nominees:





The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


David Fincher’s film leads the nominations with 13 (a number few films reach) and also has the distinction of being the highest-grossing of the nominees. There's obviously a lot of love for this film both artistically and technically, but it's also the nominee that's been getting the biggest beating leading up to the ceremony. Now, it's hardly unusual for romantic epics to trump more critically acclaimed competitors (think of Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction, The English Patient over Fargo, and Titanic over L.A. Confidential, just to name a few), but for that to happen I think that there has to be a general feeling of audiences and critics being swept up in the grandeur of the bigger, glitzier film - and I don't think that that's happened with Button. Nevertheless, it can't be counted out as a threat to Slumdog Millionaire's potential domination.

Also Nominated For: Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup, Original Score, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects



Frost/Nixon


Frost/Nixon's inclusion in the Best Picture race seemed inevitable even though there was relatively little talk about it. Compared to the amount of discussion inspired by the other nominees (both good and bad), this one seems like something of an afterthought. Although well-received by critics, I can't see any circumstances under which it could win Best Picture; it's a classic also-ran if I've ever seen one.

Also Nominated For: Director, Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Editing



Milk


This year's dark horse is a biopic with a lot of relevance to current events and which may well benefit from a vote split between The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire. I don't expect that to happen, but I wouldn't be entirely surprised, especially since some are still feeling the sting of the great Brokeback Mountain versus Crash debacle of 2005. The film has been a hit with most critics but has hardly made a dent at the box office, which may hurt its chances.

Also Nominated For: Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay, Editing, Costume Design, Original Score



The Reader


2008 wasn’t a great year in film, but even with its slim pickings The Reader has no place in the top 5 – and I say that as someone who liked it. Chalk this up to the power of Harvey Weinstein’s marketing push, but don’t count on it for the win. Weinstein's aggressive campaigning is likely to turn some people off, and the lack of recognition in the Editing category doesn't bode well.

Also Nominated For: Director, Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography



Slumdog Millionaire


The critical favourite seems to have it all but sewn up, though there are a couple of things working against it. It's spent the last couple of months sweeping awards, which have inevitably given way to the "over rated" rumblings. Feeding in to that is the manufactured controversies about the film in relation to the real slums of Mumbai and the effect of the film on the young actors who appeared in it. The other problem is, to put it bluntly, that the Academy tends not to favour films lacking in significant white characters (and don't point to The Last Emperor or Gandhi because the former features Peter O'Toole and the latter has Candice Bergen and Martin Sheen). That being said, the fact that Slumdog garnered so many nominations despite not being effects driven speaks well for its chances, because it suggests that the AMPAS nominated for pretty much everything it possibly could.

Also Nominated For: Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography, Score, Song (x2), Sound Editing, Sound Mixing



* This is true of the winners in general, though the past decade has seen few romantically inclined winners

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Countdown To Oscar: The Lives of Others


* * * *

Best Foreign Language Film, 2006

Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Starring: Ulrich Muhe, Sebastian Koch

If you wanted to simplify it to its most basic elements, I suppose you could say that The Lives of Others is about a good man who realizes that he’s a cog in a bad machine. His redemption, if you can call it that, is not simple: it’s messy for everyone involved – but at least he saves his soul. Though I’m still not convinced that it should have won the Foreign Language Oscar over Pan’s Labyrinth, I liked The Lives of Others a lot. To be honest, since seeing it, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

The story is set in East Berlin during the final years of the Communist regime (not that anyone knows, of course, that the end is so near). Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe) is a Stasi agent who trains new recruits in the techniques of interrogation and seems, in these moments, to be what you would expect of a Stasi agent: a cold blank slate with no ideals of his own and a robotic loyalty to the State. When the opportunity arises to handle surveillance of the playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), Wiesler takes it, reasoning that Georg might be to good to be true in terms of his commitment to the ideals of the regime.

Wiesler and his team enter Georg’s apartment and proceed with cool efficiency to bug the rooms and set up a centre of operations in the empty attic of the building. When a neighbor has the misfortune of catching a glimpse of what’s going on across the hall, Wielser makes it clear to her that she has much to lose by tipping off Georg, and it’s obvious that intimidation is second nature to him. What makes this film work so well is that Wielser begins the film as a villain, totally detached from emotion and empathy, and gradually becomes the hero as he comes to care about Georg through his surveillance.

Georg lives with his girlfriend, Christa (Martina Gedeck), an actress of some acclaim who has little belief in her talent and a secret addiction to pills. She has also drawn the attention of a government minister who coerces her into sex by threatening to keep her off the stage forever and, worse, to have her arrested for illegally procuring pills. This is, of course, the real reason for the surveillance of Georg, so that the romantic rival can be removed and a more definitive move can be made on Christa. Knowing this plays a large role in changing Wiesler, who sees it as an abuse of power and begins to realize that the whole system is, in fact, an abuse of power.

Following the suicide of a friend, Georg decides to take action, writing an article about the cover-up of the suicide rate in East Germany that will be smuggled across the border and published in the West. His friends advise him to keep it a secret from Christa, whom they fear may be unreliable, but she accidentally discovers where he’s hiding his pages and the typewriter he’s been given to write the essay (the Stasi have experts who can discover from the type-face what typewriter was used and who it belongs to). What happens after this requires intervention from Wiesler, whose manipulation of the situation will ultimately save one life, end another, and ruin his career.

The story is sturdily constructed and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck does an excellent job building up the tension as the characters work their way towards inevitable tragedy. I really only have one criticism of the film, which is that the end is a little overloaded with scenes beginning with the title “X Years Later.” It makes the ending seem a bit choppy, though the final shot, when Wiesler knows that his sacrifice was not in vain, makes it easy to forgive.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Countdown To Oscar: Unforgiven


* * * *
Best Picture, 1992

Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman

“I ain’t like that no more,” Bill Munny insists, though every turn takes him closer and closer to that man he used to be. Unforgiven is, indeed, an unforgiving film, dark and brutal, unromanticized and demystifying. It tells the story of a man who was once bad but has since tried to be good, of women fighting against their status as property, and of the “Wild West” making its final transition from reality to legend.

In a small outpost a man attacks a prostitute, cutting her face up to bits. The law in town is unofficial but absolute, headed up by Little Bill (Gene Hackman), who rules with an iron fist. The prostitutes, led by Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher), want the attacker and his friend hanged, but their wishes aren't exactly taken into consideration. When the brothel's owner suggests that he’s willing to settle for monetary reimbursement, Bill tells the men that they can walk away without so much as a whipping provided that they give the brothel owner six horses. Strawberry Alice is furious. “We may be whores, but we ain’t horses,” she says before proceeding to rally the other women to pool their money and hire a bounty hunter to exact revenge on the two men.

A young gunslinger who calls himself the Schofield Kid (Jamiz Woolvett) gets word of the bounty and goes out in search of Munny, hoping to form a partnership. The Munny he finds, however, is not the man of legend, but a widower living with his two children on a pig farm. He declines the offer, insisting that he’s out of the outlaw life, the love of his late wife having changed him and set him on the right path. After the Kid leaves, however, Munny begins to think it over and decides that the promise of money is too strong to keep him away. He seeks out his former partner, Ned (Morgan Freeman) and they set off after the Kid, whom they quickly realize isn’t quite as adept a gunslinger as he’d like to suggest – but, of course, Munny himself isn’t so adept anymore either. Before setting off, he practices his shooting, setting up a tin can on a post and missing every time until he swaps in a shotgun that couldn’t possibly miss. His first attempt at riding a horse after so many years is similarly pathetic and for a while it seems as if the film will be more comedy than drama. That all changes as soon as they arrive at the outpost and Munny has his first run-in with Little Bill, who beats him and tells him to get out of town.

