Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Oscar Wrap

Before getting to my thoughts on tonight's Oscars, I'd like to take the opportunity to thank Lyz, Robert, Larry, CS, Marshall, and Thaddeus for their contributions to The Best Picture Countdown. Couldn't have done it without you guys!

As for tonight's show... man, that was kind of painful. Maybe next year Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law could host? A few stray thoughts:

* To whomever decided to play the King's speech over the montage of Best Picture nominees: That was icky.

* I don't know which sounds weirder: Oscar winner Trent Reznor, or Oscar winning film The Wolfman.

* Favourite presenter: Cate Blanchett, particularly her casual "gross" at the end of the nominees montage.

* Favourite audience member: Helena Bonham Carter, whose facial expressions were consistently priceless (I particularly liked her "WTF" shrug to Tim Burton after Tom Hooper hugged Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth but not her).

* Favourite winner speech: David Seidler.

* Least favourite moment: I pretty much cringed my way through Anne Hathaway's little musical number (she's a good singer, I just found the whole thing ill-conceived).

* Apparently there is no tape delay in the Canadian feed since I heard Melissa Leo's F-Bomb crystal clear. Yay Canada!

* Roger Deakins goes home empty handed once again. *sniff*

... And that's pretty much that. I'm going to be taking a little blogging break since I feel like I did nothing during the month of February except blog, but I will be back with new content on March 14th, including reviews of Oscar nominee Incendies and next year's Best Picture winner The Roommate. If you need something to hold you over until then, check out my review of Blue Valentine at Culturazzi.

Winner Predictions

Best Picture: The King's Speech

Best Director: Tom Hooper, The King's Speech

Best Actor: Colin Firth, The King's Speech

Best Actress: Natalie Portman, Black Swan

Best Supporting Actress: Helena Bonham Carter, The King's Speech

Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale, The Fighter

Best Original Screenplay: David Seidler, The King's Speech

Best Adapted Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network

The Best Picture Countdown #74: A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Director: Ron Howard
Starring: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly

The line between genius and mental illness is frightfully thin. Vincent Van Gogh, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bobby Fisher – all brilliant, all just a little bit crazy. Add John Forbes Nash to that list, the brilliant mathematician who suffers from schizophrenia and is the subject of the Ron Howard directed Best Picture winner A Beautiful Mind. Though the film itself sometimes runs the risk of falling into some A Very Important Film trappings, it ultimately rises above its more formulaic elements.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Best Picture Countdown #11: You Can't Take It With You (1938)

Director: Frank Capra
Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Edward Arnold

The moral of the 1938 comedy You Can’t Take It With You can be summed up in 3 words: Life is short. It’s a story about seizing the day, doing what you love to do, and making the most of the time you have. Directed by Frank Capra – his fifth movie in six years to be nominated for Best Picture and the second to win – it is a kind hearted comedy about nice people (some of whom don’t quite realize how nice they are) with a sweet romance mixed in. Capra made a lot of movies like that, but it’s to his infinite credit that he managed to make each of them unique and classic in their own way.

The Best Picture Countdown #17: Going My Way (1944)

Director: Leo McCarey
Starring: Bing Crosby, Barry Fitzgerald

Sandwiched between 1943’s winner Casablanca and 1945’s winner The Lost Weekend, the earnest and light-hearted Going My Way looks slight in comparison. It’s a sweet movie that hits all the right emotional notes, though it seems quite dated today. Still, it’s a fairly entertaining film and ultimately quite moving – a good pick as Best Picture until you realize that it was nominated against Billy Wilder’s noir classic Double Indemnity and George Cukor’s psychological drama Gaslight.

The Best Picture Countdown #69: The English Patient (1996)

Director: Anthony Minghella
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Juliette Binoche

Though I am an ardent fan of Fargo, I must admit that I have a soft spot for The English Patient. It’s just so grand, so beautiful, so epic in every way. It boasts terrific production values, a compelling story, and great performances. It is the perfect movie of its type and would be a great Best Picture winner were it not for the pesky fact that it beat what is arguably the best Coen brothers film to date. As it is, by besting Fargo, it has a rather qualified legacy.

The English Patient begins at the end, with a critically burned man known as “the English patient” who is being nursed by Hana (Juliette Binoche) in an abandoned monastery. Reluctant at first, he slowly opens up to her and tells her his story, revealing that he’s Count Laszlo de Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), a Hungarian geographer. Before the onset of World War II, Laszlo and his partner Madox (Julian Wadham) were making a map of the Sahara Desert when they came into contact with Geoffrey and Katherine Clifton (Colin Firth and Kristin Scott Thomas). With Geoffrey frequently absent, Laszlo and Katherine fell in love and into a passionate affair, which ultimately led to tragedy when discovered by Geoffrey. Laszlo survived - in body if not in soul - but Katherine died a slow and agonizing death, one which continues to haunt Laszlo.

In the present day timeline, Laszlo and Hanna are joined by a mysterious man named Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), who lost his thumbs to the Nazis and believes that Laszlo was part of a spy ring and killed the Cliftons. Meanwhile, Hanna begins a tentative romance with Kip (Naveen Andrews), a British-Indian soldier, with whom she is at first reluctant to get involved, having already lost one man during the war. As the story moves towards its conclusion (and the war towards its end), Caravaggio’s desire for vengeance subsides and Hanna’s sense of hope is renewed.

Directed and adapted by Anthony Minghella from the novel of the same name by Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient moves gracefully between time periods and storylines. The story exists on both a large and a more intimate level, combining an epic sweep with a great attention to character. The relationship between Laszlo and Katherine takes up the bulk of the story and is, in my opinion, one of the more compelling and engrossing cinematic love stories of the last 15 years; made so both because of the care that Minghella takes in drawing the characters and their relationship, and because of the performances by Fiennes and Scott Thomas. Both received Oscar nominations (rather inexplicably, neither has received a nomination since) and they bring depth to the characters and their relationship that is complemented by the lush sensuality that Minghella brings to his direction.

The supporting cast fares just as well, led by the always luminous Binoche, who won the Best Supporting Actress prize for this performance. She’s terrific here – but, then again, she’s always great. Her Hanna is a gentle and surprisingly fragile soul, someone who can be a source of strength for others but hides an intense vulnerability in herself. Her very cautious relationship with Kip is just as compelling as that between Laszlo and Katherine, just on a smaller scale, and Mingella expends just as much care in exploring it as he does with the main story.

The English Patient is a great film. It is not as great as Fargo (how many movies are?), but it is a beautifully made film that excels at every level. Its reputation has been somewhat damaged by the comparison and the inevitable “the Academy got it wrong” conversation that is inspired by just about every movie the Academy names Best Picture. A better movie was nominated that year, but that doesn’t mean that The English Patient had no business being nominated at all. It’s a great film, very moving, very well constructed, and it holds up very well.

The Best Picture Countdown #68: Braveheart (1995)

Director: Mel Gibson
Starring: Mel Gibson

It sounds crazy in the cold, harsh light of 2011, but once upon a time Mel Gibson was considered one of the most likeable movie stars in the world. Weird, right? The 80s, 90s and the first couple of years of the 2000s were extremely good to him, seeing him churn out hit after hit and even winning two Oscars for producing and directing Braveheart. He’s a lightning rod for controversy now but back then he was king of the world (at least until James Cameron came along). That his star power could push a bloated and somewhat self-indulgent film like Braveheart to Oscar gold over fellow nominees like Apollo 13 and Sense and Sensibility, not to mention the un-nominated Toy Story and Leaving Las Vegas is proof of just how untouchable he once was.

