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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Oscarstravaganza: A Place In The Sun

* * * 1/2

Winner: Best Film Editing, 1951

Director: George Stevens
Starring: Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Shelly Winters

So pretty, so doomed. That is the essence of A Place In The Sun, based on Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy. Starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor as starcrossed lovers, the film is a love story and a tragedy and a great film all around. Brilliantly directed by George Stevens, it's the kind of movie you can watch over and over without it losing an ounce of tension. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it.

George Eastman (Clift) is a climber. Born and raised in poverty, once he's grown he sets off for his uncle, a wealthy tycoon whom he hopes will give him a job. His uncle obliges, but George must start at the company from the ground up and is given a low level job and largely excluded from the social circle his cousins enjoy. Essentially exiled from both his immediate and extended families, he forms a relationship with Alice Tripp (Shelly Winters), one of his coworkers. They keep their relationship a secret because it's against company policy and could get them fired and so no one is aware of the affair when George begins making inroads with Angela Vickers (Taylor), a young socialite who is friends with George's cousins.

George falls immediately in love with Angela, though it's a while before she takes any notice of him. His shyness and vulnerability is what seems to draw her towards him and they begin a relationship which is complicated by the fact that George is still involved with Alice and that she's pregnant. Afraid that Alice will expose him to his family and thus not only ruin his relationship with Angela but also destroy his chances of being accepted into the glossy high society he longs for, George comes up with a plot to murder Alice. He lures her out onto a lake in the middle of the night but, when the time comes, he finds that he can't go through with it. In a cruel twist of fate the boat then capsizes, Alice drowns, and George ends up on trial for his life with all evidence pointing to the crime he had originally intended to commit.

A Place In The Sun makes certain changes to Dreiser's story but is generally true to the spirit of the novel. An American Tragedy was published in 1925, the same year as The Great Gatsby, and both are about social climbing in America - the land where men are supposed be be able to be "self made" - and the trappings of reaching too far. George, like Jay Gatsby, comes from nothing and tries to reinvent himself though unlike Gatsby, he never quite feels at ease with the rich crowd. He knows that he doesn't belong, that perhaps he never will, but all he wants is to love Angela and he'll do anything to hold on to her, even if it means taking Alice's life. The desire to make a grab for that shiny American dream usurps George's sense of right and wrong, leading to his destruction.

Clift is good at guiding George through the pscyhologically complex grades of the character. He is at once a kind of victim in that he's ignored and shunned by his cousins when he first arrives on the scene, but he's also a victimizer. He can be quite charming with Alice, displaying with her some of the same qualities that Angela brings out of him, but he can also be quite cruel. The scene in which their relationship is consumated plays as rape and he is callous and indifferent to her as soon as Angela gives him a second look. He's not a "good" guy but Clift's deft handling of his inner turmoil keeps him from becoming a villain. Both Clift and Winters received Oscar nominations for their performances, but Taylor was unfortunately shut out. Her role sounds a lot simpler than it is, though, and her radiant performance is crucial to the film's success because George's motivations are rooted in Angela. If she was a lackluster character it would be more difficult to feel sympathy for him because you wouldn't be able to understand how the threat of losing her could drive him to such lengths.

It would be easy for this particular story to devolve into melodrama, but Stevens is always able to keep it from crossing over that line. The sequence in which George rows Alice out onto the lake, staring at her as he plans how and when he'll kill her is masterfully done, the light casting increasingly ominous shadows as Alice begins to get an inkling of what George has in mind and George begins to realize how horrific his thoughts are. It's one of those scenes that just stays with you after you've seen it and Stevens employs similar editing and lighting techniques in the scene where George attempts to escape from the police through the woods. Stevens has a very firm grasp of the story and keeps it taut and on track and his efforts were rewarded with the Oscar for Best Director. In a career full of great films, A Place In The Sun is one of the ones that stands out. It's a haunting, beautiful film.

Oscarstravaganza: Best Film Editing 2010

The Best Editing category was introduced in 1935 and since then has been one of the better indicators of which film has the best chance at taking Best Picture. The vast majority of Best Picture winners have also had a nomination for Best Editing and since 1981, not a single Best Picture winner has been without a Best Editing nomination.

This year's nominees:

Stephen E. Rivkin, John Refoua, James Cameron, Avatar: This is the 1st nomination for Rivkin and Refoua. Cameron has previously won for his work editing Titanic. The team has nominations from the American Cinema Editors and BAFTA, and won the Critics Choice Award.

Julian Clarke,District 9: This is the 1st Oscar nomination for Clarke, who has also received nominations from the American Cinema Editors and BAFTA.

Bob Murawski, Chris Innis, The Hurt Locker: This is the 1st nomination for both Murawski and Innis. The two have nominations from the American Cinema Editors, BAFTA, and Critics Choice, and won the Boston Film Critics Award for editing.

Sally Menke, Inglorious Basterds: Menke, who has worked with Tarantino on every one of his films, has one previous Oscar nomination (for Pulp Fiction). She has also received nominations for the BAFTA and Critics Choice Awards.

Joe Klotz, Precious: This is the first Oscar nomination for Klotz. He has received no other awards or nominations for his work on Precious.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Friday's Top 5... Foreign Language Film Winners

#5: The Lives of Others

Even though it's not the film I would have chosen to win Best Foreign Language Film in 2006, I must concede that if any film had to beat Pan's Labyrinth, I'm glad it was this one. It's a great, great movie.