Earlier in the film Little Bill had done the same to English Bob (Richard Harris) and, in beating and exiling him, inherited his biographer (Saul Rubinek), who dutifully records all his thoughts and stories and actions for posterity. The biographer character is, in certain respects, the film’s comic relief but he’s also an integral part to the larger story because he’s symbolic of the change that’s taking place as the West becomes civilized and the people within it become mythologized. The film is bookmarked by a prologue and an epilogue which suggests this storytelling element and implies that everything in between is just another exaggerated tale woven by writers who want to sell books. The screenplay is very strong, weaving together ideas about mythology, criticism of celebrity-making culture, and a dash of hardnosed feminism (though, interestingly, it hardly touches on racism), while also creating finely etched characters who exist simultaneously as two people: the larger than life character and the real person living in its shadow.

I've always been pretty indifferent to Eastwood as a director. As a craftsman I’ve always found him solid but not extraordinary, though I think he consistently draws good performances out of his actors. With Unforgiven I finally see Eastwood’s directorial greatness, his skill at setting the tone and, in particular, his eye for composition. My favourite sequence of shots comes at the end, when Munny is riding out of town in the rain, a bad man once again, issuing warnings to everyone in his vicinity. There’s a shot of Strawberry Alice holding a light as she and others watch him ride away, back into the folklore from which he came. It’s a great and evocative sequence and makes for a fantastic ending.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Countdown To Oscar: Best Director

Although not unheard of (it happened as recently as 2005), it’s unusual that all five Director nominees match the Picture nominees. More often than not there’s usually one director who is nominated for making a film that’s admirable, but perhaps not Academy friendly enough to secure a Picture nomination. What’s interesting to me about this year is that there are two directors – Boyle and Fincher – who have built careers making acclaimed films that are too dark, too weird, too subversive, too whatever for AMPAS, and whom you may have expected, at some point, to get that lone Director slot; who are responsible for the two films most widely embraced by the Academy this year.

The nominees:


Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire

At this point it seems impossible that anyone other than Boyle could win, but of course it isn’t over until it’s over. As a filmmaker, Boyle has been something of an acquired taste up until Slumdog, arguably the most accessible of all his films. Of the picture nominees, Slumdog is the one that stands out as least like its four companions, a colorful blast of energy standing shoulder to shoulder with films that can perhaps best be described as staid. Boyle has won a number of awards leading up to the Oscars, the most important of them the DGA. This is his first Oscar nomination.



Stephen Daldry, The Reader

Did anyone see this nomination coming? Even if you predicted The Reader for Picture, would you have guessed Daldry as a Director nominee? In hindsight, of course, it makes more sense as Daldry has a history of making handsome, Academy friendly films, including Billy Elliot and The Hours, both of which earned him Director nominations. I doubt very much that he’ll win, especially in light of the aggressive tactics lately adopted by Harvey Weinstein in pushing the film (which I’m starting to fear may hurt Kate Winslet’s Best Actress chances), which I think may alienate the Academy against The Reader.



David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Fincher is undoubtedly a great director, nominated this year for the film he seemed least comfortable directing. Compare the sleekness and assured storytelling of his previous films with the ungainliness of Button (and I say that as someone who liked the film), and you see a director cautiously stepping out into uncharted territory. Button is unlike any of his other films, but it’s very much the kind of film the AMPAS likes to honor: a big, Hollywood epic. If anyone is going to steal Boyle’s thunder, it’ll be Fincher. This is his first nomination.



Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon

Howard is probably the safest choice of all the nominees, a Hollywood friendly, middle of the road filmmaker who makes inoffensive, unchallenging films. I’m kind of surprised that this is only his second nomination (I was sure that he’d been nominated for Apollo 13), but then again his films tend to be a little hit and miss. He has won previously (for A Beautiful Mind) and I wouldn’t expect that he’ll bring his tally to 2 this year.



Gus Van Sant, Milk

Van Sant is sort of like the point where Howard and Daldry meet Boyle and Fincher. He’s a director best admired for the smaller, more subversive films with which he began his career (and to which he’s returned in the last few years), but most awarded and honored for the period of his career where he leaned more towards the mainstream. Milk fits in more with those mainstream efforts, which I’m sure played no small part in the film garnering so many nominations. This is Van Sant’s second nomination, the first being for Good Will Hunting.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Countdown To Oscar: The Sea Inside


* * *
Best Foreign Language Film, 2004

Director: Alejandro Amenabar
Starring: Javier Bardem

What makes life worth living? That is, without a doubt, an intensely personal question and one which you can only ever answer for yourself. Why is it, then, that the idea of a person deciding that his or her life is not worth living can become a matter of debate amongst complete strangers? The Sea Inside is about one man’s fight for the right to die and the effect that fight has on those in his immediate circle and on his society in general. The subject is a difficult one and the film approaches it as sensitively as it can, which is perhaps part of the problem: though the film is good, it also feels a bit soft.

As a young man, Ramon Sampedro (Javier Bardem) dove into shallow waters and broke his neck, leaving him a quadriplegic. For the next 30 years he would fight for his right to end his life while living in a room in his brother and sister-in-law’s home, rarely leaving. He refuses to use a wheelchair, believing that it presents an illusion of freedom and movement, a mockery of what he once had. He is miserable, he says, and feels that a life spent trapped in his own body is the worst kind of hell. It’s difficult to argue that he’s in an unenviable position and that his pain is very real but, at the same time, an argument could be made that life is what you make of it and that he’s miserable because he’s simply given up on life. The film doesn’t really focus enough on his reasons for wanting to end his life, choosing instead to simply have him say over and over that he’s miserable even as he’s surrounded by people who love him, even though his mind has still retained its sharpness, even though he’s found ways to do things like write, allowing him to express himself through poetry.

Ramon hires Julia (Belen Rueda) to represent him and fight for his right to assisted suicide. He chooses her specifically because she suffers from a degenerative disease and he believes that this will make her more sympathetic to his cause. He’s correct in this, as she herself has thoughts of committing suicide rather than living with the agony of her disease, and the two form an intense bond that turns to love in spite of the fact that she’s married. You might think that this newfound love would give both a reason to live after all, but the effect is actually opposite, making both more determined to die and, in fact, to die together.

Though many friends support Ramon’s desire to end his life, his family takes a different view. His brother (Celso Bugallo) fights with him intensely on the issue, and his sister-in-law (Mabel Rivera) has similarly strong feelings. She, in particular, is insulted by the suggestion that the last 30 years of his life have been nothing, an attitude which she feels detracts from the love and care that the family has given him since the accident. She has devoted much of her life to him, acting as day-to-day nurse for him while also raising her son, and she goes so far as to say at one point that Ramon is himself like a son to her, which is perhaps part of the problem as Ramon sees it. The age difference between them is slight and yet, here he is, reduced to the status of a child in her eyes – his life has become an embarrassment to him and if he cannot return to the life he was leading before the accident, then there is nothing left for him in the world.