Gibson stars as William Wallace, a Scot suffering under the occupation of King Edward I, whose rule ultimately results in the deaths of Wallace’s father, brother and wife. In response to his wife’s death, Wallace takes a stand by murdering a local magistrate in retribution, an act which inspires the villagers around him to join in rebellion and take back the town. The rebellion grows from there, with Wallace leading his army to further and further victories and gaining the admiration of Robert the Bruce (Angus Macfadyen), but also earning the enmity of the English.

Edward I plots an invasion of Scotland even as he sends his daughter-in-law, Princess Isabelle of France (Sophia Marceau) to make peace offers with Wallace. Isabelle reveals the recent movements of the English army to Wallace and the two have an affair which results in pregnancy. Years pass as Wallace continues to wage war against the English but he is eventually betrayed by the father of Robert the Bruce, resulting in his capture and trial for treason. In perhaps the film’s most famous scene, Wallace endures torture at the hands of the English while encouraging his countrymen to continue fighting for their freedom.

Written by Randall Wallace, Braveheart is an old school kind of film in that it doesn’t sweat the details when it comes to historical accuracy. Instead the screenplay just uses historical events and people as a starting point to create its own story – lots of movies do that, though few are quite as notoriously inaccurate as this one. Still, the story that Wallace and Gibson create is compelling for what it is – a bloody adventure story with plenty of action, a good dose of humour, and a little bit of sex to keep things interesting. Braveheart is a film that hits so many of the expected notes it may very well have been put together on a Hollywood assembly line. I’m not suggesting that it doesn’t hit these notes well, simply that it doesn’t present anything particularly revolutionary or deep. It’s as good as it needs to be and nothing more.

Braveheart is the source of some controversy both for its depiction of the English generally and of Prince Edward specifically. At the time of its release Gibson brushed off accusations of homophobia, essentially claiming that the audience was reading into the film, but I think that’s a disingenuous defence given how blatant it is (it also, of course, shifts blame onto the audience as if a director doesn’t make a series of choices in each scene which ultimately inform the way the audience can see a scene). There is an ugliness to this aspect of the film that I would like to think wouldn’t make it into a film made today – but that may be wishful thinking on my part. I don’t think that Braveheart is a film without value (the cinematography by John Toll is gorgeous, for one thing), but its flaws are so glaring that they can’t be ignored and the film can’t really rise above them.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Best Picture Countdown #60: The Last Emperor (1987)

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Starring: John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O'Toole

All that power - but in name only. Such was the lot of Puyi (John Lone), the last Emperor of China. Bernardo Bertolucci's lush, historical epic follows the Emperor from infancy to the end of his life, charting China's transformation from feudalism to a People's Republic as it does so. It's a big task involving a lot of complex history, but the film handles it well and delivers a sumptuous cinematic experience.

The film starts near the end of the story, with Puyi's imprisonment by the Communist government for war crimes during World War II. His time in prison is used to anchor the story, which frequently flashes back to show Puyi at various times before his imprisonment. Flashbacks are not a new narrative strategy but it works really well here because intercutting between his present day plight and his past serves to illuminate both how much his life has changed and how much it has stayed the same. Even as an Emperor he was essentially a prisoner, his life confined to the Forbidden City while he was totally cut off from what was going on outside its walls as the country was undergoing sweeping changes, and though he's now a prisoner, he still (at first) has his servants, who continue to do everything for him. The difference is simply that the lavishness of his former surroundings have been replaced by the bare essentials.

The film follows Puyi as he grows up in a position that is both privileged and, ultimately, powerless. He became Emperor at the age of 2 and "ruled" through a regent. By 1911, at the age of 5, the throne had been abdicated on his behalf and he became Emperor in name only, ruler of the Forbidden City but nothing outside its walls. In later years he was exiled and returned as a puppet Emperor bound by Japanese interests, a deal which would lead to his imprisonment after World War II. Throughout his life, his power rarely extends further than his title and he is by nature a passive character, always subject to the whims of those around him. This is somewhat problematic, in that it's difficult to drive a narrative forward when the protagonist has so little momentum.

The characters who surround Puyi, however, keep the story moving. Peter O'Toole brings a nice burst of energy to the story as Puyi's tutor Reginald Johnston, who imbues in him an interest in all things Western (there's a scene midway through the film when the Chinese army bursts into the Forbidden City in order to expel the Emperor and his family, interrupting a tennis match - the culture clash that marks this moment gives the scene a somewhat funny undertone); and there's also Joan Chen and Vivian Wu as Puyi's wife, Wan Jung, and concubine, Wen Xiu, respectively. As the story progresses and the characters begin to meet their destiny, it's Chen's lonely, opium addicted Empress who ends up becoming the most compelling figure of the piece. When Wen Xiu reaches her breaking point and walks out on Puyi, it isn't Puyi who suffers, but Wan Jung. "She was my only friend," she intones sadly; for years it was just the three of them and now it's just her and the Emperor, who have found themselves increasingly at cross purposes over his desire to align himself with the Japanese. Eventually they break from each other completely and the Empress' sad decline is heartbreaking and accounts for what is arguably the film's most moving moments.

Bertolucci is a filmmaker known for erotic excess thanks to films like The Dreamers, 1900 and, of course, Last Tango In Paris, but he opts for a more restrained eroticism in this film. It works to great effect, particularly in a scene between Puyi and his two wives which takes place underneath the covers of a bed but is filmed from outside the bed so that much is suggested but, ultimately, everything is left to the imagination. It is a beautifully filmed scene and indicative of the lightness of touch that Bertolucci brings to the film as a whole.

The Last Emperor is both a beautiful looking production and a soundly constructed piece of work. It tells a massively big story both in terms of theme and in terms of narrative content, but the screenplay finds a nice sense of balance between the historical events and the fictionalized story. It isn't strictly accurate, but it tells a good and compelling story and, really, that's all you can ask from a film.

The Best Picture Countdown #6: Cavalcade (1933)

Director: Frank Lloyd
Starring: Diana Wynyard, Clive Brook

The 20th Century was not for the faint of heart, as demonstrated by Frank Lloyd's film version of Cavalcade, based on a play by Noel Coward. Spanning from New Year's Eve 1899 to New Year's Eve 1933, it follows the Marryot family as they endure the various wars and disasters that the first 33 years of the century throws at them and try, desperately, to hold it together. The only question is, at what point does this cease to be a "story" and become simply a list of events?

December 31, 1899 seems full of promise, as the 20th century dawns on the world and the London-based Marryot family, headed up by Robert (Clive Brook) and Jane (Diana Wynyard). The couple has two sons - Joe and Edward - who are just children in 1899. Both boys will eventually be lost - Edward will die on the Titanic, Joe will be killed during World War I - which of course bears heavily on their parents, but seems to be especially hard on Jane, who absorbs the major events presented in the story likes blows. She seems almost broken as the film comes to its end, though it does attempt to find a note of optimism.

As a contrast to the Marryots the film also shows the Bridges, Ellen (Una O'Connor) and Alfred (Herbert Mundin), who work as servants for the family before branching out to open their own shop. They also endure hardships - like Robert, Alfred goes off to fight in the Second Boer War, and later the Bridges' daughter becomes engaged to Joe - but are not portrayed in nearly as sympathetic a light as their employers. The noble Marryots are seen as tragic victims of events, whereas the social climbing Bridges are depicted as being coarse, their rise in the world (not that they get terribly far) as another sign that everything is going to hell.

Cavalcade uses historical events as guideposts for its story, a strategy which certainly could work but ultimately doesn't as it is employed here. The characters never become developed enough that we really care about them or how the cultural shifts affect them; instead the screenplay puts all its effort into getting from one major event to the next, bending the characters to fit into events rather than using the events as backdrops to illuminate different facets of the characters. The result is a film that feels rather soulless and so the film's final scene lacks the impact that it might otherwise have had.