#4: The Official Story

This Argentinian film about a woman who discovers that her adoptive daughter may be the stolen child of a murdered counter-revolutionary is heavy but well worth watching. The lead performance by Norma Aleandro is absolutely extraordinary.

#3: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

One of the best films of the last decade and arguably the most successful non-English film ever as far as the Oscars go. It received 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, which it totally should have won.

#2: The Nights of Cabiria

My favourite Fellini film (well, maybe tied with La Dolce Vita). It stars Giulietta Massina as Cabiria, a prostitute just trying to get by and live her life while faced with obstacles and tragedy at every turn. The film would be a great winner in pretty much any year.

#1: The Shop On Main Street

When I first saw this movie a couple of years ago, it totally blew me away. It takes place during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and involves the relationship between a Czech man and an old Jewish woman whose shop he's given ownership of. It starts out almost as a comedy (she's hard of hearing and totally doesn't get that he now legally owns her store because of Nazi rules) and then ends on a deeply dramatic tone as the Nazis start rounding up Jews. I honestly could not recommend this movie more, it's amazing.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Oscarstravaganza: A Man and a Woman

* * * 1/2

Winner: Best Foreign Language Film, 1966

Director: Claude Lelouche
Starring: Anouk Aimee, Jean-Louis Trintignant

It’s rare to find a simpler story. There is a man, there is a woman, they fall in love, but the relationship is complicated by the fact that the timing is all wrong. That’s pretty much it, which doesn’t sound like much but Claude Lelouche’s film is more resonant than most films in which the lovers scale a mountain of obstacles and contrivance to get together. With great performances from Anouk Aimee and Jean-Louis Tringignant and an instantly recognizable score by Francis Lai, A Man and a Woman is a film that stands the test of time.

The man and the woman are Anne and Jean-Louis and they meet through their children, who attend the same school. Anne is a script supervisor whose husband was a stuntman and was killed in an accident on set. Jean-Louis is a racecar driver whose wife committed suicide when it looked as if he might not survive a crash during a race. Anne and Jean-Louis are attracted to each other but hesitant to get involved because each is still grieving the loss of their respective spouse. This grief, however, becomes something that they inevitably bond over and soon the time they spend together is no longer about their children, but about themselves and the feelings that they’ve developed for each other.

One of the strongest things about this film is the way that this relationship progresses in such a realistic way. Anne and Jean-Louis become swept away with the idea of being together, with the romantic notion of running off with each other and with combining their fractured families into one and hopefully healing themselves in the process. They do, in fact, run away together but when the moment comes, Anne finds that she can’t go through with it. The loss of her husband is still too fresh for her and she sadly explains to Jean-Louis that while she knows that her husband is dead, he’s not yet dead to her. She and Jean-Louis then go their separate ways, but the feelings that have started to grow are still there and maybe, just maybe, they can find a way to make it work.

Aside from its nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, A Man and a Woman was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Actress. Aimee's performance in the film is really affecting, particularly in that scene when Anne explains to Jean-Louis that she's just not ready to move on yet. It's a quiet performance, there are never any histrionics or over the top dramatics, but it reaches deep and really shows the complexities and the impossibilities of Anne's emotions. I haven't had a chance to see many of Aimee's performances, but in those films of hers that I have seen, she never fails to draw me in. She just disappears so completely into her characters and makes them so real - I can't believe she wasn't a bigger star.

As a director, Lelouche makes some interesting choices. The film alternates between being shot in black and white, full color, and the sepia tones that immediately evoke feelings of nostalgia. The changes usually occur when the film switches from a conversation in the present day to one of the characters remembering something from the past. It's a visual cue for the audience to mentally shift gears and I don't know that it's entirely necessary, but it does give the film a more interesting texture. I'm ultimately pretty ambivalent about this particular choice, finding that it didn't really enhance the story for me but that it didn't take anything away from the story either. What does take away from the story, at least a little bit, is the score. I'm not sure how it played in 1966 but here and now it's immediately recognizable as elevator music (it's that one that goes "da da da da-da-da-da-da da-da-da-da-da" over and again). It's not bad, but it kind of creates an odd mood to the film.

Oscarstravaganza: Best Foreign Language Film 2010

The first Best Foreign Language Film Oscar was presented in 1947 as a Special Achievement Oscar to Vittorio De Sica's Shoe Shine. For the better part of the next decade, the award was used to recognize one non-English film deemed to be of particular value during the year (with the exception of 1953 when no award was given) and then in 1956 it was finally introduced as a competitive category. Much as I like the idea of the Foreign Language Film category, I must admit that looking over the list of winners, AMPAS had a better track record when it was just picking out one film for special notice than it does when nominating five. That may, of course, be because the nominating process for this category is more or less guaranteed to lead to disappointment. Every country is open to submitting one non-English film for consideration and from those submissions, a long list of nine films is selected which is then voted down to five by a 30 member committee.

This year's nominees:

Ajami (Israel)

Written and directed by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, Ajami is a multi-plotline film that takes place in one neighborhood and explores the tensions that exist within it. The characters are a mix of Christian and Muslim and many are played by non-actors, underscorring the documentary look and feel of the film.

The Secret In Their Eyes (Argentina)

Directed by Juan Jose Campanella and written by Campanella and Eduardo Sacheri. From what I've heard of the plot, the film is a mystery/police procedural story centering on an unsolved murder that is several decades cold. The film won 12 awards from the AMPAS Argentina and was nominated for 9 Goya Awards (Spain's Oscar equivalent).