The Sea Inside isn’t really a crusade movie, though it has all the makings of one. Little time is spent in the courtroom and, in the grand scheme of things, only a small portion of the film is really dedicated to discussing the legality of Ramon’s quest, which he sees as an individual struggle and not a universal one. He’s fighting for himself and himself alone, not for everyone who wants to claim the right to determine their fate in this way. He isn’t looking to become anyone’s hero and the film is good in the way that it grounds him and keeps him from being deified within the context of the story.

Thinking about the film afterwards, the word that came up for me time and again was “fine.” This is a fine film, but not one that inspired any particular passion in me. For all the skill that has gone into it both in front of and behind the camera, it ultimately fails to reach the heights to which it strives.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Countdown To Oscar: Best Actress

The Actress category is sort of the polar opposite of the Actor category. While the Actor category tends to favor older actors who have been nominated before, the Actress category is dominated by first time nominee's (39 of the winners) and skews much younger - the average age of Best Actor winners is 44, the average age of Best Actress winners is 36, a number inflated by the fact that Jessica Tandy won at 81 and Katherine Hepburn won three time between the ages of 60 and 75. Unlike the Actor category, a nominees chances of winning Best Actress aren't really affected by whether or not the film she's been nominated for has been recognized in the other big categories (a Picture nod helps, but as far as Director, Screenplay or the other acting categories go, it's nearly 50/50).

This year's nominees:



Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married

Hathaway truly came into her own as an actress this year, displaying a range that her early Disney films - and the recent Bride Wars - kept firmly under wraps. As family fuck up Kym, Hathaway shines though, it must be said, she has a lot to work with. Hathaway has won a number of awards, including the Critics Choice, but faces fierce competition from both Streep and Winslet. This is her first nomination.



Angelina Jolie, Changeling

I'm not really a fan of this particular performance but since I don't think there's any way Jolie will win, I'm not going to harp about it. Actresses playing mothers tend to fare well in both the leading and supporting categories, but I think there are too many things working against Jolie courtesy of the other four nominees. Jolie already has an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Girl, Interrupted.



Melissa Leo, Frozen River

Leo has been working steadily as a character actor in both television and films for about 20 years, just waiting for the starring role she so richly deserves. She found it in Courtney Hunt's Frozen River, which has garnered her her first Oscar nomination. Like Richard Jenkins in the Actor category, this is one of those cases where the nomination is the award.



Meryl Streep, Doubt

What can you say about Meryl Streep? She's a legend, she's a star, she's one of the greatest actors of all time. That she would be nominated for Doubt was one of the inevitabilities of this award season long before the film even saw the light of day. She won the Critics Choice Award and the SAG, amongst other critics awards and may very well be the one to steal Winslet's thunder. She has won twice before (as Supporting Actress for Kramer vs. Kramer and Sophie's Choice) and been nominated, oh, about a million times (or 15, if you're a stickler for accuracy).



Kate Winslet, The Reader

Though she was campaigned as Supporting Actress, the AMPAS correctly placed her in the leading category, albeit at the expense of her performance in Revolutionary Road. Winslet is wonderful in this role and she's long overdue for a win. I'm pulling for her for two reasons: I think she's great and deserves the win, and I would love for AMPAS to prove Ricky Gervais right - if you want an Oscar, do a Holocaust movie. This is Winslet's 6th nomination in just 13 years.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Countdown To Oscar: Out of Africa


* * * *
Best Picture, 1985

Director: Sydney Pollack
Starring: Meryl Streep, Robert Redford

Out of Africa is the kind of sweeping epic that doesn’t get made much anymore (at least not well). It has prestige and – dare I say it? – class written all over it and manages somehow to overcome the burdens of a problematic genre to live up to its initial promise. There are reasons why I feel that I shouldn’t like this movie: the “other” culture seen through the eyes of a white protagonist, the white protagonist coded as good by being the sole champion of non-white peoples, and the trope “noble savage,” just to name a few. However, despite those elements, the movie really works for me and I adore it unabashedly.

The film is based on the life of Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep), who wrote under the pen name Isak Dinesen and was a member of the Danish aristocracy. After losing out on marrying the man that she really wanted, she settles for his brother, Bror (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and together they move to Kenya where they are set to run a plantation. The marriage is rocky from the beginning: Karen grows increasingly irritated as she watches her spendthrift husband blow through her money, make bad business decisions which leave the plantation haemorrhaging more money, and making little secret of the fact that he’s seeing other women behind her back. Karen makes the best of it, taking control of the management of the plantation and trying to salvage something from it, and making a real effort to make her marriage work. When it becomes clear that even the fact that he’s given her syphilis (which in turn renders her unable to bear children) won’t make Bror think twice about cheating, she finally calls an end to the marriage.

There are two other men who play important roles in Karen’s life: Farah (Malick Bowens), her servant and friend, and Denys, a British big game hunter who becomes Karen’s lover and is played by Robert Redford with absolutely no attempt at an accent (and, really, why would he? At that point in Redford’s career it would have been distracting to see him attempting an accent). Denys and Karen have an intense attraction to each other both physically and intellectually, but the relationship ultimately leaves both wanting. Karen wants some kind of commitment from Denys, wants, at least in this one way, to be like every other woman around her. Denys wants the freedom to come and go as he pleases, to be alone when he wants to be alone. Karen is more hurt by Denys’ desire to be alone than she ever was by Bror’s infidelities, and this incompatibility eventually drives them apart.

As played by Streep, Karen is a woman of considerable spirit, one who endures much but never succumbs to self-pity. She likes having a man around – first Bror, then Denys – but she shows time and again that she doesn’t need one because she’s more than capable of taking care of herself. She’s independent and able to pursue what she wants with an aggression that’s foreign to the women around her, which some find admirable and others find frustrating and, we can assume, unladylike; yet, at the same time, she longs to fit in through a traditional relationship. Redford is a good foil for her, playing a man who is only willing, or perhaps only capable, of giving so much of himself and their romantic chemistry is off the charts (if there was ever a sexier hair washing scene captured on film, I haven’t seen it).

Much of the film was shot on location in Kenya and director Sydney Pollack makes the most of the natural landscape. The film is beautifully photographed by David Watkin, who won the Oscar for Best Cinematography for his efforts, one of the seven that the film would ultimately take home. The production values of the film are top notch and it’s difficult to argue against the worthiness of those seven wins, even though that’s a sore spot for some because the year Out of Africa won is also the year that The Color Purple lost out in 11 categories. This fact has made Out of Africa’s Best Picture win somewhat controversial, which I think is unfair because it’s a really great and moving film. As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the best Picture winners there is.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Countdown To Oscar: Born Into Brothels


* * *
Best Documentary, 2004

Director: Zana Briski & Ross Kauffman

Born Into Brothels is a well-intentioned but somewhat problematic film that opens itself to two very different interpretations. Some will see this film as documenting the lives of children in Calcutta’s red light district and the difficulty they face in escaping what seems to be an inevitable and unfortunate future. Others will see it as a story of uninvited white/Western intervention into the lives of people in a developing nation and the subsequent infatalization of those people that that implies.