The actors do the best they can and occasionally manage to trascend the stilted nature of the dialogue and too rigid construction of the story. Wynyard, in particular, has some great moments, such as after she learns that her younger son has been killed and the film shows her wandering through the street amid throngs of people in the midst of celebration, but moments like this are few and far between. The film has little interest in the characters as people, in making the characters into people, and so as an audience we have little opportunity to connect with them and can't feel particularly moved by their plight as the film draws to a close. Cavalcade is interesting as a document of conservative panic regarding the loosening up of social and class mores (there is a sly suggestion that open homosexuality has been one of the results of the series of traumas experienced by the world), but it isn't a very good movie.

Friday's Top 5... Wins I Most Want To See On Sunday

#5: Dogtooth for Best Foreign Language Film

I haven't been able to see Dogtooth yet but it sounds so effing crazy that I think it would be hilarious if the notoriously ultra-conservative voters of the Foreign Language Film category picked this one...

#4: Incendies for Best Foreign Language Film

... And yet the patriot in me is rooting for Incendies. I just saw this one last weekend and it is currently the only of the Foreign Language Film nominees that I've been able to see, so I can't really judge it against the others, but I can say that it is an excellent film.

#3: Mike Leigh for Best Original Screenplay

I am wholly of the belief that Mike Leigh gets nominated because of the way the nomination process is set up (ie writers decide on the writing nominees, art directors decide on the art direction nominees, actors decide on the acting nominees, and so on) but will never win because the entire AMPAS body votes on the winner and I think a lot of people misunderstand Leigh's writing process. He's famous for working very closely with actors to develop the characters through improv. He then uses those improv sessions as the basis to construct a script but I think a lot of people assume that the final product is all improv and that there's not really a lot of writing involved at all. Because of this I don't think Leigh will ever actually win an Oscar for writing, though he certainly deserves one.

#2: Annette Bening for Best Actress

Annette Bening is long overdue for an Oscar and her performance in The Kids Are All Right is brilliant. Natalie Portman seems to have the category locked up, but I would love to see an upset by Bening.

#1: Roger Deakins for Best Cinematography

Roger Deakins is another person long overdue for an Oscar. His work in True Grit is absolutely brilliant - hopefully so brilliant that this time it can't be ignored in favour of something else.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Best Picture Countdown #8: Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Director: Frank Lloyd
Starring: Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, Franchot Tone

Mutiny on the Bounty is a great swashbuckling adventure made all the more compelling because it is based on historical fact. Frank Lloyd’s 1935 version was not the first and certainly not the last, but it’s probably the best and most fondly remembered. Starring Clark Gable and the great Charles Laughton, this story is not just a battle of wills, but a story of class, duty, and morality.

Gable stars as Fletcher Christian and Laughton as William Bligh, captain of the Bounty, whose methods make many enemies amongst the members of the crew. Bligh is cruel and sometimes unreasonable – in an early scene he orders the whipping of a sailor and then insists that the order be carried out even after learning that the sailor is dead – but the screenplay (written by Talbot Jennings, Jules Furthman, and Carey Wilson) does something important that helps inform the way we see the character and gives Laughton the foundation to make him more than simply a cardboard villain. Class is a big issue with Bligh, who worked his way up to his position the hard way. When Fletcher joins the crew of the Bounty, Bligh expresses his appreciation for having a gentleman sailor aboard and they have a short conversation in which it becomes clear that Fletcher respects the captain’s authority, but doesn’t respect the captain himself, that he seems himself as socially better. There is a similar tenor to a scene at the end between Bligh and one of the judges at the mutineers’ trial. Bligh is respected for his professional accomplishments but he will never be accepted into the highest circle; he will never be one of them and so his cruelty can be seen, in a way, as a means of overcompensating for the fact that his authority on the ship is continuously undercut by the class hierarchies that inform life off the ship.

But that is not to excuse his actions or his often barbaric treatment of his crew. Eventually it becomes too much for Fletcher who joins the disgruntled members of the crew and leads them in a mutiny that results in Bligh and his supporters being set adrift on a longboat. The Midshipman Roger Byam (Franchot Tone) remains loyal to Bligh but is told there is no room on the boat and he, along with a few others, basically become hostages to Fletcher and the other mutineers. The Bounty returns to Tahiti and those aboard spend several years living there, during which time the friendship between Fletcher and Roger is repaired. Meanwhile, Bligh miraculously guides his crew to safety against all possible odds and back in England is put in charge of another ship, one he uses to return to Tahiti and hunt Fletcher down.

The story is constructed so that it has several peaks of high action connected by long valleys of quieter character development and interaction. This works well for the most part, though the sections detailing the idyllic island life as the Englishmen “go native” go on a bit longer than they really have to and of course open the door to some questionable noble savage style imagery. Though the film is based generally in historical events, it is not necessarily historically accurate. The ending, in which Fletcher and the other mutineers, along with their Tahitian families, set out to make a life for themselves on the Pitcairn islands, is underscored with a note of optimism even though the reality was much darker. In reality, the native Tahitians who joined the mutineers were essentially kidnapped and, once on Pitcairn, turned into slaves which eventually resulted in rebellion and the deaths of just about everyone who came to settle the island (including Fletcher Christian himself).

For their roles in the film Gable, Laughton and Tone all received nominations as Best Actor (the Supporting categories were not introduced until the following year), but Laughton’s is the only performance that truly stands out. Gable seems rather restrained here in a way that he’s not in his best performances (such as the previous year’s It Happened One Night, for which he won, or Gone with the Wind) and it’s somewhat jarring to hear Fletcher telling Roger about his upbringing in Cumberland when Gable speaks in his usual American Midwest accent (this might have been slightly less noticeable were it not for the fact that everyone else in the movie speaks with various kinds of English accents). All things told, I actually found the film more compelling when it focused on Bligh rather than during the segments dealing with Fletcher and the mutineers. Bligh is presented as a more complex character than I was expecting and though he’s certainly no hero, I don’t think that Fletcher is exactly presented as the hero either. Mutiny on the Bounty has a few minor flaws, but overall it’s a film that has held up pretty well thanks largely to the soundness of its construction and its multifaceted portrayal of Bligh.

The Performances: Mark Ruffalo in The Kids Are All Right

Since breaking out in 2000 with his performance in You Can Count On Me Mark Ruffalo has been steadily building his reputation as an actor, taking on major roles in films like Shutter Island and Zodiac, but also showing up in bit parts in films like Date Night and Where The Wild Things Are. He's a hard actor to pin down in that you never fully know what to expect from him, but you do know that whatever the role, he's going to slip into it seamlessly. So it is in The Kids Are All Right, where he plays such a laid back guy that you might almost forget that his character is the catalyst for a family crisis.

Paul is an easy going guy who just sort of drifts through life. People like him, he likes people, life is good. When Joni calls him and informs him that her mothers used his sperm to conceive both herself and her brother, Laser, and expresses an interest to meet him, Paul takes it in good natured stride. They want to meet? Sure, why not? It's all good. His casual charm wins over Joni and Jules but rankles Nic, who sees him as a threat to her family. Her antagonism only inspires him to shrug; no matter what happens, he'll just keep on keeping on.