The Milk of Sorrow (Peru)

Written and directed by Claudia Llosa. The film explores the conflict between the Sendero Luminoso group and the state's military, and the military's strategy of mass rapes as a means of winning the war. The film has won several awards from festivals around the world.

A Prophet (France)

Directed by Jacques Audiard and written by Audiard along with Thomas Bidegain, Abdel Raouf Dafri, Nicolas Paufaillit. The story centers on a young man who enters the prison system and essentially learns how to become a better and more powerful criminal. The film has received numerous awards including the BAFTA, the Grand Jury Prize from Cannes and the National Board of Review Award and was nominated for the Golden Globe.

The White Ribbon (Germany)

Written and directed by Michael Haneke, the film takes place just prior to World War I focuses on the generation that would grow up to become Nazis. The film won the Palm D'Or at Cannes as well as Best Film at the European Film Awards, the Golden Globe, and various critics awards both for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography. As far as buzz goes, it's probably second only to A Prophet and it is the only nominee to have a nomination outside of the Foreign Language Film category (for cinematography).

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Oscarstravaganza: The Philadelphia Story

* * * 1/2

Winner: Best Adapted Screenplay, 1940

Director: George Cukor
Starring: Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart

For someone born well after Katherine Hepburn attained her status as a revered screen legend, it's hard to imagine a time when she was considered box office poison. I mean when you consider that she achieved something that very few actresses are able to do - namely that she not only continued to work but continued to be given leading roles past the age of 40 (and won 3 of her 4 Oscars after the age of 60) - it's weird to think that there was a time when no one wanted to hire her. Had it not been for The Philadelphia Story, Hepburn might have been a cinematic footnote rather than a major player.

The film is based on the play by Philip Barry, which he wrote specificially for Hepburn. She plays Tracy Lord, a socialite about to embark on a marriage to the dull but reliable George Kittredge (John Howard). Her plans are thrown off by her ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), who is the polar opposite of George and drives Tracy crazy, and Macaulay "Mike" Connor (James Stewart), a tabloid reporter who falls for her hard despite his best efforts. Watching the story play out, you kind of have to feel bad for George because the plot is centered on a love triangle and despite the fact that he's the protagonist's fiancee, he doesn't even figure into it! Poor George and poor Liz (Ruth Hussey), who is rather unceremoniously awarded Tracy's other castoff as the plot wraps up its loose ends.

At first Tracy and Mike spend a lot of time doing verbal battle, their conflict rooted in class issues. The more time they spend together, however, the more they discover that each has admirable qualities and they start to warm too each other. They warm to each other a little too much for George's comfort, though, and his suspicion that they've become more than friends ultimately puts Tracy in the odd and unenviable position of being nearly at the altar and having to decide whether to marry George, Mike or Dexter. In addition to this plot, there is also a subplot involving Tracy's estranged parents and the family's efforts to keep up appearances so as not to create a scandal in front of reporters.

Tracy is the kind of character that Hepburn excels at playing - a witty, spirited woman with a strong will and a mind of her own. Playing her against Grant, sharp as a tack here and always great with Hepburn, and Stewart, who matches both Hepburn and Grant barb for barb, works exceedingly well and allows the dialogue to come crackling off the screen. It's a very well written screenplay in terms of dialogue and the cast - leading and supporting - are perfect for it. At the same time, however, it's very much a product of its time in terms of its views on gender and women. I always find it kind of odd how when people discuss Hepburn's status as a feminist icon they often cite her film roles as a means of backing that up. Yes, she plays strong, smart women but, more often than not, those same women are set up by their plots in order to be swatted down. The Philadelphia Story is far from the most egregious example of the independent women must be punished mindset, but it doesn't entirely escape the attitude that if Tracy were a more "traditional" woman, everyone would be a lot happier. I mean, her father essentially blames her attitudes for his own philandering and the film ends with her telling Dexter that from now on she'll be easier to get along with, though in fairness to the film Dexter replies: "Be whatever you like, you're my redhead."

All told, The Philadelphia Story was nominated for six Oscars and won two, for Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor for Stewart which, much as I like him in this movie, I have to think that his win was at least in part a way for AMPAS to make up for not rewarding him the previous year for his performance in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Perhaps more importantly than the awards hardware it received, the film also relaunched Hepburn as a viable leading lady. How different might the cinematic landscape have been were it not for this film? She's yar, I tell ya. Real yar.

Oscarstravaganza: Best Adapted Screenplay 2010

The Best Adapted Screenplay category honors screenplays based on previously published work. Most adapted screenplays are based on books or plays, but films considered adaptations also include those that are inspired by TV series or mini-series and those that are sequels to previous films.

This year's nominees:

Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, Tony Roche, In The Loop: Adapted from the TV series The Thick of It. This is the 1st Oscar nomination for all four. They have also received a BAFTA nomination and won the New York Film Critics Circle Award.

Neill Blomcamp, Terri Tatchell, District 9: Adapted from the short film Alive in Joburgh. This is the 1st nomination for both Blomcamp and Tatchell, who also received nominations from the Golden Globes, Critics Choice and BAFTA.

Geoffrey Fletcher, Precious: As the unweildly full name of the film suggests, the film is adapted from the novel Push by Sapphire. This is the 1st nomination for Fletcher, who also has nominations from BAFTA, the Critics Choice, and the WGA.