The film is directed by Ross Kauffman, who is never seen on camera, and Zana Briski who is, in essence, the film’s main character. The two had gone to Calcutta to document the lives of prostitutes in the red light district, but found the task impossible because their cameras forced the sex trade further underground and further out of reach of prying eyes. The children of the prostitutes, however, were fascinated by the cameras and so the filmmakers decided to take the opportunity to teach them about photography. Week after week, children gather as a class to learn about composition, lighting, choosing shots, and the mechanics of how a camera works. The photographs showcased throughout the film – some of them demonstrating remarkable skill – are all photos taken by the children in the class, children who have been voiceless due to circumstance and find a way to be heard through art.

At a certain point, Briski decides that it’s not enough just to teach them how to take pictures, she wants to get them out of the red light district as well by getting them into boarding schools and giving them a choice regarding their futures. Many of her students are girls, daughters of prostitutes who are themselves the daughters of prostitutes, and it seems unlikely that economic circumstances will afford any of them any opportunity other than to enter into the family business. You can’t fault Briski for wanting to help these kids, to whom she’s obviously become quite close over the course of a couple of years, and you can’t argue that she takes the task lightly. She goes through a lot in her efforts to get these kids into schools and her desire to help them – to actually and actively help them, rather than just feel sorry for them – is heroic, but this is also where the film begins to skirt a very fine and dangerous line.

As the story progresses, it seems to become less about the children and more about Briski’s attempts to help them. I don’t mean to imply that Briski’s motives were lacking in altruism, because I genuinely do not think that she wanted anything other than to help these kids, but I couldn’t help asking myself two questions: Is it her place to be doing this? and what do the parents of these children think? To a certain extent, Briski answers the first question, admitting that she’s neither their mother nor a social worker, and that there’s only so much that she can do; but we never really get a clear sense of what the parents think. The father of one of the boys is dismissed outright by Briski, not without reason given that he’s a hash addict who, in our brief glimpses of him, seems barely aware of his surroundings. The mothers of some of the girls are reluctant to send their daughters away, particularly those daughters on the cusp of puberty, and there is a sense (though this is never stated outright by the filmmakers) that they’re holding their daughters back in the hope of getting money in exchange for allowing the girls to go. But the role of parents in this story is minimal, which lends the film the unfortunate appearance of saying that the opinions of the parents don’t matter because the nice white lady knows best.

As the film winds down, it’s hard not to get a sinking feeling. Briski succeeds in getting most of the children into school but several of them don’t stay there, either leaving of their own accord or being removed by their parents. There is, however, one story that is a genuine success, that of Avijit, who is arguably the most naturally talented photographer of the class. Avijit is the son of the hash addict and towards the end of the film his mother is murdered by her pimp. He loses heart and, it seems, is well on his way down a very bad and very dark road. His work as a photographer has afforded him the opportunity to go to Amsterdam to participate in a show featuring the work of child photographers from around the world and Briski goes through hell trying to get him a passport so that he can go. Whatever you take away from the racial/political implications of the way the film unfolds, it’s difficult to argue that Briski didn’t do her absolute best to do right by these children.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Countdown To Oscar: Best Original Screenplay

Best Original Screenplay is the category honoring stories written directly for the screen. I have a theory regarding this category that the behind the scenes story is just as important as the one that ends up on the screen in terms of determining the winner. I mean, look at some past winners: Good Will Hunting, Juno, Lost In Translation, Little Miss Sunshine - the stories about how these films got made received just as much attention as the stories they told. For this reason, I think that there's a good chance that this year's Original Screenplay winner will be an upset.

The nominees:



Dustin Lance Black, Milk

Milk is the only film nominated for both Picture and Original Screenplay and it won the WGA for Original Screenplay. Both of these things work in its favor but, at the same time, it seems like the buzz for the film in generally has steadily diminished since its release. Add to that the fact that the screenplay, which hangs on the tried and true tentpoles of the biopic genre, is probably the weakest part of the film and it's easy to see how and why AMPAS might vote another way.



Courtney Hunt, Frozen River

Hunt first made Frozen River as a short film in 2004, which she shopped around at various festivals over the course of a couple of years in order to get financial backing to turn it into a feature length film. She was eventually able to secure just under $1 million to shoot the film on location in 24 days. Like Ben Affleck and Matt Damon or Diablo Cody before her, the story of how her film made it to theatres is just as compelling as the product up there on the screen - which is why I think she might just walk away with the prize.



Mike Leigh, Happy-Go-Lucky

Leigh has been here before. He was nominated for writing Secrets & Lies, Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake and walked away empty handed each time. I think the legend of his working style, which involves a large amount of improvisation from the actors, really works against him because it naturally implies that he had a smaller hand in actually writing the screenplay. Of the nominees, I think he's the least likely to win but I'm glad that the film got nominated for something, since it was one of my favourites of 2008.



Martin McDonagh, In Bruges

It's a testament to the strength of the film that it managed to stay on the radar long enough to secure a nomination, given that it was released in theatres nearly a year ago. I don't think it'll win, although you never know and the UK contingent of the AMPAS might push it over the edge. This is McDonagh's first nomination as a writer, though he does already have an Oscar for Best Live Action Short, which he won in 2006.



Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, Pete Docter, Wall-E

The AMPAS has nominated Pixar films on a number of occassions (Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and Ratatouille all received screenplay nods), but none have ever won, which may be attributable to the fact that, at the end of the day, animated films are still largely considered "kids stuff" and not taken as seriously as they ought to be. Stanton has been nominated twice before (for Toy Story and Finding Nemo), Doctor has been nominated once (Toy Story), and this is the first nomination for Reardon.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Countdown To Oscar: Tsotsi


* * * *
Best Foreign Language Film, 2005

Director: Gavin Hood
Starring: Presley Chweneyagae

Tsotsi is a special film, one with long silences which express what words never could, one in which moments of extraordinary brutality stand side-by-side with moments of extreme gentleness. It is the story of a bad man who does a bad thing but becomes a better person in the process. In its strange way, it’s uplifting, though it isn’t at all sentimental. It’s an unflinching tale of poverty, crime and violence interrupted by a moment of grace and a subsequent act of redemption.

“Tsotsi” means thug and it’s an appropriate name for the film’s protagonist (Presley Chweneyagae). Tsotsi lives amongst the shacks in a Soweto slum, just outside of Johannesburg, and leads a small gang consisting of Aap (Kenneth Nkosi), Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe) and Boston (Mothusi Magano). We watch them as they go into the city, target a man on a crowded train, and proceed to rob and kill him without anyone else even noticing. This act makes Boston sick and leads to an angry confrontation between him and Tsotsi. With the same coldness and detachment that marks all his actions, Tsotsi nearly beats Boston to death and sets off into the night alone. He finds himself in a neighbourhood where all the houses are surrounded by security gates, gates which prove counterproductive when they cease to work the way that they’re meant to, as happens when Pumla Dube (Nambitha Mpumlwana) pulls up to her house. With his dead-eyes, Tsotsi watches Pumla attempt to open the gate with her remote and then get out of her car to use the intercom to implore her husband to open the gate for her. While her back is turned, Tsotsi gets into her car and when she tries to stop him, he shoots her, leaving her screaming in the middle of the street as he drives away. He doesn’t get very far before realizing that she was so desperate to get back to the car because of the baby in the back.