But, beneath that cool facade lies some darker undercurrents. Paul has proceeded through life having forged connections which are only temporary because when things start to get heavy, he disappears. At the beginning of the film he's casually dating one of the waitresses in his restaurant, breaking things off after he gets involves with Jules. When their affair comes to light, he expresses an interest in making a go of it with her, a notion she reacts to as if it is preposterous. On the surface Paul's pursuit of Jules appears to be a movement towards something, but on inspection it's really just another form of running away. The waitress is available and she wants him, but that also means that she wants something from him, that he'll have to stand and deliver. He gravitates towards Jules because she's unavailable, because, on some level, he knows that she isn't going to call his bluff and that he'll be off the hook. There is a moment at the end of the film, when he looks through the window of Jules and Nic's house and looks so forlorn, so needy, that you truly feel bad for him because it isn't that he doesn't want to make meaningful connections; it's that he doesn't have the ability to follow through and sustain them.

Ruffalo reveals Paul to us slowly, unravelling him over the course of the film as the situation because more fraught with tension. He is not a bad guy, just someone who is very lost and perhaps doesn't recognize what he's doing or why it is going to blow up in his face. This is Ruffalo's first Oscar nomination, which can probably be accounted for by the fact that he always makes it look so easy that you take him for granted. Hopefully now that the Academy has seen fit to recognize his skill once, they'll recognize it more often in the future because Ruffalo is nothing if not consistent.

The Best Picture Countdown #73: Gladiator (2000)

Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix

In certain circles Ridley Scott’s Gladiator is considered a masterpiece. A poll in 2002 named it the sixth greatest movie of all time. Sixth! Which put it three spots ahead of Schindler’s List and four ahead of Goodfellas. I. Don’t. Get. It. I don’t think that it’s a bad movie, mind you, I just don't think it's anything more than average. It's like Ben-Hur's morose cousin, a dour exercise in big speeches, big battles, and big personalities.

Gladiator tells the story of Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe), a Roman General turned slave turned gladiator. As a General he was a favourite of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), who had planned to hand over leadership to him. Before being able to carry this out, however, the Emperor is murdered by his son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who then orders the execution of Maximus in order to consolidate his power. Maximus escapes but his wife and son are murdered and soon after he falls into the hands of slave traders who take him to North Africa. After being bought by Proximo (Oliver Reed), Maximus begins his career as a gladiator, which will eventually take him back to Rome.

During a tournament at the Roman Colosseum Maximus reveals his identity and his plans to avenge his family to Commodus, who is forced to spare his life only because Maximus is a crowd favourite. Meanwhile, Maximus learns that he still has the support of the army and enters into a conspiracy with Commodus’ sister, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), to remove the Emperor from power. The plot comes to light, however, and Maximus is captured before he can rejoin the army. In the climactic scene Commodus and Maximus face off in the arena, where the score is finally settled but the triumph is bittersweet.

The screenplay was written by David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson (apparently with fairly extensive rewrites at the behest of Crowe) and suffers somewhat from having too many cooks stirring the pot. That being said, the plot is serviceable enough for an historical action movie where the main draw is going to be the spectacle of the action set pieces. Scott is a skilled director of action and Gladiator delivers that in spades with plenty of blood saturated deaths to cap those scenes off. The film obviously owes a debt to the sword and sandal epics of old Hollywood, films like Ben-Hur, Spartacus and The Fall of the Roman Empire (a film that shares more than a few plot similarities with Gladiator), but Scott also renders an homage to Leni Riefenstahl and Triumph of the Will in the way that he presents Commodus. I don’t particularly care for the film, but I can’t deny that Scott puts a lot into it and that he brings a high level of craft to the way that he guides the whole production.

A story like this typically requires a little bit scenery chewing but the tone throughout the film is so dark that it generally leaves little room for that larger than life style of acting. Even lines that are cheesy on the face of it – such as “At my signal, unleash hell” or “What we do in life echoes in eternity” – are delivered with such gravitas that it’s the stuff of pure drama rather than the hyper-drama of the huge, old school epics. The actor who comes closest to that style of acting, skirting right up that line but never crossing it, is Phoenix who, as the villain, has an inherently flashy role. Phoenix received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor while Crowe won in the leading category; both deliver strong performances but I don’t truly believe that Crowe was rewarded for his performance here so much as for his work in 1999’s The Insider.

Gladiator has a lot of strong individual elements but there’s just something about it that doesn’t work for me as a whole. To me it’s like a beautifully wrapped package that you open up only to discover that there’s nothing inside. It’s just so hollow, despite the best efforts of everyone involved in front of and behind the camera. To reiterate, I don’t think it’s a bad movie; I just don’t think it’s anything particularly special.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Oscar Movies That Weren't: Spanglish

What It Had Going For It: Director James L. Brooks is no stranger to Academy friendly fare. He's helmed three films that hit it big with AMPAS - Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets. Spanglish had the potential to be one of those feel good movies that could have shown up in multiple categories and perhaps even gained an acting nomination or two (the sassy, alcholic grandmother role played by Cloris Leachman practically had a sign flashing above it reading "Best Supporting Actress nominee").

What Went Wrong: When the reviews came in, Spanglish was largely declared an uneven effort, and it never really found an audience to balance out its less than stellar critical reception. Early in the Oscar season both Leachman (who did receive a Screen Actors Guild nomination) and Tea Leoni were tapped as likely Oscar contenders but whatever buzz the film and its performances had quickly disappeared and come nomination day, Spanglish failed to show up in any category.

Legacy: The film came and went very quickly. Had it been more successful it might have launched Paz Vega as a star in North America but instead her most high profile Hollywood gig since this one has been the even less memorable The Spirit. Spanglish is perhaps best remembered as just another dramatic miss for Adam Sandler.

The Best Picture Countdown #13: Rebecca (1940)

This post was contributed by Thaddeus of the blog Net-flixation who, as you will see from this piece, writes very thorough and well thought out reviews.

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier

"Rebecca" begins with images of a lush wilderness - mist blowing across the ground, sunlight broken by branches and leaves. The shafts of light pierce across the screen, and there's a lovely contrast - the thick tree trunks are so dark that they seem more shadow than anything else. The credits finally close with the words, "Directed by Alfred Hitchcock." Ah.

Then we hear a woman's voice. It's high-pitched, but rather stately.

"Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again..." 

She intones these words - like a spell, like chant. She continues, describing exactly what the camera shows: rolling through metal bars, the screen tracks an over-grown forest road up to a massive mansion. The castle-like structure, of a size with St. Patrick's Cathedral, is ominously imposing by moonlight. She goes on...

"I looked upon a desolate shell, with no whisper of a past about its staring walls. We can never go back to Manderley again... But sometimes - in my dreams - I do go back; to the strange days of my life, which began for me in the South of France."

Jane Austen, anyone? The screen fades out completely, to open with waves on a cliff. A man stands at the very edge, staring darkly at the drop ahead. He takes a half-step forward - and our narrator's voice gives a shout. Because they're both English, he pretends she simply annoyed him, then tells her to leave. She's embarrassed, and half-explains before letting him insist on his lie.

Old trailers sure could be cheesy; this one gives away far too much, tho...

All of which leads to an awkward high society meeting in a Monte Carlo parlor. Edith Van Harper, a middle-aged socialite, is complaining about everything as she notices and remembers Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), a famous uber-gentleman. Edith's young assistant (Joan Fontaine) is wide-eyed in shock - the man she stopped at the cliff was Maxim! Since the younger woman's part is never named, I'll just call her "Selene."

The two social peers banter for a spell, until Maxim makes an abrupt exit. Too abrupt, really; he "nearly" became rude. Of course, the older woman blames it on her aide - before mentioning Maxim's long grief over his wife's death...

Yet fate conspires to pair de Winter with Selene. A chance meal quickly leads to an outing by the shore. The girl is open, happy, and shy (but a bit cheeky). The rosy glow on Selene's lovely face only breaks when Maxim is suddenly formal, forceful, or distant. The specter of his wife, it seems, may pop up at any time...