Nick Hornby, An Education: Adapted from the memoir by Lynn Barber. This is the 1st nomination for Hornby, who also received BAFTA and Critics Choice Award nominations. He was not eligible to be nominated for the WGA due to one of those little, arbitrary rules.

Jason Reitman, Sheldon Turner, Up In The Air: Adapted from the novel by Walter Kim. This is the 1st screenplay nomination for Reitman, who is also nominated for directing and producing Up In The Air; and the 1st nomination for Turner. They won the Critics Choice and Golden Globe Awards, in addition to many critics awards, and won the WGA and the BAFTA.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Oscarstravaganza: Raiders of the Lost Ark

* * * *

Winner: Best Sound Editing, 1981

Director: Steven Spielbergh
Starring: Harrison Ford

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a rare cinematic achievement in that it is both a commercial/populist success and a critical success. It was the highest grossing film of 1981 and received 9 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture (the big prize ultimately went to Chariots of Fire). It remains one of the most entertaining films ever made and remains a beloved high water mark in the action/adventure genre. No doubt about it, this is one of the great ones.

The film starts with one of the great opening sequences of all time. In the Peruvian jungle in 1936, archeologist/treasure hunter Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) retrieves the Golden Idol and makes a hasty getaway out of the crumbling temple, narrowly avoiding being crushed by a rolling boulder. He is then unceremoniously stripped of his prize by his rival Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman) and chased to a waiting seaplane. These opening minutes alone make Raiders more entertaining and exciting than about 3/4s of the films released any given summer and it's only getting warmed up.

Back in the States, Jones is informed that the Nazis are in search of his mentor Abner Ravenwood and, putting the pieces together, he realizes that they're out to find the Ark of the Covenant. Jones takes off to find Ravenwood and discovers that he's died. He also discovers that Ravenwood's daughter Marion (Karen Allen) still has a bit of a chip on her shoulder regarding her past relationship with Jones. When her tavern is burned down by the Nazis, Marion decides to accompany Jones to Cairo to find the Ark before the Nazis do and together they endure a series of mishaps and adventures leading up to the very satisfying conclusion of the film.

Raiders of the Lost Ark has its roots in the serial films of the 1930s and 40s and was initially developped by George Lucas along with Philip Kaufman. Steven Spielberg came on board the project in 1977 and together with Lucas and writer Lawrence Kasdan, they crafted the end product. What they managed to create is a film that is fun without sacrificing intelligence, a narrative full of action that never shortchanges in terms of story. Roger Ebert once described the film as being the other side of the coin to Schindler's List in that that film was made from the perspective of an adult to memorialize the horrors of the Holocaust, and Raiders is made from the perspective of an adolescent who wants to make the Nazis pay and blow 'em up real good (or, you know, melt their faces off). There is a similar spirit of abandon to Inglorious Basterds, and it has the effect of giving the film a lightness that comes from a youthful indifference to realistic consequences, but also a hard, aggressive edge.

Playing Indiana Jones solidified Ford's status as a star and he plays the role to the hilt. He's rascally and charming, his wit dry as hell, and there's a sense of weariness to him that works well. When he's confronted by a baddie with a sword and just casually shoots him, that's pretty much the essence of the character. It's that attitude of "God, I just do not have time for this shit" that Ford conveys so well that makes Indy so iconic. In many ways he's a throwback to oldschool characters that could have been played by Bogart or Mitchum, with the difference that Indy is also allowed to appear vulnerable and afraid (snakes!) sometimes. I would imagine that the film would still be entertaining with another actor as Indy, but I doubt it would reach the same heights of greatness. Raiders of the Lost Ark is an example of all the right people coming together at just the right time to make a perfect movie.

Oscarstravaganza: Best Sound Editing 2010

The Sound Editing category, which has also been known as Best Sound Effects and Best Sound Effects editing, was first introduced in 1963. Prior to 1988, it was only occasionally a competitive category with Special Achievement Oscars going out in some years and no Oscar for Sound Editing at all in others. To be perfectly honest, I've never been entirely sure what the difference between Sound Mixing and Sound Editing are, but I'm guessing that Mixing focuses on the overall sound of a film while Editing focuses specificially on how sound effects are incorporated and crafted.

This year's nominees:

Christopher Boyes, Gwendolyn Yates Whittle, Avatar This is the 1st nomination for Whittle and the 6th nomination for Boyes (for Sound Editing), who has two previous wins for his work on Titanic and Pearl Harbor. Boyes is also nominated as part of the Sound Mixing team.

Paul N.J. Ottosson, The Hurt Locker: This is Ottosson's second nomination for Sound Editing. He is also nominated for Sound Mixing for his work on The Hurt Locker.

Wylie Stateman, Inglorious Basterds: This is the 5th nomination for Stateman.

Mark P. Stoeckinger, Alan Rankin, Star Trek: This is the 2nd nomination for Stoeckinger and the 1st nomination for Rankin.

Michael Silvers, Tom Myers, Up: This is the 5th nomination for Silvers, who has one previous win (for The Incredibles), and the 2nd nomination for Myers. The pair also has a nomination from the BAFTAs.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Oscarstravaganza: Sophie's Choice

* * * *

Winner: Best Actress, 1982

Director: Alan J. Pakula
Starring: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Peter MacNicol

Meryl Streep. The name just exudes excellence, doesn’t it? She now has 16 Oscar nominations under her belt, though it’s been 27 years since she actually won. That win came for Sophie’s Choice and however you feel about some of the performances for which she’s been nominated, you’d have a hard time making a case against that one. It’s a great performance and a great film.