Tsotsi takes the baby back to his shack, caring for it in his own haphazard way. He can make due in certain ways, such as substituting newspaper for diapers, but not in others. When the baby is hungry, he follows Miriam (Terry Pheto), a woman with a baby of her own, back to her house and forces her to breastfeed at gunpoint. When he returns to her a second time, she asks him to leave the baby with her, promising to take care of him and let Tsotsi visit whenever he wants. A change has come over Tsotsi in the days he has spent caring for the baby and he wants to get out of the life of petty crime and violence, though he’s still willing to use crime and violence as a means to get what he wants and gets his gang together to commit a robbery so that he can use the money to get out of the slum.

The success of the film rests of Chweneyagae’s ability to express what lies behind Tsotsi’s cold, blank stare. Tsotsi is a character of few words and one who lets his hair-trigger temper do most of the talking. Brutality comes easily to him, but there’s a vulnerability which lies underneath that he hasn’t been able to shed. We come to understand how he became so hardened and we see a longing within him to be different. When Miriam tells him that she knows where the baby came from and that he has to give him back, his reluctance stems not just from his attachment to the baby but his desire to be around goodness, particularly the maternal goodness of which he was deprived as a child. “If I gave him back, could I still come here?” he asks. He knows that the answer is no and he understand why without Miriam actually having to say it, and despite her fear of him, she seems to understand why he would ask.

The film makes an effort to explain why Tsotsi is the way that he is, but it doesn’t try to excuse him from his bad acts. He has experienced a great deal of pain, but he has also inflicted a great deal of pain and he must be held responsible for that. This isn’t a fairytale or a story of a person undergoing a miraculous change; it’s the story of an isolated man who comes to realize that he is connected to the people around him, that his actions have consequences for them as well as for himself.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Genie Nominations

Nominations for the Genies, the awards which honor Canadian films, were announced today. While some things come as little surprise - multiple acting nominations for Emotional Arithmetic and a wide range of nominations for Passchendaele, including Picture - I'm a little disappointed that My Winnipeg only managed to snag 1 nomination and that Fugitive Pieces didn't get a little more love. The awards will be handed out on April 4th, the full list of nominees is under the cut.

Picture
Amal
Everything Is Fine
The Necessities of Life
Normal
Passchendaele

Director
Carl Bessai, Normal
Lyne Charlebois, Borderline
Yves-Christian Fournier, Everything Is Fine
Richie Mehta, Amal
Benoit Pilon, The Necessities of Life

Actor
Paul Gross, Passchendaele
Rupinder Nagra, Amal
Christopher Plummer, Emotional Arithmetic
Aaron Poole, This Beautiful City
Natar Ungalaaq, The Necessities of Life

Actress
Isabelle Blais, Borderline
Ellen Burstyn, The Stone Angel
Marianne Fortier, Mommy is at the Hairdresser's
Susan Sarandon, Emotional Arithmetic
Preity Zinta, Heaven on Earth

Supporting Actress
Celine Bonnier, Mommy is at the Hairdresser's
Kristin Booth, Young People Fucking
Eveline Gelinas, The Necessities of Life
Ani Pascale, Everything Is Fine
Rosamund Pike, Fugitive Pieces

Supporting Actor
Normand D'Amour, Everything Is Fine
Benoit McGinnis, Le Banquet
Callum Keith Rennie, Normal
Rade Serbedzija, Fugitive Pieces
Max von Sydow, Emotional Arithmetic

Original Screenplay
Everything Is Fine
Heaven on Earth
The Necessities of Life
Normal
Real Time

Adapted Screenplay
Amal
Borderline
Fugitive Pieces

Editing
Le Banquet
Borderline
It's Not Me, I Swear!
Mommy is at the Hairdresser's
The Necessities of Life

Art Direction
The American Trap
Fugitive Pieces
Mommy is at the Hairdresser's
Passchendaele
The Stone Angel

Costume Design
The American Trap
Mommy is at the Hairdresser's
The Necessities of Life
Passchendaele
Who is KK Downey

Cinematography
The American Trap
Le Banquet
Everything Is Fine
Fugitive Pieces
The Stone Angel

Original Score
Emotional Arithmetic
Fugitive Pieces
Mommy is at the Hairdresser's
The Necessities of Life
The Stone Angel

Original Song
"Big Smoke," This Beautiful City
'M'Accrocher?" Everything is Fine
"Rahi Nagufta," Amal

Sound
Amal
The American Trap
Le Banquet
Passchendaele
This Beautiful City

Sound Editing
The American Trap
Le Banquet
The Broken Line
Passchendaele
This Beautiful City

Documentary
Infiniment Quebec
My Winnipeg
Up The Yangtze

Live Action Short
The Answer Key
La Battue
Can You Wave Bye-Bye
Mon Nom Est Victor Gazon
Next Floor

Animated Short
The Facts in the Case of Mister Hollow
Drux Flux
Sleeping Betty

Countdown To Oscar: Patton


* * * *
Best Picture, 1970


Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Starring: George C. Scott, Karl Malden

My knowledge of the factual George Patton is pretty scant, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect from a film based on his WWII exploits. I had steeled myself for a jingoistic ode to American greatness and during the film’s prologue – which consists of Patton’s famous speech in front of the giant American flag – I was sure that that was what I was going to get, but I was in for a surprise. Patton has all the makings of a big, noisy epic and though it lives up to that in certain respects, it also manages to be an intimate and thoughtful character study of a man determined to make himself a legend.

One of the few things I went into this film knowing about Patton was that he had a great sense of theatricality and an appreciation for the symmetry of history. He is presented in the film as a man who looks backwards in order to go forward, who wants his invasion of Italy to recall the invasion of the Greeks centuries before, who laments the ungentlemanly way that wars are now fought. He writes poetry, he stops along the way to appreciate the ruins of ancient civilizations, and he loves the ceremonial aspect of warfare, particularly the parades which denote triumph. He is a patriot, yes, but not blindly. He is essentially an American second and a soldier first and he loves nothing more than good soldiering regardless of what side it comes from.

The structure of Patton, which runs nearly 3 hours and covers an amazing number of events, consists of a big rise, a big fall, a resurrection and then a quiet denouement. In the first act, Patton is triumphant, pummeling the Nazis in North Africa and then leading his forces through Sicily to beat his rival, British General Montgomery, to Messina. Shortly thereafter, however, he discovers that his skill as a soldier is no match for his lack of finesse as a politician and he finds himself being censured time and again for various mistakes and facing the very real threat of being sent home before the end of the war. Patton swallows his pride, he controls his temper, he follows the orders he’s given and longs for the glory which seems just within his reach if only he can be allowed to make a grab for it. He finally gets his chance and smashes through the Nazis and into Germany but, triumph in war in the 20th century is not like the triumph that Roman conquerors knew and it is with a degree of sadness that Patton accomplishes his goal and fades quietly into history.