Edith's timely cold creates the perfect opportunity for romance to brew. Selene's eagerness for life brushes against his half-healed wounds, but the older man is clearly taken with her. As their courtship blossoms into a marriage proposal, the frequent jolts of negativity are what create Hitchcock's classic tension: What exactly happened to the first Ms. de Winter? Will the tragic past ruin a happy future?
This classic gothic story was Alfred's first American production. Released in 1940, "Rebecca" got 11 Oscars nods, and won for Best Picture and Best Cinematography (David O. Selnick and George Barnes received the statues). It is a fairly neat adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's popular novel; the book "Rebecca" is often compared to "Jane Eyre," so you can imagine it could have turned out a total mess.

The tone of the picture is somewhat odd - it constantly bounces between light and dark. People are happily chatting one moment, until someone dishes out some unkind thoughts. A moment of happy flirtation or connection is cut off when Selene reminds Maxim of his old loss, or when Selene's self-esteem gets trampled...

These sudden shifts are strongly reflected in the score. The music is almost always quite delicate, but it is so playful, so frequently! Then why do these ominous overtures keep re-appearing?

In part, it's because the soundtrack is quick to reflect the feelings and worries of the characters; almost a little too quick, for my taste... It makes sense, in the end - the story itself doesn't offer much dramatic tension until 1/4 of the way through; the music has to do the job of keeping certain undercurrents alive so they can play out effectively later...

The contrast between light and dark, of course, is exactly where the movie began. Those opening shots of mists and shadowed trees are a good indication of what's to come. And the regular reinforcement of the theme is part of what makes "Rebecca" such a solid picture: Negative and positive overtake each other, stumbling into each other as the characters try to live their lives.

Watch those opening credits and see what I mean.

Some viewers might be turned off by the constant injection of British Upper-Crust formality. Maxim, of course, has all the trappings of his background, both good and bad. Oh god, his home has a proper name! The constant threat of hearing "but a young lady of your station must never..." gets heavy-handed - it's thrust into part of most every scene. The actors help everything along, though.

Olivier is extremely steady in his Mr. Darcy-esque role. He shifts strongly from anguished to happy, from open to selfish and utterly contained. He nicely conveys a conflicted man, a widower for whom new love is (at least) a little dangerous. Joan Fontaine is perfect as the simple youngster thrown into a complicated situation; if you find any problems with her performance, just look at her eyes and face when she's suddenly embarrassed, or in love.

Shadows are a constant.

Of course, modern-minded viewers might be a little struck by other social attitudes at play. Maxim acts like a chauvinist jerk at times; he can do it in fun, as when he says (while shaving in the bathroom), "I'm asking you to marry me, you little fool." Other times, though, he seems casually patronizing or belittling - so his occasional temper comes off harsher for it. Selene is always sweet, kind, and humble throughout, and this naturally makes Mr. de Winter an easy role to root against. Just remember - it's Europe, 70 years ago...

"Rebecca" is a peculiar kind of movie; you have to go into it with the right expectations. It's called a "psychological/dramatic thriller," yet the suspense is very indistinct. This might be appropriate, for a story about people that are in some way haunted. But when you can only point to some tense conversation between people, the occasional harsh word... this isn't "Notorious," not by a mile.

Keep in mind, I've only described the first 40 minutes or so. As this flick proceeds, lovely images and haunting, dream-like music should pull you into the tale. The movie's true trick is in turning the memory (and repercussions) of one woman's life into a "feeling" that pervades the whole piece, and everyone in it. It's a slow mystery that seems like a differently-obsessed version of "Vertigo."

Dead plants are never a good sign.

What it boils down to is you can't go into this expecting "North by Northwest." This is even more true, because watching this "thriller feature" can feel more like listening to a radio play of "Wuthering Heights." So long as you know what you're getting, I think you'll find "Rebecca" to be a pleasant and interesting story. There's always something to enjoy about this movie - if any one scene doesn't quite engage you, you might notice the great cinematography or the score. Well done, Hitch!

You'll never doubt that the camerawork deserved an Oscar.

As a final word, I'll talk about this review itself. I joined The Large Association of Movie Blogs ("LAMB") in 2010. In December, The Flick Chick posted a nifty request on LAMB's site: she wanted to review each Best Picture winner, from 1929 to 2010, before the 2011 Oscars. She invited members to contribute their own reviews for some winners.

That's how I came to watch and review "Rebecca." I had never seen it before, and I might not have seen it for a long time if not for this simple and inventive idea. I'm always happy for the chance to watch a new movie by the Master of Suspense. This is my first time, though, helping out someone who shares my love of writing about film; also, my first time contribution to such a project. I'm thankful that 2010 offered one last opportunity to expand my horizons a little, and that 2011 followed through smoothly.

The Best Picture Countdown #26: From Here To Eternity (1953)

This post was contributed by Marshall Shaffner, who writes under the banner of Marshall and the Movies. Go on over and check out his Oscar coverage as well as his reviews.

Director: Fred Zinneman
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed

It's easy to see why a movie like From Here to Eternity could take the Oscars by storm back in 1953. In the midst of a post-war baby boom, patriotism was still running high after our victory in World War II and tensions with the USSR were at a simmer, not a boil. We had yet to be mired in the Vietnam War or have our nation's highest office be tainted by the Watergate scandal. It was a different world, and movies fictionalizing these times have a mentality that reflects the times.

So when I watched the movie in an attempt to understand why it won Best Picture, I had to move myself out of our current times where last year's winner, The Hurt Locker, conveys a stark pessimism about military maneuvers. So while I might see the movie as an excessively romanticized portrait of the American soldier, they saw it as a rousing tribute to the men who served their country with honor and courage. And while I might see the movie's characters and plot as being a touch over-melodramatic, audiences were totally won over by their personification of military values. (This is not meant as a criticism of older generations, more a generalization of how audiences have changed over the decades.)

The movie follows two storylines: the tenacious Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) transfers to Hawaii after missing out on an unfair promotion. He was once a prized boxer and finds himself being hazed by his comrades to join their ranks, authorized from high-ranking officers. To cope, he befriends Maggio (Frank Sinatra) and romances Lorene (Donna Reed). Meanwhile, his superior, First Sgt. Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster), begins an affair with the captain's wife (Deborah Kerr) that gave us one of the most iconic love scenes ever shot. So iconic, in fact, that it had to parodied in Shrek 2.

I'd be lying if I said I loved From Here to Eternity. While it might capture the isolation of the soldiers in Hawaii and their humdrum routine existence at times, it felt like a more idealized portrait of military stereotypes. It's an interesting story (one good enough to be repeated a few times), but aside from Prewitt's erratic personality, I didn't find myself engaged in the characters at all. This is a very different kind of American war movie than is being made nowadays - chalk it up to generational differences.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Best Picture Countdown #82: The Hurt Locker (2009)

Note: this post is modified from a previously published post

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty

The objective is simple: stay alive from the beginning of the day until the end. Some days will be more eventful than others and not everyone will meet the objective. The film opens on Bravo Company, a month from the end of their current deployment. The EOD team has just lost its team leader and a replacement is sent in the form of Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner). The other members of the team – Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) – are jerked out of their comfort zone by James’ style, as they are accustomed to working together collaboratively and James more or less works alone, allowing Sanborn and Eldridge to be little more than an audience for his exploits. His recklessness makes an enemy of Sanborn, though the two do occasionally find common ground.

The film is episodic in form and focuses on just a handful of days in which James, Sanborn and Eldridge work together. There isn’t really an arc to the story itself, but the three characters have individual arcs which carry over through the episodes. At home James has a young son and a marriage on the rocks. From the way that he describes his marriage – stating at one point that he thought they were divorced but his wife is still living in the house – it seems that he feels powerless on the domestic front. He doesn’t know what home life will bring, but work is much more cut and dried: he’ll either die or he won’t. He savours not just the fact that he is alive while so close to death, but that he’s in charge of the situation and he knows what he’s doing. His personal relationships are like bombs he has no idea how to disarm.