Adapted from the novel by William Styron, Sophie’s Choice is constructed to tell its story via two narrators. The first is Stingo (Peter MacNicol), the exterior narrator who many years after the fact relates to us the story of how he came to know Sophie (Meryl Streep) and Nathan (Kevin Kline). The interior narrator is Sophie, who tells Stingo about her complicated and horrific past. They meet a few years after the close of World War II, when Stingo comes to New York in order to write his novel and moves into a rooming house where Sophie and Nathan occupy the upstairs rooms. He is immediately fascinated by them, by their obvious dysfunction (the first time he encounters them they’re having a knockdown, drag out fight) and their sad, peculiar glamour. Nathan in particular is like a character from an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, armed with a terrible, cutting wit, a keen intelligence and demons hidden close to the surface. Sometimes he is friendliness personified, other times he is a loose cannon who fires at will on both Sophie and Stingo.

In the midst of Nathan’s tumultuous moods Sophie and Stingo grow closer. He falls deeply in love with her but her ties to Nathan are too tight and her history is far too complicated for Stingo to ever be able to handle. He knows from the start that she spent time in a concentration camp, not for being Jewish but for being Polish and, he’s told, because her father and husband vocally opposed the Nazis. He learns later that this is a lie, that her father was actually a proud anti-Semite and supporter of the Nazis who was killed despite his views for being a member of the Polish intelligentsia. He also learns the story’s most famous plot point, that on her arrival at the camp Sophie was forced to choose between her son and daughter, condemning one immediately to death.

The title is something of a misnomer in that it is not just one choice that defines Sophie but many. Obviously there is the choice between her children from which psychologically and emotionally she never recovers. There is also the choice she makes in how she deals with her father’s legacy during and after the war. After Stingo discovers the truth Sophie admits to him that far from admiring her father, she despised him and his ideas. Nevertheless, once she is in the camp she attempts to use his legacy as leverage to get released, pleading her case to the Commandant and claiming to agree with Nazi policies towards the Jews. She chooses to set aside her morality in a desperate attempt at self-preservation, just as before going to the camp she chooses not to help the resistance fighters who ask for her help, just as she chooses to attempt to smuggle food to her sick mother – the crime that results in her and her children being sent to the camp in the first place. Finally, there is also the choice she makes to stay with Nathan despite the fact that he is on an obvious and quick path to destruction.

Streep’s performance as Sophie is a thing of carefully crafted and executed beauty. She is someone who has endured much and, in certain ways, is very detached. The person she is in New York is a creation, a person she has invented in order to distance herself from the pain of her past – it’s an understandable impulse but it also makes her hard to pin down. Our ideas about her change with each revelation and her story changes so much we have to wonder how much is true and what elements have been tweaked to preserve some shred of the image she wants to project. There is a sense about her that she has emotionally checked out of life and is just waiting for her body to follow suit, which can’t happen as long as Nathan is there and needs her. He is such a fragile character but also so vibrant, the sun around which the other characters orbit. Kline plays the role perfectly, giving Nathan enough humanity and charm that you can understand why it is that the people in his life continue to come back even after he blows up at them, picking away at them as brutally as he can. As the wide-eyed but quickly maturing Stingo, MacNicol also turns in a strong performance that helps keep the story grounded and on track. The film is really an actors’ showcase and the three main actors complement each other well. The other elements of the film are also strong, allowing it to maintain the narrative power that it would have had when it was first released and remain an excellent piece of work.

Oscarstravaganza: Best Actress 2010

The Best Actress category is one of the original Oscar categories. Unlike the Best Actor category, Best Actress tends to favour first time nominees and skews relatively young (which should be no surprise since Hollywood tends to create more roles for young women than older women). The average age of the winners for Best Actress in 35, a number that is slightly inflated due to the fact that Katherine Hepburn won three times past the age of 60 and Jessica Tandy won at 80. For those interested in trivia, it is the only acting category ever to produce an exact tie* when, in 1969, the award was given to both Katherine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand (*in 1932 the Best Actor award was given to two actors though there was actually a small difference in the number of votes each received). More trivia: the record holder for most Oscars won by an actor is Katherine Hepburn with 4.

This year's nominees:

Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side: This is the 1st Oscar nomination for Bullock. She has already won the Golden Globe (Drama), the SAG, and tied with Streep for the Critics Choice Award. She seems likely to win the Oscar, something I never would have thought I'd be saying a couple of months ago but that is certainly the way the wind seems to be blowing.

Helen Mirren, The Last Station: This is the 4th nomination for Mirren, who won in 2006 for her work in The Queen. Her work in The Last Station has garnered her nominations for the Golden Globe and SAG.

Carey Mulligan, An Education: This is the 1st nomination for Mulligan who, by all right (at least to my mind) should have been the frontrunner this year. She has received SAG, Golden Globe, BAFTA and Critics Choice nominations, and won the Chicago Film Critics, Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics, National Board of Review, Washington DC Film Critics, and Toronto Film Critics awards.

Gabourey Sidibe, Precious: Even though Mulligan is the one I'm pulling for, I would love to see Sidibe win because in addition to being excellent in the film, she seems utterly delightful as a person (if you've never seen an interview of her, go track something down on youtube). This is her 1st nomination. She also has nominations from SAG, BAFTA, the Golden Globes, and the Critics Choice Awards.

Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia: This is the *drumroll please* 16th nomination for Streep, who has 2 previous wins for Kramer vs Kramer and Sophie's Choice. For her work in Julie & Julia she has already won the Golden Globe, tied with Bullock for the Critics Choice Award, and been nominated for the SAG.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Oscarstravaganza: Breakfast At Tiffany's

* * *

Winner: Best Original Song, 1961

Director: Blake Edwards
Starring: Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard, Patricia Neal

Isn't it strange when a movie inspires as much love in you as it does loathing? For example, I love Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast At Tiffany's and there are many things about the film itself I find admirable but I can't ignore the flat out racist presence of Mickey Rooney as Holly Golightly's upstairs neighbor. It's an ugly, ugly aspect of the film and seriously hinders my ability to watch and enjoy it. I know that it was a different time and everything but damn.

Hepburn stars as Holly Golightly, a party girl looking for her golden ticket in the form of a rich man who will see to her needs and set her up in the lap of luxury. She has several contenders for the role but has yet to land one perhaps because, deep down, she's not really that kind of girl after all. She gains a kindred spirit when Paul Varjak (George Peppard) moves into her apartment building. He's a writer with one novel under his belt who is being kept by the wealthy Mrs. Failenson (the always great Patricia Neal), a fact which essentially puts him and Holly in the same social position. Their unique understanding of each other's lifestyle, and their natural attraction to each other, prompts them to develop a friendship that inevitably progresses to love.

In many ways Holly and Paul are perfect for each other. They're both young and beautiful and have learned to make the most of the value that others have placed on their youth and beauty, and they genuinely enjoy each other's company. The problem comes down to economics: they can't afford each other. Paul is willing to give up the meal ticket he has in Mrs. Failenson, but Holly continues trying to secure herself a wealthy husband and sets her sights on Jose da Silva Pereira (Jose Luis de Villalonga). Her decision naturally causes a rift in her relationship with Paul and the two go their separate ways but, since this is ultimately a love story, they will of course eventually find their way back to each other after a few trials and tribulations.

Loosely based on the novella by Truman Capote, who reportedly disliked the adaptation and especially Hepburn's portrayal of Holly, the film is by turns frothy and quite serious. Holly parties a lot and her lifestyle occasionally seems frivolous but it's all really a mask for her insecurities. Afraid that she herself isn't good enough, she has invented herself as Holly Golightly and puts on a show for her friends, acquaintances and lovers, playing the part of the carefree girl who flits from room to room and relationship to relationship, a shimmering mirage that disappears as soon as you reach out for it. The truth is that she's struggling inside, torn between her desire to stay in one place and be real and her fear that if she does the real her will be rejected. I'm a big fan of Hepburn's in general but I particularly like this performance because it allows her to display a bit of edge and take on a character who is more complex than the characters she had played up until this point in her career. Always an engaging screen presence, she seems especially so as Holly, who is so flawed and tries so hard to mask it. I'm less keen on Peppard's performance, as I find him a bit dull, but between them Hepburn and Neal, who tackles her role with a relaxed feistiness, save the day as far as the acting goes.

While I like Breakfast At Tiffany's quite a bit, I have to admit that it hasn't aged quite so well. Parts of it play like a time capsule capturing a social scene that may only ever have existed in fiction - a forgiveable sin offset by the less forgiveable presence of Mickey Rooney's Mr. Yunioshi, Holly's excitable upstairs neighbor. Despite the fact that Hollywood often likes to crow about how much farther ahead of the times it is than the rest of the world, this sort of thing isn't terribly unusual in older films. Katherine Hepburn played a Chinese woman in Dragon Seed, Paul Muni and Luise Rainer played Chinese characters in The Good Earth, Marlon Brando played a Japanese character in Teahouse of the August Moon - long after blackface became outmoded and acknowledged as offensive it was still considered just fine for white actors to play at being Asian. That's bad enough but the portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi stands out as worse than some of the examples I just gave because it is so mean spiritted. The makeup in films like Dragon Seed and The Good Earth might be offensive, but the characters are still defined as being noble and heroic. Contrast that with the buck-toothed, "me so solly" Mr. Yunioshi who exists solely for race based mockery. It takes me right out of the movie every time it shows up and it's a major drag on a film that is otherwise pretty enjoyable and well put together.

Oscarstravaganza: Best Original Song 2010

Best Original Song. The redheaded stepchild of Oscar categories. Introduced in 1934, the category honors those who have written music specifically for a film, though up until 1941 songs that had been published and recorded prior to being included in a film were eligible for a nomination. The nominees are selected by songwriters and composers but the winner is voted on by the entire AMPAS membership. Unlike in past years, this year the nominees will not be invited to perform during the telecast and instead short clips of the songs will be played.

This year's nominees:

T-Bone Burnett, Ryan Bingham, "The Weary Kind" (Crazy Heart): The song I'm most disappointed about not getting to see performed live. This is the 2nd nomination for Burnett and the 1st for Bingham. They won the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award for "The Weary Kind."

Randy Newman, “Almost There” and "Down In New Orleans" (The Princess & The Frog): These are Newman's 10th and 11th nominations for Best Original Song and he has 1 previous win for "If I Didn't Have You" from Monsters Inc. In his career he has also received 8 nominations for Best Original Score.

Reinhardt Wagner, Frank Thomas, “Loin de Paname” (Paris 36): This is the 1st Oscar nomination for both. "Loin de Paname" has also been nominated for the Cesar for Best Original Song.