As played by George C. Scott (who won and famously refused the Best Actor Oscar for his efforts), Patton is a man of many flaws who is, nevertheless, rather admirable. He is skilled at what he does, though occasionally blinded by his desire to be a star and take his place amongst the great warriors of history. So enamored is he with the idea of history that he sometimes seems to forget that real men are dying in order for him to make a splash as a leader, and even when this fact is pointed out to him, he still insists on pressing on, certain that his way is the right way. At the same time, however, he openly acknowledges that he’s a prima donna and that when it comes to the political side of things, he’s his own worst enemy. He knows how flawed he is but believes that he’s destined for greatness and his struggle to contain himself so that he can achieve those great things is what makes him such a compelling character.

The story covers a great deal of ground but is well paced and never drags. I don’t know that it necessarily needs the handful of scenes which take place behind enemy lines and show the Nazi officers discussing and admiring Patton, but the inclusion of these scenes certainly doesn’t feel like an indulgence on the part of director Franklin J. Schaffner. Throughout the film Schaffner demonstrates a commendable command of the subject and never lets the larger-than-life protagonist run the film off the rails.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Countdown to Oscar: Best Actor

The Best Actor race seems to have come down to two very worthy contenders: Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke. If you look at past winners of the prize and go by statistics, the likely winner is an actor of about 45 who has is either a first-time nominee (36 winners) or has been nominated before but not won (33 winners), starring in a film nominated in key categories like Picture, Director, Screenplay and at least one other Acting category. Neither Penn nor Rourke fits this template perfectly (in fact, going solely by statistics, Brad Pitt is the frontrunner), but few winners actually do. The nominees:



Richard Jenkins, The Visitor

Jenkins’ quiet performance is a beautiful thing, something built largely on small gestures and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments, and him actually securing a nomination was one of the few happy surprises for me on Oscar nomination day. I don’t think there’s any conceivable way that he’ll win, but in this case I’d argue that a nomination is the reward. This is Jenkins’ first nomination.



Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon

I haven’t seen Frost/Nixon, but my understanding is that Langella’s performance as Richard Nixon transcends mere caricature and impersonation. Although I don’t think it’s likely, Penn and Rourke could split the vote in Langella’s favour, resulting in him walking away with the statue. Though most precursor awards have gone to either Penn or Rourke, Langella managed to nab the Las Vegas Critics’ award for Best Actor. This is Langella’s first nomination.



Sean Penn, Milk

Penn is one of the most consistently great artists working today, both in front of and behind the camera. As Harvey Milk, Penn manages to shove aside his dark and intense off-screen persona to embody a character that emanates light and an easy charisma. His is my favourite of the performances I’ve seen and I think he’s got a really good shot at winning. Having won already (for Mystic River in 2003) works against him, but the fact that Milk has so many other nominations plays in his favour.



Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

I know a lot of people really didn’t care for his performance and I can certainly understand why. It’s a very passive and, perhaps, passionless performance. Personally, I thought it was a great and subtle performance, particularly when Pitt embodied the young Benjamin in old Benjamin’s body. I don’t think Pitt will win, but I’m glad he received some recognition for this since the more daring/edgy performances he’s given over the years have been routinely ignored, save one - 12 Monkeys - for which he received a nomination as Best Supporting Actor.



Mickey Rourke, The Wreslter

Having finally gotten a chance to see The Wrestler, I can agree with the general consensus that Rourke is really great and engaging as the past his prime and down on his luck former superstar Randy The Ram. My preference remains for Penn partly because his performance came as such a surprise to me, while Rourke fits the role of Randy so snugly, that you can’t imagine him not playing it. This is Rourke’s first nomination.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Countdown to Oscar: Taxi To The Dark Side


* * * 1/2
Best Documentary Feature, 2007

Director: Alex Gibney

Taxi To The Dark Side is a really horrifying movie and I mean that in the best possible way. It takes an ugly and unpopular subject – the treatment of detainees by US military – and makes no attempt to sugarcoat it, nor does it allow its exploration to sensationalize the issue. While it is not without its flaws, it does manage to be critical of the right people, recognizing that you can’t stop the search at the Lynndie Englands involved, but have to keep going higher and, indeed, all the way to the top.

The taxi in question belonged to an Afghan named Dilawar, who accepted a fare and essentially found his life at an end. By virtue of little more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong skin color, Dilawar and his passengers find themselves turned over to US forces, suspected of having been involved in a rocket attack. They are detained and, as the film makes clear time and again, tortured until Dilawar dies and his passengers are transferred to Guantanamo and then eventually released. The film takes a close look at the “interrogation” practices employed at Abu Ghraib, effectively reducing it from a detention centre to a house of horrors. It also, importantly, talks to some of the soldiers who were involved in and punished for their roles in the situation.

Director Alex Gibney isn’t in the business of debating right and wrong here. There’s never any question from the film’s point-of-view that what happened was not only wrong, but also incredibly counterproductive: torture doesn’t deter terrorism, it inspires it. What the film is questioning is who ought to be punished for it. There were many soldiers who were directly involved who found themselves tried and punished for their involvement – all of them of lower rank. The film doesn’t argue against the need to punish these particular people, but it does take pains to point out that in the grander scheme, they’re the symptom and not the disease. A military cannot function when the lower ranks take initiative and act at their own behest; there’s a hierarchy and a chain of command and unless you target the root of those commands which led to the infamous Abu Ghraib photos, you’re never going to solve the problem.

That is, of course, easier said than done and the film points out that the Bush administration enacted legislation to ensure that no one in power (ie no one who matters) could be held accountable for what happened in military detention facilities on foreign soil. The primary target of the film’s ire is Donald Rumsfeld, though Dick Cheney and George Bush don’t come out smelling like roses either. Although I think this is a good film which makes many good points, I think one of its weaknesses is that it's very closed in the sense that I don't know that it would speak to someone who didn't already agree with its point before seeing it. The tone of the film is too combative to sway someone on the other side and perhaps even those on the fence. It's basically designed to preach to the choir.

While I found the film powerful overall, it is flawed. It jumps around a lot between Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and Bagram and it can be difficult at times to maintain your bearings as a viewer and keep the various threads of the narrative clear. It can also be quite difficult to watch, as it makes frequent use of the worst of the Abu Ghraib photos. It is, however, a film worth seeing.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Countdown To Oscar: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon


* * * *
Best Foreign Language Film, 2000

Director: Ang Lee
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi

I hadn’t seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon since its theatrical release nearly a decade ago and I’d forgotten how beautifully photographed it is. The color pallet captured by cinematographer Peter Pau is so vibrant and alive that it elevates the film to a whole other level - and that's just one of the extraordinary elements of the film. From top to bottom, this is a masterful piece of craftsmanship; a true work of art.

It’s all about the green sword of destiny – or, at least, it’s ostensibly all about the green sword of destiny. The sword belongs to Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat) who has decided to give it to Sir Te (Sihung Lung) and give up his warrior ways. The sword will be delivered to Sir Te by Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), Li’s friend with whom he has long been in love, though they have never spoken of it out of respect for her deceased fiancĂ©e, who was Li’s friend. She delivers the sword and is promptly stolen by Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi), who has secretly been working with Jade Fox (Pei-pei Cheng), the woman who killed Li’s master.