Sanborn is much the same way; somewhat adrift when it comes to relationships but much more confident when he’s working. The reason why Sanborn and James don’t get along is because James’ unpredictability shakes that usual confidence – in an already stressful situation, working with someone you can’t read makes the situation almost unbearable. However, having survived working with James puts him in a frame of mind where he feels that he can survive the travails of domesticity. As for Eldridge, he’s a character who is like an exposed nerve. He’s shaken by the death of his former team leader, for which he blames himself, and for a later death in the field. He lacks the confidence of James or Sanborn and wants so badly to do the right thing that he’s often paralyzed into doing nothing. Renner and Mackie received a lot of attention when the film was released for their performances (though only Renner received an Oscar nomination) – and rightly so – but Geraghty’s performance is deserving of mention as well. It’s difficult not to feel for Eldridge, who is so intensely vulnerable, particularly compared to James and Sanborn. The three central performances are fantastic with each actor bringing something different but essential to the table. Renner, Mackie and Geraghty give performances that stand out from each other while at the same time supporting and complementing each other.

The film would be worthy of recommendation based solely on those performances, but The Hurt Locker also boasts a strong script from Mark Boal and exquisite direction from Kathryn Bigelow. The action was shot with handheld cameras, giving it a realistic, pseudo-documentary feeling and a sense of intimacy that isn’t always at home in action films. The special effects are superb but, importantly, they aren’t the point of any given scene. Sometimes the bombs go off and there’s an explosion, but what you remember afterwards is the tension before the blast or the diffusion of the bomb, and the way that the film slowly builds upon the initial dilemma – the bomb itself – by adding several more to the scene. When the bombs are diffused, it’s usually done right out in the open, in the middle of the street. People stand at windows and on rooftops watching, perhaps out of simple curiosity but perhaps with a malicious objective. It’s up to Sanborn and Eldridge to assess these potential threats and hesitation can be the difference between life and death.

Many films have been made in the last few years about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, few of them any good. The Hurt Locker is constructed less as a war movie and more as a thriller and part of what makes it work so well is that it removes itself from the political aspect of the war on terror. There are no great speeches about “why we’re here” or “why we shouldn’t be here;” the simple fact is that they are there and they have a job to do. It’s this very simplicity that carries the film and the ordinariness with which life and death are treated which makes it so resonant.

The Performances: Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit

Mattie Ross is a strong willed, persistent, opinionated little know-it-all and from the beginning of True Grit straight through to the end, she is positively delightful. When she speaks her forceful words - and often they are rather forceful - Hailee Steinfeld is able to imbue her with the presence to back it up, to make us believe that all the grown men around her could find themselves intimidated (even if only slightly) by a fourteen year old girl.

Mattie is on a mission and no one is going to stand in her way. She's come to town to bring her father's murderer to justice and to do so she intends to hire Rooster Cogburn, having heard that he's got "grit." Rooster isn't so keen on the idea but is eventually pursuaded when Mattie is able to pay him some of the money upfront (the scene in which she sells some ponies to get this money is a thing of beauty). He does, however, attempt to leave her behind but she catches up to him, displaying some considerable grit of her own.

Mattie is made of tough stuff and she shows as much time and again. Even when things are dire - such as when she is captured by Ned Pepper and Tom Chaney, the man who killed her father - she doesn't panic, but remains calm and collected. Steinfeld renders a spirited performance that finds just the right note between confidence and precociousness and she makes Mattie an incredibly engaging character. Steinfeld is also able to handle the very mannered dialogue in such a way that it doesn't stand out as intensely artificial. Lines like "I do not care a thing about guns; if I did, I would not be in this fix," roll off her tongue with ease and naturalizing the dialogue is half the battle for all the actors (co-stars Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon also do an excellent job in this respect).

Steinfeld absolutely deserves an Oscar nomination for this film. The only problem with the one she received is that it's in the supporting category despite clearly belonging in the leading one. I would even venture to say that her performance is more the lead than that of Bridges, who is nominated as Best Actor. Whether or not the scope of her performance will give her an advantage over the other nominees, who have fewer moments to shine by virtue of the fact that their roles actually are supportnig ones, remains to be seen - I suspect that it might but, of course, when it comes to the Oscars it ain't over 'til the envelope is opened. Despite my qualms with her category placement, I actually would not be terribly put out by seeing her win. Her performance in True Grit is truly great and I expect that we'll be seeing more great work from her in the future.

The Best Picture Countdown #81: Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Note: this post is modified from a previously published post

Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto

Slumdog Millionaire begins with scenes of torture, traces a life full of poverty and brutality, and arrives at an ending that is incredibly uplifting. That is the magic of the film that launched Danny Boyle into the mainstream and brought home a boatload of Oscars. It is a film that finds just the right mix of darkness and light, horror and triumph. It is a Dickensian tale of rags to riches, of a young man who succeeds against all odds at becoming “the hero of [his] own life.”

The story is split up into two threads which will eventually merge. In the present day Jamal (Dev Patel) is a contestant on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and subjected to viciousious questioning by the police on suspicion that he’s cheated his way to the million dollar question. As they go through the questions he’s been asked, he explains how he knew the answers, relating the story of his life in the process. This method of storytelling isn’t particularly groundbreaking but Boyle breathes life into it, running many of the flashback scenes at a frenetic pace and a sometimes startling intensity. The present day scenes act not only to break up the story into digestible pieces, but also offer the opportunity to catch your breath.

Jamal has had a hard life. Orphaned at a young age, he and his brother, Salim, live a vagabond lifestyle, having various adventures as they try to survive and make a place for themselves in the world. Latika (played as an adult by Freida Pinto), a fellow orphan, becomes a point of contention between the brothers and the driving force in Jamal’s life. She proves elusive to Jamal, always, somehow, slipping through his fingers. The older they grow, the further away from him Latika seems to drift and Boyle consistently films her to emphasize that distance and the mirage-like facet of her being, showing her reflected in mirrors, through glass which distorts her image – she’s more dream than reality for Jamal.

Though the fairytale romance – with Jamal cast as the pauper turned prince and Latika as the captive princess – is the thematic element that gives shape to the narrative, underneath the romantic sheen is the harsher reality. The film never looks away from the poverty which surrounds Jamal and the very ordinariness of children playing (and living) in heaps of garbage makes it all the more jarring. As Jamal grows and Bombay becomes Mumbai and globalization takes hold, transforming the skyline with big, modern buildings, the poverty remains. When Jamal and Salim meet again as adults at the top of a building under construction, Salim points to an area of the city below them and states that their slum used to be there. It’s a business district now, a sign of progress sweeping through the city – but with all this progress the people at the lowest echelons of society haven’t been raised out of poverty, they’ve just been moved further to the fringes. Things are just as bad as they’ve ever been; you just have to look for it in a different place now.

This movie reminds me somewhat of Fernando Meirelles’ brilliant City of God - though Slumdog is about ten times less depressing, perhaps because its ending is less realistic. The optimism of the film’s conclusion works, though, because rather than deriving from material gains (Jamal never seems like he cares much about the money), it stems from the connection between one human being and another, which has no monetary value and which I think everyone can relate to on some level. It’s a fantastical story, but also very human and that’s what makes it so powerful.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Best Picture Countdown #80: No Country For Old Men (2007)

Note: this post is modified from a previously published post

Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin

No Country For Old Men is the best Coen brothers’ film since Fargo and, until A Serious Man and its tornado ending came along, probably their most divisive. You either love this movie or you hate it, the ending filling you with awe or leaving you scratching your head in frustration. I remember when I saw this in the theatre and the audience’s reaction to the ending varied between stunned silence and audible displeasure. This isn’t the kind of movie that works for the audience; it’s the kind of movie that makes the audience work for it.