Maury Yeston, “Take It All” (Nine): This is the 1st Oscar nomination for Yeston, who also received Critics Choice and Golden Globe nominations for writing "Take It All."

Friday, February 19, 2010

Friday's Top 5... Worst Oscar Snubs (2000-2009)

#5: Jim Carey as Best Actor for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Hi Academy. I get that you don't like Jim Carey and, to be honest, I fully support your decision not to throw him a bone for either The Truman Show or Man On The Moon but, let's be honest, you dropped the ball not nominating him for his wonderful performance in Eternal Sunshine.... And, while we're at it, how could you not nominate the film for Best Picture and instead reward the absolute dreck that is Ray? For shame.

#4: Bruce Springsteen for Best Original Song for The Wrestler

You know how the people who run the Oscars are always saying that they need to cut back on things like acceptance speeches because the audience at home allegedly gets bored and tunes out? A good way to get people to tune in would have been to have The Boss perform. Of course, had he been nominated it would have been last year when the geniuses running the show decided not to allow time for each song to be performed in its entirety so that there would be more time for Hugh Jackman and Beyonce's musical tribute to whateverthefuck, so maybe that wouldn't have worked out after all.

#3: Paul Giamatti as Best Actor for Sideways

So... you liked everything about Sideways except the guy who carried it? A guy who was recognized by just about every other awarding body out there? You'd much rather recognize Johnny Depp's fine but not particularly noteworthy performance in Finding Neverland and Clint Eastwood glowering his way through Million Dollar Baby? Okay then.

#2: 4 months, 3 weeks, and 2 days for Best Foreign Language Film

Oh, Foreign Language Film category. Every year you find a way to break my heart. Cristian Mungiu's drama about life in Communist Romania is one of the best of the last decade, got recognition from many other places, but got shut out by AMPAS. As important as I think it is for non-English films to get exposure via the Academy Awards, they really need to fix the many flaws of their nominating system because too many great films have fallen through the cracks.

#1: Naomi Watts as Best Actress for Mulholland Drive

I've said it before, I'll say it again: Renee Zellweger was nominated for Bridget Jones's Diary in the year that Naomi Watts was snubbed for Mulholland Drive. I'm not sure even David Lynch could have imagined a scenario that insane.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Oscarstravaganza: Bram Stoker's Dracula

* * *

Winner: Best Makeup, 1992

Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Starring: Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves

Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula may not be the best film based on the Dracula novel (though it is, ironically, one of the most faithful adaptations), but it is the most fun. Dripping in excess, constructed with a great deal of humour, and full of references to the earlier adaptations, Coppola’s interpretation of the classic novel is an endlessly entertaining film.

Coppola’s version begins before Bram Stoker’s story, mixing in the legend of Vlad the Impaler as a back story for Count Dracula (Gary Oldman). Broken-hearted by the death of his young wife (Winona Ryder), Dracula falls into a deep despair, renouncing the church and declaring that he will rise from the grave to avenge his wife. Centuries pass and, true to his word, the Count is still alive and kicking, sustained by feasting on the blood of the innocent. One such innocent is Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves in a bit of legendary miscasting), a guest at Dracula's castle who encounters many horrors and barely escapes back to the arms of his fiancĂ©e Mina (also played by Ryder).

Unbeknownst to Harker, he’s been followed back to London by Dracula, whose object is to have Mina for himself, her appearance having convinced him that she’s the reincarnation of his wife. As he waits for his opportunity to take Mina, he satiates his bloodlust on her friend, Lucy (Sadie Frost), whose transformation from lively flirt to a pale and blood thirsty creature prompts to arrival of Dr. Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins). The doctor recognizes the signs of a vampire and teams up with Harker and Lucy’s three suitors to stop Dracula before he can destroy Mina the way he’s done to Lucy. Unfortunately, it may already be too late.

I think the thing that I really respond to in this version of the Dracula story is how much joy has obviously gone into its making (has Hopkins ever seemed to be having more fun than he does here as Van Helsing?). This is an exuberant and colourful film directed with a lot of passion and constructed with a nice dose of tongue-in-cheek humour to offset its more intensely dramatic moments. A lot of this humor comes courtesy of Van Helsing who seems to approach every situation with a mixture of seriousness and dry wit. For example, after beheading the undead Lucy, he explains to Mina and Harker (while violently cutting up the meat he's having for lunch) that she was in a great deal of pain but that after they cut off her head she seemed fine.

Is it all a little over the top? Yeah, but it’s also the adaptation that’s most in touch with Bram Stoker’s novel. Most adaptations of the story cherry pick from it, retaining the basic elements of the plot while ignoring the other preoccupations that Stoker has folded into his story, such as his fascination with emerging technologies. Coppola throws all of that in and also makes time for referencing other film versions, particularly F.W. Murnau’s great Nosferatu. This isn’t great Coppola in the way of his work pre-Apocalypse Now (an amazing film but one that clearly broke his brain given the films that have followed it) but I think that anyone who makes that film, the first two Godfathers and The Conversation should get a free pass ever after to make whatever he wants, even if it's silly. Bram Stoker's Dracula is sometimes silly. It also has moments of great beauty and has been lovingly put together and photographed. I am amazed that the cinematography by Michael Bellhaus wasn't recognized along with the film's achievements in makeup, costumes, art direction, and sound editing. I also think it's a shame that Gary Oldman couldn't get some recognition for his work here because despite how campy the film is, his performance is surprisingly soulful and it's definitely engaging. I'm not saying he should have won or anything (though I will point out that 1992 is the year Al Pacino hooahed his way to the win), but he manages to make the character more than a caricature, even when the film itself seems intent on not allowing him dimension. It's just one of the many ways that Bram Stoker's Dracula seems to work almost in spite of itself and if you can sit back and allow yourself to appreciate its glorious insanity, you're in for a good time.