Female characters – both “good” and “bad” – are prominent in the story and their concerns are at the forefront. Jen is on the verge of being married off by her parents and confesses to Shu Lien that she envies the freedom she has as a warrior, only to be informed that that life isn’t as free as she might think. In a flashback we learn why Jen is so reluctant to marry: her love for the bandit Lo, also known as Dark Cloud (Chen Chang). Lo and his gang ambush Jen’s caravan and when he steals her comb, she jumps onto a horse and chases after him. They fight all over the desert and fall in love, but she returns home after they spot a search party her father has sent after her. After she steals the sword, Lo comes to find her and tries in vain to stop her from going through with her marriage. The story itself is deeply concerned with the choices available to women and the long-term effects of those choices, which I think is part of the reason why the film stands out so much – it isn’t simply a martial arts showcase, it’s also social commentary.

Jen goes through with the wedding, but the following day she flees and finds herself at a crossroads. She has several options: return to her husband and continue her aristocratic life, run off with Lo and live as a bandit, return to Jade Fox and live as an outlaw, or go to Li and become his apprentice. As she’s in the process of deciding her fate, her path crosses with that of several warriors, whom she beats during a long fight scene in a restaurant that is barely standing by the time she’s finished. All of the fight sequences in the film are outstanding, but this is one of the standouts, along with the tree top fight between Jen and Li, and the rooftop chase/fight between Jen and Shu Lien at the beginning of the film.

I’ve already mentioned the fantastic cinematography, but I’d also like to mention the score by Tan Dun, which so perfectly complements the action on screen. The film won Oscars for the cinematography and the score, as well as collecting the prize for art direction and foreign language film. The film was also nominated for best picture which, in hindsight, it really should have won (it lost to Gladiator of all films). There is a timelessness to this film that ensures that it will always have a place in the pantheon of great cinema, which I suppose is better than any actual award could ever be.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Countdown To Oscar: Best Adapted Screenplay

The adapted screenplay category recognizes those films rooted in an outside source – usually a novel, but also plays, short stories, television series or other films (fun fact: all sequels, regardless of whether the story comes from an original idea, are considered sequels by virtue of the connection to the original film, considered the source material).

I sometimes wonder if films based on plays should really be considered adapted screenplays, because it seems to me that it would take less to create a screenplay from a play (assuming it’s a faithful adaptation) than from a novel. I say that not to belittle anyone’s work, but it just seems that it’s not as involved a process than other kinds of adaptations. I think that maybe this is a relatively common idea, given that in the past 20 years only 2 stage-to-screen adaptations have been rewarded.



Eric Roth and Robin Swicord, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
adapted from the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I have a bit issue with this nomination - and I say that as someone who actually liked the movie. It bears so little resemblance to the source material that it’s practically an original screenplay... you know, were it not for the fact that it's so similar to that past Oscar winner that we should probably put a moratorium on mentioning for a while. Roth has won once before (for the film I dare not mention) and has been nominated on two other occassions for The Insider and Munich; Swicord is a first-time nominee.


John Patrick Shanley, Doubt
adapted from the play by John Patrick Shanley

Doubt is a fine movie, but one which I think never really loses its "stageyness" despite Shanley's attempts to open it up and make it film ready. Chances of it winning seem pretty slim, as only 2 of the past 20 winners have been for films that weren't also nominated for Best Picture. Shanley already has an Oscar for Original Screenplay for one of my personal favorites, Moonstruck.


Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon
adapted from the play by Peter Morgan

An adaptation of a play which is itself an adaptation of the televised interviews of Richard Nixon by David Frost. I haven't had a chance to see the film yet, so I can't personally attest to the strength of the screenplay, but from what I've heard it's quite strong. Morgan was nominated previously for adapting another of his plays, The Queen.


David Hare, The Reader
adapted from the novel by Bernhard Schlink

Hare's adaptation is quite faithful to the novel, perfectly matching the cold/detached tone of the source, and managing to fit in all the plot elements. This is actually one of those rare adaptations that expands the source story rather than compressing it. The biggest difference, from what I can recall (it's been a couple of years since I read the book), is that the film is more sexually explicit - which makes me think of that exchange from Sullivan's Travel:
"I want to hold a mirror up to life. I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!"
"But with a little sex in it."
Hare was nominated previously for The Hours.


Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
adapted from the novel by Vikas Swarup

The probable winner, given that it's cleaned up in the awards so far, though the most important screenplay precursors, the WGA and Scripter, haven't been awarded yet. I would be really surprised if Beaufoy didn't win the Oscar, but of course it's not over until it's over. Beaufoy was nominated once before for Original Screenplay for The Full Monty.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Countdown To Oscar: Midnight Cowboy


* * 1/2
Best Picture, 1969


Director: John Schlessinger
Starring: Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman

There’s no doubt that Midnight Cowboy is a watershed film, one of several that signalled a new direction in mainstream American film. It’s acceptance by AMPAS sets the stage for the series of dark, gritty films that would dominate the Best Picture race over the next decade; films that took chances and were willing to risk not being “crowd pleasers.” That being said, Midnight Cowboy is nonetheless a film that is exactly as unsuccessful as it is successful, as timid as it is brave.

As most people are no doubt aware, Joe Buck (Jon Voight) is a Texan who comes to New York to make a career for himself as an escort for lonely, rich women. From beginning to end, he looks entirely out of place in this setting, striding through the streets in his fringed coat and cowboy hat, looking entirely too earnest, wearing his gullibility on his sleeve. Joe’s a big guy but you worry about him anyway because he looks like such an easy target. One of his first “clients” turns out to be a prostitute herself and Joe ends up paying her from his little store of cash. Later still, he’ll be duped again, this time by a lowlife named Ratso (Dustin Hoffman), who sends him to the apartment of an evangelist who tries to make Joe repent.

Joe catches up with Ratso eventually but, instead of exacting revenge on him, agrees to let him become his “manager.” Ratso’s reasoning is simple: Joe has the looks, Ratso has the brains. However, even with Ratso’s ability to scam, things continue to look grim for both men. They hole up together in an abandoned building, fighting against cold, hunger and the inevitability of finding themselves thrown out. These scenes are the best in the film, imbued with an ugly, unflinching realism that makes this movie different from any other. Hoffman’s sickly looking Ratso and Voight’s increasingly deflated and downtrodden Joe fit in this setting and the film would be better if it followed through on the promise of this aspect of the story and allowed itself to be an outright, uncompromising tragedy.

The film has a few flaws which, in and of themselves, could be surmountable but taken all together present a real problem to the film as a whole. The flashback scenes which detail both Joe’s childhood and an attack on him and a girlfriend in Texas, are intrusive and clumsy. These scenes suggest much more than they illuminate and given that the film ended up with an X rating anyway, Schlessinger should have just gone for it rather than wash it in ambiguity. Connected to this is the problem the film seems to have in dealing with its homosexual themes. Much has been said and written over the years about the relationship between Joe and Ratso which does, at times, seem almost marital, though I’ve always felt that it was rather one-sided with Ratso lusting for Joe and Joe accepting it because Ratso is more or less harmless. It’s a fascinating relationship, but the film seems to want to look away from this aspect of it as much as possible. Further, there’s a scene where Joe is with a John and turns violent with him and it seems so out-of-character that it disrupts the flow of the film.

There are a number of scenes which either don’t fit or just don’t work. One of them is the scene with the evangelist and another is the sequence which finds Joe and Ratso at a party. The whole flow of this sequence is out of step with the greater part of the story and Joe and Ratso’s inclusion at the party ignores a fundamental fact about their characters: they’re outsiders. The essence of these characters is that they exist on the very fringes of society and to have them in a situation where they’re not only invited but also accepted by these other people undermines their story.