The film opens with a monologue by Sheriff Ed Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) which is reminiscent of the speech by Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) at the end of Fargo. The two characters are similar in a lot of ways – they’re both smart, level headed individuals with a keen eye for putting details together, and both have well-meaning deputies who are always this close to putting things together themselves, but ultimately require a little extra push. Like Marge, Ed has difficulty understanding the senselessness of what he sees. Javier Bardem is the only actor from the film who earned an Oscar nomination (he, in fact, won 2007’s Best Supporting Actor prize), but Jones’ performance provides the force which steadies the story and keeps it grounded. Jones did receive a nomination that year for a different film which I suspect happened because people didn’t know how to categorize his performance here: it is clear to me that he is the film’s real protagonist, its central character, but since his screen time is more limited than that of co-stars Bardem and Josh Brolin, it might be difficult for some to consider him as the lead. This is only one of the many challenges that the film puts forward.

The story itself can be easily summarized: In the middle of nowhere Llewelyn (Josh Brolin) stumbles across a drug transaction gone wrong and finds the money that about a half a dozen people have been killed over. After taking it home he does something fundamentally stupid, which results in the people who want that money knowing who has it. The person who wants the money most is Anton Chigurh (Bardem), one of the cruellest and most relentless villains ever committed to film. Llewelyn goes on the run, with Chigurh coming every moment closer, while Sheriff Bell tries to put the pieces together to save Llewelyn and catch the killer. The relationship of Bell to Chigurh is the heart of the film. Chigurh is a brutal killer who leaves a trail of bodies in his wake. Wandering into the crime scenes Chigurh leaves behind, Bell is simply at a loss to explain how a human being can be like this. He comes to believe that it is a generational thing, a sign that society is simply going awry. However, his brother points out to him that people have always done harm to others senselessly, that it isn’t just a sign of the times. This is why the ending is so meaningful and appropriate – Bell is the old man for whom there is no country. The world to which he has always belonged (law enforcement) no longer makes sense to him and, leaving it, he realizes that he doesn’t know how to relate to the rest of the world either. The dream he describes at the end is the essence of what the rest of his life is going to be like – there’s nothing for him to do now but stay on the trail and catch up with his father in the hereafter.

No Country For Old Men looks like a crime thriller but I think it’s really a western, a response to those westerns from the 60s and 70s that centred on the concept of the “dying west,” the wild west that is tamed by the coming of the railroads and society, leaving no room for the hero outlaws. Here the trope is reversed and instead we have a hero who is part of civilized society and is pushed out and set adrift by the breakdown of society into violence and chaos. Chigurgh is the character representative of that chaos, a killer who believes that the lives he takes aren’t taken as much by his hand as they are by the hand of fate. Twice he leaves the fate of potential victims to a coin toss. "This coin got here the same way I did," he explains. His last victim refuses to accept that and tries to force him to accept responsibility by refusing to call the toss. But, this isn't a man who can be reasoned with. This is a man who seems to think that if you happen to cross paths with him, then you were probably meant to die. And even though it will be by his hand, it is also ultimately out of his hands. And what is that kind of thinking if not chaotic?

This is an excellent film, one that only seems richer and deeper on subsequent viewings. The Coen brothers, who have been a little hit and miss with their output over the last decade, are at the top of their form and the entire cast is pitch perfect, creating something that is sure to stand the test of time, a film that will always be worth revisiting.

The Best Picture Countdown #79: The Departed (2006)

Note: this post is modified from a previously published post

Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Vera Farmiga, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin

The Departed is the film that finally (finally!) won Martin Scorsese his long overdue Oscar for Best Director. Despite this, the film sometimes gets mentioned as one of his “lesser” projects – an attitude that I find ludicrous. The level of craft on display in this film belies the notion that this is anything less than a masterwork and to my mind The Departed deserves to be considered alongside Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas as one of Scorsese’s very best. To me, this film was a return to form for the director, whose previous two efforts (Gangs of New York and The Aviator) were bloated just a bit by too much self-indulgence. It is also one of the few films of which I can honestly say that the remake is better than the original.

The Departed begins with Jack Nicholson as mobster Frank Costello and if the opening doesn't remind you of Goodfellas then... you've never seen Goodfellas. However, while Goodfellas begins with the still star-struck narration of the protégée, The Departed begins with the weary narration of the mentor. Frank will take Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) under his wing, grooming him to enter the police force and become his spy. Sullivan thrives, rising quickly through the ranks and passing on information to Frank so that he can stay one step ahead of the authorities.

While Colin is a bad guy pretending to be good, there's also a good guy pretending to be bad: Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is rising in a different fashion as a cop tapped to infiltrate the mob. Years pass as this cat-and-mouse game is played with Costigan supplying information to Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) and Sullivan keeping Costello apprised. Both organizations are aware that there's a leak and both Costigan and Sullivan are on edge, under constant threat that the delicate balance of their lives will tip and leave them exposed and in danger. The plot itself is quite delicate insofar as any element revealed too soon would destroy the tension that's been building, but writer William Monahan manages to maintain the balance, keeping the plot from toppling over on itself and also keeping it from growing too heavy. This is a film with a complex plot and a two and a half hour running time, but it clips along at a great pace and that's as much a credit to Monahan as to director Martin Scorsese or editor Thelma Schoonmaker.

DiCaprio and Damon carry the weight of the film and both are able to convey the desperation both men feel. These two characters are in a sense rudderless, their identities so flexible that even they don't always know who they are, but neither actor ever seems lost behind their masks. The performance by DiCaprio is especially moving as Costigan's knowledge that not only is his false identity under constant threat of exposure but that if something were to happen to Queenan and Dignam, he could lose his "real" identity as well, takes a heavy toll on him both physically and mentally. It's a performance which displays a great deal of vulnerability, which you don't often see or expect in this type of movie.

There are many other reasons to see this movie, from the inter-play between Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin (Wahlberg and anyone, actually), to the performance by Nicholson, to the almost comical way that cops keep turning out to be criminals and criminals keep turning out to be cops. It's a great movie, a genre film in the best sense: one that embraces the conventions of the genre but rises above the cliches.

Oscar Loves... A Mother

If you're an actress who wants to score a nomination in the supporting category, play the mother of a film protagonist. This year you've got Melissa Leo nominated for playing the colorful mother in The Fighter and Jacki Weaver for playing the family matriarch in Animal Kingdom, and plenty of actresses have won in the category for playing the role of mother (some good mothers, some baaaad mothers). Seriously, Oscar has some mommy issues:

Actresses who have won in the Supporting category for playing the mother of the film's protagonist include Alice Brady for In Old Chicago (1937), Jane Darwell for The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Ethel Barrymore for None but the Lonely Heart (1944), Jo Van Fleet for East of Eden (1955), Shelley Winters for A Patch of Blue (1965), Eileen Heckart for Butterflies Are Free (1972), Olympia Dukakis for Moonstruck (1987), Brenda Fricker for My Left Foot (1989), and Mo'Nique for Precious (2009)

Actresses who earned nominations for playing mothers include Alice Brady for My Man Godfrey (1936), Maria Ouspenskaya for Dodsworth (1936), Sara Allgood for How Green Was My Valley (1941), Gladys Cooper for Now, Voyager (1942) and My Fair Lady (1964), Anne Revere for Gentleman's Agreement (1947), Angela Lansbury for The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Glenn Close for The World According to Garp (1982), Anne Ramsey for Throw Momma from the Train (1987), Diane Ladd for Rambling Rose (1991), Lauren Bacall for The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996), Frances McDormand for Almost Famous (2000), Patricia Clarkson for Pieces of April (2003), Holly Hunter for Thirteen (2003), Ruby Dee for American Gangster (2007), Amy Ryan for Gone, Baby, Gone (2007), and Taraji P. Henson for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Best Picture Countdown #78: Crash (2005)

Director: Paul Haggis
Starring: Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Terrence Howard, Thandie Newton, Sandra Bullock, Ryan Phillipe, Brendan Fraser, Ludacris

“It’s the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In LA, nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.” These first lines of Crash should tell you everything you need to know about the level of subtlety that writer/director Paul Haggis is working with in this story. Crash means well, of course but its rather simplistic view of volatile race relations in Los Angeles often feels more like it wants to teach important lessons than tell a good story.