Oscarstravaganza: Best Makeup 2010

Honorary Oscars were awarded for makeup in 1964 and 1968 (for 7 Faces of Dr. Lao and Planet of the Apes, respectively) but a competitive category honoring makeup effects wasn't introduced until 1981, due in large part to complaints that the makeup for The Elephant Man was not honored the previous year. From 1981 through 1992, the category honored only makeup but starting in 1993 the rules were changed slightly to include hairstylists on the condition that "hair effects contribute greatly to the appearance and effect of the characters." I would imagine that this change tipped the scales in The Young Victoria's favour because, seriously, have you seen Jim Broadbent's hair in that movie? It's awesome!

This year's nominees:

Aldo Signoretti, Vittorio Sodano, Il Divo: This is the 3rd nomination for Signoretti and the 2nd for Sodano. The team has already won the David di Donatello Award (Italy's equivalent to the Oscar) for their work on Il Divo. If you're curious as to why there's all this fuss over the makeup in Il Divo, I suggest you find a photo of lead actor Tony Servillo from one of his other films - he's almost unrecognizable.

Barney Burnam, Mindy Hall, Joel Harlow, Star Trek: This is the 1st Oscar nomination for all three. Normally I would assume that a film like Star Trek would have a lock on the win, but I'm not so sure this year. The other two nominees suggest that the category is favouring a different type of makeup effects than you see in films like Star Trek.

John Henry Gordon, Jenny Shircore, The Young Victoria: This is the 1st nomination for Gordon. Shircore previously won in 1998 for her work on Elizabeth. Given the amount of love AMPAS has showed to The Young Victoria, albeit not in any of the "big" categories, I think it might be the frontrunner here.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Oscarstravaganza: East of Eden

* * *

Winner: Best Supporting Actress, 1955

Director: Elia Kazan
Starring: James Dean, Raymond Massey, Jo Van Fleet, Julie Harris

East of Eden has the distinction of not only being James Dean's big screen debut but also the only film he made that he lived to see. It is an adaptation of the last hundred, or so, pages of John Steinbeck's epic novel of the same name that explores generational conflict as well as sibling conflicts based on the story of Cain and Abel. For the most part it is a very strong film, particularly in terms of the performances, but it is not without its weak spots.

The story begins with Adam (Raymond Massey) and his two sons, fraternal twins named Cal (James Dean) and Aron (Richard Davalos) in the period just before the U.S. entered into World War I. Cal and Aron have been raised to believe that their mother, Kate (Jo Van Fleet), is dead but Cal has recently discovered that she's very much alive and running a brothel in a nearby town. He keeps this information to himself for the time being as he's less interested in forming a relationship with his mother than in mending his fractured relationship with his father. Cal is the black sheep son who can never seem to do right in Adam's eyes while Aron can seemingly do no wrong. When a business plan of Adam's falls under, costing him a great deal of money, Cal goes to Kate in order to ask her for a loan to start a business of his own which he hopes can recoup the money his father has lost and also make him proud.

As Cal is waiting for his own business venture - growing and selling beans, which he knows will become a hot commodity once the U.S. enters the war - to take off, he falls in love with Aron's girlfriend Abra (Julie Harris), who slowly comes to reciprocate his feelings. She treats Cal almost like a wounded animal, a creature that lashes out because of fear rather than out of malice. Her relationship with the sensitive and naive Aron, however, causes them to hold back from each other in order to protect him. It isn't until Cal tries to give his father the money he's earned and is not only rejected but accused of being a war profiteer that Cal takes his anger out on Aron, brutally revealing the truth about Kate to him and setting in motion a series of events that may tear the family apart permanently.

In his film debut, Dean renders a stunning and effective performance, arguably the best of the three films he made. Cal is a deeply psychological character, scarred by his father's rejection, at once protective of and jealous of his brother, possessed of an almost childlike gentleness but also of a child's ability to throw a raging tantrum. Dean is often accused of copying Brando but his style is actually more a merging of Brando and Clift. He has the angry energy of the former but also the sensitivity of the latter and he shifts between them easily. You find yourself at once feeling badly for Cal but also shaking your head at his impulsive willingness to cut off his nose to spite his face and in that way Dean perfectly captures the spirit of the character from the novel. Cal wants to be good but when told that he's bad, he sets out to prove just how bad he can be even if the consequences of his actions will hurt him.

East of Eden is far from a perfect movie, it drags in the middle section and its ending is not as powerful as it might be, but I like it nevertheless. I have to admit that I liked it a lot more before I read the book and discovered how much was cut out. For example, the version of Kate we see onscreen, though masterfully played by Van Fleet, is a really watered down version of the character from the book, easily one of the most evil characters I've ever encountered in literature. A few years ago there was talk of a new adaptation of East of Eden and I would defintely be interested in seeing what a new version would do with that character because it could be a really meaty role. The problem with a new adaptation, of course, would be that you'd have to find an actor who could fill Dean's shoes as Cal, which would be next to impossible. Even Steinbeck remarked that Dean simply is Cal, and his electrifying performance ensures that East of Eden is still worth watching, even if it is one of director Elia Kazan's lesser efforts.