While I think that Schlessinger is ultimately misguided and too timid in his direction, the film does have two things strongly in its favour: the performances by Voight and Hoffman. I think that this is Hoffman’s finest performance, playing this character who could easily have cross over the line to become a caricature, but Hoffman keeps him so grounded that he could slip off the screen and disappear into the streets. Voight’s role isn’t as flashy, but his performance is solid and assured and complements Hoffman’s nicely. These two actors in these two roles are the reason to see the film.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Countdown To Oscar: American Dream


* * * *
Best Documentary, 1990


Director: Barbara Kopple

I’m not an American so maybe there’s some sort of cultural nuance that I’m missing, but I’ve never understood why Ronald Reagan was - and, given that he ranked 2nd in a poll of greatest Presidents in 2007, remains - so popular, considering the adverse effect his economic policies had on the middle and lower classes. American Dream takes place during Reagan’s second term as President and provides an overwhelmingly critical look at the impact that Reaganomics had on working people.

The film is set in Austin, Minnesota and follows the strike of workers at the local Hormel plant. To fully appreciate the impact of the strike, it must be understood that the Austin is one of those smaller communities whose economic base is centralized with one company that has employed generation upon generation. In 1985 Hormel posted a profit of nearly $30 million but cut wages from $10.69 to $8.25 and cut benefits by 30 percent, prompting P-9, the local union, to begin talking strike action (“If we have to take a cut of $2.45 an hour when the company just made $30 million, I hate to think of what’s going to happen when they post a loss,” one employee states at one of the many union meetings the film depicts). The Hormel executives aren’t willing to budge, insisting that the economic climate makes it necessary for these cuts to be implemented, which in turn prompts P-9 to hire Ray Rogers, a strike consultant who begins waging a media campaign against the company in an effort to rally support to the union’s side.

In hindsight the hiring of Rogers seems to create more problems than it solves as his aggressive style winds up putting P-9 in conflict with the international union, led by an increasingly frustrated Lewie Anderson. Time after time Anderson is exasperated by what he sees as inept negotiating by those with P-9, who seem to have an inflated sense of what they’ll be able to accomplish. This leads to a rift between the local and the international, the result of which is that when P-9 does go on strike, it does so without the support of the international union. What’s particularly interesting to me about this film is that it doesn’t reduce the issue down to corporation vs. union, but takes a close look at inter-union politics and the way that infighting made it all the more easy for Hormel to get away with exactly what it wanted all along. What occurs at the end of this film is brutal and infuriating, a startling demonstration of that 80s era mantra, “Greed is good.”

Director Barbara Kopple is a very unintrusive storyteller. She doesn’t insert herself into the narrative as Michael Moore does, but instead stands back from the story and allows the people within to speak for themselves. Her methods personalize the story in a number of ways, but the most impactful as far as I’m concerned is the film’s look at the way the strike affects the relationship between two brothers. Both work at the Hormel plant but while one is a staunch supporter of P-9 and the strike to the bitter end, the other is less certain, wanting to do what’s right by supporting the union, but also wanting to do what’s right by providing for his family. When Hormel begins giving away the striking workers’ jobs, some of those on strike return to work, including one of the brothers. What is ultimately a minor nuisance to the Hormel company is dividing the town in half and tearing families – the fabric of any community – apart. This isn’t just a story about economics; it’s a story about fundamental and irrevocable changes in America’s heartland.

In the final analysis, American Dream isn’t necessarily a pro-union film despite its overwhelming criticism of the way the corporation treats its workers. The heroes of the film are not the union leaders, many of whom are characterized as believing their own hype at their peril, but the average people caught in the middle of the fight. Between the corporate leaders and the union “stars” are hundreds of workers who just want to make ends meet and the “American dream” that seems more detached from reality than ever.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Countdown To Oscar: Best Supporting Actress

I recently read a blog post (I wish I could remember where, but I haven't been able to find it again) which questioned the need for separate actor and actress categories, pointing out that the acting categories are the only ones which are gendered. While I would argue that separating the actors according to gender is necessary given that film is such a male dominated medium and that women are at a disadvantage, having so few really good roles available to them (even looking through the list of winners of Lead and Supporting Actress you find a number of roles that could be summed up simply as "wife/girlfriend" or "mother"), I do wonder sometimes what the point is of separating "Lead" from "Supporting" now that the lines have become so thoroughly blurred. It seems like every year someone is falsely campaigned as a Supporting Actor/Actress due to a crowded Lead category, which makes the distinction seem redundant.

With Kate Winslet safely tucked away in the Lead category as she should be, the five Supporting Actress nominees this year truly are the supporting players of their respective films - and 4 out of 5 of them can be described as "wife/girlfriend" or "mother," for those keeping track. The nominees:




Amy Adams, Doubt

The sole nominee whose role can't be described in such simple terms, Adams plays the innocent caught in the struggle between "good" and "evil" (which side is which depends on your reading of the film). I have to be honest, I don't really think this was a deserved nomination and I would have preferred to see the spot go to Rosemarie DeWitt for her stellar work in Rachel Getting Married or to the criminally overlooked Emma Thompson in Brideshead Revisited. Adams was nominated once before for Junebug and while I think she's a capable actress, I think it's time for her to move away from the doe-eyed babe in the woods roles.



Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Amongst the nominees, she's my choice for this year's best as force of nature Maria Elena in Woody Allen's latest. Oscar has been kind to women in Woody Allen films, particularly those nominated as Supporting Actress (particularly those named Dianne Weist). Cruz has been nominated once before for her wonderful performance in Volver (if you haven't seen it yet, get thee to a video store). She was the early favorite in terms of critics awards, collecting the National Board of Review, LA Film Critics and New York Film Critics circle awards amongst several others, but Marissa Tomei and Viola Davis quickly caught up, with each taking a number of awards themselves.



Viola Davis, Doubt

Davis' role in Doubt is small, consisting of just one long screen, but it's powerful and really steals the show. Oscar has awarded brief but memorable performances before (Beatrice Straight in Network, Judi Dench in Shakespeare In Love) so the length of her screen time shouldn't be an issue. She's been rewarded by a number of critics associations and nominated for all the major awards, save the BAFTA.



Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

This is another performance that I don't think was necessarily strong enough to warrant a nomination. Henson is fine in Button but there's nothing about her performance that really stands out for me. That being said, it wouldn't surprise me if she were to win, if only because with 13 nominations, I assume that Button has to walk away with something and, given that it's up against Slumdog (which is shaping up to be an awards juggernaught) in many categories, the wide-open Supporting Actress race is probably the most likely place where the Academy will choose to reward it.



Marissa Tomei, The Wrestler

Tomei won in 1992 for My Cousin Vinny and has been haunted ever since by the "mistakenly given the Oscar" urban legand. It's unfair because Tomei has shown herself to be a consistently wonderful actress and has turned in a number of memorable and well-rounded performances since her win. I haven't had a chance to see The Wrestler yet, but nothing that I've read about it suggests to me that she's anything less than great. I would predict her for the win were it not for the lack of a SAG nomination, which suggests a considerable lack of support for her from her fellow actors within the Academy.