Crash takes its structure from multiple storylines that ultimately intersect (or crash into each other). The various threads follow Graham (Don Cheadle), a police detective, and his partner/girlfriend Ria (Jennifer Esposito); Rick (Brendan Fraser) and Jean (Sandra Bullock), an affluent couple deeply affected by a carjacking; the carjackers, Anthony (Ludacris) and Peter (Larenz Tate); the locksmith (Michael Pena) hired to change the locks in the rich couple’s house; Cameron (Terrence Howard), a movie director, and his wife Christine (Thandie Newton); and John (Matt Dillon), a police officer and his rookie partner, Tom (Ryan Phillippe).

The film takes pains to show how all of these characters are affected by, and help perpetuate, racism and prejudice. The worst offender is John, who unleashes his anger both verbally and physically. After getting into a confrontation with an insurance agent over the phone, he takes his frustrations out on Cameron and Christine, who have been pulled over. He humiliates them – and Tom – by sexually assaulting Christine under the guise of performing a pat-down and then sends them on their way. This act ultimately drives a wedge between Christine and Cameron and between John and Tom, who attempts to make a formal complaint and is shot down by his superior, who informs him that he and Tom would lose their jobs, rather than John losing his. “Look at me. Wait ‘til you’ve been doing it a little longer,” John tells Tom by way of justification for his actions. Later, Tom’s own prejudices will be challenged when he picks up a hitchhiker – who happens to be Peter – and a misunderstanding leads to tragedy and a subsequent cover up. Meanwhile, John and Christine come back into each other’s orbit when he rescues her from a burning car.

John is simultaneously the worst and best character in the film. He’s the worst because of who he is as a person, but the best because he’s one of the most fully rounded and complex characters in the film. He’s a person born into a certain degree of privilege simply by virtue of his race and sex, but he lives in a time in which there are policies in place designed to aid those who don’t have such privilege. These policies don’t actually oppress him but he perceives them that way and therefore every slight he experiences is magnified and he acts out in order to reassert the dominance he feels entitled to. The irony, of course, is that the only reason he can assert dominance is because he’s already occupying a position of dominance. He is not a nice man, but the film does manage to show him as more than just the sum of his capacity to hate and though his big moment of redemption (when he rescues Christine) is perhaps a bit easy, it is ultimately effective.

There are a few effective moments scattered throughout the film but, on the whole, it isn’t half as profound as it plays at being. It explores its themes in very broad and simplistic terms and doesn’t particularly challenge the audience at any point. The acting is very good, sometimes transcending the rather didactic tone of the dialogue, but that doesn’t alter how artificial the whole thing feels. Crash is undoubtedly a well-meaning film but everything plays out on such a superficial, obvious level that it doesn’t really have a lasting impact. There’s nothing here that hasn’t been said, and better, by other films going back decades.

The Best Picture Countdown #77: Million Dollar Baby (2004)

This post was contributed by CS who writes the blog Big Thoughts From A Small Mind. Get over there and check it out!

Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, Morgan Freeman

Directed by Clint Eastwood, and written by Paul Haggis, Million Dollar Baby is a tale of a waitress, Maggie (Hilary Swank), who decides to pursue her dreams of becoming a professional boxer at age 31. In order to fulfil her dream, Maggie knows she needs a trainer so she turns to former trainer, and current gym owner, Frankie Dunn (Eastwood). Frankie was one of the best trainers in his time, but now spends most of his time filled with regret about how things turned out between him and his estranged daughter. Frankie’s only friend is Scrap (Morgan Freeman), a former boxer who fell on hard times and is now working as a janitor in Frankie’s gym. With the assistance of Scrap, Maggie eventually gets Frankie to break his “I don’t train girls” policy and become her trainer. As the unlikely pair start to make their way around the boxing circuit, Maggie’s star begins to rise. This forces the normally overcautious Frankie, to take a risk and get Maggie that a shot against Billie “The Blue Bear”(Lucia Riker). Billie is one of the dirtiest fighters on the circuit and will do anything to protect her title. With momentum in their favour, Frankie and Maggie know that this fight could possibly change their lives.

It has been five years since I last watched my DVD copy of Million Dollar Baby. I was both excited and a little hesitant to revisit it as sometimes our memories of the experience are greater than the film themselves. One element that was prominent this time around was how annoying Freeman’s constant narration is. Rarely do scenes play out on their own without the narrator chiming in to express the significance of the moment. It is almost as if Haggis and Eastwood are afraid to let the dialogue and images speak for themselves. This inadvertently results in the film underestimating the overall intelligence of its audience. While the last few scenes are designed to show the importance of Freeman’s narration, it is hard to believe that the person the narrator is actually speaking to would be interested in the side story at the gym involving Danger Bach (Jay Baruchel), Shawrelle Berry (Antony Mackie), and Omar (Michael Pena). While I think their side story, and the one involving Maggie’s family, are needed in the film; they would have the same impact without the assistance of the narrator.

My issues with the narrator aside, I found myself still falling for the film despite knowing what was going to happen. Million Dollar Baby is in reality two films in one. The first half is a rags-to-riches style boxing tale in which a self-proclaimed white trash girl and her crotchety trainer learn defy the odds. Like many other odd couple films, they have their ups and downs on the way to gaining mutual respect for one another. The second half is where the true heart of the film is. It is here where the film moves from a simple boxing film to a tale about morality, and family. The film looks at issues regarding euthanasia, atoning for past sins, and spirituality. It is hard to think of Million Dollar Baby without immediately focusing on the latter part of the film.

Clint Eastwood does a good job of juggling both the heavier moments with the comedic ones. He never ventures into the realm of slapstick despite coming close on a few occasions with the character Danger. The boxing scenes are well done and they never feel false. I liked how Eastwood slowly gives Maggie a cocky swagger as her wins increase. This offers a nice build up to her match with the menacing beast that is Billie. Overall Eastwood’s direction is sound and I would argue far better than his performance in the film. This is not to say that Eastwood is bad, in fact he is quite good, but after seeing his grumpy old man act in Gran Torino, it does not have the same humorous effect in Million Dollar Baby as it did when I first saw the film. Hilary Swank is brilliant in the film and well deserving of her Academy Award win for Best Actress. Swank shows both Maggie’s tough side and her fragile side, she has the audience laughing one minute and crying the next. While Maggie and Frankie are supposed to be the odd couple of the film, it is actually Frankie and Scrap who perfect this. Eastwood and Freeman carry over the great chemistry they had in Unforgiven into this film. Freeman is especially good as the man who, though blind in one eye, can see what is truly occurring far better than anyone else in the film.

Although six years has passed since its original release, Million Dollar Baby is aging very well. With the exception of the narration, the story still delivers an emotionally charged tale. The performances from the ensemble cast are great and the mixture of drama and humour help this film to retain its high re-watch value.